David Fincher turns Netflix homes into 1940s movie houses with his latest opus, Mank, which explores the life and frustrations of Citizen Kane’s screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, as he works his way through the draft of what will become Orson Welles’ seminal directorial debut. With its title role imbued with Mankiewicz’s world-weary wit by Gary Oldman, and from a script first drafted more than 20 years ago by Fincher’s father Jack, who passed away in 2003, the film reignites the debate about the authorship of a film Welles might nearly have taken sole credit for. But it is about more than that besides; a love and hate letter to the machinations of the movie business, a remarkably timely examination of the façade of truth in the news media, and an intimate study of tortured souls beaten down by the world around them and their own insecurities. Joe Utichi meets Fincher, Oldman and Amanda Seyfried—who rehabilitates the image of actress and socialite Marion Davies—for a closer look.
In a year of unprecedented disruption, when the very survival of the theatrical experience is just one of a myriad of anxieties plaguing the film industry, perhaps it should have come as no surprise that David Fincher would be the person to deliver an at-home experience that so cannily replicated the trip to a cinema that few of us have been able to actually make. Irony, contradiction and prescience, after all, are all in Fincher’s wheelhouse. This is the director that once slipped Fight Club’s anti-corporate ideals past Rupert Murdoch and woke the world up to the lawlessness of Silicon Valley’s club of billionaires with The Social Network. Why shouldn’t he use Netflix, an outlet he’s become increasingly comfortable with since delivering the streamer’s first original series House of Cards in 2013, to bring the theater to us?
It is not just that Mank is in black-and-white, or that despite shooting on 8K digital cinema cameras, Fincher employed the moviemaking techniques of the 1940s on set, had his actors deliver lines with the cadence of the time, added flecks of dust and reel-change marks in post, and mixed the sound to echo like it would in a cavernous movie palace. Nor that all of this rigor would have made the film impossible to finance anywhere other than Netflix (Fincher calls these “barriers to entry” for the studios he discussed Mank with in years past). It is also that Mank is a movie about movies. About a period of transition in Hollywood, and the frustrations of the intersection between business and art, both topics top of mind today. And when Jack Fincher—the director’s father, who had been a journalist for Life magazine before turning to screenwriting—wrote the first drafts of Mank in the early ’90s, the idea of fake newsreels interfering with election results might have seemed like distant history. Now, says Fincher, “This is oddly prescient… if you ignore the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
But in fact, none of these grand themes—even the ones that first drew Jack to the story, with a journalistic eye towards uncovering the truth behind Citizen Kane’s creation—were what moved the needle for David Fincher. “I’m still not interested in a posthumous credit arbitration,” he says. “I’m still not interested in the idea of the villainous position of Welles.”
Instead, what drew him was the aspect of the story that was about change. “Mank could sign a contract,” Fincher says. “He was a grown man; he knew what he was doing. But he’d happily written and disappeared into the wings many, many times before, and on this one, he didn’t. That was interesting to me. I was fascinated by the notion of a guy who is on record so many times decrying the shallowness and hopelessness of cinema finally saying, ‘Wait a minute. I want this one on my headstone.’”
Indeed, Mank did sign a contract that would give Welles sole credit for writing Citizen Kane. Yet, as he wrote, his relationship to the project clearly became more intimate. Mankiewicz had been invited to the lavish dinners at San Simeon with William Randolph Hearst, which inspired Xanadu and Charles Foster Kane. He had come to know Marion Davies, whose position at Hearst’s side seemed to inform the character of Susan Alexander Kane, to the real Davies’ eternal detriment. He was a part of that world, though never perhaps of that world, and Mank imagines what that closeness to his subject might have done to deliver not just the brilliance and critical insight of Citizen Kane’s writing, but also the need to acknowledge an authorship of it.
Mank has been called a love letter to cinema. Others still have decried this description for the way the film depicts the brutality and ruthlessness of the business side of Hollywood, through figures like Louis B. Mayer, who quips, “This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies.”
Of these diverging reads on his film, Fincher says, “Perfect. Those two things can co-exist. I have very conflicted feelings about Hollywood. I love the [Paramount] lot on Melrose. I love the [Sony] lot in Culver City. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to keep those places open, and I got no problem with that. When you have a system that’s set up to support this incredibly complicated endeavor that a handful of people are entrusted to hold in their heads as they lead the troops, if that wasn’t complicated, I don’t think we’d have as interesting an art form.”
Indeed, the coexistence of two seemingly contradictory notions has come to define much of Fincher’s work and approach. As actors line up to tell of 100-take scenes in pursuit of perfection, his characters, too, seem to project the image of a man fascinated—even obsessed—with the drive for control. But he is also a filmmaker, perhaps the most perilous of all the art forms in which to maintain control. And he insists that the very unpredictability of the moviemaking process is precisely why cinema is the medium for him. “Predictability can be frustrating for those of us in the business of hopefully under-promising and overdelivering… And sometimes the opposite.”
Movies reveal themselves, in fact; there is little scope for unadulterated control. “And the reality is there’s not a bad review written of a movie I’ve been involved with that I haven’t, to some extent, agreed with, depending on where I am in the process,” he says. “There are times when you look at something and go, ‘God, I felt we were working towards something that would be so much more profound and it’s not happening.’ Maybe I held the reins too tight, or maybe I didn’t hold them tight enough. But it doesn’t matter. It shakes out in the wash. A movie evolves, sometimes long after that first weekend.”
It is Fincher who first turns the subject of our discussion toward—for want of a better expression—his reputation. The exacting standards he is known for are about something far more responsible, he insists. “I always get fed up with the idea of being controlling, because it’s not controlling. It’s being diligent when you’re taking responsibility for tens of millions of dollars in expenditure.”
His sets move fast, so he can afford to go again if he needs to. He says he struggles, sometimes, to communicate his direction, so when he gives six notes and an actor hits four, that’s progress in the right direction. Let’s go again. It is not a process designed to wear his collaborators down. “I have total compassion for what it takes to make oneself entirely vulnerable to 50 or 60 people in a crowded, stinking soundstage,” he insists. “I’m not standing around with a taser going, ‘We’ve got a schedule to make.’ But at the same time, I expect you to show up, ready to throw down. And I’m lucky enough to work with people who all check their lives at the door. I don’t feel I’m deserving of that, but I’m incredibly appreciative of the people who will give me as much of their attention. I want to maximize what can be done in a 10- or 12-hour day; I’ve never been a 14-hour day guy.”
On the contrary, he says, it’s this approach that leads to the most fertile discoveries for a finished film that shoots far beyond the one in his head at the start of a project. “I think the greatest detriment ever foisted on cinematic storytelling was this idea that you could build an assembly line for it, beyond the purely mechanical functions of the unit; all of these minute decisions and risks that are taken on a minute-by-minute basis. Those are all valid and necessary. But the incredibly intimate and personal ways that different storytellers prioritize different aspects of any given moment is completely outside of the Army Corps of Engineers aspect of making cinema, and it’s those two things, working in conjunction and hopefully harmony, that is the battle of art and commerce.”
So, he gets why Mank’s relationship with the screenplay he was writing changed as he was writing it. And he gets why Orson Welles was right to think Mankiewicz would want to honor his original contract. “I have as much loving contempt for all of my heroes in my movies as I do for the villains,” he laughs. “And I don’t like the idea of villains… I think if there’s anything we can glean from Citizen Kane it’s that number one, Orson Welles was a f—ing genius. And number two, he had a good blueprint to start with.”
“There are two types of directors that you meet along the way,” says Gary Oldman. “There are the ones that say, ‘I’m such a fan, we have to work together,’ and then you never hear from them again. And there’s the other kind of director who says, ‘Oh God, we must do something together,’ and then they try to manufacture something, even if you’re not right for it.”
David Fincher is neither of those types of director. “I’ve known David for over 20 years,” Oldman recalls. In fact, they first met when Fincher was directing his debut feature, Alien3, for a part Oldman would eventually decline. But it began a friendship that has endured to this day. And over the years, Oldman had made peace with the idea that the pair would probably never work together. “He might have cast me had something come up that he felt I was right for, and so I pretty much left it at that, but I thought, maybe, that Fincher would not be a box I would tick. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be.”
When he finally did get an approach with Fincher’s name attached, through his longtime creative partner and manager Douglas Urbanski, Oldman says he couldn’t believe his luck. “And I’ve had more than my fair share of luck with roles,” he laughs. “When I say a role like this doesn’t come by very often, I have to think… Winston Churchill [in Darkest Hour] was pretty good. And George Smiley [in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy] wasn’t bad.”
But what he found in the pages of Jack Fincher’s screenplay for Mank sparked an undeniable level of excitement in him. “A script this good, a terrific role, with a director you know is going to shoot it in glorious black-and-white and transport you to the ’40s. And a sort of honorarium to Hollywood, both in its glamor as well as its cynicism and ugliness… I mean, it’s David Fincher, we’re not just going to be waving the flag.”
Oldman reveled in the idea of exploring these two conflicting images of the industry he operates within, albeit set 40 years before he would break through as an actor himself in films like Sid and Nancy. It captured everything he had witnessed on his own path. “I’ve met really wonderful, talented, creative people,” he says, “and I don’t think it’s blasphemy to say I’ve also met some very cynical and ugly people who work in the film industry. Mank is a film made by a practitioner who is experienced in all aspects of the business, but he still loves movies. He still loves cinema.”
Oldman set about digging deeper into Herman Mankiewicz’s life and words, reading biographies and collecting the many documented examples of his wit. It’s in the film, a telegram he would send to writers to persuade them to move West: “Millions are to be grabbed out here, and your only competition is idiots.” But there were many more bon mots Oldman delighted in and tried to persuade Fincher to include. “I managed it a little bit,” he chuckles. “But the thing David wanted to avoid was it becoming like his greatest hits. So, I’d underline them, and take them to David during rehearsal, and say, ‘Oh God, this is a killer line,’ and he’d go, ‘Yeah, no.’ But occasionally I’d get, ‘Oh, I like that one.’ I think I got at least two in.”
In truth, though, what he found was that it was all there to begin with. “I was amazed at how Jack Fincher had captured the real spirit and essence of Mank, because what I was reading around the script matched very much. What you usually find with real characters is they’re a lot more fascinating than they are on the page, but Jack had done his homework, and I felt he really caught the character.”
Finding the confidence to play Mankiewicz meant slotting into Fincher’s ideas about approach, which initially conflicted with Oldman’s own. It wasn’t so long ago that Oldman won his first Oscar, for transforming himself into Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour after persuading make-up artist Kazu Hiro to return to moviemaking to provide the necessary prosthetics. This was Oldman’s path to building a character taken to its absolute zenith, disappearing into another man’s skin, almost literally. In Sid and Nancy, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, True Romance, The Fifth Element, Harry Potter, and countless other movies, the external appearance of his characters had been the Rosetta Stone he needed to play them.
He hoped—perhaps assumed—he’d be able to follow the same process on Mank. “After all, I don’t look anything like Mankiewicz,” he says. “That didn’t matter to David. And I think it initially mattered to me.”
Fincher told him, “I want you to be naked. I want you to be as naked as you’ve ever been. No veil between you and the audience.”
“I’m thinking… what can I do?” Oldman recalls. “I’m playing a whiskey drinker; someone who’s very unhealthy. So, I said, ‘Can I go off and eat all the cannoli and do that?’ He said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And then I started to think about those actorly things I could do. ‘Could I shave or pluck my hairline?’ ‘No, I don’t want any of that.’”
He describes his approach as “hiding” behind the roles he plays. “Of course, it’s still going to be me out there, but it plays to those insecurities even though I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I still think I’m going to be the one that gets to set and f—s it all up. That everyone else is going to be terrific and now I’ve arrived and it’s all going to start going downhill. I do like to hide. So, I resisted.”
No, he corrects himself. “Not resisted, but I was anxious about it.” In the end, though, he was two days into playing the role when he approached Fincher again. “I said to him, ‘You know, you were right. I don’t need all that. I don’t need the putty nose and the wig and all of that.’ It was liberating.”
Just as Fincher himself resists the image of him as a tough taskmaster, keeping his actors and crew pushing through an enormous number of takes on every scene, what Oldman found instead in the director’s approach was a chance to let the process breathe. There was a rehearsal period in which the cast and Fincher worked through the material, itself a luxury on a film production, but made more luxurious by its length; more than a month, ahead of a two-month shoot. “You do luxuriate in a Fincher,” says Oldman.
He laughs at Charles Dance’s description in an interview with Total Film magazine, of Oldman telling Fincher at one point, “David, I’ve done this scene a hundred f—ing times,” and Fincher batting back, “Yeah, I know, but this is 101. Reset!” Says Oldman: “Charles is a wonderful actor and a wonderful man, but there’s a bit of the raconteur theatre luvvie about those anecdotes. It was far from a moment of tension.”
In fact, it was a complex sequence—a big dinner party scene at San Simeon with a lot of moving parts and angles to capture. “It isn’t 100 takes to get the performance. He’s shooting different setups. 10 takes here, 15 takes there. You’re there even doing the performance off-camera because there are all those eye-lines. So, we shot it over five days and I don’t know, but I think it probably was 100-plus. And David doesn’t like to do pickups, so you do the scene from the top all the way through, every time.”
Some of those shots, he concedes, go a take or two further than most directors. “He does like to double-down,” Oldman says. “But he knows what he wants. It’s better to go into work and walk away at the end of the day knowing you’ve got it, than to work for someone who settles. With David, you’ve exhausted it, and you know he won’t walk away unless he’s satisfied.”
Fincher, he suspects, “quite enjoys the reputation” that comes with this fastidiousness (for the record, the director insists that he does not), but for an actor attuned to it, it’s quite a gift. “You get a bigger bite at the apple,” Oldman says. “So, it’s a luxury to be able to come and really work a scene. If he wants to do 60 takes, let him do 60 takes. If he wants to do 230 takes, he can do 230 f—ing takes. Life could be a lot bloody worse than coming in and doing 100 takes on the set of Mank.”
Ultimately, it all allowed him to take an even deeper dive than usual into the mind of a man whose own anxieties led him to alcohol and bitterness as he was writing one of the seminal works of the art form. Oldman wrote down a quote from Mankiewicz, that he has kept with him, which he found telling. “My critical faculty has prospered at the expense of my talent.” Says Oldman: “That, to me, feels like alcoholism. The fear of failure because when you try to write that great novel or that great play, maybe you’ll find out that you can’t.”
Oldman himself is 24 years sober. “But I still have that emotional muscle memory. I can still remember it. So, it struck a chord. You’ve got to get to the real cause of it, because the alcohol is something else. It’s the manifestation of what’s really going on. And once you’re in the grip of it, it’s hard trying to get off.”
In Mank’s time, the image of an alcoholic was less broad than it is today. Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935, but Oldman suspects that a man capable of dragging himself through the writing of something as brilliant as Citizen Kane may not have recognized how it was destroying him. “A friend of his at lunch once said, ‘Why don’t you go home sober for a change?’ And he said, ‘What, and have Sara [Mankiewicz’s wife] throw me out as an imposter?’ He knew he had a problem, but then you look at the work…”
Oldman takes a beat to reflect on all he learned as went through the process of playing Herman J. Mankiewicz. When he set out, he knew of Mank as the writer of Citizen Kane, and little more than that. But just as he’d done with Winston Churchill on Darkest Hour, diving into the research had given him new insight. It is what keeps him hungry to do his job still, even 40 years into his career as an actor. “You go off and you make this movie, and you find this new appreciation,” he says. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity.”
Amanda Seyfried is not one for expectations. “The only thing I expect is death,” she says, before apologizing for kicking off the conversation with such a morbid thought. But it was why she was pleasantly surprised to hear that David Fincher was interested in her for a role in Mank. “The idea that he even knew who I was, was something I was really shocked by, and I had to wrap my head around that. He doesn’t make mistakes; he’s very deliberate. So that made me feel great.”
To any who have followed Seyfried’s career from the outside, though, it might have come as less of a shock. From her deft screen debut in Mean Girls, through the all-singing all-dancing expertise with which she delivered roles in musicals as diverse as Mamma Mia! and Les Misérables, to the stirringly subtle performance she gave in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Seyfried has demonstrated a remarkable range and adaptability that has fast turned her into a star.
She has also turned her hand to producing and was on set for her upcoming feature A Mouthful of Air when her agent called with the offer for Mank, and gave her a day to read its hefty screenplay. “I had just been getting into the meat of this movie that had been a passion project for me,” she says. “It is about post-partum depression and post-birth psychosis, and it was intense. I had to read this script in between shots, wondering how I was going to give it all the attention it deserves. And then I wanted to read certain parts again, because it was a lot to grasp.”
What she found in the character of Marion Davies, who had been a chorus girl and was beginning a career as a star of the silent era when she met William Randolph Hearst and became his mistress, was a complexity that was instantly intriguing to Seyfried. It went beyond the headline knowledge of her: that she may have inspired the character of Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane, a portrayal that did Davies no favors and attached itself to her reputation for the rest of her life. She died in 1961 with only a posthumously released autobiography—and Orson Welles’ eventual admission in its introduction that she and the character were not associated—to set the record straight.
“It’s possible that nobody really knew Marion as a three-dimensional person, except for the people she knew and worked with,” says Seyfried. “And I thought, what an opportunity to give this person new life and to show the complexities of her. I saw her as someone who was unabashedly honest and always looking for the truth.”
What comes across in Mank is a vision of Davies as a person much more in control of her own mind than people might have cared to believe, and that the social attitudes of her day would have allowed of a woman in her position. She and Hearst never married—Hearst’s estranged wife refused to grant him a divorce—but Davies stayed by his side until his last days, cutting her career short to care for him as his health failed.
“She had so much more depth than a lot of these people who were talking on the surface,” Seyfried says. “They had agendas that she didn’t have. It might have seemed to them like they were smarter than her, but she was more complex than that.”
As for Susan Alexander? “That’s not Marion. I believe Herman Mankiewicz when he says that. But of course, it’s inspired by the perception of that relationship, and he was building on the perception, not what he really knew of the person. That was way more interesting for the movie, but unfortunately it backfired for her.”
Like Oldman, Seyfried dove into research, reading Davies’ autobiography and watching her movies. She took hints from the films about how to approach the part, and it offered a point of connection. “She was right in front of me for hours and hours,” Seyfried says. But she was cautious not to bring over too much of Davies’ acting style, which would not have reflected the real her. And the interview material she found of Davies came from much later in her life, after her voice had been battered by cigarettes and alcohol. “If I didn’t have any of it, I think I would have been fine, because the Marion in the script was the Marion I wanted to play, but it would have been trickier without that connection.”
Also like Oldman, Seyfried found Fincher’s approach to continuing to shoot, and the dedicated rehearsal time he set aside, “luxurious”, though it took some getting used to. “It can be frustrating at times, because you feel you’re finding your moments a little sooner than he’s finding what he wants,” she says. “But I think it’s also amazing that there’s no pressure to do a flawless take start to finish. You know he’s going to find his moments, taking pieces here and there. For as hard and mind-bending as it felt when I was trying to remember seven notes at a time, and steam would be coming out of my head, it was also just so fun, because it was like a puzzle to work out all the pieces and have him come back and be like, ‘Great. That was good.’”
As the production neared its end, the schedule called for a reshoot of the scene in which Marion is introduced, tied to a pyre on a movie set constructed on San Simeon’s expansive grounds. “I was so upset, and we were all kind of confused by the fact we had to reshoot,” Seyfried recalls. “I never completely understood why until David said in a Q&A the other day that things weren’t feeling right with it.”
The reshoot was the last thing filmed on the movie, before production wrapped in the nick of time for the Coronavirus lockdowns that came in March. Watching the scene now, Fincher’s words ring true. “It was like I was a different person by then. I had played Marion for three months and I was just so comfortable. That scene felt like it was alive like it would if you were doing it on stage for the 30th time. I had all the space in the world to find this Marion, and it’s rare to have that.”
It was important for Seyfried, and it taught her, she says, to work even harder on the next role. She had fallen in love with the Marion Davies she found in the pages of Jack Fincher’s script, and in the archival material she uncovered, and felt a responsibility to rehabilitate the image of her. In the end, she thinks the film succeeds in that, even if she’s too modest to take any personal credit for it. “This film will go down in history for sure,” she says. “I knew that before I was even cast. But what surprises me is the feedback from people has been insane. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my career, hands down.”