'Mank' Editor Kirk Baxter on His Preparation: 'Lurking and Sneaking'

David Fincher’s longtime editor also says a trick that Fincher borrowed from Orson Welles made his editing job easier

Gisele Schmidt / Netflix

David Fincher’s “Mank” tells the story of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) through a painstaking re-creation of Hollywood in the 1930s and early ’40s. Every detail in the crafts departments was meticulously researched for period authenticity. But that’s not an area that deeply preoccupies film editor Kirk Baxter.

“I watched ‘Kane’ again, but I didn’t feel the need to do a lot of research,” Baxter told TheWrap. He added with a laugh, “I hope this isn’t because I’m an Australian who leans into relaxation.”

It’s true Fincher’s long-time editor was born in Sydney and spent his youth surfing at the beaches north of the city. However, regarding his process, he explained, “I’m uncomfortable being some sort of film scholar, but films of the ’30s or ’40s have a different pacing than today — a bit slower, in my opinion. And what was common in that era were scenes sitting in wide shots as the action plays out.

“But Dave [Fincher] has an uncanny ability to know what angles to get for what scenes.,” added Baxter, who won Oscars for editing the Fincher movies “The Social Network” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” “So as an editor, I can dissect a performance to use the best of each little piece and make it look seamless.”

At times, while cutting “Mank” (in theaters now and streaming on Netflix), the number of options Baxter was given to shape certain scenes caused frustration. “There’s that scene when Mank is in the hospital after the car crash and Orson Welles turns up. Orson is out of focus as he enters. As I watched the dailies, every shot was awesome: the master shot, Mank’s close-up, Orson out of focus. It was a bad case of me not wanting to make a choice of how to cut it. But, well, editing is supposed to take time. If it comes too quickly, in my experience, you feel like you haven’t tried hard enough.”

In that sense, Baxter was grateful for a device that Fincher employed as a homage to Welles’ direction of “Citizen Kane.” The in-camera fade-out was a theatrical flourish that Welles imported from his stage career to “Kane,” his film debut. In it, the actual lights in the scene dim to signal the close of a scene. 

“I was struck when I re-watched it by how those transitions still held such power today,” Baxter said. “I told Dave and he said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re gonna do a bunch of that.’ And I enjoyed his choices for where he placed them, putting them in the bungalow scenes with Gary. They were beautiful.”

When Baxter is provided with a lot of coverage and options for cutting a scene, his decisions of how to conclude are fraught with multiple choices. “But when there’s a gorgeous fade out, the ending of the scene becomes rather clear, and I can build towards that. Those are little wonderful gifts for me. There are thousands and thousands of choices to be made, but these 10 seconds of the movie are definitely going to be this.” 

Since the laborious part of Baxter’s job doesn’t commence until filming starts, he finds himself often “lurking and sneaking around in pre-production areas, because I find it inspiring and it’s bringing a lot of color to what’s heading my way soon enough,” he said. “But my lurking is just based on excitement.”

By the end of the first day of shooting, he’s already busy with cutting the initial scenes. “Patience is important as a film editor,” Baxter said. “I describe it as patience and Fincher describes it as curiosity. It’s leaning into that side of you that’s curious about what you can make of the material. I learned early on not to hold onto something too tightly because it’s enjoyable for things to remain in a fluid state until we’re completely done.”

And partly because of his work schedule, Baxter rarely visits the set or the location while Fincher is filming. One drawback to being there, he said, is the potential extra weight he could give a certain shot if he watches how difficult it was to achieve. “If I see that it took three-quarters of a day to capture a wide shot, based on some complex camera move, then I’m likely to give it more importance because of all the elbow grease that went into it. But these things should be judged on the merit of how the audience sees them on the screen, not how tough they were to capture.”

But Baxter pointed out an even more critical reason for why he stays put in his cutting room. “As exciting as it is to meet famous people, the truthful answer is that David doesn’t want all these actors to have access to me,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m a little too user-friendly at times. And if I’m all glammed up by a bunch of movie people, who knows what the film’s gonna look like?”

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