Mank: Fincher’s Scintillating Chronicle of Behind-the-Scenes of Citizen Kane, the Most Famous and Notorious American Movie Ever Made

Arguably the most brilliant director of the New New Hollywood–a group that includes Steven Soderbergh. David O. Russell, and Alexander Payne–David Fincher has made some of the most impactful films of the past three decades, such as the Oscar-winning feature, The Social Network.
Though his films are different in theme, they all display a sharply focused perspective, and dazzling craftsmanship, be they serial killer horror (Seven, 1995), literary adaptations (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008, with Brad Pitt, his most commercial picture), thrillers of the past (Zodiac, 2003) or of the present (Panic Room, 2001, with Jodie Foster).
Mank is Fincher’s first directing effort since 2014’s Gone Girl, the creepy thriller, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, which became a smash box-office hit.
Mank offers a scintillating chronicle of the race of writer Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) to finish the screenplay for a young genius from New York, named Orson Welles (Tom Burke).  At age 26, Welles is about to make his debut with Citizen Kane, a veiled biopic of publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, which would be considered to be the best American movie ever made.
Fincher shot Mank (titled after Herman’s nickname) on location at Kemper Campbell Ranch in Victorville, California, where the writer spent months laboring on the first draft of a screenplay, widely deemed to be among the greatest ever written. Notorious in Hollywood for his heavy drinking, Mank stayed clean due to the ranch’s strict no-alcohol policy.
At first Herman delivered a 300-page script to Welles, titled “American” which was then heavily edited. He spent time tweaking the script with input and revisions from Welles, whittling things down to a manageable 156 pages.
Who Really Wrote Citizen Kane?
However, the question of “Who Really Wrote Citizen Kane?’” has been around for decades, and has never been satisfyingly resolved.  Fighting Welles, Mank sought writing credit and was eventually awarded it by RKO, the studio behind it, with the film’s official credits stating: “Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles.”
Released in 1941, Citizen Kane would go on to receive nine Oscar nominations, ironically winning only one award, Best Original screenplay, a statue happily shared by Mankiewicz, and not so happily by the ever-ambitious Welles, who claimed that he “authored” the movie.
If you want to know more about the history and politics of the Oscars, please read my book (now in its 11th edition):
Mank is the kind of middle-ground picture that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, as Fincher points out: “Unless you’re making a tentpole movie that has a Happy Meal component to it, no one’s interested. Mank is the farthest thing imaginable from a Happy Meal tentpole.”
Indeed, the movie is richly textured critique of the Hollywood studio system, shot in black-and-white and created to look, sound, and feel like it was made in the 1930s, when the story takes place.  In other words, not exactly enticing material for mainstream Hollywood: “It’s not particularly a smart business plan to make a love letter (Mank) to another movie (Citizen Kane). But if we only did the stuff that was smart, there’d only be Marvel and Star Wars and Jurassic Park movies.”
Fincher set up Mank at Netflix, home of his acclaimed TV series Mindhunter and House of Cards. The director says he has enjoyed working with Netflix because “they take all the pressure out of delivering a big opening weekend gross number.” After a limited theatrical release, Mank makes its streaming debut December 4 on, putting it in the thick of the Oscar season. It is bound to earn nominations in all major categories.
Origins of Mank
“When I got back from doing Mindhunter, I said, ‘I’ve been a horrible show-runner because we don’t have season three, which means, there will be a lag of two years before we have the material. And besides, I’m exhausted.” But Netflix, instead of saying, ‘Goddamn it, you have a contract, you need to now go out…’ They said, ‘Well, is there something smaller that you would like to do rather than mounting another 10 hours of Mindhunter?’ And I said, “Well, listen, there’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I don’t know if you’re going to be interested.” And I gave them the script and they said, ‘Well, we like it and we would do this.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s mono, it’s black and white.’ And they said, “Have you seen Roma?’ I was like, ‘Okay,’ and that’s how it ended up being made.”
Fincher laments over how Hollywood movies have become solely defined by box-office grosses: “The only reason we have this conversation is because of the lack of imagination on behalf of the executives who have behaviorally modified the audience’s expectations.  There’s really only two seasons for movies. There’s ‘spandex summer’ and there’s ‘affliction winter.’ You’re making your movie for one of two seasons. And if you miss, you’ll fall into one of those other two seasons, which are dumping grounds.” Realizing that he might have come too strong, Fincher says in a moment of self-reflection: “I’m not really just a jaded fuck, I’m an informed, jaded fuck.”
Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz
Fincher thinks Gary Oldman, Best Actor winner for The Darkest Hour, was the “right actor” to play the self-destructive, jaded New York playwright and drama critic-turned-screenwriter who was too smart for Hollywood: “In order to evoke this scathing social critic and famously alcoholic writer, I needed a versatile performer who could evoke the world around him at this moment, and the way that it’s remembered now, as opposed to the way that it’s seen now.”
Tracing the intersection of art, commerce and politics in Depression-era Hollywood, the densely rich movie is necessarily episodic, containing a large ensemble of performers, who play crucial persona of the era, both in front and behind the screen in making Citizen Kane.
“A lot of the things that Mank did in his life, and are seen in our movie, were written down by people who appreciated them for their shock value and wit. Our task was finding these great quips and asides and witticisms that Mankiewicz had been responsible for, and arranging them over the course of the story so that they fold into one tasty souffle.”
In revisiting the birth of a film, which is celebrated for its innovative narrative structure of shifting points of view, Mank refuses to take sides– or to allocate authorshipFincher explains: “Our goal was to create a series of revelatory vignettes that reflect the anachronic, flashback-heavy structure of Citizen Kane.” Fincher singles out a scene, in which another erudite New York theater transplant, John Houseman (played by Sam Troughton), says while assessing the slow progress on the first draft: “A hodgepodge of talky episodes, a collection of fragments that leap around in time, like Mexican jumping beans.”
There’s a key scene when the hungover scribe staggers onto an MGM film set. Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s notoriously tyrannical head, asks “who is this man? and Irving Thalberg, the studio’s head of production, replies dismissively, “Just another writer.” Fincher’s probe into Herman Mankiewicz aims to restore the reputation of an often overlooked writer, while casting a jaundiced eye over 1930s Hollywood just as the Screen Writers Guild (SWG) was in its infancy.
Fincher decided to begin the movie with “Mank in the desert, with a broken leg from a recent auto accident, set-up with a British steno typist (Lily Collins) and a German nurse (Monika Gossmann). He is given strict limits on alcohol intake, and told he has 90 days–preferably 60–to finish the screenplay.”
The action then jumps back a decade to Mank’s early days as head of the writing staff at Paramount, where he recruited revered New York talent, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman. He sends a telegram to his friends back East: “Come at once. There are millions to be made and your only competition is idiots.”  We observe a bunch of whip-smart guys slumming it in an industry for which they have little respect.  The typist for their writers’ room meetings is a topless woman, wearing pasties.
Fincher explains: “Famously, Mank actually entered into an agreement to pay for these people to be moved in there.  And then as the research shows, he never actually came through with the money. But Mank was kind of a conundrum.  He was a guy who spoke truth to power and then also thought everything he and his friends were doing was kind of silly and stupid, and still felt that the writer’s place should be more revered.  He had a famously fractured relationship with the WGA.”
The energy of these studio scenes recalls the work of Fincher’s Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin in the rapid-fire rhythms of the dialogue.  Extended flashbacks show Mank’s growing disgust for Hollywood execs and everything they represent. “If I ever go to the electric chair, I’d like him to be sitting in my lap,” Mank says of Louis B. Mayer.”
He elaborates: “I was not interested in who did what, or what was proven, or not.  I was trying to get at the core of the idea, when does contract get in the way of conflict. There is a riptide to the relationship between writers and directors.  You enter into a partnership with a screenwriter to adapt their work into three dimension so that it can be photographed in two dimension and can be shown to other people you are taking on a lot of their insecurities.”
“You cannot look at Mank and say, ‘this is a movie about a lawsuit, or about litigation. No, it’s about a writer who went into something that he got himself involved in a situation that he’d never been in before. He was working for the person who would take total responsibility and it was really just the two of them who made decisions.”
“I was interested in talking about a guy who’s a pro, who has a well-documented contempt for the industry he works for.  I wanted to show how meeting the powerful genius Orson Welles paved a new way for him through hard work and inspiration. I was interested in the process by which Mank, a guy who had heretofore seen his life as a migrant joke writer, or punch-up guy, found a kind of salvation, a sense of self-respect.”
The movie ends long before what would have been the process by which Houseman, Welles, and Mankiewicz stayed on for five weeks to cut the script down.  Fincher explains: “This is not to say that Welles did not shaping his movie.  Welles had the ultimate hand in authoring it, he took it and made it something that would work dynamically to present to viewers so that they could enjoy it to maximum effect.”
But Fincher insists: “I was not interested in making a posthumous arbitration. Mank is not a refutation of either Welles’ position, or elevating Mankiewicz’s contribution.  I think that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.  This notion of ambiguous, open-ended movies is based on Fincher’s broader philosophy: “I do not think movies exist to answer questions.  I think good movies should ask the right questions, and then sort of leave it up to the audience to mull over and to pick through. I really hope our movie does that.
Fincher is not sentimental about bringing to fruition the scenario of his late father, Jack Fincher (who died of cancer in 2003 ), as he recalls: “I have to admit, that when my father first posited this idea, I thought, ‘Who cares? It’s too quaint.’  But he became convinced when his father began to shape it into a more focused look at a complicated and complex guy, a man who has the audacity to say while working on The Wizard of Oz, the Kansas should be in black and white, and Oz should be in color, and then leaves the project.
Everyone who has ever seen The Wizard of Oz at the age of five or six goes, ‘Wow, Color!’  It’s so beautiful. So that same guy, Mank is the one who told Thalberg, you’ve got cameras and you’ve got all the labor and all the expertise you need, go make a film about it.  And he did.  And so the kind of see-saw of here’s a thing that no one knows I ever did, but I could be proud of it and here’s a thing that no one knows I ever did that makes me feel a little dirty, that’s what we were looking to dramatize.”
Most of the instances referenced in the movie are things Mank was famous for having said.  Our research bore out that when David O. Selznick (producer of Gone With the Wind) said, ‘we have to get people in the theaters, how do we do it?’ Mank quipped, ‘show movies in the streets.’  These are all things that Mank said and did, but obviously we rearranged them for dramatic purposes.”
“I’m not a director who gets involved in his work in a touchy-feely way. I didn’t commission the script, I just gave my father the idea. He wrote a version of it that he brought back to me that I didn’t feel worked. He went away and then came back with another version that I felt was on the cusp of working. Together we kind of spit balled stuff and finally by 1997, we got it right.  It was tough for us that we weren’t able to get it over the hump and get it started.”
I don’t feel like it was my life’s work to bring his one unproduced screenplay to the masses. I always liked the story and I appreciated my father’s take on it and the words that he gave me. He also instilled in me from a very young age real respect and reverence for the written word and those who could do it beautifully and powerfully. I love my father and he bequeathed me a love of Citizen Kane, and all of the faces and all the great wits and super talents behind it. So that was enough reason for me do Mank.  Sure, it was nice to get this off my chest because we had worked pretty hard to get to a point where we could show it to executives, And to have somebody say, ‘We like your project,’ was truly heartening.”
Fincher has made a aesthetically ravishing movie, a stylish cinematic piece that offers pleasures to the eyes and to the ears in reconstructing a bygone era.  Probing the inspirations behind Welles’ debut film and the bold stylistic tropes that made it a landmark, Mank is a cinephile’s dream.  The tonally shifting score by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who won an Oscar for Social Network) moves between Bernard Herrmann (the original composer of Citizen Kane) and the big band jazz of the era.
Visually, it’s the director’s reteaming with Mindhunter cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt that dominates Mank, paying homage to Welles’ other collaborator on Citizen Kane, cinematographer Gregg Toland.  A feast to the eyes, Mank benefits from the contributions of production designer Donald Graham Burt and costumer Trish Summerville, who conjure the glamour of 1930s and early 1940s California with consummate flair.  The stunningly rendered San Simeon interludes are the real-life foundation for the Xanadu compound in Citizen Kane.
Looking back at his most critically acclaimed movie, Fincher observes: “When I said Social Network was the Citizen Kane of the John Hughes movies, it was more about the kind of movies that John Hughes made, and who they were made for, and the kind of fractured young adult relationships. It was less about Citizen Kane than about John Hughes. Did I want to make Mank the Citizen Kane of Citizen Kane movies? No, that’s not it. I thought Mank was a very funny and sad man, and above all very human. I felt that careening through this particular time in his life is vastly informative–and entertaining.”