It’s All True: A Conversation with David Fincher

From the pen of Jack Fincher comes Mank, the story of how perma-soused Hollywood hack Herman Mankiewicz happened to write one of the greatest screenplays of all time. Sadly, Jack didn’t live long enough to see the words he had written transformed into sound and light, but it’s something that his son David had wanted to realise for close to three decades.

It’s been six years since Fincher Jr’s last feature film, 2014’s Gone Girl, and in the interim we’ve had two series of Rolls Royce TV drama in the form of Mindhunter. For someone who has already made a tech bro riff on Citizen Kane (2010’s The Social Network), and a melancholic homage to his late father (2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Mank combines these two career poles, while also posing such existential hypotheticals as, what makes a man? And not only that, what makes a writer, and what makes a director?

LWLies: Let’s go on a quick flashback to the early days and the creation of this amazing script by your father, Jack. He was a journalist and author by trade. Did he pivot to screenwriting later in life?

Fincher: I think he wrote a screenplay that was optioned and Rock Hudson wanted to do it – this was in the late ’60s. That fizzled out. Then he wrote spec screenplays in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and then when he retired in the ’90s, he came to me and said, ‘I’m going to have all this time on my hands, what do you want to read a script about?’ I said I had always been interested in ‘Raising Kane’ which I was exposed to in middle school. I had read Pauline Kael’s essay on microfiche in the school library, and then I noticed a copy of it in my father’s library, and we talked about it. Then, 12 years later, I was about to go off to do Alien3, and he was retiring and wanted a new challenge.

Did he have a certain curiosity about things?

Yes he did. At one point in his life, he wanted to create a board game and he disappeared down a well for about a month trying to make this card game work. And then, at one point, someone showed him a magic trick that he became obsessed with, and he worked his way all around it, trying to figure out how this thing was done. It was impossible that there wasn’t a force involved in some way, exerted by the person doing the trick. But it was a mathematical trick that had something to do with 52 integers of playing cards. He would find these things and he would become interested in them. So this was my invitation to termite art. And so he went and he wrote this screenplay.

What was your take on his first draft?

Well, ha ha, the first draft was very much a screed against the Directors Guild of America and the hubris of autocratic dictators in cinema. I had just come back from Alien3 and I was reading this thing that was about how these all-powerful directors were ruining storytelling, and I was like, ‘That’s… not something I’ve experienced with moviemaking.’ It illuminated for me at that moment that my father had a pretty good understanding of how movies worked, but didn’t have any understanding at all about how they were made. Which is probably 98 per cent true of Pauline. So he wrote this thing, and it didn’t really jibe with what I had been through, where I was basically a migrant worker who was there to clean up after everyone else’s sweeping policy decisions.

Did you nudge him in a direction that was closer to your experience?

We argued about it for a while. It was just flashbacks at that point – a fairly straight Kane remembrance. Then it became clear to me that what I was interested in was the notion of the enforced collaboration. That a movie is really the by-product of a mother and a father and not just one entity. Very different care and feeding are required to go from the two dimensional intention to the three dimensional reality. My newfound experience was that I had gone through five or six writers on Alien3, and nobody was particularly invested. Everyone was picking up their $125k a week, in some cases taking dictation, and in others saying, ‘Well this is what I think it should be, but the kid wants to do something else.’ My experience was very different to the Welles experience at RKO.

Was it easy for Jack to empathise with your side of things?

I tried to explain that to Jack, and it wasn’t that he was resistant to it, more that he had no personal insight into it. In any case, we set the thing down, I went off to do Se7en, and he came back with this notion of folding in Upton Sinclair’s ‘End Poverty in California’ campaign during the 1934 gubernatorial election and how it had been sabotaged by Hearst and Louis B Mayer and Irving Thalberg. At first I dismissed it out of hand thinking it was too complicated. It seemed too tangential.

When did it click for you?

It started to work in an interesting way because it became a story about a guy finding his voice, and a guy finding out that things that he said mattered. For somebody who was preternaturally witty, ideas were a dime a dozen or, as he says in the film, they cost a whole lot more than that during the Depression. For him, that stuff was easy, so how could he respect it? Here was this guy in Herman Mankiewicz who, on his way to the frolic room, would toss off these notions of, ‘All the stuff in Kansas should be in black and white, and all the stuff in Oz should be in Technicolor,’ and then he gets fired off the movie, never gets a screen credit on it, but it might be the greatest special effect in cinema.

It seemed like an interesting idea that the imaginative power of creation that brings about black and white to Technicolour to black-and-white is also the instinct that saves a 10-dollar contribution to a reelection campaign and goes, ‘You don’t need my 10 dollars, you’ve got everything you need right here to convince everybody.’ And in that moment, the movie as you see it kind of coalesced.

I love this ethereal aspect of the film in which Mank is seen engaging with the landscape, drinking it all in, storing up material.

Self worth is a very ethereal concept. It’s a very different thing for different people. The movie’s also about people taking advantage of other people. It’s also about absolute power and entitlement. This was just one route that could extend from the trunk of this thing and hopefully find tap water.

The dialogue in the film feels like it’s the product of those writers’ room guys. Do you have any insight into how Jack was able to create that voice? Was he a funny guy himself?

Oh yeah. But when he told me about Citizen Kane the first time, there was no mention of Mankiewicz. I don’t even think he thought about Mankiewicz, it was always about Welles. His idol was Winston Churchill. ‘Yes, I am drunk. You are ugly, and tomorrow I shall be sober.’ He loved that kind of stuff. He ate it up. But this has been 29 years in the making. There were so many lines that were written based on idle conversations between us. The moment where Rita says, ‘You’re not writing an opera,’ and he says, ‘I am writing an opera’ – that actually happened to me, and I told him the story.

I was on Alien3, and I was summoned back to Los Angeles with a 24-hour cut of a trailer for the film to show the executives at Fox, and to hopefully get them to give me nine or 10 more days to finish. And they said we need to see something, and so I jumped on a plane with this trailer which had been cut to Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. I played it for them to see, and the executives at Fox said to me, ‘What is this?’ And I said it’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, it’s just a piece of music, it’s not intended for use, it’s just something to cut with. And one of them said, ‘You’re not making an opera.’ I sat there thinking to myself, ‘Actually, I am making an opera.’ I told my dad that story and he said we need this in the movie.

How much was Jack’s script tinkered with over the years?

Eric Roth came in and one of the first things we did was go back and check all the research. Scenes changed in terms of length – some are shorter and some are longer. Some of the passages got moved around in order to make it cleaner in terms of the drama. But every scene was the scene that was written. One of the things that’s indicative of what it is to understand cinema from the outside – and filmmaking from the inside – is that I was going over the drama of the first scene of Mank being brought to Victorville and pillows being fluffed, etc, etc.

He gets into the bed in his body caste and everybody is introduced. And then he gets a phone call from Orson Welles. I was trying to explain to Jack what this meant for a writer who is a pro, a hitman, his job is to punch stuff up and make it better and terser and lop this and that off. That’s how films were made back then. There was none of this precious The Voice. This guy has found himself in a situation where the only person he needs to answer to is himself and Orson Welles. Jack referenced the fact that Welles had final cut, and when I talked about this to Eric Roth, he pointed out that this is terrifying for a screenwriter. You don’t have anybody to blame. So in terms of what we did to the script, we just combed through the spaghetti.

“Movies aren’t science, you can’t just adjust the slider and get a little bit more or a little bit less.”

There’s a scene early on where we first visit San Simeon and Mank stumbles onto a movie set. It’s a pointedly unromantic depiction of filmmaking. It’s like a construction site. How close is it to reality?

Entirely. It’s exactly that. The problem with film – not cinema, and not film as a medium – but with the movie business, is this incessant mythologising about how everything the audience is seeing has been wind-tunnel tested and perfected to within an inch of its life by experts. If people really understood how much grab-ass and chin-scratching and effort it takes to make something look effortless, to look like it just happened, how many times can you go, ‘Can we just shave a little bit more time off that; when you break the glass can you surprise yourself a little bit more; no that’s too much!’ You’re constantly modulating this thing that you can’t ever really control. Movies aren’t science. You can’t just adjust the slider and get a little bit more or a little bit less. It requires everybody to get it to work. And there’s mud and people hammering things and people sawing stuff. It’s not NASA.

Do you feel that the biopic form inherently invites sentimentality?

Sure, yeah, sure. I don’t know how a guy like Mank, who had as many people who adored him as he did, was allowed to drink himself to death. He must’ve been very charming when he was drunk. Otherwise, it seems like they would’ve been some grand intervention. There are Dudley Moore aspects to our presentation of Herman, but we’re also not just talking about… It’s meant to be a movie-movie. It’s not Lenny. It’s playing with Mankiewicz tropes. There’s the witty banter between a room full of the greatest Algonquin exodus types, and that was meant to be like that kind of Mankiewicz-esque movie. All the little flashbacks, where they’re oriented in time, typed across the bottom, the soundtrack including typewriters and bells. All of that stuff is to make it a “movie”, and hopefully under the hood of that, there are some insights into what we’re imbuing the character of Mank with as it relates to his own… self-immolation?

‘Raising Kane’ caused some controversy when it came out, and there have been various ripostes and deconstructions of it, most notably from Peter Bogdanovich in his Esquire article ‘The Kane Mutiny’.

Citizen Kane may or may not be one of the greatest American movies ever made. I tend to think it is. More important than that, it’s one of the first great American amalgams of interesting, literate, adult writing that requires you to listen to it and put it in its proper context and glean from it profound meaning. You have a piece of literature as the framework underneath this thing, and then you have this consummate showman who is also a raucous and inspired storyteller. On his left is Mank. On his right is probably one of the two greatest American cinematographers who ever lived [Gregg Toland]. And of those three guys, one guy dumped a phone book into another guy’s lap, that second guy cut the phone book in half, chose the pieces he wanted, he then went over to the third guy, who happens to be an unparalleled cinematic genius, and planned the shit out of a movie with him.

Together, they made this thing. I would include Bernard Hermann in this too. It was a time when really, really talented people – and I include every actor from the Mercury company – who had trust in one another and great skill sets and incredible curiosity, were fuelled by the idea of showing these Hollywood sell-outs how it’s done. They got a great script out of a guy who, in my estimation, had no plans for arbitrating the screen credit. He had signed away his rights and was perfectly happy under cover of night, talking these pot shots at William Randolph Hearst. It’s only when people found out that he was off in the desert helping Welles and that he tested the waters by turning the script over to Charlie Lederer who then gave it to Hearst legal, and from that Marion found out about it.

Why do you think Mank changed his mind about the credit?

It was two things: people’s response to the material, which was, ‘Mank you should be very proud of this’; and also, ‘you’re no longer the man behind the curtain. Everyone knows what your culpability is here.’ And it was at the moment where he said, ‘Sorry guys, I want this one on my tombstone’. So that’s how we presented it. Now, the facts of it are very different in terms of how the timeline worked, but the truth of it was that Herman Mankiewicz was fine doing this secretly, needed the money and took the gig.

He was fine to help this young upstart sharpen his stick for someone else’s eye. And then when he disgorged it and saw what it was and that it had real artistic merit, he said, ‘I’d like to rethink this’. Welles has a small role in the film, but it isn’t really about him. Welles had a vision in his head. He was doing a Francis Coppola, the American Zoetrope – ‘I want it to be all about us, and for it to be all about us, it needs to be presented by me because that’s how everyone understands it. I’m just gonna grab these people who I know and love, and they’re gonna come, and here’s this guy who has a checkered employment history with the studios, but I’m gonna give him a chance because I know he’s got a rapier wit and I know he knows the subject matter, and if he can come up with an idea, I’m probably going to be able to figure out a way to present it to an audience.’

But then you have the other side of Welles, who said there’s nothing you can’t learn about cinematography in an afternoon. That… um… can only realistically come from someone who’s standing three feet to the left of Gregg Toland. It is more complicated than that. But in his mind, he feels these are the working elements that he needs to tell his story, and he’s not wrong. So who wrote Citizen Kane? Herman Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane. And everybody else pitched in to make it what it was. And nobody else photographed it, nobody else directed it, and I think probably if Welles fought at all to be included on that title card it was out of a misplaced sense of this is the way the marquee was meant to be.

Is writing, or sculpting dialogue, not inherent to directing?

I don’t happen to believe that if I come up with a line or word that bridges two scenes, or say, ‘This works so much better if she doesn’t say this whole thing, she just looks at him and walks off,’ I don’t think that makes me a writer. A director’s job is to take the writing and breathe behaviour into it, and employ the ballet of how the camera interacts with those faces, with those bodies, with that environment. It’s a conductor and a composer set-up.

In an interview you did with Playboy, you said, ‘I’d direct Se7en in a different way now. It was only by the time I’d made Zodiac and Benjamin Button that I knew what I was doing.’ How have you changed as a director since those films?

Erm, I don’t enjoy the shooting. I don’t think I ever will. To me it’s very chaotic. It feels to me like it’s just a string of compromised pearls. Having said that, I think that I have a greater understanding of how to help a story in telling of it. Whereas, it was probably after Panic Room that I realised I wanted to go in a different direction. I had made two movies in a row that were kind of assaultive in terms of the way they presented the material, and I just sort of felt like, I don’t know if I’m that interested in engaging the eye in the same way. I liked the idea of presenting things in a tableaux or a proscenium and watching them. Maybe not cutting as quickly, or shooting as many close-ups.

Your taste just evolves. The way you want to see people behave next to each other changes. There’s nothing about the performance style in Mank that has anything to do with Gone Girl, you know? Gone Girl was very much ‘this is reality television’, and Mank is, ‘this is contract players who are good at saying their lines and not knocking over the furniture’. That’s not to take anything away from anyone. What we’re trying to beat out of everyone is, take the emotion out of it and don’t worry about being the containment vessel for the deepest, darkest most intimate secrets of these characters. They can exist here just to support these ideas. It’s the style of those movies in the ’30s and ’40s – you never think, ‘What’s Gary Cooper going through?’ You’re like, ‘Let’s have Gary Cooper turn around one more time in the doorway.’

Mank is available on Netflix from 4 December. Read more in the latest print edition of LWLies.

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