Has any cinematographer had so fast an ascendancy as Erik Messerschmidt? While no newcomer—his IMDb dates back to 2001, his first cinematography credit from 2003—work on Gone Girl earned the attention of David Fincher, by whom Messerschmidt was then enlisted to shoot his Netflix series Mindhunter. (Impressive then, all the more sterling since as an example of streaming television that doesn’t look or move like streaming television.) Which led into Mank which led into The Killer, Fincher’s much-anticipated thriller arriving next year.
Somewhere along the way Michael Mann called. I talked to Messerschmidt at ENERGACamerimage, where he was promoting the new feature Devotion and mere weeks from wrapping Ferrari, Mann’s first feature in longer than you’d believe and a passion project of equal gestation—nothing you leave in the hands of an amateur. Certainly not if you’re as obsessive, fastidious, demanding as Michael Mann. Meeting in Toruń’s CKK Jordanki, we were quick to start.
The Film Stage: You’ve very quickly become a big figure for American auteurs.
Erik Messerschmidt: I just always try to show up and help the filmmakers I’m working with make their movies. I always wanted to be a cinematographer from when I was a really young child—I just was attracted to it—and what’s happened to me and my career in the last couple years, it’s been really… quite a lot to take in. I always still think of myself as a technician, in a way—I’m one of the guys making a movie—and I’ve been really fortunate to work with some incredible directors now and crew people, actors. It’s been amazing for sure. But especially here, Camerimage, cinematographers are the celebrities. It’s so foreign to me. I’m sometimes a little uncomfortable because that has never been part of my life.
I was trying to get details and technical info on the making of Mindhunter, which revealed RED had made a custom “XENOMORPH” camera.
Fincher’s always had a reputation as a tech-heavy, gearhead type. So what are you two looking for in a custom-made camera?
You know, when we were shooting film—Panaflex or ARRI cam; whatever—you put the lens on the front, magazine on the back, you pop the follow focus on, you plug the battery in, and you’re ready. And if the magazine was loaded, you could be shooting quite quickly. I think one of our—certainly David’s—frustrations with modern cinema technology in particular is: in the spirit of efficiency it’s gotten quite complex in its presentation.
In terms of the XENOMORPH, anyway, the intent was to simplify the camera back into the, sort of, bare elements. Magazine in the camera, power, lens, done. A lot of that is that, in many cases in the film business, the thing that takes the longest is the decision-making. “Where do we put the camera?” On a David Fincher film set that is not the bottleneck of the conversation. We are, generally, extremely well-prepared and have a distinct plan and I think—in particular, in our methodology—we tend to be quite decisive.
There’s that quote from him, “There are two way to shoot a scene and one of them is wrong.” This brings that to mind.
A bit, yeah. It’s not to say we don’t debate or have a conversation. You don’t throw the lens up. “God, maybe it’s better on a 29. Let’s go wider.” Whatever. Those things happen. But I think, partially, what he was reacting to in that scenario was “can we just have a camera? Please.” There’s a tendency to move brackets around and cables and they’re putting accessories on the back of the camera; it can be tedious. It was really just in the pursuit of efficiency. The gearheads get excited about that—look, I like equipment as much as the next person—but it’s all in service of: how do we get another take? How do we get another shot? How do we bear this down? How do we make this as minimally invasive on the process as possible?
From Mindhunter to Mank to The Killer you’ve been hopping around the RED stock. And The Killer is a V-RAPTOR?
Why that for this? And why these switches?
We’re always kind of in the pursuit of improvement. That’s not inconsistent with the rest of the film business, either. You have Kodak, for years—new film stocks and tighter-grain film stocks, more light-sensitive, etc. The RED family of products have synced-up. Their release of new equipment has, for one reason or another, kind of synced-up with our rhythm, oftentimes. So we’ve been fortunate enough to be on a project and consider using something new. We had shot on the DRAGON on the first season of Mindhunter; then we went to the HELIUM. I was struggling a little bit with underexposure—noise, basically—and the HELIUM offered some improvement there. Mank, of course, was black-and-white, so we shot on the black-and-white camera entirely; it had to be a different camera.
When The Killer came around the V-RAPTOR had just been developed and it remedied some of the color-fidelity things we had struggled with. There’s some logistical menu stuff the assistants liked better, the cameras were quite small, and it also fits right into the color architecture of the KOMODO extremely well, which we were using on the movie. There’s a lot of things that made sense. To me it’s just a tool. It’s a tennis racket. It’s an electric guitar. You have guitar players endlessly battle about which is better—Les Paul, Stratocaster, whatever. In the end it’s really about the music. I find, nowadays, all of these cameras are so good in terms of the ways we qualify camera equipment: resolution, light sensitivity, dynamic range, all that stuff. It really just comes down to: what are the demands of the project, director, etc.
Fincher has the reputation as a capital-A auteur with his own visual sense, but are you being brought in early for talks of tone, color, compositional style?
Your collaborations with him look different from Jeff Cronenweth’s. Certainly different than those with Darius Khondji.
David has very clear ideas about what he’s looking for, but he also understands that it’s not animation. Every day is a comedy of errors [Laughs] that we’re constantly dealing with. I think both of us struggle with pre-visualizing something at the very beginning and having those early meetings. “We’re going to frame it like this. We’re going to shoot it in 2.35.” Which we didn’t do in the case of Killer—we shot in Scope. It’s hard without seeing the movie, but the movie has lots of color-temperature… split tone, basically. There were conversations about what the movie would be. But there’s a thing I think people don’t acknowledge enough in the movie business—it’s the balance between intent and pre-visualization and working practice. It’s the combination of those things that is really the catalyst for the way a movie looks or the way a movie feels or whatever.
The schedule has as much to do with the way the movie looks as the early conversations that you have. The locations have an enormous amount to do with this—the variety of locations. The equipment that’s available to you. The crew resources, etc. So I think there’s a thing that we do—and it’s definitely specific to David and I—where the conversations are quite broad in terms of how it’s going to look. Because there’s an acceptance that we will find it, and it’s really trust in terms of our own taste and the way that we respond to the conditions that we put ourselves under. Sometimes it’s like, “Let’s just turn that off and it’ll be okay.”
The bigger, overarching conversations around the way the movie looks that we have are much more about pace, tone, storytelling technique. We talk about editing more than we talk about photography. We talk about lensing, composition, blocking—that sort of stuff. It’s much more about the sequencing of events in a scene and how we’re going to break things up. The kind of lighting… the lighting part of it can be a little janitorial. “Okay, we’re going to put the camera in these seven places in this room. What should we do?” A lot of that obviously falls on my shoulders, but it’s always a conversation around: what is the methodology that’s going to support the intended sequencing of the edit?
I’m curious about the workflow differentiation between a TV show that, in its final form, runs many hours and a film that, almost needless to say, is far fewer.
For years, in television, it was doable because the expectations on television in terms of storytelling and scope were smaller; the expectations on a feature were larger. Do you have more time per page? Yes. But the sets are probably more elaborate. The intended viewing environment is more elaborate—it’s a grand cinema experience. Now I think those lines are quite blurry. Also, now TV schedules are slightly more generous too. When we did Mindhunter we had, I think, 18 days an episode to shoot. That’s a lot compared to some television I’ve shot.
And a lot of features nowadays are shot in 18 days.
Exactly! Exactly. There’s that joke: never trust a director that doesn’t wear a watch. Time is the most important consideration, I think, in the filmmaking process. Certainly in the United States. Choosing when to fight for things and when to hold back. When to let go. The decision you make when you’re a cinematographer and you’re lighting a set or setting up a camera—whatever—and you turn to the first AD and say, “I’m ready.”
That formal turnover to the director and actors is a really definitive point for me and I take it very seriously. I always do that reluctantly. I’m never 100% confident I’m ready. It’s always with respect to the other things that are going on. I think that’s sort of the difficulty when it comes to judging work: the film only ever gets judged as a whole, but we as a community try to compartmentalize it without consideration of all the factors affecting each individual contribution.
How many days did you shoot on The Killer?
I think it was 90, maybe? We moved around a lot. We were in Europe and we were in the Caribbean. So there’s a lot of travel in there. I don’t know if those are all shoot days. It was a portion of the year.
I saw Ferrari is shooting on the ARRI Alexa 35.
The Internet was wrong.
The Internet was wrong. I shot it on the Sony VENICE 2.
There was a passing quote, years ago, where Mann said Ferrari might be a return to 35mm—something about how capturing a car in movement would require the solidity of celluloid.
So what were some conversations around choosing the VENICE 2?
We needed a lot of camera bodies. Michael Mann loves to use the SKATER Scope—it’s a probe lens. He uses it to achieve that shot that he’s very known for: the lens behind the ear, very close in on someone’s eye. What it does is it allows you to remove the lens from the camera body—it comes out 60 centimeters. So we frequently put it on a Steadicam and get the lenses in places you otherwise couldn’t get. You lose two stops of light when you use that lens, so I always was in a position of protecting myself to make sure that tool was available to him.
Michael is very hyper-focused on the emotion in the scene and what’s dramatically happening in a scene, above all else. I have tremendous respect for him for that because he is incredibly tenacious in his ability to focus on the singularity of moments in a scene and get rid of all the other noise in the room. Which a lot of directors, I think, struggle with—they get bombarded with “we have to go to lunch at this time.” Michael has an incredible ability to just think about what he’s trying to achieve, and oftentimes his technique can be quite unorthodox because he is thinking about something in a very specific way, a nuanced way.
When you shoot for Michael you learn very quickly how to adapt to the way that he needs to make movies. That’s crucial for all cinematographers: you have to be flexible and there are things where you have to say “Okay, this is the technique and methodology this person works with.” Especially when you have someone so strong like that—like David or Ridley Scott or Michael Mann—who has a defined methodology they’ve built over the years of how they like to work. You have to be fluid in how you adapt. At least for myself: I felt like I had to be fluid in my working practice to make sure I am supporting whatever it is they want to do.
One of the things we did was shoot on the VENICE because it has some high-ISO options that I kept in my back pocket if I had to lean on them. Michael’s another person who very much cares about the image, but if he is in the moment with a performer he is not interested in seeing a second AC walk up and swap a glass filter so that I can keep the iris where it needs to be in terms of depth of field or whatever. To him—and I think he’s quite correct—that is very much a secondary conversation. The VENICE was great for me because I could work at the pace that he wanted to work and still protect depth of field, image integrity, all that stuff. It turned out to be a very good tool.
Will it bear resemblance to other films’ speed and movement? I’m obsessed with Mann’s digital work and curious about texture—it doesn’t look like anybody else’s. Do you think Ferrari continues that tradition?
I don’t know. I like to think that I put my stamp on it in a way that is very much how I interpreted the story visually. The movie’s not done yet so I can’t really comment on what it looks like; to be honest, I don’t know. I know what dailies look like. I know what we lit. And I sort of know how he intends to cut it. But a movie is a very fluid thing. It’s perpetually shifting in its form, so I think you’re probably going to have that conversation again when it’s done. [Laughs] We only wrapped a few weeks ago, so it’s very early into the process to get into that.
I assume it has at least some racing sequences.
What are some methods used to capture racing and create a unique approach?
In the case of Devotion, that was a film that relied heavily on the audience understanding the relationships of these people in these machines. This person is front of that person; this person is looking at that. And we used very classic cinema grammar to tell that story because that was how we wanted to make the film. We wanted the film to feel almost hyper-classical in its approach and very formal. There’s a thing that has happened a bit in cinema, now, where the audience often feels disoriented. Particularly in big action sequences. We tried very much to avoid that. I took a lot of that experience into Ferrari, and Michael and I spoke about that at length around some of the things that we did. But he didn’t want the formality of that type of storytelling in Ferrari.
The thing that was important to him in the film, in terms of our early conversations, was the audience feeling like they’re in this machine. This machine is rattling around and smells like gasoline and there’s oil and rocks kicking up on the faces. So the kind of techniques we use when shooting cars, airplanes, horses—close-up, POV, reverse POV, establishing shot—were less interesting to Michael because he felt like they were all slightly observational, I think. A lot of what we were trying to do was bring the frenzied energy of racing—what these drivers experienced—onto the screen and bring the audience right into the car with them.
So we had tools there for sure: we had armed cars and vehicles rigged with remote heads that can work at high speed and keep up with these cars; we did some mounts. And I should say Michael certainly was very much not interested in the kind of pedestrian way that racing scenes are often shot. The visual storytelling of racing that we know works was less interesting to Michael. Which is very Michael.
Devotion screened at EnergaCAMERIMAGE 2022 and opens on November 23. The Killer and Ferrari will be released in 2023.