The film, shot entirely in black and white, re-evaluates 1930s Hollywood through the eyes of Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz was a social critic and screenwriter who has penned dozens of films. Mank focuses on his collaboration with auteur Orson Welles on writing Citizen Kane.
In an interview by Nev Pierce, David Fincher shares about his new Netflix film, working on the script with his father Jack Fincher, giving Mank an Old Hollywood treatment, and more:
How did you develop the script with your father?
David Fincher: “He had retired from journalism and asked me – this would have been in the late ’80s – what he should write a screenplay about. I talked to him about the relationship between Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. Then he wrote that draft and… I didn’t love it. We went back and forth discussing it, in the early ’90s. Then – this was just before I made Seven – he mentioned the idea of this subplot about the fake newsreels M.G.M produced to influence the California Governor’s election in 1934. I didn’t really see what that had to do with anything – until I read the new draft. It really helped give Herman a through-line. Jack was right – it lent a weight to his story. Mank comes to realize that his words matter – for good and bad. Anyway, cut to 25 years later: we finally made it.”
Why did it take so long?
“I always wanted to make it in black and white and people weren’t comfortable with that. Everything is set up for color – the contracts, what people think audiences want or expect. But I don’t think that was the only reason – I think it was also a question of whether people would respond to the story of this… writer. He’s very funny and very sharp and I do believe it makes for a great story – but there’s no spandex and nothing explodes.”
Get Our Newsletter
What was the appeal of shooting in black and white?
“If you want to go back in time, black and white obviously helps. And I found it freeing, really – because color can be a distraction. Black and white becomes more about composition, about structure. I love it.”
How much did you feel you had to follow the ‘rules’ of ’30s and ’40s filmmaking?
“We wanted to capture that era, but not be tied down by it. We considered the methods of that time, took what was useful, and then went with what we felt was right. So the aspect ratio is different from Kane, but the sound mix is pretty similar – mono, trying to capture that feeling you get from those films. The lighting has some of the feel of Kane, we do use the fades that Welles and [Kane cinematographer] Gregg Toland did – where you take the lights down on set, going to black. And we also used quite a bit of deep focus. [Cinematographer] Erik Messerschmidt was great at capturing the spirit of things. But we weren’t religious about it.”
You’ve talked before about sound being as important as vision in movies – how did you approach it here?
“I wanted everything to sound very mono and very AM radio. Ren Klyce [sound designer] looked at the dynamic range for Citizen Kane and we matched that – we re-recorded the sound to try and give the sense of being in an old movie theater, even if you’re watching at home.”
And you have Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross back for the score – how did you work with them?
“The same as when we started, on The Social Network. They record material, send it over, we – Kirk [Baxter, the editor] and me – see where it might work, and then they respond to that. I made a playlist of music from the period, which they listened to and then went from there. Because the movies back then, they did have more music – Kane itself has a lot. The music becomes a commentary. The score is a mixture of orchestral and big band, it pays homage to [ Kane composer] Bernard Herrmann, but without being too on the nose.”
What made you think of Gary Oldman to play Mank?
“I’ve known Gary for a long time and we had talked about working together, but nothing had worked out. Then when Netflix asked what I wanted to do next things finally fitted together. Mank is a complicated character – he has all these different aspects: he was hilarious, he was sad, he was caring, he was angry. It needed an actor who was capable of being all these different things, often within the same scene. There aren’t many actors who are both able to do that and willing to do that. You also needed someone who would remain likable – lovable even – despite what they’re doing. You always want to see what he does next.”
The heart of the film, in a way, is his friendship with the film star Marion Davies – what drew you to Amanda Seyfried for that role? She does look a bit like Marion…
“It wasn’t about the look – or not just about the look. She does have those eyes, the platinum blonde hair, but we needed someone who could be the chorus girl – a character familiar from those 30s and 40s movies – but she also needed to be clever, to be real. Marion didn’t take herself too seriously. Amanda captured all of that.”
Your films all have humor in them – even in the darkest places. Do you think that comes, in part, from having a father who was a writer and a mother who was a nurse?
“The gallows humor? I remember doing research on Seven and we went to the morgue. And those people just have a whole different sense of humor, it’s a whole different bent. And writers… It’s funny, people have said about Mank , ‘You don’t see them doing a lot of writing!’ And I think, ‘That says to me you don’t know anybody who does this for a living, because that’s what they do – they procrastinate.’ I have a photograph in my office of my dad asleep on the couch. That was a lot of his afternoons. He would think himself exhausted and then from 3-4pm he would lie down and close his eyes. Dad used to say, ‘I’m processing!’”
You’ve made films in lots of different genres – you haven’t stayed in one lane. Is that deliberate?
“I don’t know. I mean, you could say I’ve outstayed my welcome in the serial killer lane. You just try to stay interested, vary things, switch things up. You read a script and think, ‘I would wait in line for this’. That’s the most honest assessment. It’s just where your interest takes you. And then it’s your responsibility to excavate everything that was interesting about something when you got into it. But it’s not your responsibility to know why from the start.”
Mank has been in your head, one way or another, since the late 1980s – how do you feel now it’s done?
“I took eight or nine drafts off the shelf the other day and put them in boxes. They were all dusty. They looked like bad props from Zodiac , actually. It does make you question your life choices when you reach the end of a 30 year dalliance with a subject. Well, two years of rigorous engagement, 28 years of dalliance. So… Relieved. I feel relieved.”
Starring Academy Award Winner Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, and Charles Dance. David Fincher’s Mank premieres on Netflix this December 4. Visit www.mankmovie.com, and follow Mank on Instagram and Twitter.