Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on Mank and Collaborating with David Fincher

J.D. Connor
January 13, 2021
Film at Lincoln Center

With his transfixing digital black-and-white cinematography, DP Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, breathes gorgeous life into the world of 1930s Hollywood in Mank, David Fincher’s vivid retelling of the genesis of Citizen Kane and the tumultuous partnership between screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and director-star Orson Welles.

Messerschmidt joined us for an extended conversation to discuss the craft behind Mank, the legacy of Citizen Kane, and the work of visualizing Hollywood’s ideas of itself. The discussion will be moderated by J.D. Connor, Associate Professor of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.

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‘Mank’ Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt Aims For Subtle Use Of Period Technique On Old Hollywood Drama

“You don’t want it to be a parlor trick”

Matt Grobar
January 11, 2021
Deadline

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.

Read the full interview

Making of ‘Mank’: How David Fincher Pulled Off a Modern Movie Invoking Old Hollywood

The director had to employ digital advances to achieve a vintage aesthetic in telling the tale of ‘Citizen Kane’ screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz: “If we had done it 30  years ago, it might’ve been truly a bloodletting.”

Rebecca Keegan
January 11, 2021
The Hollywood Reporter

Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz never sought credit for conceiving one of the all-time great ideas in the history of cinema — the notion that the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz should be shot in black and white and the Oz scenes in color. In fact, for much of his career in Hollywood from the late 1920s to the early ’50s, Mankiewicz seemed to view his scripts with about as much a sense of ownership as a good zinger he had landed at a cocktail party.

But what fascinated David Fincher was that when it came time to assign credit on the screenplay for Citizen Kane, which Mankiewicz wrote with Orson Welles in 1940 (or without, depending on your perspective), the journeyman screenwriter suddenly and inexplicably began to care. Precisely why that happened is the subject of Fincher’s 11th feature film, Mank.

“I wasn’t interested in a posthumous guild arbitration,” Fincher says of Mank, which takes up the Citizen Kane authorship question reinvigorated by a 1971 Pauline Kael essay in The New Yorker. “What was of interest to me was, here’s a guy who had seemingly nothing but contempt for what he did for a living. And, on almost his way out the door, having burned most of the bridges that he could … something changed.”

Shot in black and white and in the style of a 1930s movie, Mank toggles between Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) writing the first draft of Citizen Kane from a remote house in the desert and flashback sequences of his life in Hollywood in the ’30s, including his friendship with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), who inspired Citizen Kane, and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

A filmmaker known for his compulsive attention to detail, Fincher had even more reason than usual to treat every decision with care on Mank, as he was working from a screenplay written by his father, journalist Jack Fincher, who died in 2003. Jack had taken up the subject in retirement in 1990, just as David was on the eve of directing his first feature, Alien 3, and the two would try throughout the 1990s to get the film made, with potential financiers put off by their insistence on shooting in black and white.

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Mank: Cinefade Supercut

Cinefade VariND
January 7, 2020

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

Erik Messerschmidt ASC to Filmmaker Magazine:

“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.”

Read the full presentation

How David Fincher Faked an Old Movie

Danny Boyd
December 13, 2020
Danny Boyd (YouTube)

Today, let’s dive into the filmmaking mind of director David Fincher, and his 2020 film Mank.

David Fincher loves CGI and VFX, and that is on full display just as much in Mank (2020) as it is in all his past films. Only this time, for Mank, David Fincher had to use those tools, along with an old school cinematography and directing style, and smart editing, not only to create a convincing 1930’s Hollywood world, reminiscent of movies like Orson WellesCitizen Kane, but also a convincing golden age Hollywood movie. Let’s see how David Fincher faked Mank.

Video written & edited by Danny Boyd (Instagram, Twitter). Support me on Patreon

Music:
Marty Gots a Plan by Kevin MacLeod (license)
Deadly Roulette by Kevin MacLeod (license)

Sound effects:
Single Electric Typewriter Carriage Return by lonemonk (license)

Awardsline: The Big Picture

David Fincher brings the big screen to us for his latest picture. With a cast led by Gary Oldman & Amanda Seyfried, is Mank a love letter to cinema’s golden age or an indictment of the shadier side of the movie biz?⁠

Joe Utichi
January 6, 2021
Awardsline (Deadline)

Read the full issue of Deadline Presents Awardsline

The Burning Question That Drove David Fincher’s Decades-Long Journey To Make ‘Man

Joe Utichi
January 6, 2021
Deadline

David Fincher turns Netflix homes into 1940s movie houses with his latest opus, Mank, which explores the life and frustrations of Citizen Kane’s screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, as he works his way through the draft of what will become Orson Welles’ seminal directorial debut. With its title role imbued with Mankiewicz’s world-weary wit by Gary Oldman, and from a script first drafted more than 20 years ago by Fincher’s father Jack, who passed away in 2003, the film reignites the debate about the authorship of a film Welles might nearly have taken sole credit for. But it is about more than that besides; a love and hate letter to the machinations of the movie business, a remarkably timely examination of the façade of truth in the news media, and an intimate study of tortured souls beaten down by the world around them and their own insecurities. Joe Utichi meets Fincher, Oldman and Amanda Seyfried—who rehabilitates the image of actress and socialite Marion Davies—for a closer look.

Read the full profile

The Cinematography Podcast: Erik Messerschmidt

Erik Messerschmidt, ASC: Mank, Mindhunter, Legion, Raised By Wolves, working with David Fincher.

Ben Rock & Illya Friedman
December 30, 2020
The Cinematography Podcast (Cam Noir)

Erik Messerschmidt, ASC believes that cinematographers get too much credit for how a movie looks and not enough for how the story is told. When you break a scene apart and assemble a sequence, the cinematographer has a huge part to play in the process of deciding when to move the camera, what lenses are used, how it flows and when it moves. Erik thinks when you look at it that way, cinematography has a lot more in common with editing rather than photography.

Erik’s most recent project, Mank– which is currently streaming on Netflix- was shot entirely in black and white. The look was the result of lots of conversations with director David Fincher. They both had a clear idea of what they wanted it to look like and also exactly what they did not want- too much heavy handed, contrast-heavy black and white cinematography in a film-noir style would take the viewers out of the experience, so it needed a lighter touch. Erik used fine art photography from the ’30’s to the mid ’40’s as a reference, and he and David Fincher wanted an homage to Citizen Kane without it actually looking like the film. Fincher was clear that he wished to transport the audience so they would lose their awareness of watching a black and white movie, and feel as though they are in the world of Herman J. Mankiewicz as he writes the script for Citizen Kane in the 1940’s.

Erik has worked with director David Fincher on several projects, first working as a gaffer on Gone Girl, then moving into the camera department on the series MindhunterErik and David have become very close collaborators, and he enjoys working with him. Fincher likes a sense of hyper reality to his movies, and Erik sees it as his job as the cinematographer to learn what the director responds to, figure out how best to support their process and bring something to the party.

Before moving into the camera department, Erik worked for several years as a gaffer. After working with David Fincher on two seasons of Mindhunter, Erik needed more work since he was a newly minted director of photography. He got the opportunity to shoot second unit on Sicario: Day of the Soldado with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski as the lead DP. He then worked on a few episodes of the TV series Legion with producer/director Noah Hawley and DP-turned-director Dana Gonzales, which was visually fun to work on. Legion’s look was whimsical yet dark, as it explored the main character’s mental illness and possible superpowers. He had the opportunity to work with Dana again on the finale of season four of Fargo. Erik also shot several episodes of the Ridley Scott series, Raised By Wolves, splitting the series with DP Ross Emery.

Listen to the podcast:

Cam Noir
Apple Podcasts
Spotify

Mank is available to watch right now on Netflix.
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Podcast Credits:

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras (Instagram)
Editor in Chief: Illya Friedman (Instagram)
Ben Rock (TwitterInstagram)
Producer: Alana Kode
Editor: Ben Katz
Composer: Kays Alatractchi

“We Don’t Find Shots, We Build Them”: DP Erik Messerschmidt on Mank, Lens Flare Painting and Native Black and White

Matt Mulcahey
December 22, 2020
Filmmaker

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 LegionMindhunter 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.”

Read the full interview

‘Mank’: How the Cinematography of David Fincher’s Film Took Inspiration From ‘Citizen Kane’

Gary Oldman, as Herman J. Mankiewicz, holds forth at a dinner party at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon home, created at Los Angeles Center Studios. “The room is dark and it’s made to look musty and cold,” says cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt.

While legendary DP Gregg Toland and the indelible images he created for Orson Welles’ masterpiece inspired the new movie, the director and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt aimed for a look that suggests an echo, not a copy.

Carolyn Giardina
December 22, 2020
The Hollywood Reporter

Gregg Toland is one of the most influential cinematographers of all time, and his work on Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane (1941) — with innovations including deep focus, which keeps the foreground, middle ground and background all looking sharp — is iconic. So when director David Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt set out to make Mank, the Netflix drama that stars Gary Oldman as screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in the throes of writing Kane, Toland’s efforts had to be carefully considered.

“David and I talked at length about it. That was something we wanted to echo and reference and pay homage to, but we weren’t really trying to emulate it,” says Messerschmidt, who earned an Emmy nomination this year for Fincher’s Netflix crime series Mindhunter. “We didn’t want people to necessarily look at the film and be like, ‘Oh, it’s Gregg Toland’s work.’ We were trying to keep the photography story-driven and within the narrative of what we were trying to translate to the audience.”

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Film Roundtable: Jeff Cronenweth, Erik Messerschmidt, and Phedon Papamichael

Matthew Woolf
December 18, 2020
Film Roundtable (Instagram)

In our latest Film Roundtable discussion we talked with Jeff Cronenweth, Erik Messerschmidt, and Phedon Papamichael about how the love of the image fosters the collaborative relationship amongst Cinematographers.

Listen to the podcast