Kirk Baxter, ACE on editing Mank

Mank, David Fincher’s eleventh film, chronicles Herman Mankiewicz (portrayed by Gary Oldman) during the writing of the film classic, Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz, known as Mank, was a witty New York journalist and playwright who moved to Los Angles in the 1930s to become a screenwriter. He wrote or co-wrote about 40 films, often uncredited, including the first draft of The Wizard of Oz. Together with Orson Welles, he won an Academy Award for the screenplay of Citizen Kane. It’s long been disputed whether or not he, rather than Welles, actually did the bulk of the work on the screenplay. 

The script for Mank was penned decades ago by David Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher, and was finally brought to the screen thanks to Netflix this past year. Fincher deftly blends two parallel storylines: Mankiewicz’ writing of Kane during his convalescence from an accident – and his earlier Hollywood experiences with the studios, as told through flashbacks. These experiences, including his acquaintance with William Randolph Hearst – the media mogul of his time and the basis for Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane – inspired Mankiewicz’ script. This earlier period is infused with the political undercurrent of the Great Depression and the California gubernatorial race between Upton Sinclair and Frank Merriam.

David Fincher and director of photography Erik Messerschmidt, ASC (Mindhunter) used many techniques to pay homage to the look of Citizen Kane and other classic films of the era, including shooting in true black-and-white with RED Monstro 8K Monochrome cameras and Leica Summilux lenses. Fincher also tapped other frequent collaborators, including Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for a moving, vintage score, and Oscar-winning editor, Kirk Baxter, ACE. I recently caught up with Baxter to discuss Mank, the fourth film he’s edited for David Fincher.

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Citizen Kane is the 800 pound gorilla. Had you seen that film before this or was it research for the project?

I get so nervous about this topic, because with cinephiles, it’s almost like talking about religion. I had seen Citizen Kane when I was younger, but I was too young to appreciate it. I was growing up on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Conan the Barbarian. Then advancing my tastes to the Godfather films and French Connection. Citizen Kane is still just such a departure from all of that. I was kind of like, “What?” That was probably in my late teens.

I went back and watched it again before the shoot after reading the screenplay. There were certain technical aspects to the film that I thought were incredible. I loved the way OrsonWelles chose to leave his scenes by turning off lights like it was in the theater. There was this sort of slow decay and I enjoy how David picked up on that and took it into Mank. Each time one of those shots came up in the bungalow scenes, I thought it was fantastic.

Overall, I don’t consider myself any sort of expert on 1930s and 1940s movie-making and I didn’t make a conscious effort to try to replicate any styles. I approached the work in the same way I do with all of David’s work – by being reactionary to the material and the coverage that he shot. In regard to how close David took the stylings, well, that was more his tight rope walk. So, I felt no shackling to slow down an edit pace or stay in masters or stay in 50-50s as might have been common in the genre. I used all the tools at my disposal to exploit every scene the best I could. 

Since you are cutting while the shooting goes on, do you have the ability to ask for coverage that you might feel is missing? 

I think a little bit of that goes on, but it’s not me telling Fincher what’s required. It’s me building assemblies and giving them to David as he’s going and he will assess where he’s short and where he’s not. I’ve read many editor interviews over the years and I’ve always kind of gone, “huh,” when someone’s projecting they’re in the control seat. When you’re with someone with the ability that Fincher has, then I’m in a support position of helping him make his movie as best he can. Any other way of looking at it is delusional. But, I take a lot of pride in where I do get to contribute. 

Mank is a different style of film than Fincher’s previous projects. Did that change the workflow or add any extra pressure? 

I don’t think it did for me. I think it was harder for David. The film was in his head for so many decades and there were a couple of attempts to make it happen. Obviously a lot changes in that time frame. So, I think he had a lot of internal pressure about what he was making. For me, I found the entire process to be really buoyant and bubbly and just downright fun. 

As with all films, there were moments when it was hard to keep up during the shoot. And definitely moments coming down to that final crunch. That’s when I really put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver cut scenes to David to help him. I felt the pressure of that, but my main memory of it really was one of joy. Not that the other movies aren’t, but I think sometimes the subject matter can control the mood of the day. For instance, in other movies, like Dragon Tattoo, the feeling was a bit like your head in a vise when I look back at it.

Sure. Dragoon Tattoo is dark subject matter. On the other hand, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Mankiewicz really lights up the screen. It certainly looks like he’s having fun with the character. 

Right. I loved all the bungalow scenes. I thought there was so much warmth in those. And I had so much compassion for the lead character, Mank. Those scenes really made me adore him. But also when the flashback scenes came, they’re just a hoot and great fun to put together. There was this warmth and playfulness of the two different opposing storylines. No matter which one turned up, I was happy to see it. 

Was the inter-cutting of those parallel storylines the way it was scripted? Or was that a construction in post? 

Yes, it was scripted that way. There was a little bit of pulling at the thread later. Can we improve on this? There was a bit of reshuffling later on and then working out that ‘as written’ was the best path. We certainly kicked the tires a few times. After we put the blueprint together, mostly the job became tightening and shortening. 

Obviously one of the technical differences was that this film was a true black-and-white film shot with modified, monochrome RED cameras. So not color and then changed to black-and-white in the grade. Did that impact your thinking in how to tackle the edit?

For the first ten minutes. At first you sit down and you go, “Oh, we work in black and white.” And then you get used to it very quickly. I forwarded the trailer when it was released to my mother in Australia. She texted back, “It’s black and white????” [laugh] You’ve got to love family!

Black-and-white has a unique look, but I know that other films, like Roma, were shot in color to satisfy some international distribution requirements. 

That’s never going to happen with someone like David. I can’t picture who that person would be that would tell him with any authority that his movie requires color. 

Of course, it matches films of the era and more importantly Citizen Kane. It does bring an intentional, stylistic treatment to the content. 

Black-and-white has got a great way of focusing your attention and focusing your eye. There’s a discipline that’s required with how shots are framed and how you’re using the images for eye travel. But I think all of David work comes with that discipline anyway. So to me, it didn’t alter it. He’s already in that ballpark.

In terms of recreating the era, I’ve seen a few articles and comments about creating the backgrounds and sets using visual effects, but also classic techniques, like rear projection. What about the effects in Mank

As in most of David’s movies, it’s everywhere and a lot of the time it looks invisible, but things are being replaced. I don’t have a ratio for it, but I’d say almost half the movie. We’ve got a team that’s stabilizing shots as we’re going. We’ve got an in-house visual effects team that is building effects, just to let us know that certain choices can be made. The split screen thing is constant, but I’ll do a lot of that myself. I’ll do a fairly haphazard job of it and then pass it on for our assistant editors to follow up on. Even the montage kaleidoscope effect was all done in-house down the hall by Christopher Doulgeris, one of our VFX artists. A lot of it’s farmed out, but a fair slice is done under the roof. 

Please tell me a bit about working with Adobe Premiere Pro again to cut this film.

It’s best for me not even to attempt to answer technical questions. I don’t mind exposing myself as a luddite. My first assistant editor, Ben Insler, set it up so that I’m able to move the way I want to move. For me, it’s all muscle memory. I’m hitting the same keystrokes that I was hitting back when we were using Avid. Then I crossed those keys over to Final Cut and then over to Premiere Pro. 

In previous versions, Premiere Pro required projects to contain copies of all the media used in that project.  As you would hand the scene off to other people to work on in parallel, all the media would travel into that new project, and the same was true when combining projects back together to merge your work.  You had monstrously huge projects with every piece of media, and frequently duplicate copies of that media, packed into them. They often took 15 minutes to open. Now Adobe has solved that and streamlined the process. They knew it was a massive overhaul, but I think that’s been completely solved. Because it’s functioning, I can now purely concentrate on the thought process of where I’m going in the edit. I’m spoiled with having very technical people around me so that I can exist as a child. [laugh]

How was the color grade handled?

We had Eric Weidt working downstairs at Fincher’s place on Baselight. David is really fortunate that he’s not working in this world of “Here’s three weeks for color. Go into this room each day and where you come out is where you are at.” There’s an ongoing grade that’s occurring in increments and traveling with the job that we’re doing. It’s  updated and brought into the cut. We experience editing with it and then it’s updated again and brought back into the cut. So it’s this constant progression. 

Let’s talk about project organization. You’ve told me in the past that your method of organizing a selects reel was to string out shots in the order of wide shots, mediums, close ups, and so on. And then bump up the ones you like. Finally, you’d reduce the choices before those were presented to David as possible selects. Did you handle it the same way on Mank?

Over time, I’ve streamlined that further. I’ve found that if I send something that’s too long while he’s in the middle of shooting that he might watch the first two minutes of it, give me a couple of notes of what he likes and what he doesn’t like, and move on. So, I’ve started to really reduce what I send. It’s more cut scenes with some choices. That way I get the most relevant information and can move  forward.

With scenes that are extremely dense, like Louis B. Mayer’s birthday party at Hearst’s, it really is an endless multiple choice of how to tackle it. I’ll often present a few paths. Here’s what it is if I really hold out these wides at the front and I hang back for a bit longer. Here’s what it is if I stay more with Gary [Oldmam] listening. It’s not that this take is better than the other take, but more options featuring different avenues and ways to tell the story. 

I like working that way, even if it wasn’t for the sake of presenting it to David. I can’t watch a scene that’s that dense and go, “Oh, I know what to do.” I wouldn’t have a clue. I like to explore it. I’ve got to turn the soil and snuff the truffles and try it all out. And then the answers present themselves. It all just becomes clear. Unfortunately, the world of the editor, regardless of past experiences, is always destined to be filled with labor. There is no shortcut to doing it properly.

With large-scale theatrical distribution out of the question – and the shift to Netflix streaming as the prime focus – did the nature of studio notes change at all? 

David’s generous about thought and opinion, if it’s constructive and helpful.  He’s got a long history of forwarding those notes to me and exploring them. I’m not positive if I get all of them. Anything that’s got merit will reach me, which is wise. Having spent so many years in the commercial world, there’s a part of me that’s always a little eager to solve a puzzle. If I’m delivered a pile of notes, good or bad, I’m going to try my best to execute them.  So, David is wise to just not let me see the bad ones.

Were you able to finish Mank before the virus-related lockdowns started? Did you have to move to a remote workflow? 

The shooting had finished and we already had the film assembled. I work at a furious rate whilst David’s shooting, so that we can interface during the shoot. That way he knows what he’s captured, what he needs, and he can move on and strike sets, release actors, etc. There’s this constant back and forth.

At the point when he stops shooting, we’re pretty far along in terms of replicating the original plan, the blueprint. Then it’s what I call the sweeps, where you go back to the top and you just start sweeping through the movie, improving it. I think we’d already done one of those when we went remote. So, it was very fortunate timing.

We’re quite used to it. During shooting, we work in a remote way anyway. It’s a language and situation that we’re completely used to. I think from David’s perspective, it didn’t change anything. 

If the timing had been different and you would have had to handle all of the edit under remote conditions, would anything change? Or would you approach it the same way? 

Exactly the same. It wouldn’t have changed the amount of time that I get directly with David. I don’t want to give the impression that I cut this movie and David was on the sidelines. He’s absolutely involved, but pops in and out and looks at things that are made. He’s not a director that sits there the whole time. A lot of it is, “I’ve made this cut, let’s watch it together. I’ve done these selects, let’s watch them together.” It’s really possible to do that remotely. 

I prefer to be with David when he’s shooting and especially in this one that he shot in Los Angeles. I really tried to have one day a week where we got to be together on the weekends and his world quieted down. David loves that. I would sort of construct my week’s thinking towards that goal. If on a Wednesday I had six scenes that were backed up, I’d sort of think to myself, “What can I achieve in the time frame before David’s with me on Saturday? Should I just select all these scenes and then we’ll go through the selects together? Or should I tackle this hardest one and get a good cut of that going?”

A lot of the time I would choose – if he was coming in and had the time to watch things – to do selects. Sometimes we could bounce through them just from having a conversation of what his intent was and the things that he was excited about when he was capturing them. With that, I’m good to go. Then I don’t need David for another week or so. We were down to the short hand of one sentence, one email, one text. That can inform me with all the fuel I need to drive cross-country. 

The film’s back story clearly has political overtones that have an eerie similarity to 2020. I realize the script was written a while back at a different time, but was some of that context added in light of recent events? 

That was already there. But, it really felt like we are reliving this now. In the beginning of the shutdown, you didn’t quite know where it was going to go. The parallels to the Great Depression were extreme. There were a lot of lessons for me.

The character of Louis B. Mayer slashes all of his studio employees’ salaries to 50 percent. He promises to give every penny back and then doesn’t do it. I was crafting that villain’s performance, but at the same time I run a company [Exile Edit] that has a lot of employees in Los Angeles and New York. We had no clue if we would be able to get through the pandemic at the time when it hit. We also asked staff to take a pay cut, so that we could keep everyone employed and keep everybody on health insurance. But the moment we realized we could get through it six months later, there was no way I could ever be that villain. We returned every cent. 

I think most companies are set up to be able to exist for four months. If everything stops dead – no one’s anticipating that – the 12-month brake pull. It was really, really frightening. I would hope that I would think this way anyway, but with crafting that villain’s performance, there was no way I was going to replicate it.

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Mank was released in select theaters in November and launched on Netflix December 4, 2020.

Be sure to check out Steve Hullfish’s podcast interview with Kirk Baxter.

This article originally written for postPerspective.

©2021 Oliver Peters