Today, let’s dive into the filmmaking mind of director David Fincher, and his 2020 film Mank.
David Fincher loves CGI and VFX, and that is on full display just as much in Mank (2020) as it is in all his past films. Only this time, for Mank, David Fincher had to use those tools, along with an old school cinematography and directing style, and smart editing, not only to create a convincing 1930’s Hollywood world, reminiscent of movies like Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane, but also a convincing golden age Hollywood movie. Let’s see how David Fincher faked Mank.
In 1941, a 25-year-old Orson Welles made one of cinema’s most auspicious debuts by directing, co-writing, starring in and producing Citizen Kane. With Mank—David Fincher’s look at the evolution of Kane’s screenplay—cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt makes an impressive feature bow of his own.
After working his way up through the ranks of grip and electric and earning DP credits on the shows Legion, Mindhunter and Fargo, Messerschmidt’s very first fiction feature has landed him in the midst of Oscar conversation. With Mank now streaming on Netflix, Messerschmidt spoke with Filmmaker about deep focus, high ISOs and painting in lens flares; and how even when working with David Fincher you “start compromising when you get out of bed in the morning.”
David Fincher’s highly-anticipated Netflix film MANK is here! Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt ASC explains how modern equipment and techniques were used to create an authentic-looking 1930s black and white film.
Erik and Go Creative Show host, Ben Consoli, discuss why they chose not to shoot on film, how shooting & lighting black and white is different than color, Erik’s philosophy on camera coverage, and so much more!
Beginning his collaboration with David Fincher as a gaffer on Gone Girl, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt’s third collaboration with the director has now arrived nearly a decade later. Mank follows alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in his mad dash to finish the script for Citizen Kane, and Messerschmidt’s playful interpolation of Gregg Toland’s iconic cinematography is a sight to behold in every frame.
I spoke with Messerschmidt about his work with Fincher on Mindhunter organically leading to Mank, how Fincher doesn’t accept “much of anything he can’t control,” emulating the look of 1940s cinema without trying to perfectly recreate it, and he provides a list of movies he studied in preparation for Mank.
Mank is the highly anticipated Netflix biopic directed by David Fincher. The movie is told through the eyes of alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, as he battles with personal demons to finish the screenplay for Orson Welles’ renowned Citizen Kane.
While Fincher and his team have worked with FilmLight’s Baselight colour grading system since the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the Netflix TV series House of Cards, it was with Netflix’s Mindhunter that the director established his own in-house DI facility in Hollywood. Colourist Eric Weidt was brought on to lead colour development on the facility’s Baselight X system. Weidt had previously developed custom film emulation profiles for traditional film photographers, and brought his considerable experience in post-production for fashion stills and films to the grading suite.
Entirely shot in black and white, Mank has a 1930s Hollywood feel. Many tests were done before shooting – cameras, lenses, even light bulbs – before Eric developed the HDR, SDR and day-for-night LUTs alongside the project’s DoP Erik Messerschmidt. Fincher wanted to re-create certain period elements in post, for example “black blooming” in the shadows.
How will filmmaking adapt in the post-Covid era? A glimpse into the future is afforded by Mank, the forthcoming Netflix feature project directed by David Fincher and spearheaded by producer Ceán Chaffin. More than a love letter to a catalog title, Mank is a glimpse of the complex interplay of human creativity and the filmmaking process as practiced in Hollywood’s golden era.
Fincher is known for working in the vanguard of filmmaking technology. Examples include a very early digital intermediate on Panic Room – the first ever in a facility designed for the purpose – and Zodiac, one of the first major features to be shot almost entirely digitally. The remote collaboration envisioned by futurists at the dawn of the internet era was already common practice for his team long before the pandemic.
“Fortunately, we have not missed a beat,” says Chaffin. “We are working now exactly how we mostly could have been working the past ten years, which is working from home during post.”
But the virus and its requirement to remain physically apart may constitute a final push for the industry at large. All the attributes of true remote connectivity – reduced travel time and its attendant benefits in terms of stress, pollution and time savings, enhanced with rapid feedback, superior organization and a centralized database – will still be applicable when health concerns subside.
A canvas of the top pros on David Fincher’s team indicates that while the pandemic naturally raises stress levels, the need to work separately has been essentially a non-factor in terms of their ability to collaborate efficiently and keep the production on track.
Fincher came to the project with a mandate that the production work with the PIX production hub. Chaffin, who has made nine films with Fincher, says that the system is an essential tool for collaboration and input.
“This is how we have worked for a long time.” says Chaffin. “David feels the team is making the film with him, sharing in the problem-solving. Even when we were in the same building, David was often responding exclusively through PIX. His preferences and concerns are there for everyone to refer to. You don’t have to go find that one email, or remember a comment someone made on their way out the door.
There was never any doubt that David Fincher was going to shoot “Mank” in black-and-white. His biopic about alcoholic and acerbic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) struggling to churn out a first draft of “Citizen Kane” cried out for monochromatic treatment. And yet Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mindhunter”) were not about to indulge in a “Kane”-like re-enactment, or be confined to shooting on film, or composing in the period accurate aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Not with Fincher’s digital prowess and penchant for the 2.39: 1 widescreen format.
So Fincher and Messerschmidt struck a balance between retro and modern, taking advantage of the director’s efficient digital workflow to approximate the look of a movie made around the time of “Kane” in 1940 yet “Photographed in Hi-Dynamic Range” (as the title card proclaims).
“Filmmaking has always been a medium where we selectively employ the techniques that are available on the day,” Messerschmidt said. But shooting in black-and-white was a lot to unpack for the cinematographer, who had only done a few music videos and commercials outside of still photography and film school projects.
David Fincher’s passion project about the Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz looks, as intended, like a love letter to 1930s cinema. The filmmakers employ sophisticated digital techniques to pay homage to the cinematic bravura that helps Orson Welles’ masterpiece regularly top the list of all-time classics.
It’s a film the director originally intended as the follow-up to his 1997 thriller The Game, shortly after his father Howard, a journalist at LIFE magazine, wrote the script. For one reason and another, and reports suggest it was Fincher’s insistence on shooting in black and white, Mank was delayed until Netflix greenlit production late last year. Principal photography finished in February, just days before California went into lockdown.
Fincher of course kickstarted the streamer’s original content by masterminding House of Cards. He has subsequently made two series of serial killer investigation Mindhunter, all sixteen episodes shot by ErikMesserschmidtASC who is Fincher’s collaborator here.
Mank follows the ‘scathing social critic and alcoholic’, played by Gary Oldman as he races to finish the Kane screenplay for Welles. It also stars Charles Dance as newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and Amanda Seyfried as Heart’s girlfriend Marion Davies, satirized by Welles and Mankiewicz as Charles Foster Kane and mistress Susan Alexander. The connection with Hearst is strengthened by the fact that Mankiewicz was a frequent guest of Davies at Hearst’s fabulous California castle, dubbed Xanadu in Kane.
As a homage to WWII-era Hollywood the decision to emulate the look pioneered by cinematographers like Gregg Toland in digital format is a bold one.
“For this movie we wanted to shoot very deep focus photography for most of the film and then be very specific about where we used shallow focus,” says Messerschmidt. “Shooting on film would have significantly limited our creative choices, particularly with focus and depth of field.”
“A place to unload all my cinematic truths.” —Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC
How do you cultivate a career in Hollywood? What does it take to make iconic work? There’s an art to everything in life and the Art of the Shot explores the answers to those questions and more through deep-dives into the minds of master filmmakers. Join host Derek Stettler, young filmmaker and writer for the ASC and SOC magazines since 2016, as he learns from the artists behind today’s most strikingly-shot projects. Enjoy compelling conversations on the craft, insights from successful careers, tips, techniques + more!
In this episode, you’ll hear from both the cinematographer and the “A” camera operator of Mindhunter, who worked together throughout Season 1 and 2 to shoot every single episode. Please enjoy this exclusive interview with Erik Messerschmidt, ASC and Brian Osmond, SOC!
Brian Osmond, Gaffer Danny Gonzalez, and Erik Messerschmidt (Nikolai Loveikis)
In this episode, you’ll learn:
– Erik’s career path (00:04:06) – Erik’s favorite part of the job (00:06:42) – What DP’s should know to best work with their gaffers, from Erik’s experience working as a gaffer before becoming a DP (00:07:02) – Unique skills Erik gained from his experience as a gaffer (00:07:56) – How Brian got his career started (00:11:19) – Brian’s favorite part of his job (00:12:19) – What other directors can learn from how David Fincher treats his crew (00:18:39) – The thought process & techniques behind Mindhunter‘s precise camera movement (00:22:50) – The strategic use of handheld camera operating (00:34:27) – The collaborative nature of the Mindhunter set (00:37:34) – The importance of having a dedicated camera operator on set, especially on a David Fincher set (00:41:19) – Erik’s role as “quality control supervisor” (00:44:21) – Why a monitor on a David Fincher set is covered in smudges (00:46:57) – Why there’s no such thing as a B camera “bonus shot” on Mindhunter & how shots are planned out for multiple cameras (00:48:23) – What Erik thinks is the hardest shot to do well (00:52:04) – How Erik lights & shoots with 2 cameras simultaneously (00:53:41) – Erik’s approach to lighting Mindhunter & techniques used (00:56:55) – Erik’s preference for real fluorescent lighting (01:03:30) – Mindhunter‘s production design and how much of the locations were built (01:05:01) – Favorite set of Season 2 (01:06:26) – How getting scripts in advance helps them work better (01:10:44) – The innovative car process shooting on Mindhunter & how it works (01:12:38) – How virtual production helps realize every filmmaker’s dream, stopping time, & how Erik used that to shoot a 9-minute dialog scene at dawn (01:18:02) – How the car process shooting on Mindhunter evolved from Season 1 (01:22:37) – How the custom RED digital cinema camera, dubbed the Xenomorph, evolved from Season 1 (01:27:22) – Why Brian prefers a fluid head over a geared head to achieve those smooth, precise shots David Fincher loves (01:37:34) – How to shoot a scene & why “Fix it in prep!” should be every filmmaker’s mantra (01:42:08) – All about the lenses used on Mindhunter & how Erik art directed the artifacts & nuances of every optical aberration (01:48:10) – Tips from Brian on getting really precise shots with a fluid head, what operating technique Erik has learned from Brian, & how being self-critical is a key to his success (01:56:42) – What Erik & Brian feel is the most rewarding part of working on Mindhunter (02:02:47)
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Herman ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) drunkenly harangues the dinner guests at Hearst Castle
Directed by: David Fincher Produced by: Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth, and Douglas Urbanski Written by: Jack Fincher Score by: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross Costumes by: Trish Summerville Edited by: Kirk Baxter, ACE Production Design by: Donald Graham Burt Photography by: Erik Messerschmidt, ASC Co-Produced by: Peter Mavromates & William Doyle
Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) sits in growing horror as her dinner party is disturbed by Mank
Cast: Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies Lily Collins as Rita Alexander Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer Tom Pelphrey as Joe Mankiewicz Sam Troughton as John Houseman Ferdinand Kingsley as Irving Thalberg Tuppence Middleton as Sara Mankiewicz Tom Burke as Orson Welles Joseph Cross as Charles Lederer Jamie McShane as Shelly Metcalf Toby Leonard Moore as David O. Selznick Monika Gossmann as Fraulein Freda and Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst
William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) beside MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard)
Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz (Gisele Schmidt/NETFLIX)
Gary Oldman (as Herman Mankiewicz), Sean Persaud (as Mank’s colleague Tommy), and Gaffer Danny Gonzalez, before a LED backdrop of the desert (Gisele Schmidt/NETFLIX)
Gary Oldman (as Herman Mankiewicz) shot with the RED Monstro 8K Monochrome by Camera Operator Brian Osmond (Nikolai Loveikis/NETFLIX)