Continuing Below the Line’s look at the crafts behind David Fincher’s Mank, we spoke to Production Designer Donald Graham Burt, his sixth go-round with Fincher after the first worked together on 2007’s Zodiac. A year later, Burt would win the Oscar for Production Design for his work on Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Besides performing those duties for six Fincher films, Burt also played a significant role in the designs for Fincher’s Golden Globe-winning Netflix series, House of Cards.
Burt’s definitely a bit of an old school Hollywood vet, going back to some of his work in the ‘90s like The Joy Luck Club and Dangerous Minds. Still, Mank offered Burt a number of new challenges, the first one being the fact that the film would be shot entirely in black and white, the second would be how it would task Burt and his team to recreate some of Hollywood’s most iconic locations from the ‘30s and ‘40s. You only have to watch the movie or look at some of the images below to agree that Burt and his art department came through with flying colors… even without having any actual color.
In a new series of in-depth interviews with Society members, ASC Insights provides the cinematographer’s perspective on today’s most pertinent topics. The first two episodes cover High Dynamic Range (HDR) from the director of photography’s view.
Episode One discusses the implementation of HDR in postproduction as a deliverable and features the insights from Markus Förderer, ASC, BVK; Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC; and associate member and colorist Dave Cole. The episode examines scenes from Independence Day: Resurgence, the F/X series Legion and the short film Mandy.
Episode Two examines the implementation of HDR throughout the entire workflow from set to post and features thoughts from Erik Messerschmidt, ASC; Marshall Adams, ASC; and colorist Dave Cole. The members discuss scenes from Netflix’s Mindhunterand El Camino: The Breaking Bad Movie.
For both episodes, ASC associate member and American Cinematographer contributing editor Jay Holben discusses the ins and outs of HDR, the benefits and pitfalls and how important it is for the cinematographer to be involved in the postproduction implementation of HDR. The key to the format is in expanding the palette of creative intention for the filmmakers, not in merely delivering a brighter picture.
It’s a milestone for any up-and-coming cinematographer, landing that first feature film assignment. For Erik Messerschmidt, that all-important project turned out to be Mank,David Fincher’s ambitious chronicle of Herman Mankiewicz and how the irascible screenwriter came to pen the first draft of what became Orson Welles’s cinematic landmark Citizen Kane.
On paper, Mank could not have been more daunting. Messerschmidt would be working side by side with a famously exacting filmmaker, on a high-profile drama starring Oscar winner Gary Oldman in the title role. He’d also be shooting entirely in black and white.
“I was like, Oh cool, I get to do black and white,” Messerschmidt recalls. “Then I realized how naïve that was, and it freaked me out. It really freaked me out.”
Fortunately, Messerschmidt had some history with Fincher. He had worked as a gaffer on the director’s 2014 thriller Gone Girl, and deeply appreciated his direct communication style and the specificity of his vision. Impressed by Messerschmidt’s pragmatism and work ethic, Fincher subsequently hired him for the F.B.I.-profiling drama Mindhunter, and the professional relationship deepened from there.
When Fincher turned his sights to Mank, he knew whom to call. “I’m a big believer in multidisciplinary thinking,” he explains. “Erik was obviously somebody who knew how to run his manpower, but he could also speak to his crew in myriad ways that imparted slightly different nuances. He can split hairs in terms of foot-candles or T-stops or F-stops but also have a conversation about Carol Reed or how Marlon Brando never hit his mark.”
Together, Fincher and Messerschmidt plotted how best to shoot the character-driven period drama, which was written by the director’s late father, Jack Fincher. One of the most challenging sequences was a nighttime stroll taken by Mank (Oldman) and the screen siren Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) through the palatial grounds of Hearst Castle. Onscreen, the friends are bathed in moonlight, yet those scenes were actually shot during the day using a classic Hollywood camera technique known as day for night. (The sequence was filmed largely on location at Pasadena’s Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens; the menagerie of animals in the background was added in digitally during post-production.)
The scope of the production might have proved overwhelming were it not for the rapport between director and cinematographer. “All we do all day is ask questions of the people that we’re working with. I was completely thrilled to be working for someone who had answers to those questions and who was genuinely interested in and curious about what it was that we were doing,” Messerschmidt says. “Being in a situation where you can have a really productive conversation with the director, that is so rare and so important.”
The duo spoke to Queue about what makes their partnership work.
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.
In this 85-minute episode, interviewer Caleb Deschanel, ASC talks to cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC and director David Fincher about their stylish black-and-white period drama.
Written by Fincher’s father, Jack,Mankdepicts the turbulent life and career of self-destructive Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) — focusing on his writing of the script for the iconic 1941 drama Citizen Kane. He and director Orson Welles shared an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
While the filmmakers sought a period look and feel contemporary to their story — in part inspired by Gregg Toland, ASC’s Oscar-nominated camerawork in Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath — they embraced every modern tool to accomplish their creative goal, shooting with Red Ranger monochrome Helium cameras and Leitz Summilux-C lenses while employing virtual production techniques to facilitate recreating a vintage Los Angeles and other locations.
A David Fincher film has a number of hallmarks to it, but one guarantee is some top-notch cinematography. His latest movie, Mank, is certainly another example of this. Fincher’s cinematographer here is Erik Messerschmidt, who is quickly becoming a major name in the business. Messerschmidt is a terrific up and coming DP, one who is a major reason why Mank is as good as it is. Given the talent on display, as well as the unique visual elements on display in Netflix’s likely Oscar juggernaut, an opportunity to speak with him was one I couldn’t pass up. Cinematographers are always great to talk to, and he was no exception.
Below, you can hear my conversation with Messerschmidt. I was fascinated to hear about working with Fincher, how Mank came together, and basically everything Messerschmidt had to say. He’s clearly a big cinephile, and that comes across in the discussion. He’s also very quick to express humility when praised, though he’s about to become an Academy Award nominee, so he should prepare for more kudos. Right before he gets cited by Oscar (and potentially wins the Best Cinematography category), take a listen to my chat with Messerschmidt. It’s a good one, especially for Mank fans, as he has some really interesting details to share.
Mank frames the origin story of Citizen Kane from the perspective of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he’s hit a low point in life. Alcoholic, world-weary and hobbled by a broken leg sustained in a car crash, Mankiewicz is trundled off to a dusty desert cottage in Victorville, Calif., accompanied by a nurse and a typist tasked with keeping their cantankerous patient off the bottle so he can complete a screenplay for Orson Welles — a script that will serve as the foundation of Kane.
Pressed by Welles to finish the project, the bedridden “Mank” (as he’s known to his friends and colleagues) struggles to find creative inspiration, eventually drawing upon his memories of businessman, newspaper tycoon and politician William Randolph Hearst. Flashbacks transport us back to Mank’s headier days as a handsomely paid Hollywood scripter. After amusing Hearst with his barbed wit on a movie location, Mankiewicz is invited to mingle with members of the mogul’s inner circle and renews a friendship with Hearst’s mistress, actress and comedian Marion Davies. Mank’s Hollywood career is thriving, and his social standing is on the rise, but his proximity to power allows him to observe its corrosive influence firsthand — souring his worldview, but ultimately informing the plot of Citizen Kane and the sardonically unflattering portrait of its Hearst-like protagonist, Charles Foster Kane.
The script for Mank was initially fashioned by director David Fincher’s father, Jack, a journalist and screenwriter, who empathized with Mankiewicz’s plight and leaned into the controversial assertions of film critic Pauline Kael, whose 1971 essay in The New Yorker, “Raising Kane,” maintained that Mankiewicz was almost entirely responsible for the Citizen Kane screenplay, with little input from Welles. (That thesis has since been partially debunked by Welles supporters, including director and former film critic Peter Bogdanovich.)
Following his father’s death in 2003, Fincher retooled the Mank script with the help of screenwriter Eric Roth, making it less antagonistic toward Welles. “I never felt that the film should be a posthumous arbitration — that’s never been of interest to me,” Fincher told AC during a 90-minute Zoom interview that included Mank cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, ASC. “What was interesting to me was that it’s [essentially] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — here’s a guy in the wings, and it’s his experience of this situation. What I found fascinating about Mankiewicz was [that] 30 percent of his output as a professional screenwriter in Hollywood was uncredited. And for one brief, shining moment — on a movie he did when he was old enough to sign a contract and understand the terms expressly — he said, ‘No, no, no — I don’t want this one to get away.’”
Erik Messerschmidt, ASC (foreground) on the set with (background, from left) boom operator Michael Primmer, B-dolly grip Mike Mull and A-camera 2nd assistant Gary Bevans. (Photo by key makeup artist Gigi Williams, courtesy of 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.”