Mank wears its luminous black & white cinematography like a costume, blending in with the themes, but never distracting from the story
There was never any doubt that David Fincher’s brilliant Mank would be shot in black & white. The film follows a Hollywood screenwriter, Herman J Mankiewicz aka Mank (played by Gary Oldman), as he wrestles with the screenplay for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. It’s a sumptuous ode to the Golden Age of cinema – one that transports audiences to a place where they can understand and appreciate the homage – and yet, it is littered with modern filmmaking techniques that aren’t fooling anyone about its release date.
Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt agreed that they didn’t want to be confined to shooting on film or within the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 that would have been accurate for the period – not with Fincher’s digital prowess and proclivity for a widescreen format. And, just in case there was any confusion about the technological resourcefulness of this film, Messerschmidt is even credited as being responsible for ‘Photography in Hi-Dynamic Range’ in the title sequence.
“Filmmaking has always been a medium where we selectively employ the techniques that are available on the day,” says Messerschmidt. Nonetheless, shooting in black & white demands huge amounts of creative courage and the cinematographer was conscious about being too seduced by the opportunity.
He explains: “Before I had even read the script, I sent Fincher some images referencing the film noir genre of that era. I soon realised that, thematically, Mank is not a noir film. There are certainly elements that call for hard lighting effects, such as the flashback sequences in the writers’ room or with Shelly Metcalf [a fictional test shot director friend of Herman’s] moments before his suicide, but I tried to ground much of it in realism. I didn’t want to draw audiences away from the storyline by being too dramatic, so I chose to light through windows and illuminate interiors with practicals.”