Netflix’s Mank star on working with David Fincher, his infamous numerous takes, and how she originally auditioned for another part.
Photo: Rob Harper
Photo: Rob Harper
The scintillating real life of screenwriter and Hollywood underdog Herman J Mankiewicz gets the David Fincher treatment in the most breathtakingly swoon-worthy fashion for his 11th feature and magnum opus. In the titular role, we see Gary Oldman at his coruscating career-high as the troubled, lesser-known mind behind what is critically considered to be the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane, with the film documenting his tense push-and-pull with wunderkind director Orson Welles. Hitting Netflix this week, also starring Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins, Mank is set in the corrosive and woozily glamorous Golden Age of Hollywood, which will set pulses quickening for all avid cinephiles and history lovers alike.
From the mind behind Fight Club, Gone Girl and The Social Network, Fincher brings to life a script written by his late father, Jack – which deftly tackles fake news, the ruthlessness of Golden Age film studios, the universal quest for legacy, and how unintentional muses colour the lives and art of us all.
Throughout the film, often picking up the pieces by Herman’s side, was his long-suffering wife, Sara Mankiewicz – so regularly hard-done-by, her name is comedically prefixed as “Poor Sara”. Stepping into the role, and armed with withering, sharp-tongued one-liners is British actor Tuppence Middleton – known for her previous credits in screen heavyweights War & Peace, Downton Abbey and Brandon Cronenberg’s latest buzzy horror, Possessor.
Here, in conversation with Wonderland, Middleton talks the tenacity of Fincher, how she originally auditioned for another role, and the intensity of shooting…
How did you first get involved with Mank?
When I heard Fincher was doing a new film, I sent off a self-tape for it, but actually didn’t hear anything for months. But then my agents called and wanted me to read for a different role, because I originally read for Lily’s [Collins] part. Two days later I did a Zoom call with Fincher, and we just went over the audition scene. It was almost like a mini teaser for what it’s like to work with David. He’s kind of famous for doing a lot of takes…
And what were your first impressions?
I think I’d imagined this kind of Kubrick-esque, four-days-on-the-same-scene marathon, which sucks the life out of you. But actually [Fincher] works really quickly, which is how he works on set as well. He does do a lot of takes, but you barely notice it until it’s done and the slate says take 35. He’s very quick, so he’ll come in and give you notes and the camera keeps rolling. It removes any over-thinking time, so you don’t over-analyse. It’s a very instinctive process and you start to tweak things without even focussing on it too much. You’re constantly reworking it.
Were you nervous at all?
I was at the prospect of it, but then there was just zero time to be nervous because he’s such a quick thinker, and you have to match his speed of thought in order to keep up with him.
Was there anything in particular you did to prepare?
There was this great book which Gary gave me when I got there which was called Mank: The Wit, World, and Life of Herman Mankiewicz by Richard Meryman, which is really good source material for the family and for Sara. There wasn’t a lot written about her aside from that. It had a lot of photographs of them together and had this history of them meeting before their life in Hollywood.
You have all these incredibly hilarious and scathing one-liners in the film. What was your visceral reaction to reading the script for the first time?
I didn’t meet David’s dad, Jack Fincher, but David is this quick-witted one-liner machine himself, so it didn’t surprise me that this sort of voice came through with [the script] as well. But it’s important to realise it’s not meant to be a factual account. It’s our version of the story in regards to what happened with Citizen Kane, because there’s still people who would debate that Orson Welles maybe had more to do with it than Herman. I loved it, and I thought it was something so different for Fincher.
Throughout the film, Sara forgives Mank’s emotional philandering, the drinking, the gambling, because there’s this connection and understanding between them. Could you relate to this level of forgiving dedication?
Well, I think she has a hell of a lot more patience than most people do, and is a lot more understanding. I think that working in this industry there are a lot of interesting, eccentric, quirky artistic types, so you kind of get used to a different lifestyle, and everyone is so transient all the time. It is a strange lifestyle andI I think that the great thing about Sara is that she really embraced it even though it’s not really what she had planned for her life. She fell in love with Herman, but was a small-town Jewish girl who wanted quite a traditional life, and then ended up living in the Hollywood Hills going to these extravagant parties.
In a sense, it’s so glamorous, but at the same time it took a huge toll on her husband’s health and it meant that he wasn’t at home as much as she wanted him to be, and she lost a part of him to that industry. I think she could see that his drinking was getting out of control, and she really became the thing that rooted him; the one person he really listened to.
Photo: Rob Harper
Photo: Rob Harper
Let’s talk about Fincher’s infamous multiple takes. I read that the dinner party sequence at the end was filmed over a hundred times. Is that true?
A hundred times? That possibly is true because I remember going to set one of the days, and there was a scene they had been doing for two days. Lots of the scenes were multiple takes but they were much quicker, and I think with that one, Gary and David always knew that that was the climatic scene so they had to get it right, and both of them are such perfectionists.
How was it working with Gary Oldman?
He’s one of those people you kind of feel like you’ve worked with before, because you’ve seen so many of his performances. He’s exactly as you expect him to be and you very quickly feel really at home with him. He’s really great at making everyone feel very relaxed, and he’s really silly and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s not a method, so was very much himself between takes, joking around and dancing. I think he liked that there were a lot of Brits on [Mank] too, because he’s lived in LA for a long time.
With your roles, it feels like you can never predict what you’re going do next. You’ve done a fair amount of period, but then also horror. What genre do you prefer being immersed in?
I actually do really feel at home in horror and sci-fi. It’s something that I grew up loving and watching a lot of when I was younger, so it feels very familiar to me. Something I’d really love to do is comedy actually. I love Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine’s [podcast] Dear Joan and Jericha. I quite like dark comedy too, and also really silly stuff, like Will Ferrell. I just think if it’s good, it’s good.