‘I’m No Picnic’: David Fincher on ‘Mank,’ Working with Netflix and the Pursuit of Perfection
“Mank” is the gripping story of the brilliant but troubled artist behind “Citizen Kane,” often considered to be the greatest movie ever made.
No, it’s not about director Orson Welles. Instead, it pushes Herman J. Mankiewicz, the alcoholic writer for hire who is responsible for bringing the film’s revolutionary, non-linear narrative structure and corrosive portrait of wealth and power, to the center of the frame.
“He was one of those voices that charted the way,” says David Fincher, the director who labored for nearly 30 years to bring “Mank” to life. “My hope is that people will be entertained watching a generational wit, who is in some ways forgotten and never got his due.”
“Mank,” which Netflix will debut Dec. 4, is also likely to reignite a fierce debate around the concept of auteurism. If film is truly a director’s medium, then who gets the credit for a masterpiece? It’s an argument about authorship that has swirled around “Citizen Kane” almost from the time it hit theaters in 1941.That’s largely due to the fact that Welles not only starred in the movie: He also directed, produced and co-wrote it while still just a 24-year-old wunderkind.
Others disagree about the extent of Welles’ contributions. As Pauline Kael’s controversial 1971 essay “Raising Kane” and now “Mank” make clear, “Citizen Kane” was greatly informed by Mankiewicz’s friendship with William Randolph Hearst (the newspaper baron who inspired Kane), as well his personal experience with media and politics.
You might think that Fincher, a revered visual stylist, whose perfectionism can drive film crews and actors to the breaking point, would be a subscriber to the Great Man theory at the heart of auteurism — the idea that some talents are so outsize they seep into every shot or beat of a movie. You’d be wrong though.
“I don’t know anyone who makes movies who is concerned with being an auteur,” says the 58-year-old director. “‘There’s plenty of blame to go around’ has always been my philosophy. I believe filmmaking owes a lot more to demolition derby than it does to neurosurgery. It’s a miracle when it goes off the way you had it in your head. For the most part it doesn’t.”
It’s also something of a miracle that a project as idiosyncratic and singular as “Mank” ever got greenlit. Indeed, the movie almost never made it to the screen. The project, which boasts a script by the director’s father, Jack Fincher, was originally supposed to get made in the 1990s by Polygram. At one point, Kevin Spacey, pre-sexual harassment scandal, was discussed for the lead role and Jodie Foster was considered to play Marion Davies, Hearst’s longtime mistress. However, the studio balked over Fincher’s insistence that the story needed to be shot in black and white as a nod to Gregg Toland’s expressionist cinematography in “Citizen Kane.”
“Polygram got cold feet because of all kinds of truly stupid boilerplate stuff involving output deals in Central America,” remembers Fincher. “We would have had to have shot the film in color and then corrected it and do a black-and-white version. It completely fell apart.”
So Fincher moved on to other projects, earning Oscar nominations for “The Social Network” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and adapting best-sellers such as “Gone Girl” into feature films. But “Mank” bubbled back to the surface after he hit a wall while working on “Mindhunter,” the Netflix series about the FBI’s early efforts to understand serial killers. The show was embraced by critics but failed to find popular success. Moreover, creating its second season had been a frustrating experience for Fincher, who had hoped to step back from day-to-day involvement in the program. Instead, after firing the initial showrunner and tossing out all the scripts, the project became all-consuming, forcing him to move to Pittsburgh for the duration of the shoot.
“I needed some time away,” says Fincher, adding that the series is likely to go on an indefinite hiatus. “It was an expensive show. It had a very passionate audience, but we never got the numbers that justified the cost.”
In a meeting with Netflix chief content officer and co-CEO Ted Sarandos and recently departed original content VP Cindy Holland, Fincher admitted that he wasn’t eager to “spend another two years in the crawl space” readying a third season of “Mindhunter.” Sarandos raised the question of what movie projects Fincher was looking to make. To the director’s surprise, Netflix not only signed off on his pitch for “Mank” but agreed to let him shoot in black and white.
“We didn’t have any anxiety about making it,” insists Scott Stuber, vice president of original film at Netflix. “Because it’s David Fincher. He’s one of the best there is, and we knew how long he’d worked on it and thought about it, as well as how personal a project it was to him. That excited us.”
In November 2019, cameras finally rolled on the film, with Gary Oldman portraying Mankiewicz, Amanda Seyfried as Davies, and Charles Dance embodying Hearst. Shooting started without one key creative talent on hand. Jack Fincher died in 2003 at the age of 72, more than a decade before “Mank” began production. The former San Francisco bureau chief of Life Magazine, he was an avid filmgoer who instilled in Fincher an appreciation for cinema, taking him to the many revival houses that bordered their Bay Area home to watch “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Rear Window” and, yes, “Citizen Kane.”
“By the time I was 8 years old I’d decided I wanted to spend my life making movies, so my dad was this font of information, telling me, ‘You have to see this or that film,’” says Fincher. He started his career directing music videos, including Madonna’s “Express Yourself” in 1989 and “Vogue” two years later, before graduating to feature work with 1992’s “Alien 3.”
When the elder Fincher retired from journalism, he began writing scripts. One involved Howard Hughes, another was about artist Margaret Keene and her plagiarist husband, Walter, who inspired Tim Burton’s 2014 film “Big Eyes.” But it was his screenplay about the writing of “Citizen Kane” that piqued his son’s interest, even though he felt the initial efforts missed the mark. It focused on Mankiewicz’s decision to get credit for crafting “Citizen Kane” after he’d delivered his draft and had little to do with the composition of the legendary script.
“He presented me with this posthumous arbitration screed,” says Fincher. “I told him that it seemed like a lot of sour grapes and that I didn’t think people really cared about who got credit for what. The drama didn’t appeal to me.”
But subsequent drafts were more to the director’s liking. They focused on Mankiewicz and his backstory as a member of the prestigious Algonquin Round Table literary circle, as well as his move West in search of easy money as a script doctor for studios. Here was an outsize character that Fincher could sink his teeth into. Gradually, Mankiewicz’s complex relationship with Hearst was also fleshed out, as Jack Fincher added more scenes set amid the lavish parties at the mogul’s San Simeon retreat where the writer was a favored guest, admired for his penetrating insights and ultimately dismissed over his out-of-control drinking. Fincher doesn’t say it, but the core theme of “Mank” must have resonated with him as a filmmaker — the movie is, after all, about the grinding, often frustrating pursuit of an elusive kind of perfection. Fincher, a director who forced Robert Downey Jr. to shoot dozens of takes of one scene in “Zodiac,” prompting the actor to jokingly compare the experience to a gulag, must be intimately familiar with that kind of struggle.
“He’s a difficult taskmaster,” says Peter Mavromates, a co-producer on “Mank,” who has worked with Fincher since 1997’s “The Game.” “He’s very demanding. He pushes and pushes, but once you get to the other end, it’s so much better than it was when you started. That’s why the people who work with him do so again and again.”
Initially, Fincher wasn’t sold on one pivotal subplot in his father’s script. “Mank” dramatizes the 1934 California governor’s race between Frank Merriam and Socialist-Democrat Upton Sinclair, one in which Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg created some of the first negative ads at the behest of Louis B. Mayer. The MGM chief was incensed over Sinclair’s threats to impose taxes on film companies and by his interest in backing a state-run movie studio. So Thalberg tapped MGM talent to craft short films demonizing Sinclair. In the movie, Mankiewicz is horrified to see big business put its thumb on the scale, and it strains his friendships with Hearst and Mayer. In the late 1990s when Fox News was in its infancy and Donald Trump was still a real estate developer, Fincher didn’t see the point.
“I kind of thought, ‘I don’t get it,” says Fincher. “It’s so quaint, this idea of fake news. I was fairly convinced, ‘Who really cares if there were nefarious goings-on in 1934?’”
In 2020, the director admits that part of the film is likely to strike the strongest chord with viewers who have just been through another bruising election.
“When Jack first finished, it was self-righteous — and 25 years later it was incendiary,” says Fincher. “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”
Fincher made “Mank” using digital cameras, but the director and his creative team took pains to make it appear as though it was shot on celluloid by digitally scratching up the images so that they looked like film grade.
“Film is not a particularly good medium to work in if you want a very consistent result,” says Erik Messerschmidt, “Mank” cinematographer. “The decision was quite clear, and that wasn’t even a question in our heads that we were going to shoot digitally.”
Fincher also had the sound designed to include the crackles that appeared in movies of the World War II era.
“He wanted the movie to be like you were in a vault and came across ‘Citizen Kane’ and next to it was ‘Mank,’” says Donald Graham Burt, the film’s production designer. “He wanted it to seem like something made from the period. He didn’t want viewers to have a clear idea of when we shot it.”
Fincher was a stickler about accuracy. If Burt presented him with a typewriter to use in a scene, the director would pepper him with questions about when it was made or whether it was used in an office or a home, all in an effort to be true to the era.
That didn’t extend to Oldman’s characterization of Mankiewicz. The actor, 61 at the time the film was shot, was two decades older than Mankiewicz was when he wrote “Citizen Kane” and looks nothing like the doughy, balding screenwriter. Oldman, who has relied heavily on makeup and costume in the past to embody everyone from Winston Churchill to Count Dracula, wanted to pluck his hairline and have a false nose made.
“I said ‘No. We’ve got to watch you be this guy, and there can be no artifice between us and you,’” says Fincher. “I needed someone who walks into a room and everyone would say, ‘That’s the guy.’ You need an actor’s actor. If you’re casting based on height and hairline, you’re missing the side of the barn.”
“Mank” represents something of a departure for Fincher, best known for plumbing the darkest recesses of the soul in the likes of “Zodiac” and “Seven.” Instead of grisly crime scenes, there are gags about the Marx Brothers grilling hot dogs in Thalberg’s fireplace. Then there’s Mankiewicz, tossing off gilded bons mots while swilling bourbon, looking like a Jazz Age Oscar Wilde gone to seed. There’s a lot of humor to this story, and “funny” isn’t an adjective that necessarily springs to mind when considering Fincher’s pitch-black oeuvre, though the director’s longtime collaborators disagree.
“I think there’s a wit to all of David’s films,” says Kirk Baxter, “Mank’s” editor. “David is a very funny guy.”
Fincher was attracted to Mankiewicz’s truth telling and the way he wielded jokes as a defense mechanism against an unjust world. He was also fascinated by the critical role that Mankiewicz and other early screenwriters like Ben Hecht and Edwin Justus Mayer played in helping the movie business move from the silent era into the talkies. Their urbane wit and sophistication, honed at East Coast publications such as The New Yorker, was deployed to create a new kind of dialogue for the big screen. Movies would never be the same.
A similar, no less important shift is taking place in the entertainment industry, as streaming services such as Netflix have begun to overshadow traditional theatrical distributors. Some directors, who cherish having their movies projected on the widest of screens, bemoan the change. Fincher embraces it.
“Let’s be real: The exhibition experience is not the shining link in the chain right now,” says the director, who notes that home screens have gotten progressively larger in recent years, making the difference in presentation between a cinema and a television less stark.
Moreover, he believes that there’s value in not having to live or die on box office returns alone. Some of his most beloved films, such as “Zodiac” and “Fight Club,” bombed when they hit theaters, only to be rediscovered on cable or home entertainment platforms.
“I’ve never been happier working at a place than I am at Netflix,” Fincher says. “They’re building a repository. It’s a nice thing that movies have a place to exist where you don’t necessarily have to shove them into spandex summer or affliction winter. It’s a platform that takes all kinds. You can be a dark, sinister German movie or a bizarre Israeli spy show. They want them all.”
As Hollywood has become more superhero obsessed, hard-charging directors such as Fincher, Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) and Spike Lee (“Da Five Bloods”) have migrated to Netflix in search of creative freedom and financial support.
“I know that I’m no picnic,” says Fincher. “They want people who are self-starters; they want people who want to tear it up and try different things and show up for work and tax the system.”
This November, Netflix is releasing “Mank” in the cinemas that remain open during COVID, but the company acknowledges that could be a dwindling number. It’s also planning an extensive Oscar campaign.
“It’s a major achievement in filmmaking,” says Stuber. “We really believe in the movie, and we’re going to push it really hard in every area.”
Even as “Mank” looks at Hollywood’s past, it is helping to usher in a new wave of movies about the making of other classic films. Ben Affleck is set to direct “The Big Goodbye,” a behind-the-scenes look at the production of “Chinatown,” while Barry Levinson and Oscar Isaac are teaming up on a picture about the tumultuous creation of “The Godfather.” Fincher jokes that he’s creating a new genre, one that will soon have its own row on Netflix.
“There are so many amazing stories about the making of movies; there’s a place for that,” says Fincher. “Will there be a rush of these: ‘What about the making of “Stunt Man”?!’ No, but I’m intrigued by the idea of both those. I adore and revere Ben Affleck and Barry, so let’s see what they do with it.”
As for “Mank,” having labored for much of his career to bring the story to life, even an inveterate tinkerer like Fincher feels like it’s time to leave the editing bay.
“I just want to go to sleep for six months,” says Fincher. “My wife said to me the other day, ‘You have thought about this way too long.’”