Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, reveals the techniques behind Mank, David Fincher’s digitally dexterous emulation of Hollywood’s classic era.
David Fincher’s passion project about the Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz looks, as intended, like a love letter to 1930s cinema. The filmmakers employ sophisticated digital techniques to pay homage to the cinematic bravura that helps Orson Welles’ masterpiece regularly top the list of all-time classics.
It’s a film the director originally intended as the follow-up to his 1997 thriller The Game, shortly after his father Howard, a journalist at LIFE magazine, wrote the script. For one reason and another, and reports suggest it was Fincher’s insistence on shooting in black and white, Mank was delayed until Netflix greenlit production late last year. Principal photography finished in February, just days before California went into lockdown.
Fincher of course kickstarted the streamer’s original content by masterminding House of Cards. He has subsequently made two series of serial killer investigation Mindhunter, all sixteen episodes shot by Erik Messerschmidt ASC who is Fincher’s collaborator here.
Mank follows the ‘scathing social critic and alcoholic’, played by Gary Oldman as he races to finish the Kane screenplay for Welles. It also stars Charles Dance as newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and Amanda Seyfried as Heart’s girlfriend Marion Davies, satirized by Welles and Mankiewicz as Charles Foster Kane and mistress Susan Alexander. The connection with Hearst is strengthened by the fact that Mankiewicz was a frequent guest of Davies at Hearst’s fabulous California castle, dubbed Xanadu in Kane.
As a homage to WWII-era Hollywood the decision to emulate the look pioneered by cinematographers like Gregg Toland in digital format is a bold one.
“For this movie we wanted to shoot very deep focus photography for most of the film and then be very specific about where we used shallow focus,” says Messerschmidt. “Shooting on film would have significantly limited our creative choices, particularly with focus and depth of field.”