On set, David Fincher prioritizes time with the actors more than anything else, so most of our work is done in the prep. In terms of Mank, we spent much of that prep time discussing how we could incorporate the visual language of black and white cinema into our own version of the story. We wanted to transport the audience to the time period without too much pastiche. It was a delicate balance.
Actors Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried go for their characters’ leisurely evening stroll outside San Marino’s Huntington Library, which is subbing in for William Randolph Hearst’s Hearst Castle at San Simeon. The only thing is, it’s not night – and the actors are wearing custom-tinted contact lenses to help them avoid squinting, due to the additional bright lights director of photography Erik Messerschmidt has added to make his day-for-night photography appear correct in the final image.
Day-for-night is not the only classic technique the Oscar-nominated cinematographer utilized on David Fincher’s Oscar-nominated movie, Mank. The film, which tells the tale of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s path to writing the screenplay for 1941’s Citizen Kane, pays homage not only to Mank himself but to that film’s legendary cinematographer, Gregg Toland. And while the two made use of some of Toland’s techniques, they did so with great care. “We refused to allow ourselves to think of Toland exclusively,” says Fincher. “We didn’t want to ape – we wanted to inhabit.”
He and Messerschmidt have worked together over two seasons of the director’s intriguing crime series, Mindhunter, and Fincher had mentioned the film project, written by his father Jack Fincher, to his DP on occasion. The two were prepping another film, World War Z 2, but when the project came to halt, Messerschmidt went off to South Africa to shoot several episodes of HBO Max’s Raised by Wolves. While there, he says, “David e-mailed me and said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do this movie, Mank, about Herman Mankiewicz. Would you like to do it?’” The answer, of course, was yes.
It’s long been debated whether Shakespeare actually authored all of his acclaimed writings or if, instead, Christopher Marlowe was responsible for a significant amount of his body of work. And in the early 70s, a similar thesis developed: that co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz was in fact the primary writer on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Though it’s solidly refuted by Kane scholars, the myth continues to flourish.
And now, Director David Fincher arrives with Mank: a screenplay by his late father about Herman Mankiewicz and his development of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. After a six-year feature film hiatus, Fincher tapped Erik Messerschmidt, ASC to DP, after working with Erik on Gone Girl as a gaffer and cinematographer for both seasons of Mindhunter.
Mank’s visual aesthetic is subtle, but not to be overlooked. Upon its release, the film’s cinematic elements were overwhelmingly acknowledged by critics and audiences alike. It’s an approach owing much to Erik, who saw the value in referencing the artistic quality of Citizen Kane while also developing a fresh lens through which the classic story could be seen.
Mank is an American biographical drama film about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his battles with director Orson Welles over screenplay credit for Citizen Kane (1941). The film is directed by David Fincher, based on a script written by his father Jack Fincher, with Gary Oldman in the title role.
Krista Smith February 10, 2021 More Like This (A Netflix Queue Podcast)
A podcast from Netflix Queue, the journal that celebrates the people, ideas, and process of creating great entertainment on Netflix and beyond. Host Krista Smith is joined by a different co-host each episode – Franklin Leonard, Tre’vell Anderson, and others – to give an insider’s peek into the creation of your favorite films, series and documentaries and the incredibly talented people who make them.
More Like This gets the Mank treatment! In this very special episode, Krista takes us behind the scenes of David Fincher’s Mank, sharing interviews with key members of the creative team. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross talk about the power of storytelling through music, how they pulled inspiration from composers of the past, and how pandemic restrictions forced them to record a 70-piece orchestra one instrument at a time; set decorator Jan Pascale demonstrates how the smallest details make the biggest impact; cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt details how he combined classic and modern techniques to transport a 21st century audience back in time; and editor Kirk Baxter explains why David Fincher once called him 50% blacksmith and 50% poet. Enjoy this deep dive into the process of making movie magic with film collaborators at the top of their game, and be sure to see their work in Mank, now streaming on Netflix.
Mank (2020) was beautifully shot by Erik Messerschmidt ASC in black and white, with scattered visual references to Citizen Kane (1941) – often cited as the best film ever made. The original cinematographer for Citizen Kane,Gregg Toland was incredibly influential, according to Messerschmidt. One of the most revolutionary things about Citizen Kane was Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus and Mank pays homage to this signature technique and introduces a novel storytelling tool – the Cinefade variable depth of field effect.
Oliver from Cinefade caught up with Erik to discuss his use of the VariND on Mank and his thought process behind some of the Cinefade scenes that feature a variable depth of field.
“There’s been a loss of using focus as a storytelling tool these days. You are always sharp on whoever is talking in modern cinema and I liked the idea of taking bespoke moments in the film and isolating characters with a variable depth of field. David [Fincher] had asked for a way to do this and it became a huge part of the film. I love the product, it’s great.”
Earning your stripes as a cinematographer can be hard enough. But the prospect of shooting your first movie with a Golden Globe, Primetime Emmy and BAFTA Award-winning director, about one of the greatest films of all time, starring some of the best actors working today, and capturing it all in HDR B&W, would seem perfectly daunting.
“Yes, it was quite intimidating, but it was also unbelievably exciting,” admits DP Erik Messerschmidt ASC, as he recalls the invitation from David Fincher to capture the filmmaker’s next movie – the biographical drama Mank.
Mank takes place in Hollywood during the 1930s and early 1940s. It follows screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, and the process he undertook for Orson Welles to develop the screenplay for what would become Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles, DP Gregg Toland ASC). Nominated in nine categories at the 1942 Academy Awards, Citizen Kane won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, shared by Welles and Mankiewicz.
The film, based on a screenplay by the director’s late father Jack Fincher, alternates between time periods, echoing the non-linear narrative of Citizen Kane, and revealing the trials and tribulations in Hollywood that inspired some of the characters and situations seen in the movie. These include Mankiewicz’s friendship with starlet Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfried, his association with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance, and his turbulent professional relationship with Welles, played by Tom Burke.
Shot entirely at 8K in High Dynamic Range monochrome, Mank also features allusions to Toland’s innovative cinematography, as well as classic day-for-night production techniques, and tips its hat to classic moments in the original film.
Mank had a limited theatrical release in November 2020, before streaming on Netflix in December. It received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with particular praise given to the direction, cinematography, production design, soundtrack and the performances, and is expected to feature strongly during the 2021 award season.
Fincher’s directorial credits include Se7en (1995, DP Dariusz Khondji AFC ASC), Fight Club (1999, DP Jeff Cronenweth ASC), Zodiac (2007,DP Harris Savides ASC) and The Social Network (2010, DP Jeff Cronenweth ASC). Messerschmidt,who came into cinematography from being agaffer, had previously lit Gone Girl (2014, DP JeffCronenweth) for Fincher, after which he immediatelymade the leap into cinematography as the leadDP on the first two season of Netflix’s Mindhunter,directed mainly by Fincher.
“I first met David on Gone Girl and got along great with him during the shoot,” says Messerschmidt. “I ended up lighting some promotional stills for that film which David shot himself. It was our first opportunity to work together creatively one-on-one. It went really well, and we stayed in touch. Both he and Cean Chaffin, his producer, knew that I had ambitions to become a DP. So, when Mindhunter came along, they offered me the opportunity to shoot it. We have been working together ever since, and I was thrilled to be asked to shoot Mank.”
Cinefade is a motorised variable ND filter that allows cinematographers to gradually transition between a deep and a shallow depth of field in one shot at constant exposure to accentuate a moment of extreme drama in film or to make a client’s product stand out in commercials.
It can also be used in VariND mode to achieve interior to exterior transition shots without ‘riding the iris’ and to control reflections on automotive shoots with the remotely controlled RotaPola.
Director of Photography Erik Messerschmidt ASC used the Cinefade VariND not only as a practical tool to control exposure on set but also as a storytelling tool to accentuate certain moments and guide the viewer’s attention.
Director: David Fincher Director of Photography: Erik Messerschmidt ASC A Camera First Assistant: Alex Scott
“We also used this tool called the cmotion Cinefade. It’s a motorized polarizer that you sync to the iris so we could effectively pull depth of field. It’s quite extreme. You could pull five stops of depth of field. So we could go from a T8 to a 2. That thing kind of lived on the camera. There were times where we’d say, “It’s too much. Let’s look at it at a 5.6.” So you set the iris to a 5.6, the polarizer compensates and now you’re looking at the same scene but with less depth of field. So, it was nice to be able to use focus and iris as a storytelling tool instead of just an exposure tool.”
In 1941, a 25-year-old Orson Welles made one of cinema’s most auspicious debuts by directing, co-writing, starring in and producing Citizen Kane. With Mank—David Fincher’s look at the evolution of Kane’s screenplay—cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt makes an impressive feature bow of his own.
After working his way up through the ranks of grip and electric and earning DP credits on the shows Legion, Mindhunter and Fargo, Messerschmidt’s very first fiction feature has landed him in the midst of Oscar conversation. With Mank now streaming on Netflix, Messerschmidt spoke with Filmmaker about deep focus, high ISOs and painting in lens flares; and how even when working with David Fincher you “start compromising when you get out of bed in the morning.”