A conversation with Production Designer Donald Graham Burt, Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and Sound Designer Ren Klyce on behalf of Mank. Moderated by John Horn.
Black-and-white biopic Mank sees another successful collaboration between cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt ASC and director David Fincher as they craft an authentic portrayal of Hollywood’s golden age and explore the turbulent development of the script for Citizen Kane.
April 12, 2021
“This was not an offer I had to consider; the answer was an immediate yes,” says cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt ASC when thinking back to the moment he was asked to film director David Fincher’s Mank which depicts the life of screenwriter Herman J. ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he develops the script for director Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane.
“I was thrilled when David called me,” he says. “I was nervous too of course as I felt a tremendous responsibility to be considerate and respectful to the film, but it’s a cinematographer’s dream to get the opportunity to make a movie like this.”
As Citizen Kane is widely regarded as one of cinema’s masterpieces, the pressure was on to capture the essence of Gregg Toland ASC’s cinematography and to faithfully encapsulate the distinctive mood, lighting and composition reminiscent of a golden era of filmmaking.
Mank, which received a limited theatrical release before streaming on Netflix, is based on a script written by Fincher’s late father, the journalist and writer, Howard “Jack” Fincher which focuses on the controversy surrounding who had creative ownership of Citizen Kane – Welles or Mankiewicz.
The film uses flashback sequences to explore the prolific talent of Mank as well as his alcoholism and tumultuous relationships with Hollywood executives such as film producer and MGM Studios co-founder Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving G. Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), who is widely claimed to be the inspiration for Citizen Kane’s protagonist.
Fincher was clear from the beginning that the film would be shot in black-and-white. “We never even considered what the movie would look like in colour,” says Messerchmidt. “Part of David’s intent was to transport the audience back to the classic ‘30s and ‘40s Hollywood era. Black-and-white was an excellent way to do that.”
Ensuring black-and-white was used as a homage or a pastiche rather than a parody was a priority. “When they approach black-and-white, cinematographers can tend to reach for noir as they are excited by its gestured, stylised lighting which you don’t get to use very often when shooting in colour,” adds Messerschmidt.
Erik Messerschmidt, Oscar nominated for his debut feature film as a cinematographer, talks to TheWrap about working with David Fincher on the 1940s-era period piece
Though he’s been active in the industry for nearly two decades, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt made his feature film debut last year with David Fincher’s silvery period drama “Mank.” Messerschmidt’s credits include television work in projects as diverse as “Everybody Hates Chris,” Ridley Scott’s “Raised by Wolves,” and Fincher’s “Mindhunter.” Fincher, in fact, had hired Messerschmidt three years ago to lens his sequel to “World War Z,” but after that project was cancelled in early 2019, the director called the cinematographer with a different proposal.
“David said, ‘I’ve got this black and white movie I’m thinking about. Do you want to do it?” Messerschmidt recalled to TheWrap. “He’s kind of coy like that. So I didn’t really know anything about what the film was. But I said, ‘Sure.’”
The film, of course, was Fincher’s biopic of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman), and “Mank,” which is available for streaming on Netflix, led the pack in terms of total Oscar nominations with 10, including Best Picture, Best Director, and one for the 40-year-old Messerschmidt.
The cinematography category is a fresh crowd this year. Messerschmidt, Dariusz Wolski (“News of the World”), Joshua James Richards (“Nomadland”) and Sean Bobbitt (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) are all first-time nominees. Only Phedon Papamichael (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) has ever been nominated before. For context, at the previous Oscars, two nominees (Robert Richardson and eventual winner Roger Deakins) had a tally of 25 career nominations between them.
Messerschmidt is currently working in Georgia on the upcoming Korean War drama “Devotion.” We caught up with him to talk about his work on “Mank” after a long week of night shoots. “If my answers are incoherent,” he said with a laugh, “just ask me to clarify.”
Portrait by Eli Ade on the Savannah, GA set of Devotion
Director of Photography – Mank
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.
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A conversation with Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, Production Designer Donald Graham Burt, Set Decorator Jan Pascale, Costume Designer Trish Summerville, and Makeup Department Head Gigi Williams on behalf of Mank. Moderated by Wendy Mitchell.
Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, Make Up Designer Gigi Williams, Production Designer Don Burt & Costume Designer Trish Summerville
Giles Alderson, Andrew Rodger, Phil Hawkins
April 2, 2021
The Filmmakers Podcast
We are delighted to bring to you our SPECIAL bumper episode on the Making of David Fincher’s BAFTA & OSCAR nominated ‘Mank’.
We start with Giles Alderson and Andrew Rodger having a chat with ‘Mank’ Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt about going from Gaffer on Fincher’s Gone Girl to DoP on Mank and how he made the transition to make his debut feature film.
He talks pre-production, how he works with Fincher especially during the repeated takes, what the process was to shooting in black and white and the camera they used.
Co host Phil Hawkins then joins Giles to chat to Make Up designer Gigi Williams about her process, the difference between shooting on digital vs. film. What she works on first how she collaborates with the HOD team and gives some brilliant Make Up tips.
We then chat to Production Designer and Art Director Donald Graham Burt AKA Don Burt about designing the film from preparation through the shooting. He explains why listening is so important in film-making, how he researches a project and how he created the 1930/s & 1940 style and look. And how you don’t have to appease to get ahead.
Finally we chat to Costume Designer Trish Summerville about how she created the look and feel of Mank through her costumes. She talks about working in teams, how to collaborate with actors to help create the characters and how to use colours and patterns to portray certain emotions!
Listen to the podcast:
March 14, 2021
Mank is nominated for 10 Academy awards in this year’s 93rd Oscars in categories such as Best Picture, Lead Actor, and Best Director. It is also nominated for the VES award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature. The film follows screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s tumultuous development of Orson Welles’ iconic masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941).
There were several VFX supervisors nominated, Simon Carr (Territory Studio), Wei Zheng (Artemple), James Pastorius (Savage VFX), along with Peter Mavromates. In many respects, director David Fincher could have also been nominated for VFX. The director is himself an expert in visual effects and was a very active contributor to the film’s effect work. Peter Mavromates is a long-time collaborator with David Fincher and was officially the Co-producer, Post Supervisor and VFX Producer on the film. Additionally, Pablo Helman at ILM was key in creating the CG animals at the San Simeon zoo.
The film had its roots going back over 20 years. “We had a false start about 20 years ago, around 1999. The script had been written at that time but it never happened for a number of reasons,” Mavromates comments. “Probably a contributing factor was that it was black and white and if you weren’t Woody Allen in the 90s, you couldn’t shoot black and white. Even Mel Brooks had to change producers for Young Frankenstein because the studio wouldn’t let him shoot black and white and he had to find another studio.”
The movie finished filming about 2 weeks before the W.H.O. declared the COVID pandemic in Feb 2020. This meant nearly all the VFX was done using remote protocols at each of the VFX vendors.
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.
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The director of photography behind Oscars frontrunner Mank discusses his background in stills, collaborating with David Fincher, and reimagining black-and-white cinema using contemporary technique
In 2020, Erik Messerschmidt made his feature film debut as director of photography (DOP) on David Fincher’s Mank. A love letter to Hollywood’s “Golden Age”, the sumptuous black-and-white film – which leads this year’s Oscars hype with 10 nominations – follows alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) through the 1930s and 40s as he races to finish the cinematic masterpiece that would eventually become Citizen Kane. But rather than simply emulating the iconic imagery pioneered by Gregg Toland – one of film’s most legendary cinematographers, in large part due to his work on Kane – Fincher and Messerschmidt set out to leave a masterfully modern mark on the story.
“I felt like it was quite possible – and I’ve seen it before, with black-and-white in particular – for the images to become almost a parody,” says Messerschmidt, speaking over the phone from LA. “And parody was the last thing we wanted.” The pair were wary of leaning into a cinematic style that would draw “too much” attention to the period, thereby detracting from the authenticity of the narrative; rather, they hoped to transport viewers to old Hollywood in a less contrived way.