One of my most-read pieces last year revolved around two films that hadn’t shown a single frame. Strange except for the fact that it was a conversation with Erik Messerschmidt, whose recent time’s been devoted to shooting new films by David Fincher and Michael Mann––exactly the subjects who will earn eyeballs with just a mention. One year later, with The Killer winding down its limited release before a Netflix debut on Friday, I spoke again with Messerschmidt about the intensive, exhaustive, rewarding process behind one of 2023’s supreme entertainments, and how being guided by modern American cinema’s most-obsessive auteur was the only way to get it right.
The Film Stage: I made a point of seeing The Killer at New York’s Paris Theater––it’s a nice-sized screen, well-projected, a Dolby sound system. The unfortunate truth is that most watching it on Netflix won’t have a comparable experience.
Erik Messerschmidt: Sure.
Millions of people can see it, but then you think about people’s set-ups––let alone competing for their attention. How do you generally feel about this dichotomy, and specifically with this film?
I think the cinema is an extraordinary community experience, and it’s for that reason that it’s worth protecting. I think there is something really extraordinary about being in the room and experiencing something at the same time, and there is something equally extraordinary of being a director and experimenting whether or not you can control the audience response en masse. You know? Which is something you can only really test in the cinema environment. Look: there’s a real thing about being able to pause it and go to the bathroom, or pause it and go grab another glass of wine or whatever––pause it and watch it later. The “captive audience” part of the cinema is what makes it unique and important. I don’t necessarily agree that the technology is the reason to go to the cinema. I think the immersive nature of being in the black room with the single screen without screaming kids and your phone sitting there––all the other distractions––that’s a real thing. And I think the sound is a real thing, although people have home theaters in their homes now and surround sound and stuff. But it’s not the same as being in a calibrated environment.
I sort of go back to my childhood and think… I didn’t see Star Wars projected until I was, probably, 19 years old, but I had seen it 50 times on my parents’ VHS. In the wrong aspect ratio. And it’s the movie that made me want to make movies. As a cinematographer––as a student of cinema––I think it’s vitally important to project cinema and encourage people to see movies in a cinema. This movie in particular is especially well-appreciated in a cinema, but I would argue more for the sound, to be honest––because of what Ren [Klyce] is doing with the sound. I hope people enjoy the picture, too, obviously. I don’t put much stock in the idea of “Oh, well, it’s going to be on Netflix so people are going to see the film on television.” I just think people see films on television anyway.
Half the movies I see, by the way––and I’m hesitant to admit it, but it’s true––are on airplanes. [Laughs] I think the goal of filmmakers is to reach the audience, and you want to reach as many as possible, and hope people see your movie in the cinema. That’s where it’s intended. But you have to accept the reality that there are many avenues to view the image, and if someone sees it on Netflix, hopefully next time there’s a screening they get up and go. When there’s a screening of Lawrence of Arabia I jump at the opportunity because there are so few opportunities, but it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it at home on my Apple TV either. [Laughs]
Already there’s this popular reading that the film is a self-portrait of Fincher: the consummate professional involved with big corporate, global entities but still just trying to do his work.
Being that you’ve collaborated with him over several years and, I assume, know him well, I wonder if that idea a) rings true, and b) was at all broached in discussions of the film.
[Laughs] No. No, it wasn’t. I think… it’s easy to draw those conclusions because David’s public persona is one of extreme control and precision. The reality is: David is a compassionate, thoughtful, empathetic person. You know? [Laughs] So no, I don’t think so. I think that there are… I think when you’re a film director you’re in a high-pressure job that’s high-stakes and you have an obligation to fulfill your responsibilities. [Laughs] Particularly when you’re working for a studio. Beyond that: people say that. I just don’t agree; I don’t think that’s true. It’s humorous, but: no. [Laughs]
The first chapter is about observing things that are some distance away. Sometimes it’s just outside, but he has to assassinate a target in a room across a wide street, in a space we see through a telescope. What are some elements of organizing that exactly as needed and necessary?
That sequence is the result of many months of work and it was shot over the course of several months––not continuously, but the sequence is made up of sections that were not shot in-continuity or together. The film, as a whole, I think is really a conversation about subjectivity and point of view. We wanted to use the technique of putting the audience inside the Killer’s head and then stepping back and being objective, jumping back-and-forth with that. You see it in the movie with sound; you see it with picture. The apartment across the street, where the target is, was built on stage and we’d had various discussions about how we would cover that and shoot it––because it’s quite an elaborate bit of staging. But David was always quite clear. He said, “Everything we see here has to come from the Killer’s perspective. We’re never really outside of his purview.” That’s not entirely true; we cut to Dolores in the bathroom as she realizes that Hodges has been shot with a nail-gun. But that’s really the only point-of-view break in the film.
This sequence had to be entirely shot and staged from that one camera perspective, really, and so we built the set onstage and rehearsed it extensively. I think it took an entire day-and-a-half to rehearse that sequence and make sure everyone’s movement’s in the right place. You can see the glass of scotch but he doesn’t have a good shot here, and she covers him here––none of that is happenstance. That has all been structured; David runs the scene with the actors; they look at it. And then it was really about trying to make sure when all the elements are compiled. Because it’s a visual-effects sleight-of-hand trick. The apartment is not real; it’s been built on a stage. The façade has been painted in and it’s a set extension of an existing plate. So we sort of have to know where we were going when we shot the sequence in Paris. The exterior, the street, the point-of-views, the side of the house. We knew we were going to put a building there. The reality is: that apartment doesn’t exist in Paris. So it’s a conversation about balance and color temperature and all the technical stuff. It was much more a conversation about camera direction and scene structure than it was about lighting.
We wanted to make sure the screen direction was correct. What side of the line are we on? The Killer is always left; they’re always right. Then the sets were built with that in mind, so when Don Burt built the sets, we knew we were going to be looking into that library for the most part and the Killer would always be shooting left or right. So the vast majority of the coverage––in general––is that screen direction. There are breaks in that, of course, when he’s brushing his teeth. When we open the film we track across. All that stuff. But in general we were pretty dogmatic with that, and dogmatic with screen direction the whole movie, really. Because the film is so much about geography: where he is in relation to his targets. We want to make sure the audience understands that. Even in the fight it’s the same thing: screen direction and shot design, more than anything. The lighting is much more reflexive to that stuff; it’s a janitorial response [Laughs] to where we’re putting the camera.
The Killer is quite rich in locations, which I think raises a challenge––there’s a line between evoking a place without relying too much on familiar signifiers, like a helicopter shot introducing a city or a grainy, yellow filter if you’re in Mexico. If you know you’re going to shoot in Chicago, do you look for things that are “Chicago-esque”? Or the same with, say, Santo Domingo.
I think, in general, filmmakers get preoccupied with stuff that’s not really important. I think filmmakers look for the cool shot––the “get.” It’s so seductive. A very experienced, older producer said to me once, when I was scouting a commercial: “It’s not about the shot. It’s about the shots.” And it really stuck with me because I think he’s right. For me it’s so much more about telling the story. You have to make sure the thing you’re including in the frame is telling the story. Most of the time that includes what the actors are doing in front of the camera, you know? We talked about what the movie would look like, but very briefly. Really the result of the film, I think, comes from several things, but we went on an initial scout to Paris. I had my camera there and we were just taking lots of pictures of various locations.
But we were always, like, photographing things in terms of, “Where can this person be? There’s so many McDonald’s in Paris––what can we look for?” David was not looking for the McDonald’s, but the window in the side of the wall where the hand comes out––you see the bag. There’s plenty of McDonald’s in Paris where you see the big, golden arches and we can get the big establishing shot. I think the movie is generally trying to distance itself from that idea. I mean, we use title cards, but that’s a tenet of graphic novels, I think––that kind of storytelling. But I was taking pictures in Paris, and Paris, to me, always kind of feels like it has this split-tone quality to it: at night it has this coolness that’s contrasted against the bright, sodium-vapor streetlights that central Paris is famous for. I started to grade those pictures, and I sent them to David and said, “I think this is what Paris should look like because that’s what I think Paris looks like.” [Laughs] And he said “Okay, cool. I’m with you.”
So we did this split-tone thing, and then we went to Santo Domingo after that. We scouted that next––we kind of scouted the film in order––and were looking at various plazas and where he can drive. I said, “What do you think it should look like?” David said, “It should look like this. It should look really humid.” So then I started thinking about what humid looks like and what Santo Domingo looks like. It’s colorful and a cornucopia of various colors. It’s not designed in the way Paris or Chicago is. It’s not a singular kind of… it’s very much a cacophony of orange cabs and green cabs and blue cabs, and that of course becomes the storytelling too. It wasn’t scripted that way, by the way: we just got to the Dominican Republic and realized the cab companies all have different colors, so we went “Okay, that’s interesting. We can use that to the benefit of the film.” That became, kind of, the way that that location looked. It wasn’t like we wanted the film to have six looks; it was more about what the locations look like.
The harder conversation was: how do we keep these locations in the same world so it doesn’t become the thing people talk about? “Oh, now we’re in Mexico so it’s really yellow.” Exactly like you said. There’s a bit of that that I think is unavoidable, but it’s so much that thing of, “Let’s try something. Dial it back. Let’s try something else. Dial it back.” That’s the magic of color-grading. We had ideas going into it about how Chicago should look, New York, the Dominican Republic, but then you see the film in continuity order and that’s where the real refinement comes. It’s easy to get carried away, basically. [Laughs]
I’m from Beacon, New York, so it was quite the surprise when that card comes up. But it wasn’t actually shot there?
I looked at the exteriors and nothing matched. Still, you get it quite right. Even the new-money restaurant that Tilda Swinton eats in looks like so many places in Beacon. I don’t know if you did location-scouting or had specific references.
Oh, good. We shot that outside of Chicago because we were already in Chicago. We looked at it. I didn’t scout New York; I think David did. It just became too much for the production to make an additional move to New York.
Production wrapped around March of 2022; in September of 2023 it premieres. Can you talk a bit about the nearly 18-month process from wrap to premiere?
We finished the film, really, this spring. I don’t know what the politics are––release dates and schedule, all that stuff. I don’t understand how that works. I’m sure, to some degree, there was hope the actor’s strike would get resolved and that would mean Michael and Tilda would promote the movie, but I can’t comment on that because I don’t know the decision-making behind that. What I can say is that I don’t believe cinematography stops when you finish rolling the camera. I think, for the finishing process in particular, it’s half-photography. Ansel Adams said that; he wrote whole books about it. The printing process is as important, if not more important than the actual act of photography itself.
I think for this movie, because it is so much about precision and process, it has to cut so beautifully. It has to cut like butter. So I know David and Kirk [Baxter] spent an enormous amount of time honing the edit so no cut feels forced; no cut feels drastic or whatever. Of course the visual effects are hidden in the movie, but they’re there. And we spent a good amount of time color-grading as well. But a lot of that stuff’s happening simultaneously. David’s one of those guys who, if you give him more time, he’ll happily take it. And I’m the same: if we can keep color-grading it we can keep adjusting and refining it until you think it’s ready.
Can you watch the movie and see any number of things you want to adjust?
All the time. All the time. I think, in every creative endeavor, satisfaction is the enemy; it’s the fear. I think when you walk away and feel really good about something, that’s when you’ve done the worst work. [Laughs] That’s kind of a painful reality of the job, but I look at different stuff all the time and wish I had made different choices. That’s how you learn, I guess.
Fincher’s said that shooting a film with protective masks wasn’t very pleasant; one can imagine why wearing a mask all day, no matter the safety and necessity, is a drag. How did that affect your working process?
Non-verbal communication is such a part of the filmmaking process. And particularly for David and I… I don’t generally operate the camera. I’m standing next to David at the monitor and most of our conversations happen during the take. By lunch they have to wipe it off because it’s completely covered in Lay’s potato chips grease and coffee smudges because we’re pointing at the monitor and wiping it, making these non-verbal decisions so that when David yells “cut” I can run to the camera operator and dolly grip and we can make an adjustment to the frame or the speed or the shot or make a lighting change, and David runs and talks to Michael and we’re back, shooting again, forty seconds later.
It’s fascinating how much that changes when you’re wearing a mask and visor. It certainly slows it down and changes the filmmaking process. I really believe, fundamentally, that the end result you get when you’re making a film has an enormous amount to do with the working practice that you’ve implemented while you’re shooting it. The mood on the set, the circumstances you put yourself under, the non-romantic realities of how you make a movie. There’s no doubt that COVID affects it. The quarantine stuff, the testing, I think the production handled really well. I wouldn’t say that affected it much. I mean, it certainly affected the crew’s ability to enjoy New Orleans. And morale in general when you’re cooped-up in a hotel and you have to limit your extracurricular activity. It changes the mood of the set enormously. But no: I certainly never want to do it again, either. So much of it is leaning into someone and whispering something during the take. So much of it is going in and sitting in the corner and watching a blocking rehearsal and they’re like, “There’s only six people allowed here.” Those things affect the movie.
Fincher’s one of the most-documented directors of our time. You’ve shot hours of TV and two features with him, and surely you have knowledge that’s never been made public––so I have to ask if there’s anything about his working process that’s undervalued, less-discussed, never acknowledged?
People talk about the number of takes as a pejorative. Or they talk about the obsessive nature as a form of criticism. I just don’t see it that way. I think that filmmakers––directors in particular but cinematographers as well––compromise when they get out of bed in the morning. You are immediately asked to not do what you want in every scenario. And it’s not direct. You’re just put in scenarios constantly where you can plan something to death and force of nature, Murphy’s Law, budget constraints, actor disagreements––whatever––come to the table and say “Well, I know you want to do this but can you do this instead?” It’s very easy to be amenable to that. I don’t think directors should be amenable. I just don’t know great directors who are. I don’t know great directors who are wildly agreeable all the time.
I think that David really cares about the movie he’s making. You know? And he cares deeply about the people he’s working with. But he knows that if we make a great movie, everyone looks good; if he makes a bad movie, he carries all the weight. I think that David’s process is far simpler than people think. People think there is a magic to this, that there is some magic thing. I shoot commercials sometimes, and people come to me and say, “I want the David Fincher look.” I say, “You have to do it ‘til it’s perfect. You have to do the hard work.” And David does it, and he’s incredibly tenacious with it. That is, I think, a very difficult thing to maintain as a director. It’s extraordinarily hard to say to everybody, “No, no, we’re going to go again because of the bump in the dolly there,” or “the performance was great but I didn’t like the background crossing.” They say “Oh, my God,” but those people don’t have to sit in the editing room for six months and look at it. I wish more directors were like David. He’s certainly unique, but to me he’s extraordinary.
The Killer is now in limited release and comes to Netflix on Friday, November 10.