Mank and Screenwriters

In Mank, there’s a scene where screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, awakens disoriented in a California mansion. He soon wanders out back to a film set, where he encounters two studio bigwigs. One of them is Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of MGM. The other is Irving G. Thalberg, a producer who has his own Academy Award named after him. Thalberg has to explain to Mayer who “Mank” is, even though he co-wrote one of their movies (just as he co-wrote, or depending on who you ask, wrote Citizen Kane, often considered the greatest movie ever made).

In snappy dialogue, a quick picture unfolds of Mank and his place in the Hollywood ecosystem. He’s a hired gun who’s used to receiving notes from execs in “the oversight tent.” This is a businessman’s backyard where “movies are a team sport” and where studios “use writers by the truckload,” sometimes all at once, sometimes in relays. The astute viewer knows what Mank knows: that it’s usually a sign of trouble when you see a movie with a revolving door of screenwriters.

At this year’s Oscars, due to air on Sunday, Mank leads the pack with 10 nominations. Citizen Kane had nine yet it only won Best Original Screenplay—an ironic footnote, given that the film helped set the prototype for the auteur, or director-as-author. Like so many other crew members who labor behind the scenes to bring film narratives to life, screenwriters may not inspire the same brand-name loyalty as directors. However, their scripts are where the storytelling begins; and as Mank shows, it’s a process where words matter as much as moving pictures.

The Organ Grinder’s Monkey

When the script for Citizen Kane is still a work-in-progress, Mank’s editor and babysitter, John Houseman, describes it as, “A collection of fragments that leap around in time, like Mexican jumping beans.” David Fincher’s film, written by his own late father, Jack, mirrors that structure. However, it uses typewritten slug lines in Courier font to delineate its flashbacks. As they clack out onscreen, the viewer briefly becomes a reader, which goes against the ethos of pure cinema, but which helps the audience see the film and its non-linear progression of scenes the way a writer would.

On top of this comes an urgent Western Union telegram, summoning anyone who can string three words together out to the West Coast. “Come at once,” it reads. “There are millions to be made and your only competition is idiots.” From here, we venture onto the Paramount lot, where the old Hollywoodland sign looms in the background. Before long, the camera draws us into the writers’ room, where Mank is betting on coin tosses, doing very little actual writing. He and the other writers jump straight into a story conference with producer David O. Selznick, spitballing “director-proof” ideas and leaving the newbie, who just walked in off the street, to extemporize on how their monster movie will end. 

Elsewhere, the film alludes to Mank’s involvement with The Wizard of Oz, though he’s already been let go from the project and can only commiserate about it drunkenly as his wife undresses him for bed. This is the guy who came up with the idea to film the Kansas scenes in black-and-white, contrasting them with the vibrant Technicolor world of Oz. Though he remains uncredited for it, that juxtaposition of images is an indelible part of movie history.

It’s clear that Mank, the New York playwright and drama critic “turned humble screenwriter” and alcoholic, has lost himself out here on the edge of the Pacific. He comes from a literate family yet he’s stuck slumming it in a business where — as Mayer puts it — the buyer, or moviegoer, “gets nothing for his money but a memory.”

Mank’s real-life grandson, Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, confirmed to Indiewire that this part of Fincher’s biopic rings true. “Being a screenwriter had felt cheap to Herman,” he said. “It felt to him like being an ad man, you were engaged in commerce, in pointless commerce, that would vanish into the ether.”

A glimmer of something beyond that comes in a brightly lit exterior where Mank meets the rich and powerful William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Hearst feeds his ego, saying, “There’s no need to be humble, Mr. Mankiewicz,” even likening him to a potential Shakespeare, which elicits a chuckle from Thalberg, seated nearby. “I intend to make pictures with the help of real literary minds,” Hearst declares.

Over the course of the movie, Mank comes to realize that his words do hold power and maybe he shouldn’t be so quick to sign away the credit for them. This is reinforced in both positive and negative ways. The reactions to his screenplay are positive, even though it’s a whopping 327 pages, well over the standard 120 for a two-hour movie. “It’s the best thing you’ve ever written,” says his brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the celebrated writer-director of All About Eve.

On the negative side, there’s his inadvertent sway on political events and his ability to self-sabotage and alienate friends like the illustrious Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). A throwaway comment of Mank’s puts the idea in Thalberg’s head for fake newsreels, which wind up influencing the gubernatorial election, causing Upton Sinclair to lose and the fictional Shelly Metcalf to commit suicide. Davies is there at the end when he causes a drunken scene at Hearst’s castle, giving his host — the inspiration for Kane himself — a thorough dressing-down in front of his guests. As it turns out, Hearst pays half his salary, so Mank has bitten the hand that feeds him without even knowing what he was doing.

While walking Mank out, Hearst relates to him the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey. The monkey gets so caught up in the crowd response to its street performance that it thinks the organ grinder lives in service to him … but really, it’s the other way around. He’s an animal who’s powerless and who does the bidding of his master without realizing it.

Mank wins the Oscar for Citizen Kane, but he’s not there to accept the award and the closing text informs us that he would never write an original screenplay again. Brought low by his own self-destructive tendencies, the organ grinder’s monkey is left to deliver his speech in exile on his lawn instead of on stage at the Biltmore Hotel. In the end, he can only compare himself to another mammal: a rat in a trap of his own construction.

Know Your Screenwriters

If Mank begins his arc as a screenwriter who doesn’t take his profession seriously, then perhaps it’s merely a symptom of the prevailing attitude within show business, which is sometimes more concerned with putting on a show than planning it. It’s always mind-boggling to hear about multimillion-dollar tentpoles that start shooting without a completed script because they’re chasing a release date.

They say a movie is actually written three times: first when it’s written, then when it’s shot, then when it’s edited. There are, of course, directors who write and/or edit their own movies, and you’ll sometimes hear industry professionals say that film is a director’s medium or even an editor’s medium. One thing, however, that you’ll almost never hear them say is that it’s a writer’s medium.

Screenwriters are there on the ground floor during pre-production but somewhere along the way, it’s almost like they get pneumatic-tubed down to a dead-letter basement, while actors and directors and cinematographers and rock-star composers like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross vivify the penthouse of public awareness. What’s so backwards about this is that screenwriters provide the very blueprint for the building.

No one’s suggesting that we should all ditch auteur theory for the writer-centric Schreiber theory. It makes sense to think of the director as a kind of construction foreman, since everything passes through them and they’re ultimately the ones who make the movie tower a reality. Yet all too often in film discussion, the director’s name and authorial intent become a lazy shorthand for the efforts of an entire cast and crew. What really funnels out through the director’s vision is controlled chaos, an unwieldy creative and commercial endeavor with many moving parts that have come together piecemeal through the craftsmanship of different collaborators.

Clutching his Oscar statuette, Mank says, “I am very happy to accept this award in the manner in which the screenplay was written, which is to say, in the absence of Orson Welles.” If you watch Citizen Kane, you can see Welles’ face and fingerprints all over the final product. The reason Mank makes him a background character is because it’s not really about the genesis of his masterpiece. It’s about a dysfunctional man of letters and the disposable yet witty jesters who go so undervalued in the court of studio kings: namely, screenwriters.

Mank himself is a microcosm for every writer whose name went unnoticed in the credits. The movie puts the spotlight on his life story and if you’re able to get invested in it, you may suddenly wonder about all those other movies you’ve watched and who wrote them.

Knowing Jack Fincher’s background as a San Francisco journalist (for Life magazine) frames his son David’s film, Zodiac, in a more personal light. One of Mank’s producers is also Eric Roth, a screenwriter who has received no less than five Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay. He won for Forrest Gump, worked with Fincher on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and most recently earned a nom for A Star Is Born.

Looking back, Fincher’s own filmography is a perfect example of one where the writers are overshadowed by their director. He’s worked with a couple who were already famous in their own right: Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) as a bestselling novelist, Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) as a successful showrunner. But alongside them, you’ll see a number of other writers whose names might only stir up vague recognition, even among avowed cinephiles.

Would the average movie-lover be able to tell you about the ups and downs in the careers of screenwriters like Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), Jim Uhls (Fight Club), David Koepp (Panic Room), James Vanderbilt (Zodiac), or Steven Zaillian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)? Probably not. Zaillian, in particular, is a heavyweight: he’s written such films as Schindler’s List and The Irishman and co-created HBO’s The Night Of miniseries.

Like him, many of Hollywood’s best-known screenwriters have crossed over into directing, including but not limited to Lawrence Kasdan, Charlie Kaufman, David Mamet, Paul Schrader, and Robert Towne. But if you look up who wrote what and then peruse their IMDb pages, you might also be surprised to see how certain movie titles are connected by other non-director writers. If nothing else, it’s a neat bit of movie trivia to know that Blade Runner and Unforgiven shared a writer, David Webb Peoples, or that the same guy, John Logan, co-wrote both Gladiator and Skyfall.

Today, aspiring screenwriters have some useful books and podcasts at their disposal by legends like William Goldman and pros like John August and C. Robert Cargill. General audience members may not pay as much attention to the words “Written by” in movies … but maybe they should. George Clooney once said, “It’s possible for me to make a bad movie out of a good script, but I can’t make a good movie from a bad script.” Alfred Hitchcock, a master filmmaker, took it even further. He said, “To make a great film you need three things — the script, the script, and the script.”

When Mank and the other writers have their pitch meeting at Paramount, Selznick says to them, “This is serious. We need your help. We’ve got to get people into theaters. But how?”

One age-old suggestion would be for screenwriters to up their game and write better scripts. Another simple suggestion would be for Hollywood’s gatekeepers to respect their writers more.

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