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.
The Film Stage: Did you debate shooting on film versus the black and white RED prototype?
Erik Messerschmidt: No, not really. It just doesn’t really fit in David’s workflow. I think there’s a difference between nostalgia and results. I think we knew what we wanted to achieve. But it didn’t feel like film was going to get us there. Film would give us certain things that we knew we wanted, but it would invite compromise, other compromises that we knew we didn’t. So it just was never really part of the conversation.
What kind of compromises?
We like to be incredibly precise with the frame, with what’s in the frame, with the lighting, the composition, and the operating. Film is not a medium that offers that kind of precision. It’s a wonderful medium to work in but it requires a certain acceptance of the uncertainty of the photochemical process. I don’t think David Fincher is someone who accepts much of anything he can’t control.
With film we can get close, but we can’t get exactly what we want. We had very specific things we wanted so it just would not have been right for this movie.
Were there challenges emulating the look of 1940s black and white film on digital?
The thing about the film is not so much that we’re trying to make it look like the movie was shot in 1940, but it is very much an emulation. It’s an homage, It’s a tip of the hat. We’re trying to transport the audience. We could have grabbed some Kodak Double-X Black-and-White and shot the film on vintage lenses and it would have looked ostensibly more like it was shot in 1930. But it would not have been the movie we made and it would have resulted in all sorts of other things. There are modern elements in the film; we shot in widescreen, there are visual effects additions. There are all sorts of modern techniques being employed.
How do you borrow visual elements of films from that era, Citizen Kane, noir and also things you’ve innovated and things of this era without making it look and feel like visual patchwork?
Hopefully we didn’t. Everyone is expecting noir; black and white runs this risk of being a bit of a parody of itself. I think the modern audience, except for the limited audience that turns on Turner Classic Movies, looks at it black and white from that viewpoint. Noir is such a specific genre within black and white catalogue, it’s a very specific thematic genre and that was not the movie we wanted to make. It’s not our film fundamentally.
I assembled a bunch of references through the history of cinema and fine art photography, actually. I sent them to David and I said, “These speak to me, these feel like the movie.” He wrote back and said, “I like these, I think this is interesting here, and what were you thinking here?” We went through this initial process of taking 350 images and distilling them into 200 that spoke to him in relation to what I had sent, and that became the initial visual rulebook for the movie. There are elements of glamour, certainly elements noir, but it’s not a noir film, and elements of realism. The hope was that if we stayed driven by the story that those elements could work together. As long as those choices were motivated by what’s happening in the scene, hopefully the audience will accept that there is stylistic variation in the film.
How did working with David on Mindhunter carry over into shooting Mank? And in what ways may we not realize Mindhunter influences Mank?
I think the cinematographer’s primary job is to assimilate into the director’s world, support the process and learn how to support their film. In the case of Mindhunter, we kind of mind-melded to a degree, I suppose. I work with David a lot and you learn what people respond to and what they like, and what they don’t like, and you learn how you can support and where you can speak up and influence the conversation. I think in terms of our working relationship, it certainly came out of Mindhunter for sure. The shorthand that we developed on that show is why we might be good collaborators. We’re able to communicate very quickly now and bounce ideas off each other very quickly. So when we came into Mank, all the conversations were how are we going to approach it, what are we going to do, and it was a very open collaborative environment for us. It was a safe space where we could throw stuff around and try things in the prep.
There are elements in the movie specifically related to Mindhunter. Mank is a talkie. The quick wit of Mankiewicz, especially in those Hearst Castle scenes, to some degree the camera direction is influenced by Mindhunter, There’s these quick cuts and composed static frames which is a similar aesthetic. More than anything, it was just our relationship and our creative relationship was carried over.
I was curious why you shot the walk-and-talk outside of Hearst Castle gardens as day for night?
We looked at that scene and it’s actually quite an intimate scene between them. There’s some subtext in the scene of Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) being trapped in this world, I think she even says she’s in a fishbowl, she’s in this giant, perfect world. They’re walking through the zoo so it was really important for the audience to understand the scope of San Simeon and feel the size of this place. Don Burt looked at some locations and he showed David. At night we went to the Huntington Library in Pasadena and there was this back garden of this mansion in San Marino that they found and it’s assembled of these couple of locations. Both of them absolutely spoke to the scale and the size of what we were sensing it could be in the movie. But they were logistically impossible to light at night. I mean, I would have needed at least to feel the scope. I would have needed really massive heavy equipment and cranes and lighting equipment.
The more we looked at it, the compromises necessary to light it at night just felt ridiculous because we wouldn’t get the scale of what we really were trying to do in the scene. I had shot some day for night on Raised by Wolves, the Ridley Scott series in Africa, and I sent Fincher some frames months prior. I was like, “Hey, look what we’re doing,” and it seemed he thought that was cool. So we went back to those locations and asked what if we did this day for night? We started looking at it that way and we blocked for the sun and thought about the schedule. I didn’t sleep the night before, praying we would have hard sun and not clouds. And that’s why we did it. It’s kind of fun. That is a technique they call “American night” in France for a reason, it’s a very 1930s Hollywood technique.
Beyond Citizen Kane, what influences for the look and feel were you drawing from?
I looked at a lot of movies. I watched Night of the Hunter. It is one of my favorite films. Rebecca, The Grapes of Wrath. In our film there’s elements of Kane, obviously. You could say it’s a bit of a companion piece to Kane, but it’s a very different film from Citizen Kane. Structurally, it’s similar, but we have all these scenes in the desert, for example. The Grapes of Wrath actually is a pretty good reference at least for the exterior Victorville stuff. I looked at Manhattan as well. I love Manhattan, and it’s obviously not of the period, but I felt like there’s something interesting about the 1940s stuff being a little bit more modern lit, and slightly different, less stylized than the flashback sequences. There’s elements of modern top light, practical light. We looked at Casablanca and The Big Sleep and The Big Combo and noir films of the period, as well. There are bits of all of that in the movie, at least is from an inspiration standpoint. Also reminding ourselves of what the technique was like, because we were doing all this deep focus photography, which needed a lot more light than what I’d typically been working with. So it changes the practical realities of working on the set as well when you start working with influences it automatically influences the aesthetic.
In your MUBI interview with Nicolas Rapold, you say the cinema curates people’s experience for however long an amount of time, and I’m curious on the production end, can you see that audiences’ focus and interests have narrowed?
When a film is delivered to someone’s home, they can pause it, they can get up in the middle, they can make their children dinner or they can take a nap and revisit it. There is a reality to understand that, that if you are slowly developing the film, if you’re asking something of the audience, that you may not get it in the way like when an audience comes to the movie theater, and they turn their telephone off, and they’re in a dark room with some strangers. Assuming they don’t get up and walk out, you can develop the movie slowly in the first act and grab their attention and try to build something. I mean, I don’t work in development, so by the time I’m on a movie, it’s already the movie that we’re making. I think that the filmmakers I’m working with are still making the movies they want to make. They hope the movie is seen in a theater, and at home, you try to provide the best feeling experience for them as possible, and hope they enjoy the film. As a filmmaker, you want to be as expressive as you can from your creative intent and hope that it gets enjoyed. I think the last thing any of us want to be doing is polling the audience and making their version of the movie. You always consider how the movie is going to be viewed, but you’ve got to make the best film for the way you see it.
Mank is now on Netflix.