Anyone preparing to work with David Fincher knows the legendarily fastidious director doesn’t do anything by halves, and those who signed up for his 10-time Oscar-nominated Hollywood homage Mank were not disappointed by his attention to detail. Filmed in luminous black and white and starring Gary Oldman, the film charts the genesis of the 1941 classic Citizen Kane from the perspective of its screenwriter, Herman J Mankiewicz.
Speaking during the Netflix panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film: The Nominees virtual event, cinematographer Eric Messerschmidt said he was “thrilled” to be able to take part in what he called “job of a lifetime.” He explained that the fine line between style and pastiche came up early on in the process: “We talked a lot about how to pay respect to movies of the past and bring the audience into that world without drawing too much attention to the way the movie looks. It was a balance between trying to be stylistic and have a little bit of balance [between] flair and realism. We looked at a lot of movie stills, we looked at a lot of films of the period, and we tried to cherry-pick the things that we liked and that inspired us.”
For production designer Donald Graham Burt, working in monochrome, though tricky at first, soon became second nature. “We did a lot of camera testing onstage of different tones and different colors and so forth,” he recalled. “I think the seminal moment was when David was having us document any samples, or any set dressing, or any props, on the noir filter on our iPhones, and it sort of standardized everything for us. We wanted to keep everything very real-looking, so that the talent wasn’t walking into a set and having to perform a scene against something that was painted pink or green or purple or whatever, just because it photographed beautifully.”
Sound designer Ren Klyce has perhaps the hardest job of all. “It was very important to Fincher that the sound felt as if it was captured using the equipment and the technology of the time,” he said. “And that was interesting for us, because he didn’t want the film to sound bad, he wanted it to sound authentic. Y’know, when Orson Welles was making Citizen Kane, he wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, let’s make this sound muted and crackly’—his filmmaking team were trying to make the best-sounding soundtrack that they could, using the technology that they had at the time. And that’s what David wanted to have with the soundtrack. So it was a tricky tightrope, because we wanted to do the best work we could, but make it sound as if we were using equipment from a day gone by.”
For Oldman’s Oscar-nominated co-star Amanda Seyfried, who plays actress Marion Davies, the resulting experience was magical.
“It was extraordinary,” he said, “because these days we don’t really get these big budgets anymore to get to capture that authenticity. I’ve never been more transported anywhere in my life as an actor as I was on these sets.”
Check out the conversation in the panel video above.