Director David Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shoot a black-and-white masterpiece for the 21st century.
February 12, 2021
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.