David Fincher: The Rolling Stone Interview
The boundary-pushing filmmaker behind ‘Mank’ reflects on his career, his journey into Hollywood’s past and the industry’s uncertain future
When David Fincher sat down with Netflix executives in the spring of 2019, he did not expect to be handed the equivalent of a blank check. Sure, the 58-year-old filmmaker — a former music-video wunderkind best known for pushing the envelope with baroque serial-killer thrillers (Seven), toxic-masculinity satires (Fight Club) and social-media origin stories (The Social Network) — was a name-brand director, and had helped kick off the golden age of streaming with the outlet’s first original series, House of Cards. But Fincher was used to resistance. You can’t have this budget. You can’t tell that story. What do you mean, you’re doing a TV show, for a mail-order DVD company, and all the episodes come out at once?!
So when Fincher was told by his patrons at the company that they were interested in helping him make anything he wanted, he thought of a long-dormant labor of love: a script his late father, Jack Fincher, had written about the making of Citizen Kane. Not the tale of the brilliant director, producer, star and co-writer who, at a precociously young age, took Hollywood by storm with his rise-and-fall drama. This was the story of the alcoholic screenwriter who was hired to pen the script, originally titled American, and then inserted a personal grudge against the powers that be into the greatest movie of all time.
Fincher wanted to shoot it in black-and-white. He wanted to use a lot of old-fashioned stylistic nods to Hollywood movies of the ‘40s, as if the film had just been discovered in a vault after 80 years of gathering dust. Also it would involve an obscure chapter in California’s political history concerning Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run for governor and a disinformation campaign allegedly masterminded by studio execs. It was a shot in the dark. By his own admission, Fincher couldn’t believe it when Netflix said yes.
To see Mank, Fincher’s throwback ode to the Golden Age of Tinseltown USA, however, is to know why they did. Chronicling how the broken-down writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) helped permanently change film as an art form, his movie is an audacious, complicated, stylistically daring and thoroughly entertaining yarn — the kind of retro nod to a bygone era that makes you feel like you’ve injected a day’s worth of TCM programming into your veins. But it’s also a challenging drama about complicity, the price of speaking truth to power and the manipulation of modern media, which couldn’t make the film feel more urgent.
Over a two separate two-hour conversations from his home in Los Angeles, Fincher discussed bringing this tribute to his father (who died in 2003) to the screen, his reputation as a taskmaster on set, why he’s sorry Fight Club pissed off a fellow filmmaker, and more.
How did your father end up writing the Mank screenplay?
My dad wrote for a lot of magazines: Psychology Today, Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest. He’d written a novel in the 1950s or Sixties, I think, and burned it. He’d written a couple of screenplays in the 1970s. After he’d retired, he was looking for a challenge, and told me, “I’m thinking about writing another script. What is a story you would like to read about?”
When I was growing up, he always told me Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made. That was received wisdom, long before I ever had the chance to actually see it, when I was 12. We’d talked in the past about that Pauline Kael essay, “Raising Kane,” and the entire time he’d been telling me about the power and influence of that movie, Herman Mankiewicz’s name never came up. So I said, “Hmm. It’s always fascinated me, this friction between Mankiewicz and Welles in making Citizen Kane. No one’s told that story.” And he said, “Oh.” I mean, he wanted a challenge! [Laughs.] I didn’t even think he’d finish it.
Listen, when I was 12 or 13, someone showed my dad a magic trick, something with cards that was alphanumeric. He became obsessed with this thing, and literally stopped eating and sleeping for about six, seven days as he figured it out. A lot of Robert Graysmith in Zodiac is based on his particular personality traits. He was prone to disappearing down rabbit holes.
Did you get that trait from him?
I would file that under the dime-store psychology of Rosebud [laughs], but no. I got my work ethic from my mother: “Whatever you do, do with your might, things done by halves are never done right.” And my father had a kind of endless inquisitiveness. So I think I ended up with 22 chromosomes of each.
But he wrote this thing that … again, this is all interpretive, because I find Kael’s essay to be fascinating, and now, from what I know about how movies are actually made, almost inapplicable to moviemaking. Entire essays could be written on what Pauline Kael didn’t understand about how movies got made. And it’s was not her job to know how the sausage got made. It was her job to judge and taste the sausage. I understand that.
My dad had a C plus, B minus in how the sausage was made, but that’s not good enough when it comes to making a movie about the movies. His first pass was a little bit of a screed against the DGA [Directors Guild of America]. Ironically, by the time I read it, I had just finished my first studio picture [Alien 3], which had been the antithesis of a writer’s vision being railroaded by a megalomaniac. It was just a nightmare. I said, “I think that this overly simplistic, and I think in my newfound experience as a director of a big studio picture with a lot of moving parts and a lot of people involved, it seems to me like you have missed the forest for the trees, perhaps.”
Do you that think your dad connected with Mankiewicz?
I feel like Mankiewicz felt like he was slumming — he’s this jaded New York writer who doesn’t have a lot of reverence for this newly minted art form in Hollywood. Unlike Mank, my dad had enormous respect for the craft of screenwriting. But as a magazine writer, I’d think my dad could relate to him in that way. And y’know, as a music-video director, I could relate, too.
What do you mean?
I mean, I’ve made Michael Jackson videos, and people were going, “Oh, my God, they’re so great!” And you go, “Yeah, but I mean, it’s a Michael Jackson video. Let’s not blow this out of proportion here.” Eventually, when I was making videos for the Rolling Stones and Madonna and the bigger ones that cost more, I would often waive a fee, because I felt, “My God, I talked them into spending $800,000. They’re going to be the ones writing the check for this, not me.” With music videos, you’re trying to find a place where the artist feels comfortable, and you feel like you’re giving them their money’s worth. That’s it.
I thought the script was fine for a biopic, and that my father found a way of getting these witticisms attributed to Herman Mankiewicz down in a way that it actually gave you insight into who he was. He’d done the research. I was interested in the person. But I wasn’t interested in some sort of posthumous arbitration over who made Citizen Kane. He really felt that that conflict was the driving engine of the thing. And I really felt that that seemed like a movie of the week. So we agreed to disagree and I went off to make Seven.
Clearly, there was a change of heart along the way…
He saw a documentary on Upton Sinclair and the 1934 gubernatorial race in California, so Jack came back to me and said, “I think if we fold this in, it’ll be an interesting thing for Mankiewicz.” I thought, “How? I don’t understand.” And then it became clear we could have these two poles that he could kind of vacillate between, which was: “There’s the thing that I want my name on, and there’s the thing I never want to be associated with,” and he’s sort of equally responsible for both of them. That I got.
There are a lot of people who would assume you’d see a kindred spirit in Welles as opposed to Mankiewicz, because . . .
I definitely do.
. . . you came to Hollywood with a proven track record in something besides feature filmmaking. You had success at a very early age and started your own company. And—
And I have a goatee, yes, but . . . [laughs] I want to be really clear, because it’s become such a fucking issue with the press on this film: I’m a huge Orson Welles fan. I stand on his shoulders every day. He was a genius, and this movie is not designed to take any of that away from him. Citizen Kane is an Orson Welles jam. But there were certain things underneath it that are definitely a Mankiewicz jam. Moviemaking is a collaborative effort. It just is.
But there are a few name-brand directors around today, and you’re one of them. Your name means something.
Look, I go to see Steven Soderbergh movies because I know it’s going to be a story that’s deftly told. I go to Sam Mendes movies because I know there’s going to be an attention to detail. But I’m talking about the fantasy of the auteur theory, which is that you can etch something in granite, wheel it into a preproduction meeting, say, “This is what the movie is. I’ll be in my trailer.” And that can be imparted to 85 people who can then execute your “vision.” It’s not how the process works. It’s not how I think. It’s more like, “How do I tell this story as well as I can tell it?” If you do that more than three times, you’re doing good.
Your dad was close to 60 when he first started working on this, right?
He was around that age, yeah, and there was no doubt that there’s a very . . . I mean, I feel it now. I didn’t feel it at the time. You know, I was 30 years old. So, to me, the midlife-crisis aspect of it was lost on me at the time. I was too young to appreciate it. Now, I can see he was going through things about the legacy of Mankiewicz, and his own legacy, that I may have been dismissive of. I’m not dismissive about those things now.
It may have helped that you had to wait 30 years to make it, not just for that reason but also the political aspects…
In 1996, when we had a shot at making this and talking about fake newsreels, everyone was, “It’s quaint, but who gives a fuck?”
Turns out quite a few people care about it, actually.
[Laughs] I didn’t disagree with Polygram Pictures or Universal — I can’t remember who it was — at the time when they told us that; I thought, “Yeah, it is a little quaint.” And now … It’s funny, when I gave the script to Netflix, I said to them, “Listen, I don’t know, it’s about Old Hollywood, it’s a bit of a throwback….” And they were like, “No, wow, this is really about today.” It’s like: The material stays the same, but you and the world around you change. The fact that it came together in 2019 was… It was a shock to me that Ted [Sarandos] and Cindy [Holland] said: “Yeah, let’s do this.” But I wasn’t about to look at gift horse in the mouth. I was like: “Okay, here’s a chance to finally do it.”
The movie climaxes with a long sequence of Gary Oldman’s Mank laying into a bunch of rich folks at one of William Randolph Hearst’s costumed dinner parties.Roughly how many takes did it require to get that scene right?
OK . . . [sighs] so let us now get into the notion of “He does so many takes,” because this is a narrative that has lost its bridle. We shot that scene for three-and-a-half to four days, just that one scene. I think we did 10 or 12 takes per setup, and we probably did 40 setups with two cameras to get all of it. Granted, it’s a lot of work for Gary. He’s got to gird himself, and he’s got to let loose. It’s exhausting. I think it gives the actors a different sense of beginning, middle, and end, however, and I think that’s an important thing. So, this whole thing of “Oh, the opening of The Social Network, it’s 99 takes!” Well, it’s 99 takes over two nights and 12 setups. I think that there’s an inherent lack of understanding over how this works. I’m not here to say that I make it as easy on everyone as I possibly can, but . . .
So your reputation as the filmmaker who does 70 takes of every scene . . .
But I don’t! I don’t do 70 takes of everything!
. . . is incredibly overinflated? Just a “print the legend” thing because it makes for good copy?
Yeah. Look, if you do 14 takes and on average you use take 12, that’s not bad. If you do 14 takes and you almost always use take two, your process is probably not working for you [laughs].
I used to be much more sheepish about saying, “OK, let’s do another one,” because I had been led to believe, in the same way that an actor would think, “You want another one, what am I doing wrong?” You’re not doing anything wrong. And by the way, I’m not doing anything wrong by asking you for another one. What we’re trying to do right is make this whole thing seem effortless and like it just fell off the truck that way. And I feel like that’s my responsibility.
There’s this notion movies are dying. They’re not. They’re just changing. You change with them. People will do things we haven’t yet imagined.
When you signed up to do House of Cards, did you have any sense that you’d be facilitating this massive paradigm shift in television?
First of all, I never got a call from Netflix saying, “Hey, how would you like to be involved in a paradigm shift?” That didn’t happen [laughs]. But I was interested in longer-form storytelling, and it probably started with watching the cold embrace of a mass audience to Zodiac [Fincher’s 2007 slow burn about the hunt for the Zodiac Killer]. I’d thought, “Well, two hours and 45 minutes isn’t that long.” But apparently it was. Just getting people to come to the theaters for a movie that long proved to be a bridge too far. For the most part, people who are spending 15 bucks to see a movie, they want something that’s shaped like an arrow and traveling as quickly as possible to its intended destination. The notion of a narrative in which you’re three hours in and something happens that’s going to cause you to completely reassess what you thought of one of the lead characters? That’s interesting.
So you were already thinking about television when Netflix came calling?
I never saw a place for myself in network television. At one point, I had been offered a chance to direct the pilot for Deadwood. I met with David Milch, who I was enormously impressed with, and when I read the script, I thought, “It’s not television, it’s HBO!” [Laughs.] I was even more intoxicated with the idea of doing something that sprawling. When House of Cards was picked up, one of the things we said was, “We want you to think of the remote as the paperback by your bed. There’s a Chapter One, a Chapter Two. . . . It’s a thing you check in and return to.”
It’s the beginning of Binge TV.
I remember hearing Netflix getting pushback for the idea of uploading all 12 or 13 episodes in one day. Folks at CAA were saying, “We want to be part of the watercooler conversation. We like the HBO model.” And I spoke up and said, “Guys, it’s just a different watercooler conversation. It’s what chapter you’re on.”
You know, I hadn’t heard of Breaking Bad until Season 3. People had been telling me to see it, so I filled up my DVR and watched a lot of it at once, and that’s how I experienced it. Steven Soderbergh is yelling at me, “Dude, go home right now. Press play.” That was what got me to watch it! I just said, we owe it to ourselves to make supporting this kind of discovery hand in glove with the Netflix experience. That’s why it was a binge fest.
Early in your career, you were part of a wave of filmmakers who helped define a certain type of Nineties movie, which all culminates in 1999 — that’s arguably the best year for American filmmaking since 1974.
What came out in 1974?
The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, The Parallax View, The Conversation, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore . . .
The Godfather: Part II is a pretty good movie [laughs]. OK, I’ll buy it.
In ’99, it was Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Magnolia, Election, The Matrix, to name a few. Did you feel like you were part of something bigger happening at the time, or was it more like, “I’m not trying to start a revolution . . .”
“. . . I’m just trying to make my little movie before anyone realizes how homoerotic it is”? The second one [laughs]. I remember seeing the trailers and saying, “Um, I’m not so sure the World Wrestling Federation market that you’re aiming this at is going to appreciate the homoerotic overtones of what it is that we’re selling.”
I’ve talked to Soderbergh and Charlie Kaufman about this . . .
Both highly unreliable narrators! [Laughs] Go on.
And it does feel like ’99 is this singular moment when this generation of filmmakers are surfing the zeitgeist, the studios are paying for it, the audiences are there for them —
I hate to interrupt you, but: the audiences weren’t always there for it. In fact, Fight Club barely opened and only paid for itself on DVD, because it was finally contextualized properly for the audience that it was made for. But listen, I take your point and I’ll work to overlook my own personal failure in helping you with your thesis.
Yeah, there were a lot of interesting movies that had been in development for a long time, and then they all happened to come out at the same time and cross over. You could equate it to the moment in the 1970s when Warners and Paramount were throwing up there hands and going, “What do we need to do to get kids to go to the movies again?” and these young filmmakers just step right in. But I certainly was not, you know, going to dinner with Spike Jonze going, “It’s such an exciting time to be alive, is it not?” [Laughs.] It was more like me listening to him saying, “I’m acting in a David Russell movie . . . and everyone’s in a fistfight!” We had bigger problems. I mean, I see what you’re saying. But in 1999, I was in a bunker with my head down making Fight Club.
A movie so controversial that another filmmaker wished cancer on you. [In a 2000 Rolling Stone interview, Paul Thomas Anderson said that after seeing 30 minutes of Fight Club, he thought, “I wish David Fincher testicular fucking cancer.”]
[Laughs.] Yeah. Look, I’ve been through cancer with somebody that I love, and I can understand if somebody thought . . . I didn’t think that we were making fun of cancer survivors or victims. I thought what Chuck [Palahniuk, on whose book the film was based] was doing was talking about a therapeutic environment that could be infiltrated or abused. We were talking about empathy vampirism. Cancer’s rough. It’s a fucking horrible thing. As far as Paul’s quote, I get it. If you’re in a rough emotional state and you’ve just been through something major. . . . My dad died, and it certainly made me feel different about death and suffering [pauses]. And my dad probably liked Fight Club even less than Paul did.
Have your feelings about social media changed since you made The Social Network?
I don’t really know anything about social media.
You may not be an active participant, but you did make a movie about Mark Zuckerberg that helped shape how people think of him. I’m sure you’ve been following the news: Facebook has not really been clamping down on misinformation — in fact, seems to be amplifying it. Do you feel like social media has something to answer for, regarding the moment we’re in?
Censorship is a slippery slope. I will definitely say if something’s factually inaccurate, it’s really great that people are pointing that out. How that is interpreted is always the crux. Listen, I’m close to 60 years old. So I have trusted news sources, and I don’t really . . . I don’t do the Facebook, and I never did. I’m not saying that I didn’t go to high school with really fascinating people [laughs], I’ve just never particularly wanted to check in with them. I waste my time with other shit that’s probably just as infinitely stupid.
You’ve talked about movies now basically being either “spandex summer” vehicles or “affliction winter” prestige films, and how your work doesn’t fit into either category. Do you feel like you’re the last of a dying breed of a certain type of filmmaker?
No, I don’t think so. There will always be people who are poking and prodding and digging and searching for new ways to do the same thing, and new ways to do things that we haven’t even yet imagined. Look, directing movies is a little like painting a watercolor from three blocks away through a telescope with a walkie-talkie and 90 people holding the brush. And as frustrating as that sounds, it’s also thrilling and invigorating when it comes off.
Look, I believe that the tragedy of cinema today is that we’re only 100 years in and we think we know exactly what it is. We really don’t. What we’ve done is merely refined is an experience to a story, which is The Hero with a Thousand Faces over and over again. We beat this drum and we beat it fairly regularly, because it’s a scam that pays out. But if I was to believe that we have reached the limits of what cinema can do, make us feel, talk about, I would be inordinately depressed. I’m not. I’m emboldened and I feel that . . . I don’t need any more published screeds of me talking about how unfair it is that Marvel wants to make a profit. I don’t have an issue with that. I’ve never had an issue with that.
There’s this notion that the movies are dying. They’re not. There’s still minerals to mine, there are still jewels to be found, and there are still different ways to be shocked, entertained, uplifted, terrified. They’re just changing. You change with them. I think anyone who, like me, is curious about how to impart their story, there’s going to be plenty more opportunities, at least in the short term. And depending on how long this pandemic goes on, there may be need for a lot more.
From Rolling Stone US