Here's how Oscar-nominated 'Mank' production designer Don Burt brought historic 1930s LA to life

ByGeorge Pennacchio OTRC logo
Tuesday, April 20, 2021
How 'Mank' production designer brought scenes of historic LA to life
'It was daunting.' This year's most Oscar-nominated movie is 'Mank.' is up for 10 awards, including Best Picture and best production design. Don Burt is nominated in that category for bringing a 1930s vibe to life, all in black and white.

LOS ANGELES -- This year's most Oscar-nominated movie is "Mank." It's up for 10 awards, including Best Picture. Don Burt is nominated for his production design...bringing a 1930s vibe to life, all in black and white.

"It was daunting because you thought, oh, L.A. and 90 years ago. And even L.A. 15 years ago is tough to pull off, to be honest with you," said Burt.

Burt says he just started thinking in the world of black and white...immersing himself in research. Whether finding the right locations or building the right sets, he knew they needed to look authentic to the 1930s to help tell the story of alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, hired to write the screenplay for the 1941 Orson Welles classic, "Citizen Kane."

A large part of the movie takes place at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, where filming is not allowed. So Burt did his research.

"Let's take away the elements from Hearst Castle that we found impressive and let's employ those within our own set. I didn't even go to Hearst Castle, to be honest. I've never even been there! Huell Howser would kill me," laughed Burt. "I kept saying to my crew, 'We're not replicating. We're emulating.' Let's take certain elements. For instance, in the dining hall, the presence of tapestries, the long dining table, the chandeliers, you know, the grandeur of it. And that's the story we're telling."

Burt loves that the project deals with the history of Los Angeles, and the history of the film business.

"With Paramount Studios, you know, it's a huge lot but we found specific avenues that work for us," said Burt.

And when Burt says "us," if he wins the Oscar, it really is a win for the team.

"You know, I started out in this business sweeping floors. And I worked my way up through every level of the art department. And I have a deep spot in my heart for the people on all of the crew, and especially the art department crew, that do the simplest of jobs and I feel like they're all contributors," said Burt. "So my title as production designer is to me, it's kind of just a title. And everybody that is involved in it, everybody in the art department makes that film. And I truly believe that."

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