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For ‘Mank,’ it wasn’t impossible to track down L.A.’s history. But it sure wasn’t easy

Production designer Donald Graham Burt's reimagining of the San Simeon estate Hearst Castle in a scene from "Mank."
Production designer Donald Graham Burt’s reimagining of the San Simeon estate Hearst Castle in a scene from “Mank.” With all the reference photos available, visiting the Castle simply wasn’t necessary.
(Netflix)

When Donald Graham Burt first began working on David Fincher’s “Mank,” the filmmaker passed along some location photos from the late 1990s, when he had first tried to get the movie off the ground. Even for a film set at the peak of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the 1930s and 1940s, you might expect more of Los Angeles’ period architecture to have survived. Looking through the photos, Burt quickly realized that that wasn’t the case.

“So many places in L.A. have been razed that were [standing] even at the turn of the century. And I was seeing places like Perino’s [restaurant] and, of course, the Ambassador Hotel, but it seemed like all the Paul Williams architecture, for some reason, was being destroyed. And it was so interesting just to see the locales of Los Angeles from the late ’90s and realizing, ‘Oh, wow, we are removed from that. Aren’t we?’”

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including production design, “Mank” centers on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) during the period in 1940 he spent writing the screenplay for the cinematic classic “Citizen Kane.” It also flashes back to Mank’s life a decade prior, when he found himself in the social circle of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his very public mistress, screen star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

The North Verde Ranch
The North Verde Ranch now Kemper Campbell Ranch where Mankiewicz hunkered down in “Mank” writing the screenplay is still standing and was surprisingly very close in appearance to how it looked 80 years ago.
(Netflix)

During one memorable sequence, Mankiewicz runs into Davies on the MGM lot as she says goodbye after being let go by studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). Burt remembers scouting on the former MGM lot, now Sony Pictures, and thinking it would work because there are still a number of intact buildings from the period. Instead, to pull it off, they had to combine shots from both the Sony and Warner Bros. lots.
“I went back with my art department, and I really started to walk it and flea-comb it. And before you know it, I had a 12-page list of security cameras, glass doors that weren’t period, bollards, fire hydrant. It just went on forever,” Burt says. “There’s some people that say, ‘Will you ever see it?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, sometimes it’s not that you see it as much as you know it’s there.’ And you’re trying to create a world, and it’s better to get rid of it and figure some way around it. Quite a bit of time was spent on just dealing with those elements through the whole picture, everywhere we went. And it’s not necessarily creatively gratifying, but it’s necessary.”

Despite so many potential locations no longer being available, Burt and his team did find some unexpected gems they could use. The North Verde Ranch where Mankiewicz hunkered down writing the screenplay is still standing and was surprisingly very close in appearance to how it looked 80 years ago. Another locale that many Angelenos may not even know about is Glendale Station, the primary train station visitors used to travel to Hearst’s San Simeon home.
“It was first scripted as being Union Station, and I think that was sort of out of convenience, more than anything else,” Burt says. “But quite honestly, during the period of our film, Union Station hadn’t been built yet. So we did some research and found that Glendale train station is sort of tucked away in a little side street, and it mostly serves the commuter people these days. But the face of it’s still intact. And it’s this beautiful sort of Spanish Colonial Revival piece of architecture that is still there. And we were like, ‘Oh, wow, this is so unexpected. It’s a nice goldmine.’”

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Production designer Donald Graham Burt's reimagining of the San Simeon estate Hearst Castle
Burt’s own version of the interior of the dining hall in Heart Castle was built at downtown’s L.A. Center Studios, in downtown L.A. where it was easier to control the scenes than on location.
(Netflix)

As for Hearst Castle, the only notable filming that has occurred there in the last decade was a Lady Gaga music video. And that used only the exterior of the mansion. Burt says production didn’t even ask for access for a number of reasons, including that with all the reference photos available, visiting the Castle simply wasn’t necessary. Burt’s own version of the interior was built at downtown’s L.A. Center Studios, where it was easier to control the scenes than on location.

“I joked with people and said, ‘It’s like going to Knott’s Berry Farm. You have to get a ticket and stand in line.’ And I don’t want to go through that just to see something I can’t reproduce anyway,” Burt says. “I purposely didn’t even visit it. I found some beautiful reference photos in black and white from the period, of the actual events. There was something about the aura of the photos and the spirituality of them that brought an extra layer of sort of… I don’t know, there’s a quality to it that felt like you were in that era, and that’s what I wanted it to be.”


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