Mank BTS (Miles Crist)
An in-depth conversation with “Mank” DP Erik Messerschmidt about his detailed work on the film.
It’s impressive when a Director of Photography’s first fiction feature is with David Fincher, notorious for his exacting eye in terms of both working methods and stringent aesthetics. But before Mank—Fincher’s passion project on Herman J. Mankiewicz and the writing of Citizen Kane—Erik Messerschmidt had been a part of Fincher’s team on both seasons of Mindhunter and even earlier as a gaffer on Gone Girl for DP Jeff Cronenweth. On Mindhunter, Messerschmidt’s camera infused the bloodless institutional interiors of its serial-killer/FBI interview set pieces with subtly vulnerable undertones, hewing to a Fincher playbook of visual control that telegraphs barely contained chaos.
Mank posed its own challenge with the director’s dream of making a black-and-white period picture in 2020, a vision of authenticity that is something of a chimera in cinema’s digital age. The story shuttles between Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) writing Citizen Kane in 1940 and his preceding years of experience with the people and society that inspired him, including Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Mank does not simulate the look of any single movie made in the 1940s but rather comprises a gentle pastiche of styles and signifiers (no office seems without slatted shades). Standout scenes include the banquets in cavernous Hearst Castle, where Mank dunks on the assembled high-flown guests; bull sessions in the screenwriter’s Mojave Desert bungalow as he hems and haws and bangs out the screenplay for Citizen Kane; a glitzy-weary 1934 election party for California’s gubernatorial contest, celebrating Republican Frank Merriam’s victory over Upton Sinclair; and anything featuring Seyfried as Davies, remarkably the sole true star in a film set in 1930s and ’40s Hollywood.
Speaking with Messerschmidt, I zeroed in on the feelings and associations within the look of Mindhunter, and the particular technical choices that went into creating Mank’s Hollywoodland.