Director David Fincher looks back on how Mank made it to the screen.
Opening portrait by
When Jack Fincher became a parent, he shared his lifelong love of cinema, and his regard for screenwriters in particular, with his son, David. “Jack felt this was a really difficult kind of writing, and something he had great respect for,” David Fincher says, looking back. “He also believed that the beleaguered writer was not a cliché due to personality type, but because they often had to bite their tongues as they watched idiots take their ideas and mangle them.” (On that point, the Oscar-nominated director begs to differ.)Eventually, David encouraged Jack — who was by that time retired from his journalism career — to try his own hand at screenwriting. Those efforts have now solidified into one of David Fincher’s most acclaimed films to date, a project that also serves as an homage to his father, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2003.Mank chronicles how screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz came to pen the first draft of what would one day be Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Like so many films, Mank was years in the making, and it long loomed in David’s consciousness. Father and son initially discussed the idea in the 1990s, when David was graduating from music-video director to rising-star filmmaker. As Jack completed various revisions, they had many fruitful clashes over the direction of the screenplay.
Photo by Miles Crist
Over the years, it became clear that the project was unlikely to see the light of day. It fell by the wayside and Jack fell ill. “He ended up having chemo to worry about, and not so much the rewrites,” David recalls. “We would talk about it from time to time. I would take him to his chemo — he was in therapy a little bit in the last couple of months of his life — and we would talk about it in the car, shoot the shit. But it was understood that this would not be something that would ever get made. And that was O.K.”David Fincher moved forward, building an acclaimed body of work that includes Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. Ultimately he arrived at a place where he could turn his focus to that elusive project from his past. Suddenly, Mank was something that could get made, and made the way he wanted: in dazzling black and white, with a superior cast carrying it forward.
The only thing that we did was take every scene and go, Let’s blow the pixie dust off this.”
Nev Pierce spoke to David Fincher in this edited excerpt from the book Mank: The Unmaking.Nev Pierce: Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you first see Citizen Kane?
Photo by Jane Goodwin
Jack had some very specific ideas about writers and their sometimes diminished value, but that wasn’t really of interest to me. I just hoped to put a bug in his ear, and he went and he wrote a script. It was very much a saber-rattling: Directors are pompous fuckwits who take advantage of . . . ! I remember thinking that this didn’t ring true to my experience.When you went back and forth with Jack on the script, how frank were you?
Photo by Nikolai Loveikis
Why was Gary Oldman the right choice to play Mank?
DF: Gary has a primordial decency, and you can’t fake that. He’s a complicated guy, but that was perfect for Mank. Mank was a complicated guy. He was really, really funny, and he was really, really sad, and he was really, really angry, and he was really, really compassionate — he was a great shoulder to cry on. So the role needs somebody who’s going to take all that on. An actor playing this part is going to have to juggle four or five plates at the same time.
Photo by Gisele Schmidt-Oldman
He truly has a mysterious quality about him.
DF: There was an element of reclaiming the real people from Kane. I feel like Charles Foster Kane is Mank and Welles’s creation. A lot of the things that happen through Kane and to Kane are things that happened to Hearst, but I think there are more monstrous elements to Hearst. Hearst liked having Mankiewicz around. I don’t think that he ever saw himself as somebody who needed to protect his legacy from Herman. I think there is a tiny sense of betrayal in that Mank had been allowed into the inner sanctum and had overheard a lot of interactions between these people and knew a lot about them. I wanted to talk about the Truman Capote aspect of, Well, if you didn’t want to read about it, why would you have that conversation in front of me?
It is always seduction and negotiation and belligerence.”
The script is the blueprint, but it’s not simply a question of executing what’s on the page.
DF: I think the analogy of architecture is a really good one. There is the intention, right? And then there are the geological realities of the site, and all of the shortfalls that make you adapt or change the blueprint. There are all those things that go into finishing something that started off as blue lines on white paper and now is something that people are going to live in and hopefully invest in. I feel like architecture is a pretty good analogy for filmmaking because, yeah, the script is imperative, the blueprint is imperative, but you’ve got to have the flexibility to say, Wherever we thought we were putting the basement, that’s now moved. That’s just the reality of best-laid plans.
on Netflix now.