All those who bemoan “they just don’t make films like they used to” will delight in “Mank,” director David Fincher’s old Hollywood throwback based on a script by his father, Jack Fincher, that tells the story of how screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz came to write the groundbreaking 1941 film “Citizen Kane.”
Shot in shadowy black-and-white and mimicking old-school celluloid (cigarette burn reel changeover cue marks included), the film streaming on Netflix is a visual delight, with plenty of Golden Age details, backlot, a Hearst Castle scene and glittery costumes by Trish Summerville.
Summerville got to design looks for real life characters including the beloved but schlubby Mankiewicz, and more fashionable figures William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), studio heads Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and crowd extras resembling actors under contract at the studios in the Thirties and Forties.
“It was a lot of research from [old Hollywood studio costume designers] Edith Head, Adrian, MGM and RKO, trying to find out [the] prominent actors tied to each contract and finding background on who would look like them,” said Summerville, who also collaborated with Fincher on “Gone Girl” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” “I even did an homage to Edith Head, a young woman who looked like her who we put in different scenes.”
The film was a passion project for Fincher, who even references certain deep focus shots from “Citizen Kane” while telling the story of his own tragic figure Mank, laid up after a car accident with a broken leg at a ranch in Victorville, Calif. ,with a looming deadline for “The American,” the script that would become “Citizen Kane.”
His personal drama is set against a pastiche of flashbacks to the time he arrived in Thirties Hollywood, with all its money and power politics, then driven not by liberalism but by the anti-socialist Republican Party. In one eerily familiar plot line, Mayer, Thalberg, Hearst and their cronies derail Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair using doctored newsreels in a moment of proto fake news. It’s this affront that inspires the antiestablishment Mank to base “Citizen Kane” on Hearst.
“Dave was particular about wanting to age film, and work in black-and-white, so for me, it was figuring out lighting and what type of camera he was going to use to shoot,” said Summerville, explaining that the old ways of working are harder than one would think. “I did a lot of swatching fabrics, going to rental houses, laying out different options and photographing them in the three different black-and-white settings of my phone. Then I would send them to him, and say give me a lead of where you are going. The closest thing was the monochromatic setting on my phone, he said, so I started photographing everything in that,” the designer explained.
“Originally, people said black-and-white will be so much easier, but it really narrows your palette, because of how things translate and you can’t have everything look one-tone. We made a chart of all the black suits for all the men in film, to try to make sure we had variance between color.”
Oldman put on about 15 pounds to play the witty alcoholic screenwriter, a captive of director Orson Welles, the studio and his deadline. “He’s this outspoken, talented man but in his private life he’s disheveled, overweight, a bit of a mess, a smoker and drinker,” said Summerville. “Gary took his shoes home so he could work in them on his gait. We aged his clothes with nicotine stains and burns. And we made his shirts a bit small in the neck to cheat as much heaviness as we could.”
Hearst is the opposite — pulled together and reserved, and Davis is the glamour girl with a heart.
For research, Summerville consulted photos of Thirties Hollywood, the Western Costume house library, vintage Sears and J.C. Penney catalogues and Davies’ autobiography, “The Times We Had: Life With William Randolph Hearst.”
Mankiewicz meets the actress in front of a pyre on a film set, where she’s dressed in a capelet and corseted chiffon gown. “It was very much damsel-in-distress but chic and elegant on top,” the designer said. “Contrast that to Mank in the suit he slept in, who is a rumpled mess.”
Seyfried wears another glamorous gown, in plissé metallic with a low back, during a scene at Mayer’s birthday party. “Lamé became very big in the Thirties.…At this time, she’s a little older, but we did no bra so there’s this carefree feeling. I wanted to show she was still a prominent actress even though she wasn’t making the transition from silent to talkies.”
The film culminates in a lush party scene at Hearst’s castle in San Simeon north of Santa Barbara (Pasadena’s Huntington Gardens was a stand-in for the grounds). It was a costume ball with a circus theme featuring many Hollywood faces. “They would have these parties once a year at minimum, sometimes with 300 guests,” Summerville said. “The year Dave chose, we found research Marion and Hearst were both ringmasters.…She had a marabou costume which we made out of a duchesse satin with rhinestones. In his photos, Hearst’s lamé jacket was ill-fitting so we improved on it.”
The parties at the estate, which had its own zoo of simians, were legend.
“We found out Western Costume would drive truckloads of costumes up either on the day before or day of these parties,” said the designer, adding a pitch for her favorite detail in the film’s party scene. “Bette Davis had on this great chiffon dress, and she just puts on a marabou beard. In true badass Bette Davis fashion, she just said, ‘Aaaand I’m done!'”