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David Fincher on ‘Mank’: ‘ I Don’t Want Sympathy for Mankiewicz, I Want Empathy’

David Fincher Mank BTS
Courtesy of Netflix

There are a lot of reasons to like “Mank.” 1. It’s great filmmaking. 2. It has an irresistible backstory: David Fincher wanted to pay tribute to his late father, Jack, by directing his screenplay; 3. It tackles a well-known topic (Hollywood in the 1930s-‘40s) from an unusual angle. 4. It’s not what people expected, always a good thing in a film.

It’s not about the making of the 1941 classic. “I hope this movie exists as more than just an addendum or footnote to ‘Citizen Kane,’ ” Fincher tells Variety. “I hope there is enough human behavior and an interesting enough look at humanity that it doesn’t require a master’s degree in film theory.”

Among other things, it is a character study of Herman J. Mankiewicz, including his risky decision to write “Citizen Kane.” It’s also about the times he lived in, and how events fed into his creativity.

Fincher says Gary Oldman doesn’t look like Mankiewicz, but has the writer’s disarming charm. “I needed  an actor’s actor, to play someone who walks into a room and everyone would say ‘That’s the guy.’

“Gary knows his job is not to make the audience like the character; his job is to be truthful. I don’t want sympathy for Mankiewicz; I want empathy for him. That’s a very specific difference. A lot of actors confuse them.”

Netflix’s “Mank” is also about the 1931-41 era leading up to Mankiewicz’s script (he turned in a 327-page draft). Despite a rebel streak, he knew how to play nicely with William Randolph Hearst as a guest at his estate. (Variety in those days referred to Hearst as the Lord of San Simeon or Sultan of San Simeon.)

As the movie makes clear, Mankiewicz’s skepticism of Hearst became antagonism when he saw how the newspaper baron and MGM topper Louis B. Mayer affected 1934 politics. Their actions allowed Mankiewicz to eventually break with both.

As reported in Variety on Sept. 22, 1933, Upton Sinclair vowed that, if elected governor, he would make California a socialist state — “I mean an industrial democracy.”

In September 1934, Variety said a KNX radio poll showed Sinclair leading 2-to-1 over Republican candidate Frank Merriam. On the same page, Mayer in Paris said if Sinclair is elected, “it would plunge the state’s industries into chaos.” So Mayer used MGM talent to create propaganda films to undermine Sinclair.

The “Mank” script shows how Mankiewicz was affected by that turnaround, but director Fincher didn’t want to overexplain.

“Upton Sinclair was a big deal,” says Fincher. “He was like Bernie Sanders and Studs Terkel, a formidable person. But we didn’t want to stop and give the audience a history lesson of who he was. We needed to give audiences the brushstrokes and move on.”

“There is so much great stuff in the script,” Fincher says of his father’s work. Among the goodies was its no-nonsense presentation of the studio system.

As Fincher points out to Variety, Henry Ford saw assembly lines in meat-processing plants and thought “What if I applied that to automobiles?” It was a huge success and the studios tried to do the same with movies. It worked for publicity, marketing, and even grooming stars. But Fincher says “The greatest disservice ever foisted on ‘chronological narrative content’ is the idea you could take something as intimate and personal as storytelling and apply an assembly-line to it.”

“Mank” shows how writers under contract balked at that assembly line, which led to the Screen Writers Guild, and later the Writers Guild of America.

“Mank,” which is a strong Oscar contender in multiple categories, defies audience expectations. In that way, it’s like Mank himself: a move to counteract assembly-line filmmaking.