Interview: Production Designer Donald Graham Burt and Costume Designer Trish Summerville on Making ‘Mank’
One of the most acclaimed films of all time is Citizen Kane, released in 1941 and starring a young Orson Welles, who also directed. David Fincher’s epic Mank examines the role of another influential player, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Released in select theaters in November before a December debut on Netflix, this black-and-white film is full of eye-popping sets and costumes. I had the chance to speak with production designer Donald Graham Burt and costume designer Trish Summerville about their approach to this ambitious project, their affinity for each other’s processes, and working with frequent collaborator David Fincher.
Abe Friedtanzer: When did you first see Citizen Kane, and how much did you want this film to look like that one?
Donald Graham Burt: Wow. I don’t know when I first saw it. It was years ago. And then of course I looked at it again before this film started. I don’t think it was so much about making it look like Citizen Kane. Obviously, the narrative involves Citizen Kane. It was more about making this be a film that felt like it was made during the same period. It was more about the 30s. We weren’t trying to replicate Citizen Kane in any way, shape, or form. That wasn’t the purpose of it. I don’t think we ever sat down and said, okay, in Citizen Kane, they did this, and they had a set that did this, and costumes that did this. That wasn’t the approach to it. Would you agree, Trish?
Trish Summerville: Definitely. I also, like Don, can’t remember when I first saw it. I was pretty young. I rewatched it, but wasn’t trying to mimic any of the costumes in it. It was just information for us to gather. We also looked at a bunch of other 30s black-and-white films.
DB: Yeah, absolutely. I think looking at Citizen Kane again, like Trish was saying, was more just to remind myself of the story, the characters, not so much, oh, the graphics or the visuals or so forth. There were a couple elements that we took from it, but we didn’t try to pronounce them. For instance, in the hallway, when they leave San Simeon, in Citizen Kane, there’s that infinite hallway of mirrors that they walk by. We did the same thing, but we didn’t make it something that was featured. We just had it there. If it was caught and noticed, fine. If not, that was okay too.
TS: Same for the costumes. There was nothing that was really a nod in the direction of Citizen Kane. For me, it was looking at pictures that would pertain to that, looking at stuff of Orson Welles while he was directing or on set, not him in the film.
DB: Trish made a good point when she mentioned looking at other films from that period. I did the same as well. Sunset Boulevard had so many references of shooting on location at Paramount Studios, and we had so many scenes that took place there. I wanted to see that. I looked at some other films just to see streets of Los Angeles, period elements. It was more a research experience as opposed to finding a film that we wanted to emulate. This wanted to stand singular and stand alone. I will say this for our film: there was a really good group of people that came together on this from all departments to make it feel cohesive and make it feel as one. I’m proud of that fact. Considering the short prep that we had – very short prep – I think it was well-executed. It does feel like a film from the 30s. That was our purpose and our goal. I remember looking at research early on, and it all started with looking at location photos and seeing those in black-and-white, and realizing, okay, I’m going into a black-and-white world. Then I started getting into the research, which meant more to me in terms of the spaces, the architecture, even some of the photographs from that period were quite beautiful. That was the spine of it all, and what got it started. I know that Trish always relies on research. We worked together and shared the research to build the world we wanted to have on the film. I want to say one thing about Trish’s work that I found exemplary. For instance, the party at the end. I remember looking at the research of the Hearst candle and seeing that party in photographs, these people wearing these costumes. It was theater of the absurd. They would have these indulgent parties where they would dress up in costume, and the costumes were horrible. It looked like bad Halloween people. If they rang your door on Halloween night, you would not give these people candy. Trish took it to another level. She walked that fine line of having it make a visual statement of the theater of the absurd and at the same time maintaining some Hollywood elegance of that period. I thought that was really well-done. Not until I saw the film again did I realize how fragile a line that is. My sets are just sets until you get people and characters and costumes in them.
TS: Thank you, that’s very kind. I feel the same way. You know me, I’m always like, what’s your world look like? What colors are you using? I just want my people to fit into your world. Like you’re saying, it’s everyone contributing to make it a very cohesive story so you’re not pulled out of the story while you’re watching it to focus on one particular thing.
DB: I thought that it was also important that we weren’t making a documentary. We were heightening the research a bit, and taking license, taking a step creatively in another direction to make it seem like something special. I think that was important to do.
AF: I’d love to hear more about the colors you used to really complete the look. Do you like working in black-and-white, and what did you find most challenging about it?
TS: I really enjoyed it. Definitely, Don and I talked about what challenges we had. Before the COVID world, I could go to his department and look at all his research on the walls and where he was going. He would share his color experiences and what they were leaning towards that was working. It was the same for us, trying to figure out what colors translated the best on the screen to read in shades and tones, and not just go flat. I really enjoyed the experience. It made my brain think in a different way. I would definitely do another black-and-white film, or another project. I really liked it.
DB: I think the key was that we tested everything, to the point of ad nauseam.
TS: Everything. We tested everything.
DB: What was interesting was, in my research, in the day, they started off painting sets all different colors, because they found that certain colors like mustards and oranges and violets and pinks had more depth to them in black-and-white. My challenge with the sets was that I didn’t want to paint things to look like bad carnival rides and then have actors come in and say, oh, I can’t do this dramatic scene because I feel like I’m some bad laugh-in episode or something. It was a bit of a struggle, but we did it. We had to find neutrals and grays, and work with glazings that would give us the depth and work well in black-and-white so that the depths felt natural, if that makes sense. I think that with the set dressing there was a little more lenience in that way, and colors could be brought in and work well. In terms of the overall space, for instance, the ranch sequestered quarters, San Simeon Hall. When you walked into those, you wanted to feel like you were walking into a real place, and rely on the camera for it to translate into black-and-white with what you’ve done. I think the most critical moment of the film was when David Fincher, the director, at one point said, early on, have everyone start looking at things through the noir filter on their iPhone or the Apple iPhoto program. As we started to do that and take pictures of set dressing props, and I’m sure with your wardrobe as well, Trish, there was a part of the way in the film where all of a sudden you grew intuitive to what would work and what wouldn’t. That was a great place to be, because all of a sudden you felt like, it’s working, I’m immersed in this world. The black-and-white is coming naturally, it’s not something I have to force. I know that my set decorator would quickly be able to discard certain pieces of furniture or rugs because they had too much red in them, which would photograph black. Getting things to an intuitive place creatively helped us a lot.
AF: You’ve both worked with David Fincher before on Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Don, I believe this is your sixth collaboration with him. What you have come to expect from him, and what was different this time?
TS: The big difference in making this film is definitely the black-and-white aspect. As Don mentioned, we don’t generally use a lot of color in films with Dave. You use it if it’s needed in the script, or if it’s part of a character. But generally it’s not a colorful project that you’re on. With this, I don’t think Dave approached it any differently. He’s so meticulous and knows what something’s going to look like from start to finish. Don starts much earlier than I do, so he and Dave spend a lot of time together. For me, it’s great that I then get to go to Don and then to Dave to see where they’re at with things. The main thing was how we were going to shoot black-and-white. It’s not just black-and-white, it’s the way Dave is going to shoot black-and-white. Trying to figure out what’s not going to fade away, and not going to become oversaturated. I think the approach of filmmaking with him is always the same, it’s always well thought-out. It’s very collaborative. The thing that was different this time around was how we were going to achieve this black-and-white look.
DB: Working with David is efficient. That’s the best way to describe it. I always tell people, David knows his movie when he first approaches you. The script is tight, there may be some adjustments in it, but 98% is tight. He knows his movie and it’s an efficient experience. It’s not that there isn’t allowance and room for creative input, it’s just that he knows where he’s going with it and what he wants the film to be. That’s a pleasure to work with, because you’re not searching for something while you’re trying to make it. You know what you’re going for, and there’s directive there.
AF: Don, was there a particular set you were product of and most enjoyed working on?
DB: That’s hard to answer. I like the hospital, actually. It was small and I know it’s just a brief sequence. There were these little isolated pieces of walls that were set up on stage. If you walked in and saw it, you’d think, what in the world is that for? When you got there with the bed and the actor and the camera and the lens, it all made sense. There’s a certain joy to that. Honestly, we recycled some other sets to build that, and there was a sense of stewardship that I enjoyed. Sometimes filmmaking, if there’s too much money, it’s almost bad for it. I don’t know how to describe it. I just remember in art school, in the 70s, mind you, a sculpture instructor, and I use that loosely, told me, I used to give my students the assignment that they could do anything they want for the semester, and they always come in with the worst projects. And then I started telling them, you have six feet of two-by-four, a quart of black paint, eight nails, and two pieces of metal. And he said, the best things appeared. That’s always stuck with me. With doing movies and making sets, you have to keep that in mind. Obviously, there are times where you do need money, but that was one of those sets where I felt like, this is kind of fun.
TS: I completely hear what you’re saying, and I love that. What I love about working with you is that you’re so aware of what’s happening daily in your department, and your design. You’re very hands-on. Sometimes that’s rare with production designers, and also with costume designers as well. You’re as well-prepared as Dave, and you always have, in your head as well, what’s happening. That’s why I always want to go to your room and look at all the research. Even when you start off big, you’re like, it’s this, it’s this, it’s this, and that helps me so much. It helps me narrow in even though we’re saying black-and-white, for some of the scenes, I could figure out what colors I could use in the scenes if I needed it to go lighter or go darker. If I’m only seeing people from the waist up, if I have people getting up and walking away because of how you’ve designed a room or what the table is going to be like. One of my favorite sets that you did, it’s hard to choose, was the Hearst scene that you had to do twice.
DB: If you don’t enjoy it once, you will the second time, right?
TS: I love the simplicity of that but how grand it looks onscreen.
DB: The Hearst castle was a nice set to do. It was a challenge, that’s for sure.
TS: Redressing that whole room completely differently from a party to the dining room, I thought that was really brilliant.
DB: I hope so, I’m not sure. I’m so close to it. But in the same sense, the wardrobe that you did and the contrast between the party and the dining room, I thought that was great. Again, I’ll say, when I looked at the film one more time last week, I was looking at that dining room scene, and how much the wardrobe really made the scene. It really did.
AF: On that note, Trish, which characters did you enjoy costuming most?
TS: Hard again, but I guess I have to say, definitely Mank. It’s his story to tell. We made it all very real. It’s about Mank. Going back to watching Citizen Kane again, it’s just this story about this man who wrote it. We definitely have the whole Hollywood side of it, but what was nice in the research of looking at Mank was that we found stuff of him behind-the-scenes and at work and on the studio lot, in the writer’s room, and then pictures of family Bat Mitzvahs and hanging out with his kids. That was really nice, and helped us make Gary stand apart. There are a lot of male leads in this film because of the writers’ rooms and the time period that it was, being a studio. Making him look a little different and giving him his own characteristics. I have to say him. The progression of time that we see him was also nice to figure out. Changing his suits slightly, showing him when he’s recuperating out in the desert, having him be very sweaty and summery there. I really enjoyed doing his character a lot.
Mank is available to watch exclusively on Netflix.