More Like This gets the Mank treatment! In this very special episode, Krista takes us behind the scenes of David Fincher’s Mank, sharing interviews with key members of the creative team: composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, set decorator Jan Pascale, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, and editor Kirk Baxter. Enjoy this deep dive into the process of making movie magic with film collaborators at the top of their game, and be sure to see their work in Mank, now streaming on Netflix.
More Like This gets the Mank treatment! In this very special episode, Krista takes us behind the scenes of David Fincher’s Mank, sharing interviews with key members of the creative team. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross talk about the power of storytelling through music, how they pulled inspiration from composers of the past, and how pandemic restrictions forced them to record a 70-piece orchestra one instrument at a time; set decorator Jan Pascale demonstrates how the smallest details make the biggest impact; cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt details how he combined classic and modern techniques to transport a 21st century audience back in time; and editor Kirk Baxter explains why David Fincher once called him 50% blacksmith and 50% poet. Enjoy this deep dive into the process of making movie magic with film collaborators at the top of their game, and be sure to see their work in Mank, now streaming on Netflix.
Welcome to More Like This, a podcast from Netflix Queue, the journal that celebrates the people, ideas, and process of creating great entertainment.
I’m Krista Smith. I’ve spent over 20 years interviewing some of the biggest names in Hollywood, and on this show, I’m bringing you fresh new perspectives from across the entertainment industry, with the kind of access only Netflix can offer.
Today I’ve got something special for you cinefiles - a deep dive behind the scenes of David Fincher’s latest creation, Mank. You’ve already heard my interviews with two of the film’s stars - Amanda Seyfried, who plays actress Marion Davies; and Lily Collins who plays Mank’s secretary Rita Alexander. We got to hear how they dug into the hearts and minds of these real people to bring them back to life on our screens. But now we’ll hear from the people who worked in the studio, on the sets, and behind the camera to build the world of Mank; and since they had to reach back through time to give us a glimpse into the Golden Age of Hollywood, I thought it would be fun to meet them there.
[MOVIE: Positions, please!]
[MUSIC SHIFT INTO 40s FILM SCORE]
For years Hollywood has delivered glamour and grit, romance and intrigue to audiences across the globe. But how does a film come to be? What are the materials used to build an entire world for the screen? And who are the magic makers who help bring these stories to life?
Let’s begin with a peek into the process of film scoring. A film’s score brings viewers into the very heart of a character, whisking us along as they experience excitement, fear, humor and heartbreak. To create the sonic world of Mank, director David Fincher turned to the masterminds behind the Academy Award winning score for The Social Network - two musicians he’s worked with many times before.
INTERVIEW #1 - COMPOSERS
ROSS: Hi, I'm Atticus Ross
REZNOR: And I'm Trent Reznor, and we are the composers for Mank.
As composers, we find it a really unique creative situation that compliments our day job of being in a rock band, Nine Inch Nails, because it allows us to kind of spread our wings and really get to the emotional heart of the storytelling. You know, we’ve found we have this, the composer has this awesome amount of responsibility and power to really affect the way the movie goer experiences the picture.
ROSS: In terms of David Fincher, he's a director who really understands the power of music. It's just always been a very special experience working particularly with him.
REZNOR: It's like going on an adventure with people that you really admire and respect, and you know that it will be approached with the utmost regard for excellence. It's a culture of, “What is the very best we can do? How can we put everything we have on the screen? How can we tell this story with the utmost integrity?” It's intimidating, but it's also incredibly invigorating and inspiring because you are working with the very best people. And regardless of the subject matter, you know the experience is going to be something where you come out the other end enlightened and changed and your mind expanded in one way or another.
When we started this project, our strategy -- like it usually is with other projects, whether it be a Nine Inch Nails record, or particularly in the scoring world -- is really to just absorb as much as we can about what the material is. You know, read the script, study the script, and more importantly, sit with the director and attempt to understand how he's trying to tell that story. What's he trying to convey and how is he trying to convey it?
ROSS: And ultimately, I think our job as composers is to bring David's vision to life and hopefully exceed what he had hoped for. In this case, the journey started with a breakfast where he told us about the project, we'd already read the script at that point. And the initial discussion of music, in a very Fincher-like way, was pretty open. He'd given us a playlist, but during the meal he was more like, “Well, it could be solo piano. It could be Bernard Herrmann-esque inspired orchestra. It could be big band. Maybe it’s synthesizers.” It was gracious in that sense of, “What do you think would be best?”
REZNOR: With this film, considering the subject matter, considering the impression that was desired to make where it feels like an old movie. We really latched onto him saying, “I'd love this film to feel like we just discovered it in the vault, you know, 1940.” So that led us down a path of thinking, okay, why don't we dip our toe into, you know, what would Bernard Herrmann choose as instrumentation? And what would, since this is a sister piece to Citizen Kane, Citizen Kane being Herman's first score, what was the mindset best we can tell historically of his approach of unusual or interesting orchestration? Which, he is a master of making an orchestra sound unique. That was based on studying a lot of music of the time harmonically, what was happening, analyzing pieces of music that David had sent in a playlist of popular music of the time, just studying sheet music and considering, “Oh, this resolves to that chord, I would have done it this way, but in that era, oh, they'd throw that in there, clever.” And really just listening constantly to music of the era to let it kind of work its way into your subconsciousness. And we had the luxury of, um, I would guess six months before real work began on this film, we knew it was coming and we knew it was on the docket, and we knew he had to think about this. So we had quite a bit of time to let music absorb its way in, consider the process, start to work your way through the intimidation of that.
Now at the same time, the orchestral side was happening, we were also thinking a lot of this would be a great if it was a big band format. And we had the, an opportunity to kind of execute a dry run of that on Watchmen. And that led to really great results. We kind of cut our teeth and figured out, it gave us some confidence that we could actually delve into this with the necessary level of intelligence and integrity to possibly pull this off.
Phase one was a lot of demo-y type, uh, “Here's things, David, what do you think?” We sent him about, I don't know, 90 minutes to two hours of music. “Here's a bunch of stuff. What are you responding to emotionally? What feels like your story?
ROSS: When we sent that first batch of music out to David, I remember getting a text, all caps,”I WANT TO USE IT ALL.” And that's probably the best feeling you can get at that point in time as a composer, you know, and it's Fincher and it’s all caps. I think he likes it.
REZNOR: And then we knew we were off to the races. He was excited and he felt inspired. Kirk Baxter, who was also, we were in constant contact with...
BAXTER: I'm Kirk Baxter, and I was the editor for Mank.
The process of Trent and Atticus sharing music to me is one of the most joyous experiences in making stuff with David's team. From the first movie we did with them, I think it was The Social Network, they do this sort of big music dump. I remember it happening in Dragon Tattoo as well. So basically about halfway through the process of assembling the film, they'll drop what I sort of refer to as Volume One, and you'll get about 20 music tracks. And it's extraordinary just how many of those pieces end up in the final film.
ROSS: So then out of that bunch of music, Kirk may start playing around with some stuff against picture, which will give us some ideas.
BAXTER: I think ‘cause they have this loose approach, you can kind of build scenes with your, the library of their music made specifically for the film. And it's really, really exciting. It's exciting working out what the opening track could be.
REZNOR: When we saw the opening scene and hearing that orchestral music in there, even in the demo was like goosebumps, you know, okay, we're going to pull this off …
BAXTER: The montage during election night, that came in the first dump, and it sounds like this crazed fever dream. I think it was around midnight when the tracks landed the first time, and I was just playing through them all in my living room chair, and straight away you go, “Oh my God, that's the montage scene.”
ROSS: What was interesting about that whole sequence is that you never see a band, but the score has to do two things: One, it is the music of the unseen band; but it is also the music inside Mank’s head. So it was like this kind of line of bouncing between “we’re in the room,” and “now we're inside his head.”
BAXTER: I was worried because I was cutting to a, um, a demo that Trent and Atticus made, and then they go off and record it much later in the process with a live orchestra -- because of COVID, it was a live orchestra of every single musician playing separately, and then they join all those things together. So I was prepared to have to fine cut the scene all over again once it was rerecorded because I was like pretty much to the frame with how things were hitting on beats. And I thought that that might get a bit looser when it was rerecorded with live instruments. Uh, and I didn't have to move a frame. Like they, um, it just came back exact.
And then David made a note on one of the tracks going, “This is Mank’s theme,” on a different piece, “That's the theme where the music concludes.” So then we sort of backtracked kind of going, “All right, if we're going to conclude on Mank with that piece, then we probably should introduce it earlier. And do we make it about Mank and Sarah when they're dancing together?”
ROSS: You'll also notice, well, you might notice if you watch the film again, that when they dance, they're dancing in time to the beat. So yeah, that whole sequence was, it was a lot of work, but it was also, I think, you know, another, another bit that I do feel proud of.
BAXTER: They are professionals Trent and Atticus. You may think they're rockstars, but no, they are professionals.
ROSS: What we next did was sit down, knowing the parameters, and score the entire film in demo form.
REZNOR: Yeah, what we normally do is the demos become the final version because we usually play everything and we just do it in our studio, and we can sculpt and craft it exactly right so it’s not left up to chance when it finally goes to the stage to get recorded, no, that’s the real version. What was very different this time, our process, once we'd gotten everything approved from David in demo form was to then turn it over to the two primary arrangers we used -- Conrad Pope for the orchestral material and Dan Higgins for the big band jazz material --to translate some of the voicings to actual instruments. Then they would send us a demo of that.
Then the pandemic hits, and creates another layer of, um, [laughs] let's say exponentially more confusing, difficult execution where we're going to try to record a 60, 70 piece orchestra, and we need to record a 30 piece jazz band, but nobody can be in the same room. So we sent kits with a FaceTime with Conrad, who's acting as conductor as well. “Try to play it like this, here's all the kind of instructions, here's the sheet music, here's the session. Use this mic, use this pre-amp, it's all been sterilized. When you're done, put it back in the suitcase, someone's going to pick it up and then take it to the next person.” Again, so that we kind of stack the deck of, now that we have to surgically put all these separate performances together, to feel like a, an actual communal performance let's do as many things as we can to kind of help the cause. Make sure the mic-ing is appropriate and period authentic. And then see what happens.
And as we started to get those sessions back that were compiled from all the separate performances, you know, it really was from, from our perspective, an amazing feat and, and a real testament to the incredible quality and caliber of musicians that could be able to play in that sort of, um, isolated environment, but feel as though they're all performing as a unit with, with emotion, you know, with, um, feeling behind it. We were blown away.
Then you're off to the next challenge, which is mixing it to have the right feel, not only emotionally the most important aspect, but also does it feel like it's of that era, you know, and as we then discovered, it's much harder to make things sound antique than it seems like it would be.
ROSS: It was a kind of high wire balancing act, because as mentioned, there were various iterations of the music, the demos that we fell in love with, then the orchestra versions, then putting those together. Then this idea of the patina came up that we knew was going to happen at the end, but we were simultaneously aging our music to make it feel right. So it was this kind of like, “How far do we go before this other thing?” that was a kind of unknown.
REZNOR: You know, it's easy to make it feel fake. It's not as easy to kind of emotionally make that connection where it tells your brain, “Oh, this is, this feels like it's from then.”
One of the things we would do in the mixing process, and also the composing process was, we were not trying to imitate Citizen Kane, but we were using it as a reference point of the role of music in that era, the role of music in that film. In our sessions, we would be able to flip back and forth picture and audio from Citizen Kane to Mank and kind of take temperature checks. Are we able to communicate melodically what we're trying to do under all this dialogue, and have it still feel like music? Or is it, is it lost? It was a really interesting kind of science experiment, you know, that played along with the compositional and arrangement and most importantly the way it feels.
Other moments that stick out to me, just that emotionally resonate with me, uh, when they're at San Simeon, and Mank and Marion are walking by the, uh, giraffes. It feels sweet, it feels human, it feels flawed, it feels a little sad. It feels a little doomed in its own way. The one I always feel, uh, almost like crying for is when his brother visits him at, uh, the ranch.
[MOVIE: I’m washed up, Joe. Have been for years.]
REZNOR: What we've managed to sit in there feels perfect to me.
[MOVIE: It’s the best thing you’ve ever written.]
REZNOR: It’s something I'm very proud of.
ROSS: Yeah. Trent kind of stole my thunder on that. I feel the same on all of those.
REZNOR: The secret is just start talking first.
ROSS: [laughs] There's no moment of music in the film that I don't love. And I don't say that from a place of arrogance, I just, you know, it's been so much a part of our lives. When I think of the suite with Mayer marching through the studio.
[MOVIE: Rule number one, ars gratia artis, art for art’s sake. // Morning, Mr. Mayer. // How ya doin?]
ROSS: When I think of, you know, it's slightly more humorous, but Marion's exit where it feels like there's one piece being invaded by another. When I think of the music for Sara and how that evolves through the film. You've just worked for eight months or nine months or whatever on this thing that is now your child, you know? Fincher can be Dad, but we're in the family, you know what I mean? So you care. You deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply care, and you know every millisecond of music intimately, and there's a lot of music in this film.
There's been a lot of talk about, “Yes, it's music from, you know, we're using an orchestra and we’re, you know, and a big band and whatnot,” and all of that is a big deal, but actually when it comes down to emotional resonance, I'm not sure that the tool is as significant. Like we're trying to tell this story of this guy and his journey and as it happens, it became big band and solo piano. But what we're really trying to do is tell you emotionally this story. And it got there. I mean, it, it became the best we could possibly contribute.
REZNOR: Working in scoring, we’re not in the driver’s seat role that you might think makes it not as fun, but it’s actually a lot more fun in a lot of ways. I think you learn more when you're working to fit the right puzzle piece in, but you're not designing the whole puzzle and you just have this to work with. “How do I make my contribution, make the whole thing better?” Not in a showy way, make the essence of it better. Make the whole thing feel excellent. We leave this project feeling very positive and, and proud that we could pull it off and proud of the work we did and proud, mainly proud to be a part of a family that could make a film with this level of integrity in 2020, and just happy to be involved.
INTRO TO JAN
Onto the next piece of the puzzle - the set. So much of the story is told by where the events take place - imagine Casablanca without the lush Moroccan interiors of Rick's Café Américain; or King Kong minus the dense jungle of Skull Island. To make a set in the middle of a Hollywood studio feel like a mansion in San Simeon, or a ranch in the Mojave Desert, takes an exacting eye and an obsession with detail. Luckily Mank had both in Jan Pascale.
INTERVIEW #2 - SET DECORATOR
PASCALE: Hi I’m Jan Pascale, and I'm the set decorator on Mank.
The best way that I describe what we do is we are storytellers. We work in conjunction with the production designer, once the walls are built or the environment is chosen, or the location is chosen, the set decorator brings in all the physical property that is inside the set that tells you where you are. It tells you a lot about the character, or it tells you what the character has been put into.
I had done a black and white movie before, so when Don called me and interviewed me -- Don and I had never worked together before -- I said, “Oh, I did a black and white movie before, I know.” I kind of, you know, sort of feeling sassy and saying, “Ah, I, I know how to handle this.” I did a movie called Good Night, and Good Luck, and the difference was we shot Good Night, and Good Luck on film, on film stock. And we had, limited budget is being generous. [laughs] The whole movie was 7 million dollars, soup to nuts, everybody, actors, everybody. So I walked around with, um, our art director Krista Monroe came up with our own grayscale. So I would carry the, my grayscale around and I would hold it up next to something and take a picture of it. So when you walked onto the set, there was this rainbow of colors of things, pink and turquoise and all these colors, but on the grayscale, the shape and the value worked.
So I went in to meet Don with that information, thinking that I knew what I was talking about. However, the Red camera, the camera that David was using, they were capturing the image digitally. And I don't know all the technical terms, but it was high dynamic range and it was just going to be a different animal. So what they discovered when they did some camera tests initially, Don told me that if I used my iPhone and went into the filter section and chose “Noir,” I could photograph the things that I wanted to use on the set and that is how that camera would capture the imagery. Which was the key piece of information that we needed. So my assistant and I, Joni and I would run around and shoot it in natural color, and then we would turn on the filter and we would shoot it through the Noir filter, and that was how we were going to see it on the set. And that was just the key to the kingdom. That was, that told us everything we needed to know.
I mean I love doing period films because it's a little dive into history. But this one was, there were so many things that were so particular. For example, the movie equipment. David Fincher is encyclopedic in his knowledge of film equipment, which is terrifying. Because I know enough to get myself in trouble and I've done a lot of movie sets within movie sets in my career, I kind of was the go-to person for that for a while, it felt like. But presenting the material to David, he would say, “Well, where's the blah blah blah camera?” And I would kind of scratch my head and turn to my vendors, History For Hire, who thankfully know a lot about movie equipment and they are, we think, the preservers of movie equipment. They are obsessed with movie equipment and television equipment. The owner, Jim Elyea, just knows so much, he's encyclopedic. So I was grateful for that.
However, what I didn't factor in, prop master Trish and I didn't factor in that there were three other shows in town that were shooting 1930s projects. One of them was Ryan Murphy's Hollywood, and they were using the movie equipment. So we would find ourselves sort of bartering for when we could, [laughs] “Do you think they'll be done with the lights on Thursday so that we could come and get them Thursday afternoon?” You know that sort of, we hadn't planned on that. And then we were terrified because David knew exactly what it was, so we knew we couldn't, you know, fake our way through anything. It was, it was a little bit of a panic. And, and with furniture as well and, and props and small things, because it was, Penny Dreadful had, uh, jumped from turn of the century to the thirties, and Perry Mason was doing the thirties, um, Hollywood of course, and then us. And we were just panic-stricken half the time, just making sure that we could get what we needed from the prop houses.
One of the daunting things was reading the line in the script that said “San Simeon dining room.” [laughs] You know, there are a million books available for what Hearst castle looks like, and the dining room is quite impressive.
[MOVIE: It’s what God might have built, had he had the money.]
PASCALE: So the thought of recreating that sort of makes one twitch a little. Our prop master Trish Gallaher Glen, she made her family go on a field trip to San Simeon so that she could pretend she was a tourist and take as many detailed photos. Because the books that are out there don't really dive into the full detail that we needed.
Thinking about the dining table being 34 feet long was really frightening. I didn't know how my crew would move it, how I could build it, what was going on and how could, how could I do this? But when Trish went there, she realized that it was actually a few tables butted together. So it sort of gave us permission to make tables that were easy to move. Well, relatively easy to move. So we recreated tables, and then I had my painter, he matched the wood grain as best he could, and he went in and did some aging on it. So we were able to really, truly recreate that as best we could.
The one thing that we didn't do that he did, he used to have Heinz ketchup bottle and mustard bottle on the table. He called the castle “The Ranch,” [laughs] so as elegant as it was, he would have these ketchup and mustard bottles all the way down the table. We were having fish. [laughs] So we opted not to, to have that. And we just thought it would detract too much from what we were trying to say.
But he did have Blue Willow dinnerware, which is very common and easy to find except his had a scalloped edge with a gold trim, which is not so easy to find. So my buyer Joni and myself, Joni Indursky and myself would sit on Ebay for hours and hours and hours and through the weekend and evenings and whenever we could. And we basically bought...I don’t know, service for 60, maybe, practically one plate in one cup and saucer at a time, or one cup or one salad bowl. “Ooh, I got a set of four! Oh my God, isn't that great!” Because we are all so obsessed about trying to be true to the history and trying to help tell the story without distracting from the story. That’s the other thing, it’s, we’re there to support the story, not to shine.
[MOVIE: Welcome to San Simeon!]
PASCALE: We shot at the real location for the exterior of the bungalow. It's called the Kemper Campbell Ranch, and it's in a little town called Victorville, which is about an hour and a half away from Los Angeles. And that really is where Herman Mankiewicz wrote the script for Citizen Kane. But over the years, that place has been subdivided and rooms are rented out. Don Bert was our production designer, and he built the set onstage, again to help tell the story but to make it more interesting and to make it more shootable. So the day before we shot in there and for a few days before, Don and the painters would come in and, because we're in the middle of the, truly in the middle of the desert, even though the interior was onstage, in the real desert dust would have been blowing in all the time. So we built up a layer of dust around the corner and some sand, and, you know, you wanted that grit. Um, the trick of course with that is making sure that we get fingerprints and footprints [laughs] of the crew that has to be in that room. So we were constantly having our onset people adjust and make sure that you didn't see sneaker prints in the middle of our dust bowl. And we, we built up dust on all the tables and things like that, just to give, it's like that layer of silt that you get when it comes through the screen door. So it's been sort of filtered, so it's just that fine dust, but it was, we, we did add that around all the furniture and all the floors in the corners.
If we've done a good job, no one will notice, you know? Because it looks the way it should look. And, um, I feel, I think that we might've hit this one correctly.
INTRO TO ERIK
Another important part of a motion picture is, of course, the picture. The overall vision for a movie lies in the hands of its director, but it’s another set of eyes that captures that vision on film.
INTERVIEW #3 - CINEMATOGRAPHER
MESSERSCHMIDT: I'm Eric Messerschmidt and I am the cinematographer for Mank.
The cinematographer's role is, at least on the set, sort of the director's right hand. And um, David and I work very closely together and we have been for a number of years now. And it's, it's really about helping him realize his vision on screen, and translating to some degree what he's articulating verbally into something visual.
The job changes minute by minute. You know, one minute I'm lighting the set, other, other time I’m working with the camera operator and positioning the camera, communicating with David about how we're going to assemble a scene editorially, you know, what pieces of coverage we're going to shoot and where we're going to put the camera. And so it, you know, it's all of those things I guess, but um, you know, it’s unique. [laughs]
This is my third project with David, um, God it feels like more than that. [laughs] You know, David is an incredible filmmaker, you know, he's a force of nature. He is incredibly prepared, extremely thorough, thoughtful, creative, interesting. And he creates an environment of intensity that I really adore. I mean, I love the process of making movies with David. You know, it's a serious environment, it’s an environment where excellence is expected and everyone is working at an extremely high level and, you know, that's rare in our business actually. And it's a lovely place to do our work. And, you know, I mean, I think in David's case, he is someone that is a student of cinema, and he's a student of the techniques of cinema and production of cinema. So he understands all of our jobs, mine included, to the point where we can have a very nuanced conversation about the challenges that I may be facing on a particular shot or a particular scene.
When David first called me and told me about the movie I was thrilled and a little bit intimidated actually. I mean, I knew who Herman Mankiewicz was, but I didn't really know the story. And I certainly didn't know about the Upton Sinclair part of the story. I had seen Citizen Kane of course, many times.
Mank is referencing a time period in cinema that is memorable and a classic period for movie goers, you know, it's, it's a significant period that a lot of us turn to and think of when we think of classic cinema. And we were interested in transporting the audience to that place and making them feel like they were in that world again.
I initially actually thought, okay, well, we will make, you know, here's our chance to make a classic, noir, black and white film, you know? This is what we're going to do. And, and which is sort of like, I think what every cinematographer thinks when you have an opportunity to make a black and white film. And then I started to think about it more and I started to pull some references, and -- well, and he sent me the script, obviously, and I read the script first, and I was going through it and I said, well, this isn't really a noir film.
So then I started to assemble some images and references that I thought were appropriate and I sent them to David and I said, “These are images that I respond to, that made me think about the movie or that the movie made me think about.” And David is amazing when you do stuff like that, because he immediately gets back to you and he says, “I like this, this is interesting. I don't want to do this. Show me more things like this. This might work for this scene. Why did you send me this? What, what is interesting to you about this piece?” et cetera. And it's a bit how we narrow the goalposts, I think, for he and I. It helps me understand what it is that he's going for. And that's really, I think the job of the cinematographer is to figure out what the director is responding to and help them make their movie in that way. You know, you sort of want to assimilate yourself into their world and start to see the world through their lens, the lens that they're seeing this particular project through.
So we watched some films together and, you know, I watched a number of movies on my own, and…. You know, David is incredibly cinema literate, so it's, you know, he can pull obscure scenes out of any movie. And, you know, I have to go back and say, “Wait, wait, what, what he's, Oh, there, Oh, that one. Yeah, sure. Right.” You know? Um, but I watched a number of movies just on my own because I felt like I wanted to refamiliarize myself with a lot of those techniques.
You know, modern cinematography, at least in recent years, is very, very different from classic black and white cinematography, obviously. But, you know, we've grown into this world of using very little light, almost available light, shallow focus, longer lenses, you know, it's just, it's a different technique altogether, and that was not how we were going to make this film. So I really, you know, wanted to spend some serious time exploring, um, the Canon, I guess you might say.
And the goal really was to not, not make it too much of a parody of itself. You know, that was my concern actually. Like, you run the risk when you make a black and white film of too much of a pastiche. And it's important, I think, to sort of try and temper it enough so that the audience isn't distracted by what you're doing, and that was definitely a concern of mine, I was very conscious of that possibility. So, you know, we’re sort of always trying to ride the line of how stylized can we go and, how much can we tip our hat, you know, how much homage is appropriate and, and at what point is it distracting? And, really trying to consider that in every choice we were making.
God, I watched so many movies. I mean, Night of the Hunter is like a favorite film of mine. That was a really good reference, especially some of the night stuff that was done onstage I thought was, was a good reference and something I admired and felt I wanted to aspire to. Citizen Kane of course, was a reference. And we do nod to it a bit in the movie, of course. Grapes of Wrath was a film that, that felt appropriate actually, because we have so much of the desert stuff in the Victorville bungalow sequences. And then there were other more modern movies too. I watched The Apartment, there's some interesting camera movement in that film. It's stylistically very different from Mank, but there were pieces that I thought were interesting about the way that movie was made. And Manhattan, the Woody Allen film, you know, I've seen that movie hundreds of times and I adore it. And I initially sent it to David and he said, “Well, it‘s kind of modern, you know? It's like,” and I said, “I know, but what about the sequences for the Victorville bungalow stuff? Like, what if we kind of play a little bit with those sequences being slightly more modern and less throwback and like a little bit more, uh, contemporary in technique? And then the flashbacks can be slightly more sculpted and more classic.” And he said, “Okay, well, show me.” And that was like an idea I always had in my head that we would sort of try and lean more that direction in that set to help differentiate the time period. So the, that set is mostly lit, you know, from outside the windows, and it's a little bit more top light and more practicals, and there's, you know, there's less hard light in that scene in those scenes.
One of the things about Citizen Kane that we definitely wanted to reference was Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography, which is a photography technique where you close the iris on the lens very, very far. And what that results in is tremendous amount of the frame is in focus. The depth of field is, is extreme. And that is not a technique that is employed very much in color photography because we have the added tool of color to help with color separation and, and depth. You don't really have that in black and white, obviously, so you have to find other ways to explain depth to the audience and sort of inform the frame and help the audience understand where in the frame to look. We definitely wanted to reference that, and it's a signature Citizen Kane look, but it's also a signature black and white look. I mean, you know, it existed in the world of large format, black and white photography for a long time. I mean Ansell Adams was shooting at f64, and, you know, these guys were doing these long, long exposures with deep stops. Part of that is, is just because black and white looks spectacular at those deep stops because everything is sharp and you get all of that texture in the scene.
But then of course, as filmmakers, and particularly modern filmmakers, we are used to using focus to help direct the audience's eye in the frame. And David felt like there were moments in the movie where he wanted to employ focus, and of course, if the entire scene is in focus, you can't. So, he was interested in finding a way to dynamically affect the depth of field. And we found a tool that’s made by a British company called the Cinefade which does exactly that. So we could actually rack the depth of field in the shot. And there are a number of places in the movie that we do it. And one of them is at the end, when Mank tells Orson Welles that he would like credit…
[MOVIE: I want credit.]
MESSERSCHMIDT: ...and there's a shot on Welles…
[MOVIE: Come again?]
MESSERSCHMIDT: We reduced the depth of field, and John Houseman in the back goes soft. It's very subtle. you kind of have to know to look for it, but it's there, and it, and it really, I think helps intensify the scene dramatically. And we do it several times in the film, but that's one of them that I'm proud that we figured out and, you know, we did it for story reasons.
The movie gets compared to Citizen Kane, which is really not a good comparison, you know? It's sort of, Citizen Kane is a catalyst and it's, you know, it's a device in the story that we're using to tell a much broader story about a human being. Um, there were moments that we were winking, I think, you know, dropping the bottle, you know, the low angles on Welles, and, there are certainly references in there where we're kind of playfully paying homage. But it was never meant to be a replication or an imitation of that kind of style film. I guess what I’m saying is I think the movie was much more sort of taking a look at Hollywood of the era, taking a look at what the creative process means for someone like Mank, and, um, what alcoholism does to people and how it affects their lives, you know, and it's sort of trying to look at it through the lens of this world. And that's really what the movie is, you know, at least for me what I took out of it.
Well, I love my job. I love everything about it, you know? And this particular movie was an example of getting to do the job that you love with people you love, and to be in an environment with supportive people that are all trying their hardest, you know, to do something cool. And, yeah, I'm really proud of the work we did, you know? I mean, it's, it's constantly trying to, you know we’re constantly trying to improve on everything and, you know, doing another take and shooting it again, and, you know, looking at the nuances of every single frame and thinking about what we could do to improve it, and that's, you know, those opportunities are so few and far between. So, you know, I really treasure the experience of it. And, and all the people that I got to do it with, you know, it was really pretty unique, uh, certainly in my life. So, you know, I hope people enjoy the film, and see what happens when, you know, when people really care about what they're doing.
INTRO TO KIRK
But someone has to take all of these pieces and put them together into the big puzzle that is a film. And that someone is the film’s editor. You’ve met him already, but now let’s hear more from Kirk Baxter, on the editor’s role in making movie magic.
INTERVIEW #4 - EDITOR
BAXTER: My job was to get along with David. [laughs] And plow through all the materials sent my way, raining down on me like shit without a hat.
The role of the film editor can change based on who you're working with and for. With a person like David Fincher, I rarely see myself in the situation of fixing a scene or a movie. David's movies don't require an editor to come in and save him. It's more like there's a lot of material involved, there’s sort of a wide open process of how to edit that material together to present the best told story. So a lot of what I do is each day after Fincher has shot, the dailies reach me, and it's my role to sort of navigate and understand where David wants to take a scene based on how he's shot it. That's really what my skill set is, is understanding how to best tell a scene by how David has chosen certain angles. And I take pride in doing that as best I can without needing David's counsel so he can keep on shooting and filming. And we check in constantly throughout the process and he has great influence over what I'm doing, but it would be a burden for him if I wasn't capable of moving the ball forward without his attendance. And I think that's what David's seeking from all of his key people, that they have enough sort of self momentum to move the project forward.
I think maybe as the editor, I'm one of the people that talks the least to David in the prep and the lead up, ‘cause David speaks to me through what he's shot and I speak back to how I've cut scenes and send them to him. So a lot of the dialogue is just purely, I guess it's sort of informational through PIX, which is a communications tool we use, of David annotating scenes that I've sent to him. Of, you know, make sure we've got the best performance of one particular line he might put a note on, speed up the editing pace or slow it down, like it’s so sort of nuanced, and I find where David might give me one note, to execute that one note has 50 choices within it. So the role is that for David not to have to kind of be on me with each frame, but more so just guidance. I think that's, that's the dance and over the years I've got, um, I think more efficient at it. Which is why I'm dead frightened of working with anyone else. [laughs] Because it would just waste a decade’s worth of efficiency.
There's a lot of labor involved in doing my job. Uh, Ceán, the producer of Mank and Fincher’s wife, she once passed on to me a compliment that David gave me. Not, I wasn't present. He said, somebody was asking him about, at some Q&A. And I always remember it ‘cause I’m egotistical. [laughs] He was asked why he works with me, and his response was, “Because Kirk is 50% blacksmith and 50% poet.” And I don't spend too much time kind of stroking myself with that, because I think it actually really describes a film editor. Because there is just so much labor involved in setting yourself up for success that you've got to do things almost like a librarian to be able to process what all the material is, and to know that your choices are informed and correct. And there's a lot of trial and error, but ultimately there's this sort of gut feeling of when things are working and that's the main drive of moving forward is to know when you've satisfied your own level of living up to your own expectations. I think David's are higher than mine, and I enjoy that ‘cause it's a, it's a challenge that I push to live up to all the time.
The difference of working on David's films is each day that new material comes in, I generally seek it out with enthusiasm and curiosity over what he's done. And I'm excited to work out the best path forward for how to edit the scenes together and how to, you know, continue it on its journey. Like there is this real sort of pleasure each time the dailies turn up. As a movie approaches I perhaps am filled with dread going “here it comes” ‘cause I'm, you know, I've been in the arena enough to know just how much work's involved, but there really is an enthusiasm and an excitement just from the level of how David shoots, he's amazing at it. And I feel privileged to sort of be in that close circle of creation.
But in saying that I think the best directors that I've known, they all have this similar sort of childlike enthusiasm to the workload, that it is this sort of playtime. They always seem to be sort of leaping towards...conflict. [laughs] Because I mean, like a movie is like a war zone, it's so hard, there's so much work involved. But Ceán has said many, many times, “Nothing worth doing is easy.” And I guess like David just doesn't sort of, um, feel burdened by that process, at least leading up to it. There's always this excitement about something new that's coming. When he talks about an upcoming script or talks about a project that's coming, he is like a little kid that's getting to make it again for the first time. And that is infectious.
The main difference for me when I look back at Mank and the process of making it, it was really, really enjoyable. Like, I have a beautiful memory of its sort of creation, one that was to me, more meaningful than how it exists out there in the world. The day-to-day process of making it was not a painful one, it was a really happy one. It was also like during COVID and I found it a place to hide mentally, and I loved being, um, mentally engaged in something each day. And as it approached the finish line, my anxiety levels rose ‘cause I was going to miss it. And I was going to miss that constant interaction with all the people in making the film.
I've liked all of the movies that I've made with David. Some of them have feelings of pain when I return to them mentally. Mank has a buoyant, effervescent, positive feeling about its birth and its creation. And it will always be a special film for me because of the enjoyment in doing it.
[MOVIE: Cheers. // L’chaim.]
And there you have it folks! An inside look into the making of a motion picture. Many thanks to Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jan Pascale, Erik Messerschmidt, and Kirk Baxter for taking us behind the scenes, and for all your spectacular work on Mank. You’re all aces.
That’s our show! Thanks for going back in time with us. Be sure to watch the fruits of all of these artists’ labor in Mank, now streaming on Netflix. This special episode was produced and edited by Jenna Burnett, Janielle Kastner, and Will Short for Spoke Media, with help from Carson McCain Gray. For more content to explore, including interviews with Mank stars Gary Oldman, Lily Collins and Amanda Seyfried, visit Netflix Queue. That’s Netflix Q-U-E-U-E dot com. And follow us on Twitter and Instagram. Thank you, and be sure to join us next time for More Like This.