Nerding Out With David Fincher

The director talks about his latest, Mank, a tale of Hollywood history, political power, and the creative act.

The filming of Mank. Photo: Miles Crist/Netflix/
The filming of Mank. Photo: Miles Crist/Netflix/

David Fincher’s 11th feature film, Mank, is a passion project like no other on the director’s résumé — a drama, shot in black-and-white, about the formative years of Hollywood’s sound era, the agony and the ecstasy of what he calls “enforced collaboration” between directors and writers, and the political ruthlessness of Golden Age studios, told through the journey of an unlikely hero — Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman), the newspaperman turned screenwriter who co-wrote (or wrote, depending on your POV) the screenplay for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Every frame of the movie, which opens in select theaters November 13 and will hit Netflix on December 4, brims with the director’s loving but unsentimental view of film history and of filmmaking — and also carries an unexpected wallop of political resonance with media manipulation and the creation of “fake news” disinformation that couldn’t possibly have been anticipated 30 years ago, when his late father, Jack, first wrote the script. Mank is an unusually personal film for Fincher, not only because it memorializes his work with his father (who died in 2003), but because, in a way, it continues a passionate conversation about movies that began between the two of them when Fincher was a young boy. Its history also spans Fincher’s entire feature career — the original draft was written just before he went off to direct his first film. In two interviews over a long weekend, the director talked about bringing it to the screen.

When you made The Social Network, you told me that during production, you’d occasionally say to Aaron Sorkin, “We’re making the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies.” You and I are about the same age, and I grew up as a movie buff like you. And even before I saw Citizen Kane, I knew the received wisdom was that it was the greatest American movie of all time.
Exactly. My dad, because he was a journalist, lived by the axiom that the greatest entertainment was written by people who understood the real world, and his love of The Front Page and Citizen Kane certainly supported the idea that the best movies were grounded in reality by their creators, who often came with fairly extensive journalism backgrounds. About the time I was 7, my father started explaining persistence of vision and how animation worked and the notion of celluloid with perforations. He did a fairly extensive job of explaining to me this thing that, I was convinced even at that age, was to be my life’s work. When we talked about stupid things like “Are the Beatles the best band in the world?” he would say, “Well, here are certain perspectives on that.” But when it got down to “What’s the greatest movie ever made?” it was without pause Citizen Kane. I remember at 12 telling him that we were going to be watching a 16-mm. version of Citizen Kane in Film Appreciation class. I was a tad reticent because … a 33-year-old movie? It seemed like a cave painting. But when I saw it, I was amazed. Without understanding the virtuosity of the direction, I understood it as something that had this sure-footedness — not something I was used to with That Darn Cat! and The Love Bug. I was smitten. I felt like I had seen something that was important in ways I didn’t understand yet.

It sounds like it hit you at an age when you were mostly watching kids’ movies.
In our house, my father believed it was quality over quantity. My dad was raised in a movie theater. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and his mother worked all the time, so he spent a lot of weekend time unmonitored watching the same Tom Mix western three times, and that was a calming and safe place for him. He was okay if I went to see Westworld or The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, but he would also say, “That’s junk.” He forgave me my trespasses, but he also took me to see Dr. Strangelove when I was 9 and 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was 7. We would probably see a movie a week together up until I was in my mid-teens. I remember seeing the first Alien and telling my dad, “You’re coming with me,” and watching him squirm and cover his face.

Did your father talk to you about Herman Mankiewicz?
I don’t think my father was even really aware of Mankiewicz. My first exposure to “Raising Kane” was in microfiche at high school.

That’s a lot of time to spend in front of a microfiche.
And my father had the book in his library.  It wasn’t until he retired from writing magazine stories that he said, “I’m thinking about writing a screenplay.” He was 60 or 61, and the first thing he said was, “What should I tackle as a subject?” I said, “Why don’t you write about Herman Mankiewicz?” He was tickled with that idea, and he went off and gave it his best shot, but it ended up being limited in its scope. It was [about] a great writer obliterated from memory by this showboating megalomaniac.

When was this in terms of your own career?
I hadn’t directed a movie yet. I was just going off to do that. Once I had gone to Pinewood for two years and had been through a situation where I was a hired gun to make a library title for a multinational, vertically integrated media conglomerate, I had a different view of how writers and directors needed to work. I kind of resented his anti-auteurist take. I felt that what the script really needed to talk about was the notion of enforced collaboration: You may not like the fact that you’re going to be beholden to so many different disciplines and skill sets in the making of a movie, but if you’re not acknowledging it, you’re missing the side of the barn. A script is the egg, and it needs a donor to create the cellular split that moves it into the realm of something playable in three dimensions and recordable in two dimensions and presentable to other people. So it was interesting for the two of us, because obviously I was rooting for him, but when I read his first draft, I thought, This is kind of a takedown of Welles. When I was 12, he told me about how Welles had played every role — writer, producer, director, star. So I knew that part of him held Welles in awe. Then the script came in and I thought, Whoa, who’s this?

One thing I loved about Mank is that it has a great deal of empathy for Mankiewicz, but it’s not anti-director.
The first draft just felt like revenge. I said to him, “You’re talking about two people staking out their 40 acres, and never the twain shall meet. And that can’t happen if you’re making a movie. You don’t get to just do your thing.” For all his magazine stories about filmmakers, he knew the vernacular but he didn’t understand where the blueprint ends and the geological survey begins. That was difficult. We worked on it for a while, and then I threw up my hands and went off to make Se7en. And he discovered the Upton Sinclair EPIC campaign; he learned how [studio heads Irving] Thalberg and [Louis B.] Mayer, in cahoots with Hearst, had sort of pioneered fake news [by cutting phony anti­-Sinclair newsreels].

After what Meyer and Thalberg did to Sinclair’s campaign, the film suggests that Mankiewicz felt he’d sacrificed his own integrity.
At first, when [Jack] presented it to me, I said, “I don’t see how this is part of Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz’s problematic relationship.” Jack, to his credit, said, “I think there’s something in here about somebody who discovers that their words are important.” At the time, it didn’t strike me as a middle-aged man taking stock of his life’s contri­butions. I wasn’t sensitive to that because I was 30, and I probably didn’t realize what this opportunity was to him. But as I started thinking about it, I realized it was amazing marrow out of which to grow the red blood cells needed for this story, which is about a man finding his voice. How could you come from intellectual parents who wanted so much for their kids and end up in Hollywood? [Herman and his brother Joseph] had come out to help save the spoken word in cinema. I was always pretty sure that Herman thought he was slumming, and I know Jack did. So this was a place where the three of us could relate. I remember making music videos where people would say, “Oh my God, you did that George Michael video? That’s amazing.” I’d think, Contain yourself. It’s just a music video with a bunch of supermodels. I could relate to that.

Did you keep working on it together?
We never quite cracked it. I don’t want to say I gave up on it, or he gave up on it, or I gave up on him or vice versa. But at 30, I wasn’t as connected to the idea of what one leaves behind as you are when you’re close to 60. So it languished.

The decision to bring in the Upton Sinclair governor’s race feels incredibly resonant now.
In what way?

Well, besides the fake-news angle, you’ve blown out of the water the idea that Hollywood was always a bastion of progressive and liberal values.
Once the Sinclair story was grafted on, we found a middle ground where we felt we had a more accurate portrayal of what really happened. I don’t think Herman Mankiewicz could have written as scathing a portrait had he not known who [Hearst] was. I believe that Mankiewicz went into this thing because he needed the money. And when he got there, and he was encouraged by somebody who was not limiting him, but saying, “Go deep, keep going,” he was able to write something he was finally proud of.

In that regard, there are two lines I want to ask you to unpack a little. One is from Kael’s essay. She writes, “The director should be in control, not because he’s the sole creative intelligence, but because only if he is in control can he liberate and utilize the talents of his coworkers.”
Pauline Kael knew a lot about watching movies. What Pauline Kael didn’t know about making movies could fill volumes, and I believe ultimately that to the detriment of cinema is the notion that everything is intentioned — this notion that the moviemaking process is like NASA. Yeah, you can have an O-ring disaster, but for the most part, you’re testing the welds, the bolts, the electrical, and then when it gets off the launch pad you’re going, “Yeah, that’s what we intended it to do.” The movie business is not like that. The movie business is an incredibly couture boutique storytelling venture, and every single designer at the head of his house works in a different way. You are stitching those garments onto bodies up to the last 45 seconds before that person walks that runway. It’s a shitshow, an incredibly chaotic circus. It’s not cold and it’s not calculable. It’s a warm, wet art.

The other line is from your father’s script. When the first draft of Kane is ready for Welles, Mankiewicz says, “I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination. Where he takes it, that’s his job.” Is that how you think writers see directors, or is it how you see a director’s job?
I feel the line is the greatest hope that a writer can have for his script: “This is the end of my work. My stay here is done.” Then, like Superman, they take off. I think the reason the [Citizen Kane] script is so good is that Herman went into it going, Whew, thank God my name’s not on it. I’ll work again. He took the gloves off, and he did his best work. And there’s absolutely no argument — Welles was a fucking genius. The fact that this is his first movie is beyond shocking. Anybody standing on his shoulders is in awe of him, but having said that, I’ve seen movies he’s made from scripts that he’s written. They’re not in the same league.

To what extent do you see Mankiewicz’s story as a cautionary tale?
I never wanted it to be cautionary. I think it’s about alcoholism — both sides of alcoholism. A guy self-immolating, and also the other side, which is that people go, “Oh my God, he was so much funnier before he got off blow.” It’s a little pathetic to watch somebody whose wife has to help him out of his clothes. But that’s also who he was. Sometimes those people are ten times more brilliant inebriated than they are straight. It’s definitely a conflicted view, but it felt more realistic to me.

Because the story line about fake news and the making of those campaign films feels so current, I’m curious about whether more work was done on the script after your father died.
My father died in 2003. We tried to get the movie made in 1997, or ‘98, We gave up on it right around Panic Room. By 2001, we had kind of agreed to disagree. It went on the shelf and then he got sick. The last year and a half of his life was going to chemotherapy and talking about it, but it was understood at that moment that he wasn’t going to live to see it. We made our peace with it. It was only after I had finished Mindhunter, and Cindy Holland and Ted Sarandos said, “What do you want to do next? Do you have anything that you’ve always wanted to make?” that I said, “Yeah, actually.” I went back and read it and I thought, “Wow, this has been sitting here this whole time, and it’s so much more urgent.” It suddenly came into sharp relief. I gave them the script and they said, “We would make this,” and here we are. But in 2000, it would have been very difficult to get people to understand what the fake-news story line even meant. They would have said, “Why are you talking about this? So there are some fake newsreels — you’ve got to give them an A for effort! Oh, and black-and-white? Yeah, no thanks.”

So shooting in black-and-white was always part of the plan?
Always. And there were a lot of people saying, “Yeah, except for the black-and-white part, and the part where it’s period, and the part where it’s mono, and the part that it’s about the guy who wrote Citizen Kane, we love everything.” Then, Netflix, because they want to become the repository of everything, decided to fold us under the category of everything.

How much was the script reworked?
Eric Roth and I went back through the script and talked everything through. He’s always been an extremely capable gadfly, and I mean that in all the irritant sense that it can insinuate! He’ll call bullshit on stuff that he just doesn’t understand. The first thing we started to talk about was a scene Jack had written where Mankiewicz was told, “This is going to be the most challenging thing of your life because the shackles are off. I don’t have to answer to any vice president. I’m here to make whatever movie I want to make, so it’s you and me, buddy.” Eric said, “Oh my God. That’s terrifying.” And I said, “See, this is the thing that you understand that Jack didn’t,” which is, you take a guy who’s a professional wordsmith, and you say to him, “‘You answer to no one. You just have to make it good.’ What would your response be?” His response was, “Trapped.” In that moment, I knew this is the guy I had to talk this through with. Look, nobody has more respect for writers than I do. You’re in the foxhole with them and they’re in the foxhole with you. The foundation of it has to be searing, blinding honesty and vulnerability. You have to be able to say, “That’s the worst thing you’ve ever written,” and, “I can’t believe that you would try to fob that off on me.” And they have to be able to tell you, “Why would you not want to aim high?” There are ways that we have to push and prod and encourage and shame each other, and all of those things, in that intimate relationship, have to be fair game.

When did you decide to make the movie?
We had done the first season of Mindhunter without a showrunner, with me pinch-hitting on a week-by-week basis. We started getting scripts for the second season, and I ended up looking at what was written and deciding I didn’t like any of it. So we tossed it and started over. I brought in Courtenay Miles, an AD I’d worked with who wanted to write, and she ended up co-showrunning Mindhunter. But it’s a 90-hour work week. It absorbs everything in your life. When I got done, I was pretty exhausted, and I said, “I don’t know if I have it in me right now to break season three.”

Had you been spending a lot of time in Pittsburgh?
We lived there for almost three years. Not year in, year out, but we spent probably six or seven months a year over three years. We had an apartment there, and a car. Mindhunter was a lot for me.

So is Mindhunter done as far as you’re concerned?
I think probably. Listen, for the viewership that it had, it was an expensive show. We talked about “Finish Mank and then see how you feel,” but I honestly don’t think we’re going to be able to do it for less than I did season two. And on some level, you have to be realistic about dollars have to equal eyeballs.

When was Mank shot?
We started in September, October and shot to the end of February, just before the shutdown.

The acting style definitely feels pre-Brando, pre-Method. How quickly did everyone adjust to your approach?
There’s a sense, I think, in modern cinema acting that you’re supposed to throw your emotional knuckleball. And that’s a great place to start, but we kind of embraced an older style of acting, which was, you hit your mark, you say your line, you don’t bump into the furniture, you move on. So it was an interesting first couple of days, just getting people to just go spit it out. Not to say that that’s all that was expected, but we started very much with that. What Brando did for cinema was an unbelievable gift, and a curse. And to get beyond that idea of “I’m going to be bringing it over here emotionally, and I’m only going to be able to do it a couple of times so make sure it’s in focus”… that didn’t apply here.

How easy was it to get your cast into the film’s period speaking style?
Gary can do anything. If you said to some of the other cast members, “You need to do this like George Sanders,” they would be like, “What? Who’s that?” But Gary and Charles Dance, their eyebrows would shoot up and they would nod and smile, and they would know what you were asking for. With certain other people … it’s a big thing to get day players today who don’t have that horrendous upspeak that we’ve become so inured to. It’s like, “It’s not a question. And when your voice rises at the end, it sounds like you don’t know that it’s not a question.” A lot of those little things needed to be squashed out.

Gary Oldman, who was 61 when production began, is a good deal older than Mankiewicz, who was 43 when Citizen Kane was released. But I know that Kael made reference to him having aged very prematurely, and to F. Scott Fitzgerald calling him “a ruined man.”
Look, I’m 58. Gary, to me, looks like he’s my age. Herman, at 43, looked like he was 55. And by the time he died at 55, he looked 70. Herman lived hard. He did himself no favors through cigarettes and alcohol. Again, we could look for a desiccated 43-year-old, but in my business, the best actor wins.

Did the pandemic impede you at all?
We originally planned on looping the entire movie. There are so many exteriors, and you can’t go a block in Los Angeles without hearing a leaf blower. We didn’t do as much of it as we had planned on doing, but we did a lot. Because [laughs], and I don’t know if you know this … I shoot a few takes. So we were able to steal audio from different places, and we didn’t end up having to loop very much — which was good because looping turned out to be one of the most bizarre and Andromeda Strain–like processes.

In what way?
We would go into a studio, and everyone would wear masks. Then they would come in with these foggers and antiviral-spray the room, and we would leave for half an hour, and then come back and do six or seven lines, and then leave, and they would fumigate. It was insanity. Amanda [Seyfried] did all of her looping from her home in upstate New York. They sent a whole rig for her, and she did all her looping by Zoom.

The film looks and sounds like something created in the studio era.
Ren Klyce, who is the sound designer, and I started talking years ago about how we wanted to make this feel like it was found in the UCLA archives — or in Martin Scorsese’s basement on its way to restoration. Everything has been compressed and made to sound like the 1940s. The music has been recorded with older microphones so it has a sort of sizzle and wheeze around the edges — you get it from strings, but you mostly get it from brass. What you’re hearing is a revival house — an old theater playing a movie. It’s funny because I’ve played it for some people who ask, “What is going on with the sound? It’s so warm.” And I respond, “Well, what you mean when you say ‘warm’ is, it sounds like an old movie. It sounds analog.” We went three weeks over schedule on the mix trying to figure out how to split that atom. [Visually,] our notion was we’re going to shoot super-high resolution and then we’re going to degrade it. So we took most everything and softened it to an absurd extent to try to match the look of the era. We probably lost two-thirds of the resolution in order to make it have the same feel, and then we put in little scratches and digs and cigarette burns.

I noticed you put in reel-change circles.
Yes, and we made the soundtrack pop like it does when you do a reel changeover. It’s one of the most comforting sounds in my life. They’re so little that they’re very difficult to hear until you hear them. It has what we ended up calling patina, these tiny little pops and crackles that happen, and they’re very beautiful.

You are in the top tier of directors who work with screenwriters instead of writing their own scripts, and that’s fairly unusual in our current era of the director-screenwriter. And you don’t take credit for the contributions that I’m sure you make to those scripts.
I’m not a writer. I don’t take credit for things that I don’t do. Listen, I’m the offspring of a writer. I can’t. I’ve watched somebody put a blank piece of paper in a 1928 Underwood and sit there for 45 minutes. I know how lonely that is.

And, to state the obvious, it was your father, so that brings a whole—
Yeah, there’s no doubt. I don’t want to get mawkish about that, but I mean … it’s the love of a film that was given to me by someone who I could talk over these things with and really excavate — and then he was gone. I did have conversations with Ceán [Chaffin, Fincher’s wife and producer] in which she said, “How much of this are you doing for yourself?” She said to me, “You’ve been thinking about this movie too fucking long. It’s not doing you any favors.” There are people in this movie who weren’t born when the script was written. Two years is enough pre-visualization. Twenty years is too much. I have nine drafts on my shelf. I’m cleaning off that shelf. It’s time to take a deep breath.

When we talked years ago about Mark Zuckerberg when he was an undergrad, you said, “I know what it’s like to be 21 years old, and trying to direct a $60 million movie, and sitting in a room full of grown-ups who think you’re just so cute, but they’re not about to give you control of anything.” It made me wonder if you think of Welles in those terms.
When you’re 25, there’s no end to what you don’t know you don’t know. It really helps if you’re standing three feet to the left of Gregg Toland. But there’s also no taking back the fact that with a great script and a great cinematographer and a great composer, a 25-year-old made one of the greatest American movies ever. Movies are complicated. There’s a lot of money, and there are a lot of big egos, and when those get folded into the souffle, it’s still expected to be lighter than air. Welles and Mankiewicz were people who desperately needed one another. To go after Hearst took a kind of hubris that not a lot of people had. And it was what Mankiewicz wanted to do, but it was the impish grin of the 23-year-old director of “War of the Worlds” that made it happen. I wanted to talk about that. I wanted to talk about collaboration. How do you solve a problem like Herman Mankiewicz? How do you push him out of his comfort zone? You take him away from the trappings that would allow him to be this hot mess, and you put him out in the desert, and subject him to a schedule, and it still ends up being a clusterfuck, but interesting stuff came out of it.

*A version of this article appears in the October 26, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

In 1971, Pauline Kael published a 50,000-word essay, in which she argued that Herman Mankiewicz, who was co-credited with Orson Welles for Citizen Kane’s Oscar-winning screenplay, was in every meaningful way its sole author. The controversial essay, which drew a furious response from, among others, Peter Bogdanovich, writing as Welles’s surrogate, has since been partially discredited, but remains a flashpoint in critical arguments over the limits of the auteur theory and over the systematic downplaying of the contributions of screenwriters. Fincher’s first film was Alien 3, which was taken away from him in post-production and recut. He disowned the version that was released in theaters in 1992. In 1934, the crusading novelist Upton Sinclair, a socialist, ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor of California on the Democratic line, under the aegis of EPIC (“End Poverty in California.’”) His campaign was strenuously opposed by William Randolph Hearst, who used his newspapers to attack Sinclair, and by the heads of Hollywood’s major studios, including MGM, who used their resources to create alarmist propaganda that undermined his candidacy. Hearst was in large part the basis for the character of Charles Foster Kane; when it opened in 1941, the movie was widely perceived as a barely veiled attack on him. Mank depicts Louis B. Mayer as a hard-nosed conservative, and Irving Thalberg, who is usually treated as a doomed genius, is portrayed as his unsentimental enforcer. Mank depicts their alliance with Hearst to bring down Sinclair as a major motive for the disgust that spurred Mankiewicz to write Citizen Kane. Roth, a veteran screenwriter whose credits include Forrest Gump, The Insider, Ali, and Fincher’s 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, also worked with Fincher on House of Cards and is one of Mank’s producers. Amanda Seyfried plays Hearst’s longtime mistress, the actress Marion Davies, who many felt Mankiewicz and Welles cruelly caricatured in Citizen Kane as the untalented opera singer Susan Alexander. Mank, by contrast, depicts her as savvy and sympathetic. “War of the Worlds” was an adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel that aired on the CBS Radio Network in 1938 and is said to have caused panic among listeners who thought aliens were actually invading; three years before Citizen Kane, it made Welles’s reputation.
Nerding Out With David Fincher