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 ErikMesserschmidtASC 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.”
Director: David Fincher Director of Photography: Mike Southon, BSC Editors: James Haygood and George Michael Art Director: John Beard Stylist: Camilla Nickerson Hair Stylist: Guido Palau Makeup Artist: Carol Brown Production Company: Propaganda Films
Models: Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington.
Male Models: Scott Benoit, Peter Formby, John Pearson, Todo Segalla, Mario Sorrenti.
This month marks the ten year anniversary of The Social Network, the David Fincher film which made a captivating thriller out of the founding years of Facebook. The movie met an incredible amount of acclaim over the years, much thanks to the stellar team of talent on board, including Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who is no stranger to Fincher’s style.
“David comes really from the Hitchcock school in that he really does all the prep ahead of time. So you try to eliminate any of those kinds of surprises and the curve balls before they actually arrive,” said Cronenweth. “But there’s so much room to create, improv, and find your voice within that kind of structure.”
Cronenweth and Fincher have now collaborated across a wide collection of award-winning films including Fight Club, Gone Girl, and The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. The duo has found a magical dynamic between their methods to deliver some of the most engaging and thrilling stories of modern cinema. And, according to Cronenweth, a key part of that collaboration is the understanding that not everything can be perfect on the first try.
“If you’re responsible for creating a movie that’s gonna last a long time and change the visuals and approaches in a lot of people’s minds, then you’re gonna not win every single time,” said Cronenweth. “Sometimes you’re gonna step a little too far and then you have to go back and reanalyze and do it again. That’s how you make art.”
I recently got to speak further with Jeff Cronenweth about working with David Fincher, dealing with unexpected challenges, and shooting for a film where dialogue, not visuals, drives the story. Below is a summary of our conversation.
“A place to unload all my cinematic truths.” —Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC
How do you cultivate a career in Hollywood? What does it take to make iconic work? There’s an art to everything in life and the Art of the Shot explores the answers to those questions and more through deep-dives into the minds of master filmmakers. Join host Derek Stettler, young filmmaker and writer for the ASC and SOC magazines since 2016, as he learns from the artists behind today’s most strikingly-shot projects. Enjoy compelling conversations on the craft, insights from successful careers, tips, techniques + more!
In this episode, you’ll hear from both the cinematographer and the “A” camera operator of Mindhunter, who worked together throughout Season 1 and 2 to shoot every single episode. Please enjoy this exclusive interview with Erik Messerschmidt, ASC and Brian Osmond, SOC!
Brian Osmond, Gaffer Danny Gonzalez, and Erik Messerschmidt (Nikolai Loveikis)
In this episode, you’ll learn:
– Erik’s career path (00:04:06) – Erik’s favorite part of the job (00:06:42) – What DP’s should know to best work with their gaffers, from Erik’s experience working as a gaffer before becoming a DP (00:07:02) – Unique skills Erik gained from his experience as a gaffer (00:07:56) – How Brian got his career started (00:11:19) – Brian’s favorite part of his job (00:12:19) – What other directors can learn from how David Fincher treats his crew (00:18:39) – The thought process & techniques behind Mindhunter‘s precise camera movement (00:22:50) – The strategic use of handheld camera operating (00:34:27) – The collaborative nature of the Mindhunter set (00:37:34) – The importance of having a dedicated camera operator on set, especially on a David Fincher set (00:41:19) – Erik’s role as “quality control supervisor” (00:44:21) – Why a monitor on a David Fincher set is covered in smudges (00:46:57) – Why there’s no such thing as a B camera “bonus shot” on Mindhunter & how shots are planned out for multiple cameras (00:48:23) – What Erik thinks is the hardest shot to do well (00:52:04) – How Erik lights & shoots with 2 cameras simultaneously (00:53:41) – Erik’s approach to lighting Mindhunter & techniques used (00:56:55) – Erik’s preference for real fluorescent lighting (01:03:30) – Mindhunter‘s production design and how much of the locations were built (01:05:01) – Favorite set of Season 2 (01:06:26) – How getting scripts in advance helps them work better (01:10:44) – The innovative car process shooting on Mindhunter & how it works (01:12:38) – How virtual production helps realize every filmmaker’s dream, stopping time, & how Erik used that to shoot a 9-minute dialog scene at dawn (01:18:02) – How the car process shooting on Mindhunter evolved from Season 1 (01:22:37) – How the custom RED digital cinema camera, dubbed the Xenomorph, evolved from Season 1 (01:27:22) – Why Brian prefers a fluid head over a geared head to achieve those smooth, precise shots David Fincher loves (01:37:34) – How to shoot a scene & why “Fix it in prep!” should be every filmmaker’s mantra (01:42:08) – All about the lenses used on Mindhunter & how Erik art directed the artifacts & nuances of every optical aberration (01:48:10) – Tips from Brian on getting really precise shots with a fluid head, what operating technique Erik has learned from Brian, & how being self-critical is a key to his success (01:56:42) – What Erik & Brian feel is the most rewarding part of working on Mindhunter (02:02:47)
If you haven’t yet, please be sure to subscribe to be notified of future episodes, and share this podcast with others to help grow the show and spread the knowledge!
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.
Robert Graysmith visiting the home of Bob Vaughn in ‘Zodiac’ is David Fincher’s most purely terrifying scene. Here’s how it came together—and came to stay in the movie.
On a wet September night in 1978, Robert Graysmith couldn’t resist his curiosity.
A month earlier, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist had received an anonymous phone call regarding the identity of the Zodiac, the notorious Bay Area serial killer. “He’s a guy named Rick Marshall,” the mysterious voice told him at the start of an hourlong conversation. The killer’s string of murders in 1969 had gone unsolved, but Graysmith suddenly had a new lead. According to the tipster, Marshall—a former projectionist at The Avenue Theater—had hidden evidence from his five victims inside movie canisters, which he’d rigged to explode. Before hanging up, the nameless caller told Graysmith to find Bob Vaughn, a silent film organist who worked with Marshall. The booby-trapped canisters, Graysmith learned, had recently been moved to Vaughn’s home. “Get to Vaughn,” the voice told him. “See if he tells you to stay away from part of his film collection.”
After years spent independently entrenched in the open case, Graysmith dug into Marshall’s history and found several coincidences. His new suspect liked The Red Spectre, an early-century movie referenced in a 1974 Zodiac letter, and had used a teletype machine just like the killer. Outside The Avenue Theater, Marshall’s felt-pen posters even had handwriting similar to the Zodiac’s obscure, cursive strokes. On occasional visits to the upscale movie house, Graysmith observed Vaughn playing the Wurlitzer and noticed the Zodiac’s crosshair symbol plastered to the theater’s ceiling. There were too many overlapping clues. He had to make a trip to Vaughn’s house. “We knew there was some link,” Graysmith tells me. “I was scared to death.”
Almost three decades later, director David Fincher turned Graysmith’s nightmarish visit into one of the creepiest movie scenes of all time. It takes place near the end of Zodiac, after Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) follows Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) to his home through the rain in his conspicuous, bright-orange Volkswagen Rabbit. Once inside, the mood quickly becomes unnerving. After disclosing that he, not Marshall, is responsible for the movie poster handwriting, Vaughn leads a spooked Graysmith down to his dimly lit basement. As the organist sorts through his nitrate film records, the floorboards above Graysmith creak, insinuating another’s presence. After Vaughn assures his guest that he lives alone, Graysmith sprints upstairs to the locked front door, rattling the handle, before Vaughn slowly pulls out his key and opens it from behind. Graysmith bolts into the rain as though he’s just escaped the Zodiac’s clutches.
Ultimately, the third-act encounter is a red herring. Vaughn was never considered a credible suspect. But in a movie filled with rote police work and dead ends, those five minutes of kettle-whistling tension turn a procedural into true horror. The scene is a culmination of Graysmith’s paranoid obsession with the Zodiac’s identity—a window into the life-threatening lengths and depths he’ll go to solve the case—and a brief rejection of the movie’s otherwise objective lens. “It’s actually so different from the rest of the movie,” says James Vanderbilt, Zodiac’s screenwriter. “It does kind of give you that jolt that a lot of the movie is working hard not to [give].”
Most simply, the basement scene is a signature Fincher adrenaline rush—a moment buttressed by years of intensive research, attention to accuracy, and last-minute studio foresight. Thirteen years after the movie’s release, it still sends shivers down Graysmith’s spine.
25th Annual American Society Of Cinematographers (ASC) Awards (2011)
A podcast about how to build a career in filmmaking. No Film School shares the latest opportunities and trends for anyone working in film and TV. We break news on cameras, lighting, and apps. We interview leaders in screenwriting, directing, cinematography, editing, and producing. And we answer your questions! We are dedicated to sharing knowledge with filmmakers around the globe, “no film school” required.
Oscar-nominated camera wizard Jeff Cronenweth sat down with us to talk about his origins in the film industry.
As a young man, Cronenweth spent time on the set of Blade Runner as his father, Jordan Cronenweth shot it. He walks us through the next chapter of his career, starting out as an AC for legendary DP Sven Nykvist and how his longtime working relationship with David Fincher began when shooting pickups for a Madonna music video.
We discuss his experiences crafting the look of Fight Club, The Social Network, and Gone Girl, among other great films. Now in 2020, he is up for an Emmy for his work on the Amazon series Tales From The Loop.
Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt expanded the visual aesthetic of David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” in Season 2, as FBI profilers Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) investigate the notorious Atlanta Child Murders, and, as a result, he earned his first Emmy nomination.
“Our aim was to continue what we had developed in Season 1 while considering location with a bit more depth,” said Messerschmidt, who also shot Fincher’s “Mank,” the Netflix black-and-white biopic about “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman). “David expressed to me in the beginning to never forget what Atlanta is like in the summer. I tried hard to consider that whenever we were telling that part of the story.
“We really wanted our agents to be visualized with location in mind,” he said, “so I used more hard sunlight, atmosphere, and contrast to contribute to that hot, muggy feel. I think you could make the case that the lighting of Season 2 has a bit more gesture and shape to it, in part, because I used more contrast, which was a conscious choice. With that in mind, however, it was always a top priority to make sure the look and camera style of the series not take centerstage. I wanted the photography to be as non-invasive and invisible as possible so the audience could fully appreciate the story.”
Messerschmidt upgraded to the 8K RED Helium sensor for Season 2 after testing a prototype in the first season. This provided better sensitivity and higher color fidelity for the new Dolby Vision HDR workflow. “I found I could be much more minimal with my use of artificial light even at relatively low ISO ratings,” he said. “The intention was to consider every lighting choice with motivation in mind and use as much natural light and practical light as possible.”
Format:Redcode RAW .r3d in 8k Camera: Custom Red Xenomorph Mk2 designed by the team at RED. The camera uses an 8k RED Helium sensor. Format: Both seasons of “Mindhunter” were shot using Leica Summilux-C series Prime lenses. The majority of the show was shot using only three focal lengths, the 29mm, 40mm and 65mm.
Erik Messerschmidt: The visual style of “Mindhunter” is really about restraint and nuance. We wanted the storytelling to be very objective and simple with a limited use of POV. I think limiting ourselves to these focal lengths forced us to be meticulous with our coverage. All of our visual choices revolved around camera direction, blocking, and composition. David [Fincher] and I built the visual language around three distinct types of shots; wide masters, overs and singles; we moved the camera very little. This type of methodical camera direction lead to the rhythmic cutting sequence of the interview scenes which is really the visual foundation of the show. Shooting on prime lenses requires a bit more discipline than zooms when you’re lining up a shot, as you have to consider camera placement as it relates and composition.
In this 60-minute video, Erik Messerschmidt, ASC discusses his Emmy-nominatedcamerawork in the disturbing and insightful Netflix crime series Mindhunterwith interviewer Charlie Lieberman, ASC.
Based on the true-crime book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and set in the early 1980s, this period drama depicts the investigations of two FBI special agents from the Behavioral Science Unit (Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany) tasked with furthering the understanding of serial killers and their motivations, with the hope of using this research to solve cold cases or stop active predators.
Shooting in Mindhunter in 8K for 4K delivery with a 2.2:1 aspect ratio, Messerschmidt generally employs multiple Red Xenomorph Mk2 8K Helium cameras paired with Leica Summilux-C Primes and Fujinon Premiere Zooms, often with Mitomo IR TrueNDs. (More about the show here.)
Erik Messerschmidt earned his first Emmy nomination this summer: Best Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (One Hour) for his work on the true-crime drama “Mindhunter.” It’s bittersweet, though, since Netflix put the show on indefinite hold after its second season, which aired last summer. “I loved working on the show,” he remembers. “It’s a unicorn in a way. It was a unique situation where everybody was working towards the same goal and everyone was very in sync in terms of what we were trying to accomplish.” Watch our exclusive video interview with the director of photography above.
He is nominated specifically for his work in episode six, during which FBI agents Ford and Tench (Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany) search for missing children in Atlanta while Dr. Carr and Agent Smith (Anna Torv and Joe Tuttle) interview convicted killer Paul Bateson. “I just felt like we had a lot of variety in the episode,” says Messerschmidt. “You have all of the classic ‘Mindhunter’ stuff with the Paul Bateson interview, but you also have the characters out in the field. So we’re expanding the scope a little bit, and we had some new set pieces which the audience hadn’t seen before.”
For instance, there is a memorable scene in which law enforcement teams search for murder victims in the eerie pre-dawn light, and another where a grisly discovery in the dead of night is lit primarily with flashlights. “It was a good opportunity to show a little bit of the depth of the show. And it was an episode we were generally pretty proud of.” The season’s focus on the Atlanta child murders influenced the show’s aesthetic in general. Messerschmidt wanted to convey the “hot, humid environment … so we warmed the camera up quite a bit. We made use of atmosphere in some of the interiors. I tried to light it with as much hot, searing sunlight coming through the doors as possible.”
“I would love to go back and do more ‘Mindhunter,’ but who knows? Time will tell, I guess,” he says. In the meantime his creative partnership with “Mindhunter” director/producer David Fincher continues. Messerschmidt is the cinematographer for the filmmaker’s upcoming movie “Mank,” which takes them from murder in the 1970s and 1980s to show business in the 1940s. “That’s what’s great about our job is we get to sort of pick a story apart and figure out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to tell the story.”