Even with a heavyweight like David Fincher behind it, it’s hard to imagine a film like Mank getting made anywhere else than Netflix. A period film, shot in black-and-white, looking and sounding like it could’ve come from the ’30s: a textbook Hard Sell. “Unless you’re making a tentpole movie that has a Happy Meal component to it, no one’s interested,” says Fincher, who was trying to drum up interest from studios as far back as 1997, as soon as his writer father Jack Fincher (a journalist and author) had finished the script.
A passion project for Fincher Sr. and Jr., David suggested the retired Jack write a screenplay about the film he introduced him to as a teen: Orson Welles’ seminal 1941 debut, Citizen Kane. Well, not about Citizen Kane, per se, but about its creation, and specifically the input of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, aka Mank. Over the years, it’s been contested just how much input boy wonder Welles had in the landmark film’s screenplay. Critic Pauline Kael brought the suggestion to mainstream attention in her 1971 essay, Raising Kane (director Peter Bogdanovich later countered with his own piece, The Kane Mutiny).
Throw into the mix of studio politics, real-world politics, and alcoholism, and you’ve got a package almost designed to repel backers. Jack Fincher’s screenplay had been gathering dust for over two decades, having initially been ready to shop around in 1997; Jack died in 2003. Then an opportunity presented itself. Fincher has fostered a long-standing relationship with Netflix, having worked with the streaming giant on House Of Cards, Love, Death & Robots and Mindhunter. When Fincher found himself in the position of not having the headspace for the third season of the latter, Netflix execs Cindy Holland and Ted Sarandos asked him what he wanted to do.
“I said, ‘I might want to make a movie,’” recalls Fincher, talking to Total Film in October 2020. “‘I have this movie on the shelf that I’ve always wanted to make, but it might be too weird and inside baseball.’ So I sent it to them, and they were like, ‘We would make this movie.’
‘In mono and black-and-white?’
And I said, ‘OK!’”
Netflix’s offer came with a caveat, explains Fincher. “We were very lucky to have really, really incredible support from Netflix, with them saying, ‘Look, this is obviously not a four-quadrant movie. Just make sure it’s good.’ So those were our walking papers. That’s what we were expected to do. And it’s a weird thing, when you’ve thought about something for [so long]…” He pauses. “My wife, well, my producer [Ceán Chaffin has been Fincher’s wife and producing partner since the mid-’90s], said, ‘You’ve been thinking about this for 30 years, and it’s not helping you…’”
Fincher wasn’t too precious with his father’s script. After getting the thumbs-up from Netflix, he was surprised when he was revisited the screenplay. “You go, ‘Oh, wow, great! We’re finally going to go make this movie.’ And then you open the script back up again, and you think, ‘Wow, a lot of this is very naïve.’”
Jack Fincher didn’t have the industry experience his son has accrued over the past three decades, on the likes of Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, and The Social Network. “My dad’s vision of Hollywood was more informed by Singin’ In The Rain than by Sweet Smell Of Success,” laughs Fincher. “It was very much an outsider’s view of the dream factory.” Fincher Jr. knows just how much of a nightmare the inside can be, having had an unhappy experience as a twentysomething first-time director on Alien3.
Some of the film’s themes, however, had only become more relevant in recent years. “It’s a strange thing,” marvels Fincher, “because when we first tried to get the movie made, people were like, ‘This is so quaint, this idea of people having righteous indignation over falsified newsreels.’ And then, 25 years later, we’re going, ‘Ah, fake news, fake news…’ [My father] was fairly righteous about his convictions, and oddly, it was 20 years after the last time we tried to get it made that it started to seem prescient.”
Working with producer Eric Roth, Fincher reshaped elements of the script to align with their working knowledge of Hollywood. Such as the fact that Mank himself – taken out to Victorville, California, at Welles’ behest – had nothing to hide behind. Working in a ranch, with no distractions and a secretary on hand to lend support, Mank was out of excuses. It’s probably similar to how it feels when you finally get the go-ahead to make your passion project after 30 years…
Mank begins in Victorville in 1940 when Mankiewicz starts on the screenplay (with the working title American), a script Orson Welles didn’t want him to retain any credit for. But it then flits seamlessly throughout the 1930s, highlighting the screenwriter’s role in Hollywood, his famous pals, run-ins with studio bigwigs Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, his political conscience and more, all of which played a part in fashioning the script.
Mank isn’t just aesthetically similar to Citizen Kane; it shares a similar looping structure that goes back and forth over a period of time, orbiting around a magnetic character. In Kane, it was Charles Foster Kane, the (sort-of) fictional newspaper mogul, whose dying word, “Rosebud”, might just unlock the secret to a conflicted, divisive character. Here it’s Mank himself, whose screenplay is inspired by his acquaintance with William Randolph Hearst, the press baron who inspired the character of Kane.
Mank himself is a bundle of contradictions. A sparkling wit, who speaks almost exclusively in Wildean aphorisms, he’s as sharp as a tack with the talent to burn: and burn it he frequently does. “Mank fits right into that peg: classic drunk, alcoholic, egomaniac with low self-esteem,” says star Gary Oldman. “He’s an alcoholic. He has gambling problems. He’s an incredible writer, raconteur. I mean, it’s such a delicious cocktail of all these elements.”
More than the film Citizen Kane (which Fincher doesn’t commit to as the greatest American film ever made, though he puts it in the top five), it’s the character of Mank that kept Fincher hooked. “It’s the character of a guy who just can’t help but tell you what he thinks... and how problematic that can be in lotus land,” laughs Fincher, who has a similar propensity for candor.
Not that Fincher relates to Mank any more than any of his previous protagonists (or antagonists). “I relate to Mark Zuckerberg as the character in The Social Network,” shrugs Fincher. “I relate to Lisbeth Salander and I relate to Mikael Blomkvist [in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo]. I relate to all of the characters that I take the responsibility for having to wrangle. In most cases, [when directing] what you’re assessing on any second-by-second basis is behaviour. You’re invariably going to be holding up a moment in a scene or a performance, [thinking] ‘Yeah, that’s how my mom would have responded,’ or ‘Yeah, that’s how my best friend would be in that situation,’ and ‘He’s similar in terms of personality type.’ And [I relate to] villains. And antagonists. There’s parts of [Se7en’s] John Doe in me.”
Holding the story of Mank in his head for so many years, and then pitching it ad nauseam to actors, producers, and even drivers, Fincher refined the premise down to its essence. “It’s about a brilliant wordsmith who finally understands the value and importance of his voice,” is as concise as he chiseled it down to.
For Oldman, it’s not necessarily important that viewers are familiar with the background elements. “I saw the script as a sort of an honorarium, a prayer to the era, the people in the era, the culture,” says Oldman. “You could know Mankiewicz, you could know Orson Welles, you could have seen Citizen Kane or not. I don’t think ultimately it matters. When I first read the script, I was excited and I thought, ‘You don’t have to know all the players going in. And if you do, it’s fun; if you don’t, then you’re going to discover along the way.’”
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