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.”
Whenever David Fincher releases a new film, it’s a joy for cinephiles and filmmakers alike to see how the Oscar-nominated filmmaker has stretched the boundaries of filmmaking. His latest Netflix film Mank is no exception.
For the film shot all in black and white, Fincher teamed with his Mindhunter Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, and people have been quite awed by his camera and lighting work being that it’s his first film credited as a Cinematographer. That’s only part of the story – we’ll let him tell the rest – but the young DP has paid his dues by rising up the ranks through the electrical side of things.
Either way, the results are amazing as Fincher works from a script written by his late father, Jack Fincher, to tell the presumably fictionalized story of Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the well-regarded Hollywood screenwriter whose many relationships during the ‘30s, led to the initial script that would eventually become Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Fincher’s film explores the way Mank viewed the relationship between mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his girlfriend and ingenue Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and molded that into Kane, all while battling his demons in a bottle with the help of his helper Rita (Lily Collins).
Below the Line got on Zoom with Mr. Messerschmidt a few weeks back to talk to him about what went into making such a gorgeous black and white film that stands next to Welles’ great cinematic masterpiece.
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.”
In the annals of Hollywood, Herman Mankiewicz will forever be remembered as the screenwriter of Orson Welles’s towering classic Citizen Kane, but his impact on the history of cinema doesn’t stop there. Mankiewicz also served as an early, uncredited writer on The Wizard of Oz. His contribution? Suggesting that once Dorothy Gale travels over the rainbow, the film transitions from black and white to glorious Technicolor. “He walked away from that [project] saying, ‘This is all I can come up with,’” laughs director David Fincher. “It might be the greatest special effect in the history of the movies.”
For Mank, Fincher’s backstage drama about the screenwriter’s life and his work on Kane, the director and his creative team journeyed from a world of color to one rendered entirely in black and white, shooting eye-catching sets and costumes with the RED 8K Helium Monochrome camera. That created an interesting artistic puzzle for Fincher and his collaborators to solve. From cinematography and production design to costumes and hair and makeup, each department needed to determine the best way to manipulate color to achieve the proper register of lights and darks onscreen.
“We had to train our senses to see through a lens of black and white,” explains Oscar-winning production designer Donald Graham Burt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). “It mandated a palette based on tone and contrast.”
Fortunately, they proved more than up to the challenge.
The DPs of ‘News of the World,’ ‘One Night in Miami’, ‘Mulan,’ ‘Nomadland,’ ‘Mank’ and ‘I’m No Longer Here’ on What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Their Jobs. They also share their inspirations and who drives diversity the most on productions.
“When I wanted to be a cinematographer, somebody said to me, ‘Girls don’t do that job,’ ” Disney’s Mulandirector of photography Mandy Walker admits, adding that she’s recently seen an uptick in representation. “It’s a little slower in our world, but it’s definitely changing.” Agreeing with Walker at THR‘s virtual Cinematographer Roundtable on Dec. 12 were DPs Damian Garcia of Netflix‘s I’m No Longer Here; Erik Messerschmidt of Netflix’s Mank; Tami Reiker of Amazon‘s One Night in Miamiand Netflix‘s The Old Guard; Joshua James Richards of Searchlight’s Nomadland; and Dariusz Wolski of Universal‘s News of the World. Inspiration, diversity and the future of theatrical exhibition drove the conversation. “Seeing people congregate together wearing masks in the middle of a plague … was one of those moments for me where I was just like, ‘I’m a filmmaker for life now.’ It made me realize I’m kind of ready to go down with the ship, to be honest,” recalls Richards of Nomadland‘s drive-in premiere in September. “If filmmaking stops being about that, people coming together, congregating for an experience that’s awe-inspiring, I might prefer to do something else.”
“Mank” set decorator Jan Pascale is no stranger to black-and-white films: She received an Oscar nomination for George Clooney‘s “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005). But those two monochrome films couldn’t be more different.
“When I first met with [‘Mank’ production designer Donald Graham Burt] about it, I said, ‘I’ve done black and white. I can do this.’ And Don said, ‘No, no, no, this is different.’ The way the images were captured was quite different,’” Pascale tells Gold Derby at our Meet the BTL Experts: Film Production Design panel. “On ‘Good Night, and Good Luck,’ we shot on film … and we had a really limited budget on that one — $7 million the whole movie — so I couldn’t paint anything or really paint anything, so everything was shot as is. But it sort of worked.”
“Mank,” however, was shot in black and white on a RED digital camera, completely changing the way images and details came off onscreen. But Pascale got some very modern assistance to help her do color-testing. “David [Fincher] and Don had done some testing with the camera that we were going to be using. And they discovered if we used our iPhones with the noir filter and photographed everything, that’s how it would appear in our movie,” she shares.
Mank director David Fincher, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and costume designer Trish Summerville detail the approach to shooting the acclaimed slice of Hollywood history in black and white. How does the absence of color distill the visual storytelling? How do different colors in the costume and production design read when captured in black and white? Learn about all of that and more.
“Mank,” David Fincher’s new Hollywood film about old Hollywood, pays homage to its source material by shooting in black and white. But if you ask its cinematographer, Erik Messerschmidt, the Netflix feature is anything but a throwback.
How was it that you came to work on “Mank”?
I have worked with David Fincher for several years. We had done the television show “Mindhunter” together. We had developed a really good working relationship and a friendship. I met him on the film “Gone Girl”; I was the gaffer on “Gone Girl,” and I initially met David there. After we did “Mindhunter” together, we had a really good shorthand, and I made it my business to really align myself and try to figure out what it was that David wanted, and try to support him as best as I could. He and I see the world, I think, in a very similar way, at least visually. So it was very easy to be in sync in terms of which decisions are needed. We’re very rarely in opposition, and when we are, it’s a constructive one. I was so thrilled to be invited; it was like a dream.