‘Mank’ Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt Aims For Subtle Use Of Period Technique On Old Hollywood Drama: “You Don’t Want It To Be A Parlor Trick”

Matt Grobar
·14 min read

On David Fincher’s Mank, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt channeled the aesthetics of Hollywood’s Golden Age, in order to tell the story of one of its legendary figures.

Written by Fincher’s late father, Jack, the drama follows brilliant, alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), as he pens the script for Citizen Kane.

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Shooting digitally, in native black and white, Messerschmidt would place viewers inside Mankiewicz’s era by playing with the vocabulary of films from the ’30s and ’40s. At the same time, he would look to pay homage with his choices to Gregg Toland, the pioneering DP behind Kane, who popularized deep focus photography. “I think it was more [loose] inspiration, and we certainly weren’t recreating anything from Citizen Kane directly,” Messerschmidt notes. “When I was feeling insecure about the choices I was making, I’d be like, ‘Okay, what would Gregg Toland have done?’ But we were certainly making our own movie.”

After collaborating with the younger Fincher on his serial killer drama, Mindhunter, Messerschmidt was well prepared to take on the demands of this passion project, which he’d been looking to bring to the screen since the beginning of his career. “You know, David is interested in the pursuit of excellence,” he says, “so we are endeavoring for that on every take.”

At the same time, the project was intimidating, on a certain level—the challenge being to bring period style to Mank, without ever taking it over the top. Below, the DP breaks down his approach to shooting the Oscar contender, which marks his first narrative feature, along with the many highlights of his experience on set.

DEADLINE: How did you feel when David Fincher approached you for Mank?

ERIK MESSERSCHMIDT: I was thrilled. He told me about the film before I had an opportunity to read the script, actually, so I was waiting in anticipation to read it. He had talked about it in an abstract way previously, but I was incredibly excited, and honestly, a little bit intimidated by the prospect of it. Obviously, it’s a passion project of his, and he was incredibly committed to it. He always is on anything, but in particular I think, on this one, because of the history of the script, and his father writing the screenplay, but also how long he’d been trying to get the film made, and the subject matter. So, I was overjoyed and a little nervous and excited, and all the good things.

DEADLINE: From what I understand, you hadn’t had the opportunity to shoot in black and white since film school.

MESSERSCHMIDT: Yeah. I had done a couple of commercials, I think, and some silly music videos, but nothing serious. I’d done black-and-white still photography, but yeah. It’s a privilege. Not a lot of us get the opportunity to do that that often.

DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Fincher early on, in terms of the visual approach to this story?

MESSERSCHMIDT: We wanted the film to transport the audience back to that period. We wanted the audience to feel like they were watching a film of the period, or at least sucked into the time period enough to feel absorbed into the story. We weren’t really looking, though, to make a genre film.

I was particularly concerned with being exploitive of period, and of style. I was very conscious about drawing too much attention to the work, and being seduced with the opportunity to shoot black and white, and therefore make the wrong choice. I think it’s so tempting to really go for deep shadows and lots of shape, and you don’t want it to be a parlor trick. At least in this film, we did not want it to be that at all.

So we spent a lot of time pontificating about how we could use the aesthetic, but in a tasteful way, so that it was all story-based decision-making. It was always that thing of, “Let’s first look at the scene, look at the story, and then the aesthetic will grow out of it.” I remember at one point, I called David and said, “God, are we going hard enough, and pushing it hard enough?” And he said, “No, no, no. I think it’s perfect. Stay the course.”

DEADLINE: Fincher always planned to shoot Mank in black and white. But was digital a given from the get-go, as well?

MESSERSCHMIDT: I can’t imagine a world where David would want to shoot in film, if that’s what you’re asking, and I think shooting it digitally was absolutely the right choice. Look, film is a fantastic, beautiful medium. But it’s not a particularly good medium to work in if you’re interested in consistent, predictable results. We really curate heavily everything that’s in the frame. We don’t leave much up to chance when we work together, so we carefully art direct everything that’s in the shot, and the digital workflow is really helpful for that.

DEADLINE: How did you land on the decision to shoot on the RED Helium Monochrome, with Leica lenses? And what kind of visual testing did you engage in prior to shooting?

MESSERSCHMIDT: We knew we wanted to do most of the film in deep focus, which is a little bit of an homage to Gregg Toland, so we required a 35mm-sized sensor. But I did extensive testing, weeks and weeks of it. I went to Panavision two or three times, looked at every lens they had. I met with [VP of Optical Engineering] Dan Sasaki there, and I did the same at Keslow Camera. I looked at every single spherical lens they had, looking for the lenses that would give us the best results at deep focus, and believe it or not, we did end back on the Leicas, which we’d shot on Mindhunter. That was not my expectation at all, and it wasn’t David’s, either. It’s just the way the math worked out.

DEADLINE: Why did that outcome surprise you?

MESSERSCHMIDT: Well, those lenses are designed to be shot near wide open, or wide open, to be very fast lenses. Most modern lenses are optimized between wide open and a T4, and we were on the opposite end of the lens. A lot of the technicians I talked to rarely even test their lenses at that deep of stop because they’re so rarely shot there, so I had anticipated that larger-format lenses, or some vintage lenses might perform better. And there’s some truth to that. But for the most part, we ended back on the Leicas.

DEADLINE: Historically, there’s such a stylistic diversity to films shot in black and white. And while distinctions of the sort sometimes go unappreciated, Mank has been widely commended for its unique visual style. That being said, how did you understand the kind of black-and-white film you were making here? And what kinds of films did you look at in prep, as reference?

MESSERSCHMIDT: We looked at a lot, and I think there’s truth to that. I think most of the modern film audience equates black and white with noir, and it’s probably because the classic noir look is, in many cases, the most memorable. But within the canon of black-and-white cinematography, the spectrum is incredibly wide.

So what we did is, we looked at a variety of references. I basically went through and watched a bunch of films that I thought might have elements that would contribute to formulating the aesthetic playbook for the film. Some were classic noir films, others were classic ’30s glamour films, but really segmenting them out, and pulling certain elements of certain films together [resulted in] this overarching aesthetic for the movie. There are scenes in Mank that are essentially noir-based, there are others that are more ’30s glamour, and then there are others that are very modern or more naturalistic, and that’s all done with intent. It depended on the location and the scene construction, and the content of the story, as well.

DEADLINE: While the use of deep focus was one nod to Toland and his era, theatrical fade-outs were another. Can you explain what those are, and how you achieved them?

MESSERSCHMIDT: In prep, David and I were looking for a technique to use in the transition moments of the film. So when we go back in time from present day—which I guess is 1939, 1940, in the bungalow—we decided that we would fall back on that same technique that [Orson] Welles and Toland had used in Citizen Kane, which are these theatrical fade-outs, where we leave portions of the frame lit longer than others. Typically, a regular cinema dissolve is done in an optical printer or in a computer, and the whole frame goes at once. But when you do it with lighting, you can be selective with what you leave lit longer. So, we did that.

It’s done essentially the same way you would do it in the theater. There’s a computerized lighting board that can set all the timing of the lights, and we call it a “lighting cue,” actually, which is a theater term. We programmed that and rehearsed it, and dimmed it away, and we could be incredibly precise with it.

DEADLINE: I know that Fincher wanted to shoot in super high resolution, and then degrade in post, to lend an incredible softness to the image. But how did his concept of the post process influence your approach to lighting on set?

MESSERSCHMIDT: We knew we were going to do that. David is the king of oversampling, and we had a few things that we wanted to emulate, for sure. We liked the quality that happens if you take true black-and-white negatives and make release prints off an internegative. [As] you go through the entire photochemical process, the camera negative gets degraded by duplication, so the oversampling idea actually has been part of cinema since the very beginning.

But one of the byproducts of that process is this slight softening of the black parts of the frame, or the very dark parts of the frame. We were very interested in emulating that, so we worked with a colorist named Eric Weidt on a way to grab the darker areas of the frame and just subtly blur them a bit. We called it the “Black Bloom,” and we were able to attenuate it, shot to shot.

That was something we tested and developed, and then worked on in the prep, so that we could see that in dailies. So, there’s an element [that’s] just like in any motion picture production, as a cinematographer. You have an idea about what direction you’re going in the post process, and you light for it and plan for it. So I deliberately left a little bit more air, a little bit more exposure in the shadows, knowing that we were going to add this effect in post, which was going to crush the image slightly and give it a little bit more contrast.

So, we did that. We knew we were going to add grain when we wanted it. The camera actually had a little bit of inherent grain in it—or technically noise, but it looks a bit like grain—and we added some there. We added gate weave, which is something that happens in the printing process. We did all of those things.

DEADLINE: One of Mank’s most memorable sequences follows the title character, on the night of the 1934 gubernatorial election. How did you approach the lighting and design of that nightmarish montage?

MESSERSCHMIDT: I was incredibly excited to shoot that sequence. There’s large parts of the film that have to live, to a large degree, in realism, in order for us to buy the more dramatic and stylized moments, and that particular sequence is one where we could really push it a little bit. There’s a little bit of German expressionism in the montages, a little bit of playfulness.

We shot that scene in a restaurant in Downtown LA called Cicada, and there were some elements that we knew we needed—a stage, for example, tables for everyone to sit around. So we went down there with [production designer] Don Burt and started to formulate some ideas of where we could put the tables, and where we could put the stage, and one thing that we knew we wanted was this very theatrical style. I felt quite strongly, and so did Don, that we didn’t want to get in a situation where we were adding lots of theatrical lights to the set, and really having to light it too much, because that’s not really what they would’ve done. So instead, what we decided to do was build that 1934 sign behind them on the stage, and the big, light-up marquee sign for the vote count. That would be the principal set piece of the entire room, and everything would be motivated from that.

Then, it’s essentially that and the practicals on the tables, and the follow spot, and that’s all the lights we had in that set. And I’m really pleased with how it came out. It was meant to be this edge-lit shaped silhouette, smoky interior. Don [and I] were trying to figure out how to articulate the idea to David, and Don did an artist’s rendering of the set with the sign. There were a couple of iterations, and we showed it to David, and actually I think the way the final set looks is very close to that rendering.

DEADLINE: Were there unique challenges for you on this film, just given the fact that you were shooting much of it in deep focus?

MESSERSCHMIDT: Sure, sure. One of the things that we rely on heavily in cinematography is using focus to tell the audience which part of the frame to look at, and generally, that’s because the other parts of the frame are out of focus. In deep focus photography, it’s different. You really have to rely on light and composition to direct the audience’s eye, making sure that the audience is appreciating what’s important in the shot.

There are portions of the movie [where] we used a tool on the camera, where we could actually dynamically change the depth of field in the frame. We called it a “depth of field rack.” Instead of a focus rack, where you’re shifting the plane of focus from one part of the frame to another, we could actually expand and contract the depth of field, and it’s very subtle. Unless you’re really watching for it, it’s hard to tell, but it happens several times in the movie.

And there are other parts of the movie where we deliberately went with very shallow focus. So, there’s elements of that all throughout the movie. The idea is hopefully, you don’t really notice that, unless you know what to look for, but there are all those sorts of considerations. But I think to a large degree, and certainly when I work with David, it’s about finding the goalposts and figuring out what the tool set is, as early on as possible, determining what movie it is that you’re making. And then, you just go through those motions.

DEADLINE: What were the highlights of your experience with Mank? And what did you take away from it?

MESSERSCHMIDT: I came out of the movie never wanting to shoot color again. You know, we had a fabulous time. That group of people, my crew on the movie, we’ve all become incredibly close over the years, and that movie in particular really brought us all a lot closer together. So, I have incredibly fond experiences from the film, mostly because of the people involved, and of course, David, as well. Obviously, I love making movies with him. I just adore it.

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