During awards season, there are multiple opportunities for filmmakers and journalists to engage in cinema dialogue. Usually, studios will offer talent connected to films who are being pitched for awards’ consideration. During the pandemic, these events (film junkets) have transitioned to a virtual model allowing more journalists from around the world to connect with film artists. On occasion, we will offer some of these interactions between Elements of Madness partners/contributors and the filmmakers in a new form, Q-Bits.
Today we talk about the very personal story of creating the Netflix film Mank with co-writer/director David Fincher and lead actor Gary Oldman.
Herman J. Mankiewicz (Mank) was a brilliant writer of (stage and screen); he was an alcoholic; he was full of wit (and sarcastic wisdom), and he had no problem taking on authority. And yeah, he was a jerk at times to pretty much anyone who would give him a chance. Yet, he understood how to connect and have relationships with the vagabonds (who had nothing but the clothes on their backs) and those who held the world in the palms of their hands. All of these things played well for Mank as he took on the challenge of his life in writing the legendary Oscar-winning script for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Mank is a film that director David Fincher has been wanting to make for over 20 years. The original screenplay was written by Fincher’s father, Jack, in the 1990s. After Jack passed away in 2003, the script got shelved for later. Now, that screenplay has life thanks to David’s dedication and Netflix’s belief in the project. I believe Mank is as much of a love letter to David Fincher’s dad as it is a throwback to classic Hollywood filmmaking.
Noel T. Manning II: Mr. Oldman, You’ve portrayed numerous roles throughout the years based on real-life characters (Sid Vicious, Winston Churchill, Lee Harvey Oswald and even Ludwig van Beethoven); how was bringing Mank to life different for you when compared to the others?
Gary Oldman: That’s a good question. Well he’s less iconic. Yeah, he lived, and we’re following him in a moment of time, a truncated period of time in his life. But because he is not iconic, in a way like Smiley (Spymaster George Smiley from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), or Sid Vicious, who had such a huge fanbase and sort of following, or like Churchill who was very iconic. It’s different in that way, because with Mank, I’m almost working with a fictional character, you know. And it’s shared through the prism of (writers) Jack Fincher and David Fincher, so that allowed a little more freedom. But I resisted a little as well. David said ‘I don’t want any veil on this between you and the audience. I don’t want prosthetics, or wigs, or nothing like that … it’s just you.’ I was a little hesitant, and little resistant to it basically out of fear and anxiety, my anxiety, not David’s. But once we got into it, I found that to be very liberating. Mank is closer to the way I look in that respect. Every role that you play, whether it’s a famous person who has lived or a fictional person, they all have their own particular hurdles that you have to cross, there’s always something.
David had done a whole bunch of drafts with Jack before he passed away, so a lot of the work had been done, in that respect we never found ourselves in the situation, where we said to ourselves … ‘if only we could ask the writer.’ I’ve played a lot of famous people, a lot of dead people, and occasionally it comes up, hmm, ‘I wonder what they would think, I wonder what they would say.’ Yeah, I viewed Mank, I embraced Mank as sort of a fictional character, because I had such a lovely piece of writing, and we weren’t really making a biopic. And we cheated a little bit; we played, which is good.
Noel Manning: Thank you Gary. David, thanks for your time today as well. What was the most significant challenge in honoring the original idea, script that was created by your father, Jack?
David Fincher: You know it’s funny, because my dad was an extremely curious person, and he had a really different view of screenwriting than Herman Mankiewicz (laughs). Dad had a much more of a Singin’ in the Rain understanding of the movies. He was nowhere near the type of writer who was being cynical and showing warts and all.
This cannot be understated, part of our understanding of cinema as art, comes from Citizen Kane (1941). Before that … before Citizen Kane … think about this, talking pictures had only existed a short while (Jazz Singer,1927), that’s about as long as MTV (1981) had existed before we started talking about this movie (the early ‘90s).
*Noel Manning: So understanding the intended audience, the approach to changing visual artforms, yet being true to the purpose of original scenes and dialogue was important to maintaining your father’s ideas for Mank?
David Fincher: My dad was really attentive to the language, he was a real fan of Algonquin-adjacent sort of writing, a big fan of that. There were moments in the script where I would personally think ‘we don’t need subplots about Rita (Lily Collins) or her husband, Ian getting shot down at sea off of Norway in the War.’ But Dad was fairly adamant that he wanted to write a movie that was just pre-World War II; the trappings of that were important to him. That could be a little anachronistic, a little wide-eyed, and maybe even a little Pollyanna.
*Noel Manning: I loved the inside jokes (and nods to Kane), the introspective thoughts and dialogue that reflected a time and place of mind.
David Fincher: Yeah, I was like, oh, so we’ve got to get to that, we’ve got to use that… those things. So there were moments that we thought ‘should we take a really sharp scalpel to some of this marbling, because it is an anachronism that will mostly be enjoyed by octogenarians?’ Ultimately in the end we decided to keep that stuff, and we tried to embrace it.
*Noel Manning: This movie is pure art and of the kind that could’ve been written and produced in the 1930s or ‘40s. Observations of politics, wealth, the Hollywood studio system, and social class questions are all on full display. It offers themes about propaganda and the weaponizing of rumors and untruths that are as relevant today as in the World War II era. This is a movie for film buffs, fans of Citizen Kane, cinema historians, and those who like to dive deeper into a dialogue-driven narrative. Mank is Don Quixote meets Shakespeare meets classic Hollywood filmmaking, and it requires investment and careful engagement. One suggestion through, to fully appreciate this film, I’d encourage a double feature with Citizen Kane first, followed immediately by Mank.
Elements of Madness appreciates the opportunity to engage with filmmakers and the films they create through interviews, critical analysis, and topical engagement and open observation.
Mank is available on Netflix and has received award’s recognition from numerous groups including 12 Critics’ Choice nominations.
*Thoughts inserted and edited for clarification.
Kathryn Manning served as a writing and research assistant for this piece.
Noel T. Manning is a member of the CCA, SEFCA and the NCFCA and is also the host of the television program and radio show Meet Me at the Movies. He’s the founder of the Real to Reel Film Fest and is an adjunct professor of film studies. When he’s not embracing mainstream, indie, international, documentary or art films, he’s digging into the world of cinema by chatting with principle individuals involved in various aspects of the filmmaking industry.
Categories: Filmmaker Interviews