The People Who Can See Inside David Fincher’s Head

Netflix

Early in Netflix’s Mank, the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) ambles onto an outdoor movie set, where he bumps into an array of glamorous characters. In a scene full of repartee with real-life figures such as the actor Marion Davies, the film honcho Louis B. Mayer, and the mogul William Randolph Hearst, the visual details of the environment might seem unimportant. But to Mank’s director, David Fincher, they mattered. “The grass was not to David’s liking, and the sky was not to his liking, so all that’s been replaced,” Peter Mavromates, his co-producer, told me. When making a movie, Fincher literally controls heaven and earth.

That example sums up the capricious-sounding, godlike power of a director, especially in the age of digital filmmaking, which allows for total command of every frame. But as with all of his movies, Fincher’s vision for Mank was realized by a group of dedicated collaborators, most of whom have worked with the director for many years across projects. This film, which Fincher mulled for nearly three decades, is unlike anything he has made before. An unusual-looking-and-sounding film set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Mank reflects the aesthetic of the 1930s with its black-and-white cinematography; an echoey, old-fashioned sound mix; and a brassy, orchestral score. But Fincher also wanted it to be a distinctly modern film, which posed many unique and fascinating technical challenges to the creators charged with bringing his lofty ideas to life.

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Ironically, Mank’s subject is a humble writer who had to fight for a screenplay credit on Citizen Kane, which was directed by the meticulous auteur Orson Welles. Over the years, Fincher has acquired a similarly imposing reputation as a detail-obsessed visual stylist who sometimes insists on shooting dozens of takes with his actors. But in interview after interview, various department heads I spoke with described him as a director who invites new ideas from the team while being transparent about his own expectations. “[Fincher] can very quickly distill a situation down with one sentence to fuel you with enough information to carry on for weeks,” Kirk Baxter, the editor who worked with Fincher on the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, told me. “Movies are hard to make, and they take a lot of time … But despite how people like to portray David as a controlling person, he’s extremely collaborative and clear.”

The look of Mank, a hybrid of old and new, recalls the Hollywood of yesteryear without entirely paying homage. Though black-and-white, it was filmed on modern digital cameras in a wide aspect ratio—a far cry from the boxy format favored in the days of Citizen Kane’s release. The cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt’s primary concern was avoiding the biggest clichés of black-and-white cinema, which is mostly invoked these days to lend an air of mystery. “I was very conscious of the seduction of noir, how we associate black-and-white with noir, or vice versa,” Messerschmidt told me. “[Noir films] have sharp shadows, deep blacks, big contrasts. I love that style, obviously, and it’s tempting because it’s fun and expressive. But it’s also associated with a very specific type of film, which Mank is not. It’s not a gumshoe mystery; it’s not a whodunit.”

Nikolai Loveikis / Netflix

Shooting on grainy celluloid would have automatically evoked old Hollywood, but Messerschmidt said that approach was never seriously considered. “I would be the first one to acknowledge that film has beautiful qualities to it,” he said. “But it’s probably the worst medium to work in if you’re interested in consistent, reliable, repeatable results. And that is something that [Fincher] and I are certainly interested in—how to control consistent results.” Messerschmidt’s photography is clear and stark, and has a digital crispness. The cinematographer created faux digital scratches and even added ersatz cue marks, or “cigarette burns,” in the top right-hand corner of the frame.

Although Mank borrows some techniques from Citizen Kane, such as the use of deep focus and shots that keep the camera low to the ground, these methods have become normal features of film language today—a testament to the influence of Welles’s 1941 masterpiece. “Movies of the period were generally told in wides, two-shots, and close-ups. That’s partly because it was very difficult to frame shots with depth with multiple people,” Messerschmidt said. “A lot of the reason the camera moves the way it does in Citizen Kane is because the camera weighed 300 pounds. We don’t have a camera that weighs 300 pounds anymore. We don’t have to move around like Michael Bay, but it frees us up.”

These freewheeling digital techniques weren’t available when the first draft of Mank was written by Fincher’s father, Jack, in 1992. The movie almost went into production on multiple occasions—Mavromates, the co-producer, recalled working up preliminary budgets in the late ’90s and the mid-2000s. “In 1999, [David Fincher] had been thinking about the movie for a couple years. Now he’d been thinking about it for two decades,” he said. Following years of failed attempts, Mank finally got the green light from Netflix after a major studio project that Fincher was attached to—a sequel to the zombie blockbuster World War Zfell apart. Mavromates thinks those intervening years not only helped Fincher refine his ideas for the movie, but also allowed technology to catch up: “Not shooting it on film [gave] him a whole lot more control he wouldn’t have had in 1999.”

By the time preproduction began, Fincher knew what he wanted Mank to be. The costume designer, Trish Summerville, put it this way: “He has seen the whole film, start to finish … in his head for probably a year. When he starts explaining it to you, it’s the first time we’re hearing it, but he’s already edited the whole thing in his [mind].” The task for his collaborators, then, is to try to see inside his brain and translate that into reality—something that the production designer, Don Burt, described as the starting point for his own creative process. “[Fincher is] the one director I’ve worked with, more than any other, [who,] when you start a movie, he knows in his head what it’s going to be,” he said. “Within that, there’s room for creative expansion … I listen, I take notes, we discuss things, and we start to see things.”

Those collaborative talks led to a design approach that emphasized realism over stylization. Burt scouted actual Los Angeles locations to give Mank a less “theatrical” feel than Citizen Kane, while Summerville tried to keep the characters’ fashion grounded not only in their time but also in their respective ages. “These were real people, and not all of them were glamorous,” Summerville said. “Even Hearst, a man who was very moneyed, because of his age, he wore clothes that were dated to the era.” One key exception to the realism rule was the casting of 62-year-old Oldman as Mankiewicz, who was in his 30s and 40s during the events of the film. To Fincher and his casting director, Laray Mayfield, that didn’t matter. “[Oldman is] actually older than Herman [Mankiewicz] was when he died. But Herman was beat to shit. People during that time period, somebody could be 20, or they could be 40, and you didn’t necessarily know,” Mayfield told me. “There’s so much more into what goes into being a human being than how they look.”

Perhaps the most aggressively stylized aspects of Mank come not in the casting or visuals but in the sound, which is booming and echoey even if you’re watching the movie on your iPad at home. The sound designer, Ren Klyce, who worked on the film in isolated conditions demanded by the coronavirus pandemic, could have created that effect digitally, but he found that an old-fashioned approach worked better. “The task was to figure out what it is about old movies that makes us feel this nostalgic feeling,” he told me. “[Fincher] wanted the movie to sound like it was playing in a giant theater, the way that people used to see movies … [Today] we do everything in our power to design movie theaters to not have an echo, but they used to be built for live performance, and they wanted the acoustics to be grand.”

So Klyce took Mank to a gigantic music-scoring room at the Skywalker Ranch, where he was working, and put it on as if he were playing it to a packed opera house. “There was a huge screen. We projected the movie on the screen, and then we set up microphones all over and recorded the echo,” he said. “We could have done it on a computer. But it felt like the film deserved to have this odd signature to it.” The sound design alone makes Mank feel like it’s from another era, even though its streaming-service presentation is unmistakably of the moment.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the composers who have scored every Fincher film since first working with him on 2010’s The Social Network, also approached the project as a curious blend of old and new. Though they usually create their scores using synthesizers, for Mank they wanted to shift between a full orchestra and big band, “two very foreign fields for us to be dabbling in,” Reznor told me. On top of that, pandemic restrictions meant that each musician in the ensemble had to record their piece in isolation for it to be assembled later, a staggering job that the duo ended up relishing.

“We managed to find someone who had a collection of mics of the era,” Ross said. “Each player would be sent the appropriate microphone, some conductor notes, and they managed to film themselves [playing]. It was totally insane watching people separately in their bedrooms, or wherever, playing their parts.” That bizarre approach lent itself to a Fincher-esque level of exaction while prompting interesting artistic questions. “How could we be experimental in an age-appropriate kind of way? Could we turn this hindrance of not being able to play together in a room into a sort of asset?” Reznor said. “If I want to add reverb to the second-chair violin but not the first chair, I can do that now … We had the ability to do things that hadn’t been done traditionally.”

A videoconference orchestra playing into 1930s microphones: This mismatch sums up the contradictions at the heart of Mank, a nostalgic exploration of old Hollywood made with the latest technology. It is also a movie about a man in the shadow of a great auteur made by one of the most famously exacting filmmakers in contemporary cinema. That daunting label doesn’t capture the full picture, though. In all of the interviews I conducted, the person who described the Fincher experience best is the casting director, Mayfield, who was Fincher’s first assistant and has worked with him since his early days shooting music videos in the 1980s. “He could do everybody’s job,” she said simply. “But he hires people to bring to him what we find interesting and good.”