For once, Ben Affleck gets to ask the questions.
That’s how the actor-director framed his duty of leading a conversation with longtime friend and “Gone Girl” boss David Fincher, the esteemed director whose Netflix film “Mank” has emerged as a top awards contender for 2021.
“This is a real role reversal from having to just be Fincher bitch, having to go over and over again,” Affleck teased the director, alluding to Fincher’s notorious preference for many consecutive takes of the same scene.
Appearing in Variety‘s “Directors on Directors” conversation series, the pair recently held a virtual reunion where Affleck dug into the decades-long process of bringing the story of famed screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to screen.
In perhaps the broadest conversation Fincher has had about the film’s themes, Affleck gets to the heart of the original script from the director’s father, the value of creative credit at the dawn of Hollywood’s golden age, and the rare glimmer of heart and hope in a David Fincher film.
Read the conversation below and watch the interview above.
Ben Affleck: So David. The movie [“Mank”] is amazing. I love it. It’s incredible. It was your dad’s script. When did you read it? How’d you find out that your dad had written the script?
David Fincher: Well, I’m not gonna say I commissioned it. But I prompted its existence just by… my dad was somebody who was always looking for new challenges. When he decided he was no longer going to write magazine stories. He became interested in the idea of writing a screenplay. Because unlike Herman Mankiewicz, he really revered that form of writing when it was done really well. It was it was a real high watermark for terseness and drama. You don’t have the characters inner monologues, unless, you’re writing VO. He considered it to be, not only creatively really challenging, but also the kind of writing that was required real insight and deftness. He just said, “I want to try writing the screenplay. What should I write about?”
Affleck: When was this?
Fincher: I’m gonna say 1990, 1991, somewhere around there. Before you were born.
I had, had this discussions with him, from a very early age about how important “Citizen Kane” was, that it was the greatest American movie ever made. It was only in middle school that I read the Pauline [Kael] screed and and we had discussed that when I was 12 or 13. So I said, “Well, what about Herman Mankiewicz? I’ve always thought he was a funny dude. He’s an odd sort of character to follow through a film.”
Affleck: So you suggested to your father for the first time he write a screenplay that he write about the greatest movie of the greatest screenplay ever written. And one of the most famous screenwriters?
Fincher: Yeah, yeah. Yeah,
Affleck: Start easy!
Fincher: Little, tiny hurdles.
Affleck: Did he write it by himself? He just go off and and write it and come back with it. Did you work with him on it?
Fincher: He wrote it by himself. And when he came back, he gave it to me and I read it and it was a little bit more of WGA arbitration, posthumous arbitration that I was interested in. So I told him, and he was not upset, but he was certainly like, “Well, what more is there here?” I had just finished “Alien 3.”
Affleck: You were at your peak.
Fincher: Exactly. I was feeling my oats, having been sodomized ritualistically for two and a half years. I really certainly I wanted to spread my wings. He gave me this thing. I read it. And I said, “You know, I don’t think he got it.”
Affleck: Nice to know you treat your father like everyone else.
Fincher: To be perfectly honest, I didn’t get this out of nowhere, I got it from him. He was almost always the guy who was, gonna tell you…
Affleck: I appreciate it. I think it’s one of your finest qualities, you have very many, which is that you’re one of the few people on Earth I can count on for absolutely honesty in every way.
Fincher: No matter how painful. I always immediately run through and I go, “Well does he need? He needs to hear this.” And then I just launched.
Affleck: How far from the current script was it? Was it the same structure?
Fincher: My father was retiring. He said he wanted a challenge. I thew down, I offered him a challenge that was certainly worth his efforts. He came back with a script that I thought, it was it was interesting and it was sort of well-machined in how it worked. But he had a very kind of pollyanna…it was more “Singing in the Rain” than “Star 80.”
Affleck: The viewer has to take that with a grain of salt because your idea of pollyanna is like one brief moment of pleasure to be snuffed out in the film. In your father’s defense.
Fincher: Let’s put it this way. It was very much the view of Hollywood as the MGM dream factory. [Irving] Thalberg was the Thalberg of the statue fame. There’s a lot of writing a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff about Mankiewicz and and his friction with Irving. These were two people who are very bright and exerted a lot of control and invented a lot of the things that we sort of take for granted in terms of cinematic storytelling. And here they were a kind of loggerhead.
The important thing was, I wasn’t that interested in the idea of credit. Credit wasn’t the reason to make the movie. And so he went away, and he came back and he said, “I saw this documentary about how Louis B. Mayer, and William Randolph Hearst and to a greater or lesser extent, Irving Thalberg, put their finger on the scale during the 1933, 1934 gubernatorial election.”
Affleck: This wasn’t your reaction to the current political situation?
Fincher: Not at all. This was the kind of the weird thing, I remember at the same time when he told me this idea, I remember saying, “Wow, you’re gonna get a lot of very riled octogenarians… people are going to be up in arms about these fake newsreels.” I didn’t see its inclusion.
And he said, “Well, I don’t want you to think about it that way. Think about it this way. Here’s a guy who more than 30% of his output as a screenwriter, he happily gave up any kind of credit on. He’s an adult, he signed a contract with the Mercury Theatre, he knew what he was doing. And for one brief, shining moment, he really wanted to revise that. What if there was something else that he had tossed off in the same kind of glib way that came back to haunt him? So that we could dramatize the thing that he desperately wanted on its headstone, and the thing that he would love to never be known for.”
I thought that was kind of interesting. Tt was an interesting way in to this character who spent a lot of his time just rebounding and recoiling off of a lot of the Hollywood that he knew, he’s constantly being fired.
Affleck: And yet he was incredibly prolific, and he was hired all the time, and he was considered one of the greats. Was he exceedingly difficult or just obstreperous? Why was a guy so masterful, always being fired? Was it just his drinking?
Fincher: Well, I don’t know if you’ve gotten this from the movie, but he had a drinking problem.
Affleck: That’s why I liked the movie. It’s about a screenwriter that likes to drink.
Fincher: We tamped that down, we tried not to do make a lot out of that. But what was fascinating to me is, here’s a guy who didn’t have a lot of good to say about Hollywood, screenwriting, living in Hollywood, working as a screenwriter. And yet, when you think of the writers room that he put together at Paramount, talk about a rogue’s gallery of killers.
I felt there might be something to that. He had tossed off this idea, after writing basically a nine-page outline that ended with, “I don’t think there’s any way to make l Frank L. Frank Baum’s, ‘Wizard of Oz’ into a movie that anyone would want to watch,” on his way to the Frolic Room. He did manage to say, “Definitely shoot Kansas in black and white and shoot Munchkinland in color.” In retrospect, I don’t know how many people have seen “The Wizard of Oz” maybe…
Affleck: The most widely seen film in history.
Fincher: Maybe a billion people. And that may still be one of the greatest special effects of all time. And here’s a guy who, he didn’t care he was a hitman. He was brought in to see things clearly and make connections and forget what the intention was. That was his job is to make it work.
At the time, 1994, when we were discussing this, ironically, MTV had been around in 1994 about as long as talking movies had been around in 1940. We think of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and we think that everybody must have known that they were involved in an artistic endeavor, none of the people who invented all of the tropes and all the kind of machinations that we take for granted as screenwriters, and how to structure a story. These guys were inventing it, they were inventing it daily. For all the high mindedness, and there were amazing intellects in these rooms, they were doing something that was a notch above Nickelodeons.
Affleck: The movie has both a deep and profound affection for filmmaking as an art, and also a very acute awareness of the absurdity of the whole process and the whole enterprise. I found in it an extremely astute observation of that sort of paradox: how you can feel totally ridiculous doing it, and yet somehow in it there is an art. I think it’s a masterpiece. I think it’s a masterpiece, it’s my favorite of yours, and you know I love almost all your movies.
But I wonder, there is a kind of different feel in this movie, to me. Because you’re so smart, and beacuse you’re sort of half-artist and half-engineer, and very clinical. I find you like a sort of a surgical filmmaker in your deliberate specificity. This movie had an enormous amount of affection. And, dare I say, kind of a heart and appreciation of the humanity of the artist and the human being. Was this something that you feel was a result of working on something that was your dads, that must have affected you profoundly.
Fincher: It was an enormously gratifying thing to get to the end of three decades. And finally, take eight drafts off the shelf and put them in archive boxes. And not because, “Ugh, finally we’re done with that.” I’ve been thinking about it for so long, it was nice to get it out of my system. I would love for it to be this great thing that we discovered our relationship over, we had a really good relationship. He’s one of my favorite writers. He was he was definitely somebody who convinced me that you wouldn’t waste your time by getting lost at the movies.It was nice to have a project working with him where in I could, encourage him to to put all of that style of cinema together because he really [those films]. He loved exposition, he loved it. He loved the idea of John Houseman saying “This is Rita Alexander, she types 100 words a minute.” Like these people didn’t meet before? Okay, all right. Go with it. It was that style of film, people took center stage, they had their moment, they gave you what you needed to know, they moved on there was a quip there was a rimshot, then you moved on to the next thing. He loved that, that style of cinema. So that a fun thing to work to extract. And also to talk to him about what movies were like back then.
Affleck: So David, do you think about your movies in terms of “Well, I made this so now I’m gonna make that or I have to have this follow that?” Or is it purely independent? How do you view your career as a sort of body of work or do you at all?
Fincher: I don’t, and maybe I should. I’ve always felt things come together for a reason and it’s best not to overthink that stuff. I always try to have two or three things that I’m working on that hopefully, the time can be right and you can go off and do them. If I thought about filmography at all I mean, good god, why would I have done too many serial killer movies?
Affleck: I believe that’s self evident.
Did you use the same approach that you’ve used historically? In terms of like multiple takes, you know, not a bunch of shots doing a lot of takes.
Fincher: It was what we went through in “Gone Girl” it was just in black and white and everybody was drunk.
Affleck: Except you can’t be as deeply cynical as you pretend to be and make this movie I refuse to accept anymore. Your, fake vision of the world as viewed by this jaundiced eye. You revealed, I think, to the world, that you actually have a tremendous affinity and affection for humanity.
Fincher: Did that slip?
Affleck: I tell you, I think “Se7en” is written and photograph constructed as masterful as “Chinatown,” for example. But because it’s this serial killer genre movie people go, “Well, it’s you know, it’s a killer movie.” Although Apple uses “head in the box” as part of their advertising campaign to this day, if you go on Apple Store. Speaking of which, do you get any stock from Netflix for starting their whole original content thing because that’s got to be worth like 40, 50 billion dollars?
Fincher: I think that they feel like they’ve returned the favor now by enduring during the making of this movie.
Affleck: Would anyone else make this movie besides Netflix?
Fincher: I don’t think so. I don’t blame anybody. Polygram and Universal had a shot in 1995, 1997 to make it and all the reasons, you know, they had output deals that wouldn’t allow for black and white and blah, blah. I get why they don’t appeal to everybody. This is a very niche concern, credit. Which is really one of the reasons why I never wanted the movie to be about the credit arbitration because it’s not of any interest.
Affleck: Maybe because I do identify with it, it seems universal to me, but I think it is very universal. Yes, it’s certainly specific. And I can imagine, having a hard time making an argument to a studio, who plans to release a movie theatrically that you’re gonna have a big weekend with a black and white movie about the making of “Citizen Kane.”
There’s this big debate about streamers versus theatrical, blah, blah, blah. And I would point to this movie as the prime example of what is great about a Netflix, which is that they’ll make it. I don’t know that this movie gets made at Warners.
Fincher: I’m sure it doesn’t. I have 25 years of [certainty] that it that it doesn’t.
Affleck: Do you care about people seeing it in a theater? You want people to see your movie on a big screen?
Fincher: I would love people to see it, but let’s be honest, more people have seen”Se7en” on VHS than saw it [in theaters].
Affleck: One of the brilliant lessons I learned from you looking at the book, you prepared for [“Panic Room”]. The specificity with which… it was the most astonishing document I’ve ever seen from a director. Not just the shot, where the camera is, where the actors are every scene, every moment, and you were like, “Never do this!
Fincher: And it did not work, it did not work. And it didn’t work one of the most interesting reasons, which is that it obviates a sense of authorship by the thespians. And you need that. I believe that every voice is there to be nurtured so that people when they go, “I think you’re missing something here.” I want people to feel like they can stop the train to say that. You don’t get to do it three times and be wrong all three times. That’s a problem.
A movie set it’s an organism, there has to be a certain amount of resistance to just motion, you have to keep the amoeba contained. What I found on “Panic Room” was the last person in the world that I ever wanted to kind of repel from the process was Forest Whitaker, because he has so much to give in the moment, he’s so great at that. And four or five weeks into the second time we started that movie, because we had to reshoot, he just kind of he just felt beat.
Affleck: I can see that. A lot of actors feel like they want to be able to create and explore and come up with stuff and contribute and you are very open and welcome to that.
My theory about you, having thought about it quite a bit, is that you are these two incredibly powerful competing instincts as as a filmmaker.
Fincher: You want to say this on…
Affleck: Oh, believe me, I want to see a lot more. But I’m gonna stick just to this. One is a very specific idea of how you think it will work the best and how you’d like it to be. And the other is this profound desire to discover something accidental, different and new in the process.
Affleck: I think that’s at the root of the famous Fincher relentless number of takes. Am I totally off base?
Fincher: Relentless number?
Affleck: That’s a kind characterization.
Fincher: I think that’s entirely valid. I also think that I exist outside this bizarre punitive sort of thought process about the work that we do, which is do it again, as a way to…
Affleck: I don’t think it’s punitive at all. I love it. I would rather be doing takes than sitting in my trailer. It was wonderful. It also relieves you as an actor of this notion that there’s a finish line, there’s an end. We’re going to get “it” and there’s an IT and it’s going to be accomplished. So that you’re constantly going for something rather, you’re able to just sort of relax and continue to do it.
Fincher: You watched it with Carrie Coon [“Gone Girl”] when you say, “Okay, let’s do one more.” And you can see people go, “Well what did I do wrong?”
Affleck: Because they’re not used to that, they’re used to this notion that there’s a right and a wrong, you’re going to get this binary thing and I have this idea. I think it’s brilliant.
I’ve often thought just saying to actors, “We’re just gonna do stick stakes to start and then we’ll figure out how we’re going to do what we’re gonna do after that. Matt [Damon] tells us a story about [Martin] Scorsese where he would get to the take he liked to go, “Great two more!” The idea that it’s punitive is madness. It’s freeing it’s like, “Oh, I can relax now.” And relaxation is so integral to the process of getting to something honest. It’s such an artificial fucking process, which you capture so well with the cowboys and Indians. It’s so ridiculous what we do to try to make that feel real, and just relaxed and normal is so much the battle. And I think that process, you get it. That’s why most people in your movies, it’s their best performance. They had the opportunity to really explore it and do it, and I know you’re sacrificing other stuff.
Fincher: You don’t have to prioritize what you’re doing. There’s not enough money to do it every conceivable way. I’m looking to I’m looking to walk into a room and go, “Who’s got something interesting to fold into this?” Obviously, you want to be with people that you’re comfortable enough saying, “I think that’s not the that’s not the solution here.” And they won’t get hurt, and they’ll still participate.
Affleck: I love it. I find it’s such a fucking relief to have a director go, “No, no, no, no, no, we’re not. No, no, no, it’s that’s not that at all” And you just go “Thank God, because I don’t have to spend half an hour going down this fucking road.” What is it that you’re interested in? One of the things I learned from directing myself is, as an actor, you don’t have to slavish adhere to some specific vision, but you want to be on the same boat, as the director. And you really want to find out what that is and where it’s headed. You do actors a huge favor by being really honest with them about it. I think a lot of us are afraid because they think it will inhibit their process or make them self conscious. I just find it enormously freeing and read. Have you always been that way or to take you a while to develop?
Fincher: It took me a while to get comfortable with the idea of saying, “Another one. And and I want you to think about this.” So often, you’re pressed up against the glass going, “Please don’t take this the wrong way. I need you to come out, we’re going to try one more.” It’s like Carrie said, “What am I doing wrong? You’re not doing anything wrong. We’re gonna do three weeks or at the rehearsal, we’re gonna do a table read, we’re gonna open out of town, we’re gonna have at least three preview. And we’re gonna do all that today before lunch with this master. We’re gonna go through all that so that you can get to a place where you go, “Yeah, I’ve tried this. I’ve tried that. No, really, it’s over here.” And everyone can feel good about work. This is what we’re trying to tighten. This is the lump of coal that we’re going to try to turn into a diamond.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity, watch the full video conversation above.
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