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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True Colors

Costume designer Trish Summerville enters the world of black-and-white filmmaking for Mank.

Jessica Shaw
February 12, 2021
Netflix Queue

Costume Sketches by Gloria Young Kim

The first thing Trish Summerville heard from her friends when she signed on to be the costume designer for David Fincher’s Mank was, “That is going to be so easy for you!” People wondered how difficult it could possibly be to dress a cast for a black-and-white film set in the 1930s and 40s, about Herman Mankiewicz, the screenwriter who penned the first draft of what would become Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. “I kept hearing, ‘You can just use any color you ever wanted and never worry,’” Summerville recalls, laughing at the thought. “That was definitely not the case.”

In fact, it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Summerville is a Hollywood force herself, having costume-designed films like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Fincher’s Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, among others. Before Mank, she had worked on projects that incorporated black and white through flashbacks, but she had never done a complete picture sans color.

She immediately immersed herself in the style and learned some tricks of the trade. For instance, a light blue might be beautiful in person, but it’s going to look light gray onscreen. A true black can be too severe; navy reads as a softer alternative. A dark or saturated color that’s striking in real life will seem equally flat in black and white. On top of that, some fabrics strobe and some patterns with contrasting colors resemble confetti. Even a color that looks great can distract an actor in a dialogue-heavy scene and should therefore be avoided.

“Any project with Dave is a dream and you know it’s going to be challenging and exciting, Summerville summarizes, calling me from the set of Slumberland, her next film, “but my brain definitely had to adjust.”

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The Minds Behind the Sets of “Mank” Share Their Experience Re-Creating Old Hollywood in Black and White

Netflix’s film starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, and Lily Collins has been nominated for a host of accolades, including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture.

Lauren Wicks
February 9, 2021
Veranda

For those in the television and film industry with dreamy job titles like production designer or set decorator, the fun begins long before filming, deep in the throes of research. And that was especially the case for Netflix’s Mank, a period piece filmed in black and white in 2020.

“Any opportunity to work on a period film has everybody in our business, especially those in our department, salivating to hear that we get to go back in time, discovering how society functioned and the nuances of the period: the furnishings, the architecture, the lifestyles,” says Donald Burt, the film’s production designer. “It felt like we were living in the film, and that’s what it’s all about: presenting a story in a format that feels like it was actually made then.”

Burt spent much of his design preparation time at the Academy of Motion Pictures library, scouring through documents from filming methods to formal letters, sorting out old gambling debts between executives to decipher thought processes regarding films from nearly 100 years ago.

“This is not a documentary, so we needed to take some license, but I always say I put research and information into a blender and see what comes out to best help tell the story we are trying to tell,” says set decorator Jan Pascale. “It’s so exciting to not only do a black-and-white film but to dive into the history of Hollywood and L.A., learning how people communicated back then.”

Pascale recalls offering typewriters to the casting agents, and it proving a greater challenge than originally thought to find people to type efficiently on them. Though “QWERTY” was created long ago, managing a modern keyboard is much easier than the models of yesteryear. The same goes for making a movie in color.

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Faux Fur and Jewelry Bring the World of ‘Mank’ to Life Onscreen

Jazz Tangcay
February 11, 2021
Variety

When it came to creating the costumes of David Fincher’s “Mank,” costume designer Trish Summerville had an advantage. “There were a lot of photographs out there,” she says, especially of Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfried in the black and white tribute to old Hollywood.

Summerville included a hat in her first sketch of Seyfried’s onscreen look, but since hair department head Kimberley Spiteri had made such a nice wig, Summerville ditched that idea.

The coat she sports, Summerville says, was a muted powdery blue. “It’s like a pale dusty periwinkle wool crepe. The fur is faux to mimic a minx, and we painted into it to give it more depth.”

Shooting in black and white gave her liberty to heavily paint on the costume to give the fur dimension. Summerville had ordered pattern books from the 1930s that had illustrations and the right silhouette for the time.

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Sound Designer Ren Klyce Gives ‘Mank’ That Classic Movie Palace Sound

Clarence Moye
February 10, 2021
Awards Daily

The first time I saw David Fincher’s Mank, I was immediately transformed to my local old-school movie palace, The Rialto. I could imagine myself reclined in the plush red seats, surrounded by red curtains with gold fringe. I could smell the freshly popped corn. And I could hear the film booming in that classic movie palace sound, waves of 1930s-era monaural luxury wafting through a giant center speaker.

Given the current pandemic, that kind of escapism is pretty priceless. It’s exactly what sound designer Ren Klyce and director David Fincher wanted the user to feel while watching Mank.

“That was David’s wish — that you would feel that when watching the film, but our fear along with that wish was that somehow we wouldn’t be able to convey that response,” Klyce explained. “I’m so glad that you picked up on that.”

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‘Mank’ Co-Producer Peter Mavromates On Accentuating a 1930s World Through VFX

Mavromates and director David Fincher oversaw a team of four VFX Supervisors to deliver the period film.

Clarence Moye
February 9, 2021
Awards Daily

When tackling a period-centered project like Mank, David Fincher and his assembly of below the line craftspersons create magic, fully immersing the viewer in a faithfully recreated 1930s-era California. While the project leveraged many real-world locations and built sets, changing times and the absence of an unlimited budget posed some challenges to create that immersive world Fincher and team demanded. To complete the illusion, the filmmakers looked to co-producer Peter Mavromates, who led a team of four visual effects (VFX) supervisors.

Now, Mank isn’t effects-heavy The Avengers, but that doesn’t mean VFX aren’t just as critical to the film’s storytelling and overall atmosphere.

“The assumption, at minimum, is that you’re going to at least need to retouch a background to get rid of modern anachronisms,” Mavromates explained. “As in this movie, there are situations where David [Fincher] will want to actually replace the background so that period buildings are back there.”

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Mix Presents Award Season 2021: Mank

Tom Kenny
February 8th, 2021
Mix Magazine / SoundWorks Collection

Director David Fincher tasked the sound crew with reviving the feel of the Golden Age of Hollywood in the track. They came up with a process of combining old and new technologies to create a “patina” for playback.

Ren Klyce, Sound Designer
Drew Kunin, Production Sound Mixer
Jeremy Molod, Supervising Sound Editor
Nathan Nance, Re-Recording Mixer

Moderated by Tom Kenny, Editor of Mix

Listen to the SoundWorks Collection podcast on:

Apple Podcasts
Spotify

SoundCloud
Stitcher

The Golden Age Sound of ‘Mank’

Jennifer Walden
February 10, 2021
Mix Magazine

How David Fincher’s ‘Mank’ emulated Hollywood’s Golden Era

Production Designer Don Burt reveals the secrets of the film’s authentic rendering of a bygone Los Angeles

Adam Woodward
February 8, 2021
The Spaces

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was made at the height of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, a time when studios controlled their stars and super-producers like Louis B Mayer reigned supreme. David Fincher’s Mank, which tells the story of how legendary screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz wrote one of the greatest films of all time, is a faithful reconstruction of Tinseltown as it appeared in the 1930s and early ’40s.

The unmistakable air of Old Hollywood glamour that infuses every frame of Mank was the result of months of planning and preparation by production designer Don Burt, who has worked on every Fincher release since 2007’s Zodiac.

Burt walks us through the key locations from the film, some of which were scouted by himself while others were created on studio soundstages – just as Welles would have done.

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Mank Co-Producer Peter Mavromates on the Film’s VFX and Post

Edward Douglas
February 8, 2021
Below the Line

There are many reasons why there’s a general wave of excitement whenever there’s a new David Fincher movie. That’s particularly been the case with Mank considering the six-year gap since Fincher’s last film Gone Girl, roughly half that time in which Fincher was making the series Mindhunter for Netflix.

Most of Fincher’s fans within and outside the industry see the filmmaker as a modern master of the visual medium, and Mank offers further proof of this with stunning shots recreating Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s, fully realized background environments in which well-known icons from the era discuss the political climate of the times, both in the country and in Tinsel Town itself. At the center of it all is Gary Oldman’s Herman Mankiewicz, the illustrious screenwriter who would win a shared Oscar for co-writing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

One person who has been along for the ride watching Fincher’s rise as a visionary filmmaker is Peter Mavromates, whose first film with Fincher was 1997’s The Game, but who first met the director on a Michael Jackson video and a commercial he directed. Mavromates has worked in post for over 35 years, as one of the first to champion the benefits of combining analog film with digital post, producing his first DI (Digital Intermediary) for Fincher’s 2002 movie, Panic Room, which was shot on analog. Five years later, he did the same for Zodiac, Fincher’s first digitally-shot film.

As Fincher’s Post-Production Supervisor, Mavromates’ duties continued to expand and evolve, his duties involving all the budgeting and hiring when it comes to the post process. “I like to describe it as once the image is captured, it becomes my problem,” he told Below the Line over a Zoom call a few weeks back.

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Editor Kirk Baxter Thrived on Mank’s Dialogue-Heavy Sequences

Clarence Moye
February 8, 2021
Awards Daily

Netflix’s Mank marks editor Kirk Baxter’s fifth cinematic collaboration with director David Fincher. It’s a collaboration that proved extremely rewarding for the editor who received two Academy Awards for his work with Fincher — 2010’s The Social Network and 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fact, Baxter and then co-editor Angus Wall achieved an incredibly rare feat with their Dragon Tattoo win given its lack of a Best Picture nomination.

That successful collaborative history with Fincher stems from Baxter’s willingness to accept feedback and push his work to be the best it can be.

“I don’t seek to be finished, and I remain curious with the material. I don’t work from a defensive standpoint. I don’t have this protectionist quality about the work I’ve done,” Baxter explained when ruminating on his partnership with Fincher. “I just show the work, and if he’s into it, he’s into it. If he’s got a way that he thinks it can be improved, then I’m into that. That’s the relationship. It’s a lot of back and forth, and I’m really comfortable doing it.”

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