David Fincher set Mank in a world spanning 1930s and 1940s Hollywood. To tell the story of the events and relationships that led to the creation of the great Citizen Kane, Mank looks and feels as if it were made during that same period – a rare feat of technical and crafts wizardry. To re-establish this world, VFX can only get one so far (more on that another time), so Fincher and his production designer Donald Graham Burt needed to recall classic Hollywood structures as well as find a way to recreate the period experience of William Randolph Hearst’s castle located in San Simeon.
And you have to do all of that on an approximate $25 million budget.
“It’s a challenge, and that’s probably the thing that, if anything kept me up at night, then that probably did,” Burt laughed. “In the same token, if you really look at the movie and break it down, it is pretty simple. I’m sort of a minimalist at heart. If you just take it and say let’s keep it simple but let’s build complexity within that simplicity, then it serves you so well in terms of dealing with a tight budget.”
At the start of production, Fincher and Burt surveyed the current Los Angeles landscape to see what classic structures and locations still remained. Of course, Los Angeles drastically changed since the 1930s. Classic architecture often finds itself situated next to a Starbucks, so location scouting with camera angles and VFX opportunities in mind were of paramount importance.
Fortunately, Gary Oldman’s Herman J. Mankiewicz spends a good deal of the film at the North Verde Ranch while he pounds away at the Kane screenplay. That structure still exists today, known as the Kemper Campbell Ranch near Victorville. The production team benefitted from the good condition of the ranch and its relatively unchanged state. That was a huge stroke of luck.
While the team used many of the same interior sets for multiple sequences, one of the biggest challenges was to recreate Hearst Castle at San Simeon. Filming crews are almost never granted access to the estate – only Lady Gaga was allowed to film on the grounds recently. Given the importance of Hearst’s castle to the film, it had to be faithfully, lovingly recreated.
Exterior shots for grounds and garden scenes were filmed around the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena in addition to an estate in South Pasadena. Other locations around Los Angeles and Ventura County provided more shooting locations for the overall estate. But Hearst Castle’s interiors were largely recreated on sound stages. Burt avoided visiting the modern day Hearst Castle in favor of relying on photos from the period. That proved critical in his interpretation for the film.
“I remember early on looking at the research, and I was able to harvest quite a bit of research from the period and black and white original photographs with our characters at the estate. I worked off of those. I purposely didn’t even go there,” Burt explains. “I wanted to always see it within the context of that period. I found some really good reference photos, especially through the Academy, that helped me, and I relied on that in terms of inspiration.”
While the film dramatizes the creation of the Citizen Kane screenplay, Mank visually doesn’t always point back to Kane as an inspiration. Sure, there are allusions to it, but it is designed to exist as an artifact of the 1930s period. Burt actually referenced the great 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard when discussing Mank given the way that film feels lived-in from a much earlier period than its original setting.
That, according to Burt, is absolutely what David Fincher and team were going for.
“David said to me let’s just keep in mind that this film is like, if you’re in a vault looking at films and you pull one out and it’s Citizen Kane and then you see one next to it — Mank — and you say, ‘Oh, Mank, I don’t remember that one.’ But it’s in the vault with Kane as if this was made at the same time,” Burt recalled. “So through the whole film design-wise, I would always be taking a step back and remembering that this is a film that wants to be of that period. This wants to feel like it was made in the 30s.”