Industry Insights: Erik Messerschmidt on recreating old Hollywood using modern cinematography in Netflix’s Mank

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

Flossie Skelton
March 25, 2021
1854

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.

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How the ‘Mank’ Production Designer Re-created Hearst Castle

David  Fincher couldn’t film at William Randolph Hearst’s extravagant location, so production designer Donald Graham Burt built a replica of the legendary San Simeon — with echoes of its portrayal in ‘Citizen Kane’ as Xanadu — on a Los Angeles soundstage.

Carolyn Giardina
March 25, 2021
The Hollywood Reporter

One of the biggest challenges Mank production designer Donald Graham Burt — recently nominated for an Oscar for his work — faced was that the production was not granted access to Hearst Castle on California’s Central Coast. But interiors and exteriors of William Randolph Hearst‘s extravagant estate were needed for key scenes in director David Fincher‘s biopic about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, during the period in which he wrote the screenplay for Orson Welles‘ 1941 classic, Citizen Kane.

So, with the real San Simeon off-limits, Burt went about designing elaborate sets at Los Angeles Center Studios for interiors like the castle’s dining room, where a messy confrontation occurs during a party. “There’s no way to replicate Hearst Castle, and we weren’t trying to,” says Burt, who has worked with Fincher since 2007’s Zodiac and won an Oscar for the director’s 2008 film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

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‘Mank’: Costuming Hollywood’s Golden Age in Strategic Black-and-White

Oscar-nominated costume designer Trish Summerville used an iPhone to help her put different puzzle pieces together.

Bill Desowitz
March 23, 2021
IndieWire

Like her fellow Oscar-nominated colleagues, costume designer Trish Summerville had the rare opportunity of working in black-and-white on David Fincher’s “Mank,” which meticulously recaptured the Golden Age of Hollywood in the ’30s. But their work was made easier by the monochromatic settings on their iPhones, allowing them to instantly translate the proper color tones. This way, the look of Summerville’s wardrobes would be in sync with the sets and decor. It was all part of strategic plan to create an authentic-looking monochromatic world.

“I had conversations with [production designer] Don Burt about what his color palettes would be so we wouldn’t have the rooms be so colorful,” Summerville said. “We wanted to have the tones blend. For us in costumes, it was more burgundies, purples, navies, blacks. And you could pump up from there to gowns with muted lilacs or dusty roses, which came in as nice light grays. We also had shell whites or cream whites and stayed away from deep black. It was also being mindful of prints and patterns that could be too bold or too busy. And how to use details that wouldn’t have too much contrast or disappear entirely. For instance, you couldn’t have navy buttons on a navy suit or it would look black.”

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Oscar-Nominated Makeup Department Head Gigi Williams on “Mank”

Bryan Abrams
March 23, 2021
The Credits (MPA)

David Fincher‘s Mank is the most Oscar-nominated film of the year, amassing ten, thanks to the beauty and brilliance of its black-and-white execution. One of those nominations belongs to makeup department head Gigi Williams, a veteran who picks her work based on her belief in the director. In Fincher, she was collaborating with one of the most precise filmmakers in the business, and in Mank, working off a script from his father Jack Fincher, Williams had caught the director on what was likely his most personal project to date.

“If your makeup is too loud, you take away from the performance and you don’t belong in this artist’s picture, because Mank is a piece of art that everyone has dabbled in,” Williams says. “Everyone has put their piece into it, and everyone flows together so that nobody stands out. My whole career, I don’t like makeup that’s too big, that makes a statement, if you see my makeup, I’ve failed. I want to see the actor, I want to see the essence of the actor. I love the process of acting. I’m there to facilitate that.”

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Adobe: Netflix feature film Mank takes editorial workflows to a new level

Adobe Communications Team
March 09, 2021
Adobe Blog

Citizen Kane has long been regarded as a movie masterpiece for its cinematography, storytelling, and ahead-of-its-time visual effects. Who better to pay homage to the 1940’s film than director David Fincher, whose films are often lauded for these same characteristics? Fincher’s most recent project, the Netflix feature film Mank, brings to life a screenplay written by his late father, journalist Jack Fincher.

Netflix describes the film as “1930s Hollywood…reevaluated through the eyes of scathing wit and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish Citizen Kane.” This movie about a movie showcases the unique approach to storytelling and visual style that continues to make Fincher’s work stand out.

Helping Fincher to bring his signature style to life is a talented post-production team that includes post producer Peter Mavromates, editor Kirk Baxter, first assistant editor Ben Insler, assistant editor Jennifer Chung, and a number of additional assistant editors and VFX artists. Their collective credits include MINDHUNTER, Gone Girl, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, House of Cards, and other features.

As co-producer of Mank, Mavromates oversaw the timing, budget, schedule, and integration between the editorial, visual effects, and finishing departments. Insler was responsible for integrating the overall project workflows. Chung prepped dailies and supported the editorial team throughout the post-production process and liaised with the sound, color, and visual effects teams.

The team constantly looks to refine and improve their workflows. “I love the mechanics of post-production,” says Insler. “If there’s a way we can eliminate a bottleneck or figure out a more efficient way to do things, I’m all over it. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”

Insler had that opportunity while working on Mank, which was edited using Productions in Adobe Premiere Pro. Already long-time users of Premiere Pro, Productions made it even easier for the editorial team to organize projects, collaborate, and scale, while solving issues such as avoiding duplicate clips and providing the ability to break large projects into smaller segments so that they open and save faster.

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Film Editor Spotlight, with Kirk Baxter, ACE, editor of Mank

Mank and Adobe Premiere Pro take a new look at Old Hollywood

Adobe Video & Motion (YouTube)
March 9, 2021

How do you make a movie about the best movie ever made? With David Fincher, Gary Oldman, Netflix and Adobe Premiere Pro, Mank tells the story behind the story of Citizen Kane.


Mank’ DP Erik Messerschmidt On the Importance of Precision and Preparation


Jazz Tangcay

March 4, 2021
Variety

Erik Messerschmidt calls David Fincher’s process “precise.” And it is the greatest compliment. That precision is what Fincher is renowned for, his detail. He prefers the wider shots as he relays his character’s environments, but it’s what’s within the frame; that detail that gets the greatest performances out of actors, and gives audiences a full understanding of what is happening.

Mank,” a love letter to Hollywood’s golden age, is no different. Messerschmidt has collaborated with Fincher before on “Mindhunter,” and is no stranger to the Fincher process, but this was their first feature together.

Messerschmidt reflects on how Fincher works and how they collaborated on the black-and -white drama.

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How the ‘Mank’ VFX Team Meticulously Recreated ’30s LA in Black-and-White

Fincher used retro VFX techniques powered by digital tech (including matte paintings and LED screens for rear projection).

Bill Desowitz
March 2, 2021
IndieWire

One of the major craft achievements of “Mank” was how David Fincher’s visual effects team meticulously recreated ’30s-era LA in black-and-white. (They used the matte paintings of Artemple, Territory’s LED screens, and Savage’s sky replacement with Unreal’s game engine.) The work has been shortlisted for the VFX Oscar and garnered a VES nomination for supporting visual effects.

“Most of the effects were what we call our ‘body and fender’ work, where [David] shot something and it’s not quite right and it needed to be replaced,” said visual effects producer Peter Mavromates. “For example, during the Louis B. Mayer birthday party at San Simeon, he didn’t want to deal with real fire in the fireplace, so those are all added [in CG] afterwards. He’s all about efficiency on set.”

Also added were the cloudy skies during the shooting of an elaborate home movie with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) tied to a stake. “Sky replacement of shots were for consistency using the Unreal game engine with 3D model placement,” Mavromates added.

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Writing the Look for Mank

Erik Messerschmidt, ASC channels cinematographic legend Gregg Toland, ASC to recreate classic era Hollywood for David Fincher

Adrian Pennington
March 1, 2021
RED Digital Cinema

Shot in black and white and often in deep focus, David Fincher’s Mank evokes 1930s classic cinema with rigorous attention to digital detail. Made for Netflix, this biographical drama stars Gary Oldman as Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the Kane screenplay for Orson Welles.

Famously, Fincher was among the first A-list directors to embrace digital filmmaking. Since the groundbreaking production The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), he hasn’t deviated from using RED cameras and Mank was no exception. Fincher had always envisioned the screenwriter’s story being told in black and white.

“It would be a crime not to make this movie in black and white,” says Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, who recently earned an Emmy® nomination for shooting Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter. “Digital was just right for this project for all manner of reasons.”

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Costume Designer Trish Summerville Captures Old Hollywood Glitz and Gluttony in ‘Mank’

Shot in shadowy black-and-white mimicking the look of celluloid with plenty of Golden Age details, back lot and a Hearst Castle scene, the film streaming on Netflix Dec. 4 is a visual delight.

Booth Moore
December 4, 2020
WWD

The film was a passion project for Fincher, who even references certain deep focus shots from “Citizen Kane” while telling the story of his own tragic figure Mank, laid up after a car accident with a broken leg at a ranch in Victorville, Calif. ,with a looming deadline for “The American,” the script that would become “Citizen Kane.”

His personal drama is set against a pastiche of flashbacks to the time he arrived in Thirties Hollywood, with all its money and power politics, then driven not by liberalism but by the anti-socialist Republican Party. In one eerily familiar plot line, Mayer, Thalberg, Hearst and their cronies derail Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair using doctored newsreels in a moment of proto fake news. It’s this affront that inspires the antiestablishment Mank to base “Citizen Kane” on Hearst.

“Dave was particular about wanting to age film, and work in black-and-white, so for me, it was figuring out lighting and what type of camera he was going to use to shoot,” said Summerville, explaining that the old ways of working are harder than one would think. “I did a lot of swatching fabrics, going to rental houses, laying out different options and photographing them in the three different black-and-white settings of my phone. Then I would send them to him, and say give me a lead of where you are going. The closest thing was the monochromatic setting on my phone, he said, so I started photographing everything in that,” the designer explained.

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Insights Into The Lensing of “Mank,” “The Prom,” “Malcolm & Marie”

Cinematographers Erik Messerschmidt, Matthew Libatique, Marcell Rév discuss respective films, collaborating with directors David Fincher, Ryan Murphy, Sam Levinson

Robert Goldrich
February 26, 2021
Shoot

Mank (Netflix) marks cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt’s first narrative feature. It continues a series of firsts for the DP in collaboration with director David Fincher.

Messerschmidt, who earned ASC membership distinction last year, got a major break back in the day while serving as a gaffer for cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, most notably on the Fincher-directed Gone Girl. During the course of that movie, Fincher had Messerschmidt do some promotional still work for Gone Girl and the two struck up a rapport. This eventually led to Messerschmidt becoming the DP on Fincher’s Mindhunter, the thriller series centered on an FBI agent’s quest to track down serial killers in the late 1970s.

Last July, Messerschmidt garnered his first career Emmy nomination for his lensing of Mindhunter. He’s shot the lion’s share of Mindhunter episodes, representing his first major TV gig as his DP endeavors prior to that were primarily in commercials and other short-form fare. 

Fincher then further expanded Messerschmidt’s reach–this time into the feature realm with Mank which centers on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (portrayed by Gary Oldman) as he races to finish the script for director Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane on a tight timetable, secluded in a bungalow in a desert town miles removed from Los Angeles as he recuperates from a car accident in 1940. Attending to him are his secretary Rita (Lily Collins) and his German nurse (Monika Grossmann).

In the process, through Mankiewicz’s worldview–marked by his abiding social conscience and wit, at times caustic–we are introduced to not only Hollywood but life in the 1930s, ranging from the struggle of the rank and file during the Great Depression to the grandeur of Hearst Castle and high society. We also become privy to Mankiewicz’s own inner struggles with alcoholism, as well as a professional battle with Welles (played by Tom Burke) over screen credit for what became the classic Citizen Kane. The Mank cast also includes Charles Dance (as William Randolph Hearst), Amanda Seyfried (as Marion Davies, Hearst’s wife), Tuppence Middleton (as Sara Mankiewicz, Herman’s wife), Arliss Howard (as Louis B. Mayer), Sam Troughton (as John Houseman), Tom Pelphrey (as Joe Mankiewicz, Herman’s brother), Toby Leonard Moore (as David O. Selznick) and Ferdinand Kinsley (as Irving Thalberg).

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