The genesis of Citizen Kane has long been a matter of furious debate among cinephiles, a proving ground for arguments about directorial auteurism versus greater collaboration. But that thread is of secondary importance to Mank, which debuts on Netflix today. “I was never interested in the idea of who wrote [Citizen Kane],” Fincher told me. “What interested me was, here’s a character who, like a billiard ball or pinball, sort of bounced around in this town that he, by all accounts, seemed to loathe, doing a job that he seemed to feel was beneath him. And then for one brief, shining moment, he stood his ground because—and I feel that this is entirely due to Welles—he was given an opportunity to do his best work.”
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Mank, which was written by Fincher’s father, Jack (who died in 2003), is no celebration of Welles—the young director, played by Tom Burke, is a dynamic but wildly egotistical figure in the film, storming in near the end to thunder at Mankiewicz for demanding onscreen credit for Kane before angrily conceding. Nor is Fincher’s movie exactly a flattering portrait of Mankiewicz; Gary Oldman plays the protagonist as an undeniable wit who is given to excessive drinking, gambling, and fighting with every boss he has. But Mank does get at the weird, alchemical nature of storytelling in Hollywood—and how a decade of industry gripes, political grudges, and largely unacknowledged work nudged a world-weary screenwriter into helping create one of the greatest films of all time.
When it premiered in 1941, Citizen Kane was advertised to audiences as the singular creation of Welles, and yet without Mankiewicz, it likely wouldn’t exist in the form we know. The relationship between author and auteur fascinates Fincher; together, these two artists form the “chromosomal lineage of a film, because you need 23 chromosomes from the writer and 23 chromosomes from the director.” But he recognizes that films are the result of bigger collaborations: “The thing that makes a movie is very intimate conversations between actor and director, director of photography and director, director of photography and actor, camera operator and actor.”
Fincher is happy to puncture the concept of the omnipotent auteur while acknowledging that a director will always be at the nexus of every artistic choice being made on set. “The person standing in the middle of all these decisions, in some way, puts their fingerprint on everything. If you think that you can direct a movie and not in some way show your hand as to who you are, you’re nuts,” he said. The very act of directing, he added, requires stitching together new realities for the screen. “When you say, ‘Okay, I love her line on take four, but I love his response on take 16; I’m going to put those two things back to back.’ Now I’ve created a new thing that never happened.”