Mank director David Fincher breaks down a pivotal scene in the Hollywood drama
The project had been in the family for decades: Jack conceived of the script in the late 1980s, and his son has been emotionally tied to the material since his father first showed him Citizen Kane at age 12. "It was only over time and with many, many conversations that we agreed there was something in this idea of a man finding his voice," Fincher, 58, tells EW. "His voice was his entrée into Hollywood, and his voice was the thing that he was convinced didn't really matter. How do we dramatize for the audience this dawning awareness of somebody who is self-immolating? That seemed like a ripe area of the garden to plant in."
Fincher worked on the project with his father on and off for many years before his death in 2003, as can be seen in this exclusive annotated story sequence outline that arose from their countless conversations. "The pages are pre the draft," the director says. "This is the outline from 1990 and has all of Jack's scribblings on it as we were talking on the phone once a week and saying, 'Well, what about if this happened?' You can see the story was very different. It was a more complicated thing."
Fincher also took us behind the scenes of one of his favorite moments from the film (streaming Dec. 4 on Netflix), a moonlit heart-to-heart that captures the bond between Mank (Gary Oldman) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
It comes on the heels of a lengthy party scene at William Randolph Hearst's (Charles Dance) San Simeon mansion, a birthday party for Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) that turns poisonous as the guests and Mank begin to discuss politics, including rising fascism in Germany and the potential gubernatorial campaign of activist and author Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye).
Pushing back against top Hollywood brass like Mayer and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), both Marion and Mank provoke the other guests, before escaping into the moonlight and wandering the expansive grounds for a drunken tête-à-tête.
Here, Fincher breaks down everything from the classic Hollywood techniques they used to recreate the San Simeon gardens to why this scene matters so much to the film.
Night and day
Fincher used matte paintings and filmed the nighttime scene in daylight to depict a version of San Simeon melded with Citizen Kane's Xanadu. "Ninety percent of night scenes in that era were shot day-for-night," he says. "We embraced that, reimagining the processes of the day with newer technologies." That included using LED screens in place of the once popular technique of rear projection.
They had to use a wide variety of locations to recreate the infamous landmark, now commonly known as Hearst Castle. "We have reference photos of San Simeon," he notes. "But when the Hearst Corporation willed the property to the state, one of the stipulations was that no film could ever be made there that would purport to recreate the life of Willie and Marion."
They shot at the Huntington Gardens, another California landmark, as well as a private home in Pasadena. Aptly, it's a Hollywood-ized version of San Simeon more than an exact replica. "We wanted to have a hedge maze, we wanted to have statuary, we wanted to appreciate the fact that there are actually wild animals right across that little moat there," Fincher says. "People come here and eat crudités and talk world finances and politics and look at the zebra."
That's also where the matte paintings came in, blending the various shooting locations together into one and lending the exteriors an appropriate sense of scale. "The audience needed to take away from it, 'Wow, we are talking about a guy who said, I like that mountain, and I would like to build my castle there,'" Fincher says. "There's matte paintings all over the place. We were changing everything constantly. You look at it and you go, 'Does it give me 65 percent of what I need, and then I can paint some clouds and statuary?' If it would allow us to at least insinuate San Simeon, we did it."
Marion and Mank amble through Hearst's menagerie of wild animals (rendered in CGI), punning on their presence. "It's like a Danny Kaye movie [with] them doing this animal association," Fincher says. "A cornball idea, but in keeping with how innocent [those movies] were, making visual jokes."
Fincher says he encouraged Seyfried and Oldman to take a looser approach to the scene, not giving them strict direction to follow in their evening stroll. "I just said, 'Look, you guys are going to meander. We're going to give you a route to walk. Your gin bottle is never far away,'" he recounts. "Mank is somebody she can confide in, somebody who will take the piss out of the party that they've escaped. They can have a real heart-to-heart about what it is that troubles them and who they like or dislike."
This scene and the party scene prior were partially about giving Marion Davies her due, in contrast to the shrewish, skewed representation she has via the character of Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. "One of the things that we set out to do was — not reclaim, because that's too big a word," Fincher reflects, "but I believe that the reason that Orson Welles wrote the foreword to Marion Davies' posthumous autobiography [was] out of guilt. What we wanted to do was not reclaim it in a righteous way, but just say there was more in doing the research on Marion.
"Marion was, sweet, funny and sexy," Fincher adds. "She liked to party, liked having her friends up to the castle, and liked a social life and didn't take things overly seriously. We wanted to at least present that side of her, which is, she is upset at what Upton Sinclair writes about her and Pops. But [with Citizen Kane], I don't think she felt that Mankiewicz was out to get her."
Mean tweets, '40s-style
Marion recites a long passage from Sinclair's invective against her and Hearst. "She's meant to have committed this to memory," Fincher says. "I said to her, 'It's not Shakespeare. Squint as hard as you want; you can be trying to remember this word.' [Memorizing it] says you found [it] particularly hurtful. She gets through it and is like, 'Oh well' — that was part of how we wanted to reclaim her. She was not morbidly self-involved."
The friend zone
This scene encapsulates what Mank's wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton), dubs his "silly platonic affairs," cementing his connection to Marion. "We are talking about a relationship between two alcoholics," Fincher says of the melancholy tinge to the scene. "For anything to truly be beautiful, there has to be a little bit of sadness underneath it. There has to be a tiny bit of soon this soap bubble will burst or soon the wind will come along and change the cloud formation, and then it will be lost."
Fincher admits that both this scene and the party are essential for providing a lot of background information on Sinclair, 1930s Hollywood politics, and other driving factors in the plot and Mank's choices. "The scene exists as some of the most blatant and painful backfilling of what's really going on. It's meant to bring you up to speed on why everybody in that room gets so prickly when somebody brings up Upton Sinclair," he says. "But data is not a reason for a scene. That is the worst reason for a scene. So what we wanted to do was support this idea of his platonic affairs.
"What makes the scene is how much fun they have with each other and how much they adore listening to one another," Fincher adds. "There's the narrative essential of the moment, which is that the audience get that she understands the backstory and he can illuminate the backstories that she doesn't have any knowledge of. But it's not that they're falling in love; they're falling in friendship."
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