“You don’t want it to be a parlor trick”
January 11, 2021
On David Fincher’s Mank, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt channeled the aesthetics of Hollywood’s Golden Age, in order to tell the story of one of its legendary figures.
Written by Fincher’s late father, Jack, the drama follows brilliant, alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), as he pens the script for Citizen Kane.
Shooting digitally, in native black and white, Messerschmidt would place viewers inside Mankiewicz’s era by playing with the vocabulary of films from the ’30s and ’40s. At the same time, he would look to pay homage with his choices to Gregg Toland, the pioneering DP behind Kane, who popularized deep focus photography. “I think it was more [loose] inspiration, and we certainly weren’t recreating anything from Citizen Kane directly,” Messerschmidt notes. “When I was feeling insecure about the choices I was making, I’d be like, ‘Okay, what would Gregg Toland have done?’ But we were certainly making our own movie.”
After collaborating with the younger Fincher on his serial killer drama, Mindhunter, Messerschmidt was well prepared to take on the demands of this passion project, which he’d been looking to bring to the screen since the beginning of his career. “You know, David is interested in the pursuit of excellence,” he says, “so we are endeavoring for that on every take.”
At the same time, the project was intimidating, on a certain level—the challenge being to bring period style to Mank, without ever taking it over the top. Below, the DP breaks down his approach to shooting the Oscar contender, which marks his first narrative feature, along with the many highlights of his experience on set.