"Mank" and the writer behind "Citizen Kane"

"Mank" and the writer behind "Citizen Kane"
"Mank" and the writer behind "Citizen Kane" 08:25

Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz reports on the film about his grandfather for "CBS Sunday Morning."

It is arguably the most famous word ever spoken on film: Rosebud. And it comes from what many consider the greatest movie ever made. "Citizen Kane," Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece on the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane, a ruthless capitalist mostly based on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

With its deep focus camerawork and bold lighting techniques that use shadows to direct the audience's attention, "Citizen Kane" is a cinematic landmark.

So it's only fitting that the story behind it is equally compelling.

And that's the story director David Fincher tells in his new Netflix film. I spoke to Fincher on Stage 19 at Paramount Studios, where Welles made Citizen Kane 80 years ago.

"When you look at a movie that is cohesive, as 'Kane' was, from the authorship standpoint, it fires on all cylinders," Fincher told me.

Fincher's film is called "Mank." Oscar winner Gary Oldman stars as Herman Mankiewicz, who Welles hired to write the screenplay for "Kane."

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Ben Mankiewicz and David Fincher

Full disclosure, Herman Mankiewicz was my grandfather.

"For all that I know and all that my father knew about his dad, you captured Herman completely authentically," I told Fincher.

"Well, that's a great thing to hear," Fincher said.

Fincher's resume includes "Fight Club," "Gone Girl" and "The Social Network." A black and white period piece about someone most people never heard of seems a curious choice

"What was the pull of late '30s, early '40s Hollywood?" I asked Fincher.

"It wasn't. It was the character," Fincher said. "It was the guy. It was the notion of someone struggling with great ability and personal troubles. And, you know, his pushing a rock up a hill in gravel."

My grandfather was definitely a character.

Everybody called him "Mank," talented and tormented.

He was the smartest and wittiest guy in the room. Also the drunkest.

His career was at a low point when he met Orson Welles, who was soaring.

Three years before "Kane," Welles' radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" scared thousands into believing Martians had invaded New Jersey.

Welles was a genius and he knew it. So did Hollywood. The 24-year-old was given carte blanche to make any movie he wanted.

So he went to my grandfather, who had an idea. Take on the original media mogul, William Randolph Hearst.

Herman had been to parties thrown by William Randolph Hearst, bearing witness to the wild excesses.  

"What's interesting to me is the notion of a guy who had overheard a lot of things and had a really specific understanding of the world that he was pulling the curtain back from."

In "Citizen Kane," Herman revealed how men like William Randolph Hearst used their power to manipulate their readers and crush dissent.

Fincher recreated Hearst Castle by blending vintage photographs, with digital effects.

"There's a great shot of Gary Oldman as my grandfather, comin' out, like, lookin' for Marion?" I said to Fincher.

"It was a set about as big as, you know, it was, like, 20 by 20 foot, just the doorway, and then the rest of it's matte paintings," Fincher said. "Quite honestly, exactly-- the way Welles would've done it."

Marion Davies, who everybody knew was Hearst's mistress, is played in the movie by Amanda Seyfried.

We spoke to her outside the Manhattan mansion Hearst bought for Davies.

"The perception was that she was not that bright, a comedienne, a really very flighty young woman," Seyfried said. "She was actually so much smarter than people gave her credit for."

For Seyfried, who has starred in "Mean Girls" and "Mamma Mia," a black and white film set during Hollywood's Golden Age was a welcomed change of pace.

"It's a really great way to just go back in time and experience an era that we weren't a part of," Seyfried said.

The debate over who wrote "Citizen Kane" has been raging for decades. My grandfather had a long first draft. Welles condensed it. They shared the film's only Academy Award, the Oscar for best screenplay.

For Fincher, what matters isn't the credit, it's the collaboration.

"I was interested in watching how these extremely different personalities collided with one another for one moment in time and made something that we still talk about today," Fincher said.

While my link to Fincher's film is obvious, there is also another family connection.

"You're watching the titles of this movie — 'screenplay by,'' what's it say?" I asked Fincher.

"Jack Fincher," he said.

Jack Fincher was David Fincher's father.

"He was a journalist most of his life, which is why his assessment of the only good movies are written by and/or about journalists," David Fincher said.

David Fincher is not given to sentimentality. But it was clearly special for him to finish what his dad started 25 years ago.

"I wish he could've seen it get made before, you know, nine months of chemo," he said. "But, it didn't happen."

Jack Fincher died in 2003.

"And so we're left with this," Daivd Fincher said. "It's nice to come full circle."

There's a circle completed for me, too. I love seeing my grandfather's name on "Citizen Kane," but I never knew him. He died in 1953.

But through Fincher and Gary Oldman, I feel like I'm getting a little taste of the real Herman Mankiewicz.

Watch a trailer for "Mank":

MANK | Official Teaser | Netflix by Netflix on YouTube

For more info: 

"Mank" opens in select theatres in November, and begins streaming on Netflix December 4

"Citizen Kane" available via streaming on HBO MaxGoogle PlayiTunesVudu and YouTube, and on Blu-Ray/DVD

Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Steven Tyler.