Mank Is a Rich Immersion Into Hollywood’s Black-and-White Glory Days
Judging the film Mank just based on the story alone—cynical, heavy-drinking screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz evaluates his turbulent travails through Hollywood as he struggles to script Citizen Kane—doesn’t do it justice. A work of impeccable craftsmanship that unspools in crisp black-and-white, Mank, which premieres Friday, December 4, on Netflix, allows viewers to journey back in time to experience all the glamour and grit of Los Angeles during the 1930s and early ’40s. And that’s exactly how director David Fincher (Gone Girl, The Social Network) intended it.
“I remember when David first spoke to me about it,” Oscar-winning production designer Donald Graham Burt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) tells Architectural Digest. “He said ‘I want it to feel like you’re in a film vault and you see Citizen Kane and then you see a film next to it and it says Mank and you think, ‘Oh, I never saw that.’ He wanted it to look like a film made in that period.”
To pull it all off, the production design team did a full immersion into the imagery and details of the era. Burt watched film noir classics such as Double Indemnity and studied documents at the Motion Picture Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills to grasp how sets were constructed and painted back in the day. (No, he did not re-revisit the 1941 classic Citizen Kane as a template.) “We did a lot of testing of different colors and tones that worked best for black-and-white,” he says. For a little modern-day assistance, set decorator Jan Pascale used the “noir” filter on her iPhone when photographing set dressing elements so the images would be captured correctly. The result? A plethora of natural brown earth tones, yellows, and off-whites.
Despite an intricate narrative that toggles between 1934 and 1940, Burt broke it down into three distinct worlds. At the starting point, the titular character (played by Gary Oldman—Mank is short for Mankiewicz) recoups from a car accident and starts tinkering with the screenplay at a spartan ranch in the barren deserts of Victorville, California. The production team filmed at the actual exterior (now named the Kemper Campbell Ranch) and toured the premises, which exists in almost its original form. When the interior was constructed on a soundstage, the team rearranged the living room furniture and added a kitchenette and dining room area to give the locale “layers of depth instead of just having him sequestered in this tiny bedroom,” he explains.