Donald Graham Burt on making a career in production design

The Oscar-winning production designer discusses his journey from night janitor to one of David Fincher’s most trusted collaborators, plus his work on the director’s latest film Mank

In a career spanning over three decades, Donald Graham Burt has carved out a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand production designers. He’s lent his talents to everything from 90s crime drama Donnie Brasco to Netflix’s historic action flick Outlaw King, but is arguably best known for his partnership with David Fincher. Their multi-decade collaboration has seen Burt create striking sets for instant classics including The Social Network and Gone Girl.

Despite his impressive CV of critically acclaimed films, the production designer’s place in the movie business wasn’t always so certain. “I never intended to be a production designer,” he tells CR. “In fact, I didn’t even know what it was growing up. I grew up in the Midwest in a small town, and I wasn’t really exposed to that many movies.”

Burt ended up going to art school in Arizona, where an experimental degree in fine art taught him the value of lateral thinking and creative collaboration. “It was during the whole conceptual area, when it was more about the way you think and being inventive and breaking the rules than it was about sitting down and drawing a vase,” he says.

Top: Still from Burt’s latest collaboration with David Fincher on Mank. Above: A scene from Netflix historic action flick, Outlaw King

After graduating, Burt took a job as a night janitor, which he cites as one of the best experiences of his life. The 12 months that he spent cleaning stores by himself at night gave him plenty of time for soul searching, before an opportunity came up in the form of some of his university friends setting up a small scenery shop in Arizona.

“One thing led to another and they opened a scenery shop in Los Angeles in 1979. I moved over and started working for them there, and came up through the ranks doing videos and commercials,” says Burt. “I literally started by sweeping floors and doing runs in the truck, I did some carpentry, I did some set dressing, I did some propping. So it was invaluable as I look back on it, because it gave me a taste of a little bit of everything”

Burt’s chance to move into films presented itself when a DP he knew quite well put him forward for a role on The Joy Luck Club, and he hasn’t looked back since. “I just fell in love with it,” he says. “I’d done commercials and videos for so long, and as interesting as they can be visually, to actually work with a director who had story, who had narrative, I saw a whole different side of it.”

Burt first met Fincher in the early noughties through the director’s regular producer, who he knew from his advertising days. After one ill-fated project that never came to be, they went straight into making two of his most acclaimed films, Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which Burt received an Oscar.

Despite the variety of genres Fincher straddles with his films, he is well known for his distinctive use of bold cinematography and desaturated colour palettes, which imbue his work with an inherent sense of mystery. The sheer attention to detail given to every visual element of his films is arguably down the director’s insistence on doing a ‘feasibility study’ before the start of every production.

“He likes to spend some time with the production designer, anywhere from one to two months, there have been a couple of projects that have lasted six months doing it,” Burt explains. “[It involves] sitting down; scouting; talking about the movie; going through drawings; figuring it all out; and actually doing a budget as well, so that when the time comes to make it, we’re ready to go.”

It’s an approach that has allowed Fincher and Burt to develop their own shorthand over the years – an invaluable asset when making something as complex as a feature length film. “I think our aesthetics were in line to begin with, or else we wouldn’t have worked together, and we wouldn’t have continued to work together. But I think what happens is that in the beginning that alignment isn’t so noticeable, and then as time progresses you start to realise, I’m sort of a minimalist and he sort of is a minimalist, I like to do things simple and build complexity within it, and there’s a part of him that does that,” says Burt.

The duo’s latest collaboration on Mank is a prime example of this. Written by Fincher’s late father in the 90s and finally brought to life with the financial backing of Netflix, the film reevaluates Hollywood’s golden age through the eyes of social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles.

Starring Gary Oldham as the scathing Mankiewicz and filmed in black and white, Mank has been widely praised for its faithful recreation of 1930s Hollywood, earning it no less than ten Oscar and six BAFTA nominations – including a production design nod for Burt. “I remember when David first approached me on it. He stood there and said, ‘I want it to be like you’re in a film vault. You see Citizen Kane, and then next to it there’s this movie that has the title Mank. And you go, Mank, I cannot remember that, and you pull it out, and it feels like it was made in the same period, it feels like it’s the sister film.’ That stuck with me,” he says.

Still from Mank

The main challenges for Burt in bringing Mank to life were creating sets or adapting locations that felt authentic to the period, were practical to shoot on and, crucially, worked in black and white. He began his research several months in advance, delving into the rich resources of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ library in LA, and teamed up with Fincher six weeks ahead of the start of production. By the time they began shooting, his crew were photographing every prop and set using the noir filter on their phones to see whether they worked or not.

Undoubtedly the most difficult location to recreate was San Simeon, better known today as Hearst Castle, the country retreat of press baron William Randolph Hearst, who provided the character inspiration for Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane. “This man literally went over to Spain and bought a monastery and disassembled it, shipped it back and reassembled it within one of his halls,” says Burt.

“There’s no way in the world I could ever replicate that, so we took a step back and said, let’s try to emulate it. What we need to achieve is for our narrative and for our story, so if we can make a space that feels like the opulence of San Simeon by simplifying it, and by using some selective discretion in terms of the dressing of it, it’ll be more successful. I think we benefited from the fact that I didn’t even go there, otherwise I’d probably be still carving wood right now!”

Looking back at his expansive body of work, Burt notes that the fundamental reason for him wanting to do a film or not remains the story at the heart of it. “I really have to read the script, and if it’s something that resonates with me I have to ask myself, ‘Ok, if I get on this project and I have to read the script every week for 20 weeks, 40 weeks or 60 weeks, or however long it may be, do I feel attracted enough to this to do that?’ Sometimes I get scripts from my agent, and they’ll say, ‘The script’s not so great but it’s a really great opportunity for art direction.’ And quite honestly, it doesn’t really interest me,” he says.

As for any pearls of wisdom for budding production designers and people looking to get into the film industry, Burt likes to keep his advice as simple as the way he approaches his striking designs. “Stay true to an aesthetic you might have that interests you, keep that in your heart and listen to it,” he says. “And most of all, be attentive and don’t be afraid for any task that is asked of you. Sweep the floor!”

Mank is available now on Netflix