David Fincher pal Steven Soderbergh often consults on early cuts of his movies (including the friendly product placement of Soderbergh’s imported Singani 63 brandy in “Gone Girl”) — and “Mank” was no different. Turns out Soderbergh’s only complaint about the “Citizen Kane” biopic was the execution of the costume party set piece, where drunken screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) goes on a long tirade against Machiavellian publisher William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) in front of his Hollywood friends at San Simeon.
“Soderbergh came during an early assembly and he just didn’t get why Hearst was putting up with Mank’s shit,” said editor Kirk Baxter (two-time Oscar winner for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Social Network”). “And David and I talked about that. I very much make a movie with David, for David, and I’m not exposed to too many people during the process. But I found that the criticism helped. It didn’t provide the answer, it just provided the question.”
For Fincher, the rationale was that Hearst enjoyed Mank’s amusing presence as court jester, and was merely giving him enough rope to hang himself with his savage rant: a modern-day “Don Quixote” movie pitch about Hearst, which served as a tuneup for “Kane.” Yet Soderbergh’s critique helped them realize that the rhythm was off.
“To me, it just meant that I was allowing too much air in the scene,” Baxter added. “I was giving too many breaks between Mank’s monologues for someone to interject. I wasn’t playing the scene fast enough, and by removing 10 frames here, 15 frames there, Mank’s more of a runaway train. And there’s less opportunity for someone to say, ‘Stop this madness!’ He’s got something to say, and he’s going to say it.”
It’s a Gothic-looking scene, in keeping with the Hearst Castle dining hall decor, lit mostly from above by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and enhanced by the bright white costume worn by Hearst mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Yet Baxter approached the scene nervously, given the complications of a multi-day shoot, a large cast, and lots of coverage. “Reading it, I thought this one’s going to hurt to perfect,” he said. “The main thing that concerned me was Mank being so drunk, so Gary had to perform a seven-minute speech and have the audience track what the hell he’s saying.”
And, although Oldman wore himself out delivering around 100 takes at the behest of Fincher, the actor provided “a multitude of choices to build and manipulate,” said the editor who was able to cut back and forth between Mank, Hearst, Davies, and MGM chief Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). “Gary was so good and the way David staged it, of him walking around that table, made it extremely clear to me how to tell it with the coverage.”
And Hearst sits back and relishes the showdown. “He promotes the idea of bringing opposing political opinions into the parlor to clash,” Baxter said. “That was the sport of it all, and Mank was one of the key entertainers.”