Donald Graham Burt interview: ‘Mank’ production designer
“This was supposed to be the sister movie to ‘Citizen Kane.’ It wasn’t supposed to be something that replicated it in any way,” explains “Mank” production designer Donald Graham Burt in his exclusive interview with Gold Derby (watch the video above). Burt recalls an early conversation that he had with his director David Fincher in which Fincher told him, “I want it to be like you’re in a film vault and there’s ‘Citizen Kane’ on the shelf and then you look next to it and you go: Oh, there’s ‘Mank’ — I don’t remember that film. And you pull it out and you watch it and it feels like a film that was made exactly at the same time.” Burt continues, “It was so important to try to keep it in the ’30s with everything and whenever we met challenges or so forth in the art department, I would always take a step back and say, ‘Okay, remember the research. Remember the references. Let’s keep it within the time period’.”
Recreating the 1930s took grand designs, but also menial work when redressing existing spaces. Burt laughs, “You go into a room and you start with light switches; you move the doorknob; you go to hinges; you go to security cameras. On the backlot of the studio: For the most part, the studios were intact. They were what they were, but then when you started to really look, you realized there were fire hydrants, there were security cameras, there were punch codes next to doors, there were steel doors instead of wooden doors and then, all of a sudden, you realize you have this three-page list of things that you need to camouflage, which isn’t so much a creative exercise, but it’s one that’s respectful of the period.”
Burt’s efforts on “Mark” have so far resulted in Best Production Design wins from groups like the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. He was nominated at the Art Directors Guild Awards for his last four films with Fincher, winning trophies for 2011’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Burt also won an Oscar for the latter; he now seeks his second nomination.