DP Erik Messerschmidt ASC on Mank

Jul 21, 2021

LA Story

By Ron Prince

Earning your stripes as a cinematographer can be hard enough. But the prospect of shooting your first movie with a Golden Globe, Primetime Emmy and BAFTA Award-winning director, about one of the greatest films of all time, starring some of the best actors working today, and capturing it all in HDR B&W, would seem perfectly daunting.

“Yes, it was quite intimidating, but it was also unbelievably exciting,” admits DP Erik Messerschmidt ASC, as he recalls the invitation from David Fincher to capture the filmmaker’s next movie – the biographical drama Mank.

Mank takes place in Hollywood during the 1930s and early 1940s. It follows screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, and the process he undertook for Orson Welles to develop the screenplay for what would become Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles, DP Gregg Toland ASC). Nominated in nine categories at the 1942 Academy Awards, Citizen Kane won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, shared by Welles and Mankiewicz.

The film, based on a screenplay by the director’s late father Jack Fincher, alternates between time periods, echoing the non-linear narrative of Citizen Kane, and revealing the trials and tribulations in Hollywood that inspired some of the characters and situations seen in the movie. These include Mankiewicz’s friendship with starlet Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfried, his association with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance, and his turbulent professional relationship with Welles, played by Tom Burke.

Shot entirely at 8K in High Dynamic Range monochrome, Mank also features allusions to Toland’s innovative cinematography, as well as classic day-for-night production techniques, and tips its hat to classic moments in the original film.

Mank had a limited theatrical release in November 2020, before streaming on Netflix in December. It received overwhelmingly positive reviews, with particular praise given to the direction, cinematography, production design, soundtrack and the performances, and is expected to feature strongly during the 2021 award season.

Fincher’s directorial credits include Se7en (1995, DP Dariusz Khondji AFC ASC), Fight Club (1999, DP Jeff Cronenweth ASC), Zodiac (2007, DP Harris Savides ASC) and The Social Network (2010, DP Jeff Cronenweth ASC). Messerschmidt, who came into cinematography from being a gaffer, had previously lit Gone Girl (2014, DP Jeff Cronenweth) for Fincher, after which he immediately made the leap into cinematography as the lead DP on the first two season of Netflix’s Mindhunter, directed mainly by Fincher.

Mank

“I first met David on Gone Girl and got along great with him during the shoot,” says Messerschmidt. “I ended up lighting some promotional stills for that film which David shot himself. It was our first opportunity to work together creatively one-on-one. It went really well, and we stayed in touch. Both he and Ceán Chaffin, his producer, knew that I had ambitions to become a DP. So, when Mindhunter came along, they offered me the opportunity to shoot it. We have been working together ever since, and I was thrilled to be asked to shoot Mank.”

Messerschmidt had six weeks of prep, before filming on Mank commenced in October 2019 at locations around Los Angeles. These included Welles’ own private residence in the high Mohave desert near Victorville, California, where Mankiewicz was confined to recuperate from a car accident in which he suffered a badly broken leg, and where he wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane.

Along with shooting on the lots of Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony studios (the original MGM in the 1930s), production also encompassed a stint at Red Studios in Hollywood, where sets were constructed for the movie’s Hearst Castle sitting and dining room scenes.

Although the moonlight stroll between Mankiewicz and Davies is portrayed as taking place in the grounds of Hearst Castle, practical lighting logistics meant it was actually filmed during the day, partly in the botanical grounds of Huntington Gardens and also at a mansion in Pasadena, which Messerschmidt achieved using a day-for-night technique. The production wrapped after 72 shooting days in February 2020.

To whet the appetite, and create the discussion about what we were going to do, I assembled a look book of film frames – noir, classic glamour, Hollywood B&W glamour – plus photos by Ansel Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz. David is an incredible communicator, and we riffed back-and-forth over as many as 300 images to refine what he liked and what he felt would not work. It was a great way to hone-in on the style that he was responding to – a bit like picking your ingredients from the grocery store.”

He continues, “DPs love to shoot B&W, and I am sure many of us are seduced immediately into thinking we can shoot noir – with lots of hard light, shafts of illumination coming through venetian blinds, and things fading off into black. But that’s not really the movie we wanted to make, and we wanted to avoid parody.

“Thematically Mank was not noir, and we looked for a balance. And, whilst Citizen Kane and the incredible work of Gregg Toland ASC came into our thinking – in the way that we limited ourselves to just a few lenses, harnessed deep focus photography and used relatively low camera angles – we were very much dedicated to making our own film.

“To our minds, the B&W filming needed to serve the story rather than draw attention to itself. We really wanted people to get sucked into the time period and to help them connect to the story.

Accordingly, Messerschmidt and Fincher looked at movies that the DP describes as “more Hollywood glamour than noir”, such as The Big Sleep (1946, dir. Howard Hawks, DP Sidney Hickox ASC), The Big Combo (1955, dir. Joseph H. Lewis, DP John Alton), Casablanca (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz, DP Arthur Edeson ASC), and Rebecca (1940, dir. Alfred Hitchcock DP George Barnes ASC). He also considered Night Of The Hunter (1955, dir. Charles Laughton, DP Stanley Cortez ASC), especially for its day-for-night work.

More modern B&W films including Manhattan (1979, dir. Woody Allen, DP Gordon Willis ASC) also entered the reckoning, as Messerschmidt reveals he was keen that the 1940’s sections of the movie had a more modern look to differentiate them from the 1930’s flashback sequences.\

mank - behind the scenes

Deep Focus

Exploring the idea of deep focus – images captured with very deep depth-of-field, resulting in everything being in focus – which Toland was famous for executing on Citizen Kane, Messerschmidt says, “In colour photography you can use the colour as well as focus for separation and three-dimensional depth in the image. But, you don’t have that in B&W photography. It is a different beast. When you throw things out of focus in B&W, in many cases the image can get globular and muddy. The separation is really all about texture, contrast and tonal differences.” Obviously, it is entirely feasible to shoot in colour, and then drain the picture of its chroma, to deliver a B&W result. But, Messerschmidt says the difference between that approach versus pure B&W photography is quite striking. “We shot tests of both and it was evident within seconds which we preferred.”

In refining the formula for the look, Messerschmidt worked closely with costume designer Trish Summerville and production designer Donald Graham Burt, who used the noir and monochromatic filters on their iPhones to see how the textures and colours on props and clothing would work in B&W. They also looked at photographs from 1930s Hollywood to see what was worn at the time.

“We learned early-on that there were certain colours of green, for example, that would show up incredibly dark,” says Messerschmidt. “For instance, we spent considerable time testing different tiles for the bathroom scene at Paramount, where Mank meets his brother Joe, looking at different greens, trying to find the one that would show up the best.

“Other colours, that David hated, like salmon pink, red and teal blue, turned out to work really well in the camera. We even had to consider the colour and gloss of the lipstick being used. I remember Michelle Audrina Kim, our assistant make-up department, coming over with 49 different lipstick marks on her arm so we could assess them on camera.”

Aspect Ratio

Messerschmidt also says he and Fincher momentarily entertained shooting Mank in vintage 4:3/1.33:1 aspect ratio, but just as rapidly decided against that, preferring to frame the story in 2.2:1 – which is derived from the Todd AO 70mm format.

“Whilst 2.2:1 is not particularly period-correct, it is an intimate format and it gave us lots of storytelling opportunities,” says Messerschmidt. “For example, we had lots of two shots and over-the-shoulder takes, plus scenes where we wanted multiple items in frame at the same time, and the 2.2:1 format was very appropriate for this. Widescreen felt too modern and we are not shooting any landscapes.”

It was only after a month of exhaustive testing, undertaken variously at Keslow Camera and Panavision in LA, that Messerschmidt came to his and Fincher’s preferred pairing of camera and lenses – namely the Red Monochrome with 8K Helium sensor, along with Leitz Summilux primes for the mainstay of the production. Fujinon Premier 18-85mm and 24-180mm zooms were used for crane work.

“Looking at side-by-side tests of different cameras, using different coloured filters to assess separation and skin tones, and set at different ISO ratings for noise, apparent resolution and sharpness, there was no question that the Red Monchrome camera was so much better than others in giving us the great tonal shading qualities we wanted. During production I rated the camera at 3200ISO for everything, as it brings a palpable texture to the image, which we really liked.

shooting mank

Lens Choice

“I also tested every spherical lens I could get my hands on, as we were looking for the highest-quality glass in terms of resolution that would allow me to shoot at T8 or T11. As it turns out many modern lenses fall apart past a T5.6. When you close them down, the line resolution drops dramatically, and diffraction can happen in the blue wavelength, which affects exteriors particularly. We were also looking for a clean and flat image, with good fall-off, that we could manipulate later in the DI to emulate and pay homage to optics of the 1940s, with things like film grain, gate weave, blur, bloom, barrel distortion and lens flares.

“I gradually whittled down my lens choice to Leitz Summilux primes as being the best-performing lenses for our purposes – very clear, consistent, rectilinear and with the best resolution at T8 and T11. “Also, as Summilux lenses are uniform in size and light in weight, this made the camera package quite manoeuvrable and the lens changes fasts, which all translated to efficiency. We mainly used the 25mm, 35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 65mm and 75mm Summilux Primes and swapped them between our A and B-cameras.”

To further support the use of focus and depth- of-field in crafting the look of the movie, and to also accentuate moments in the storytelling purposes, Messerschmidt utilised the Cinefade system and its VariND capability. Cinefade allows cinematographers to gradually transition between deep and shallow depth-of-field in the same shot at constant exposure.

“We were generally shooting at T8, T11 and sometimes at T16 to achieve the deep depth-of-field we wanted,” he says. “But when you do that, you lose the ability to use focus as a storytelling tool, in terms of helping the audience know where to look in the frame. There were many moments where we needed that visual device, to punctuate a scene, isolate certain characters, or to pull the depth- of-field as if we were racking focus in-camera. Cinefade does this extremely well.

“I also used Cinefade’s variable ND filter in variable lighting situations on day exteriors, when I wanted to keep the depth-of-field consistent and have the iris fixed in a specific place, like a T11, and it was incredibly effective for that too.”

During pre-production, Messerschmidt worked with Fincher’s regular DI colourist Eric White, to develop HDR viewing LUTs, including one for the day-for-night sequence in the garden at Hearst Castle, which artificially underexposed the camera by 3.5 stops while enhance the highlights.

“Eric was an incredibly important member of the team, and is part of the reason why the movie looks the way it does,” remarks the DP. “I had worked with him before on Mindhunter, especially season two, when we developed a workflow that allowed us to monitor on-set in HDR Dolby PQ Gamma. We knew we had an HDR deliverable on Mank, which really influences with way you expose the camera. You end up with a much better negative if you monitor in HDR. So we built an HDR viewing LUT that let me view out of the camera at 600nits, which was pretty amazing.”

Messerschmidt’s crew was relatively small and self-contained. Mank was predominately a two-camera shoot, with Brian S. Osmond and Will Dearborn wielding A- and B-cameras respectively, and Jerry Deats working as the key grip. Danny Gonzalez was the production’s gaffer.

“David is a keen photographer and always very concerned about having elegant composition of the frame. So we went with classic camera moves and classic framing, no handheld, and asked the actors to be sensitive to their marks.” Messerschmidt explains.

“I initially planned Mank as a single camera shoot, but then realised we could introduce a second camera. I like the puzzle of running two cameras, figuring out the blocking and getting multiple shots from a scene. I operated the third camera on rare occasions, such as the dining room scene at Hearst Castle.

“In the spirit of the 1940s, and earlier movies, the idea of the moving master was something we definitely countenanced. We had a lot of long walk-and-talks in the film – such as when Louis Meyer, Mank and his brother Joe, walk through the hallways of the studios, and when Hearst chaperones Mank to the door at the end of the film – which we filmed on the dolly.

“However, it was hard to move the camera much in a bungalow with our bed-ridden lead. So we generally kept the camera still, and only moved it when it seemed appropriate and motivated by the script, like a push-in through a doorway.”

When it came to lighting, Messerschmidt used wide array of fixtures, from vintage incandescents from the period to the most modern LEDs.

“We were not worried about the colour of the light particularly, but more about the quality and quantity of light,” he states. “I used more hard light than normal, like hard Fresnel front light, for some of our noir treatments, such as Irving Thalberg’s office. For the scene when Louis Meyer addresses the MGM staff in the studios, we used Arc lights at back and front and that worked out as one of the nicest in the movie.

“However, there was some soft lighting too. For example, we wanted all the Hearst Castle scenes to feel like the place was cavernous and musty, and so it was mainly toplit, not overly contrasty and moody.

“On the day exteriors, we did not do much artificial lighting, except of the day-for-night work, where we needed to create shape using fill-light on the actors. We used some pretty big lighting instruments for that, like HMIs, as we needed tremendous amount of light on their faces to make it work. This, combined with shooting in the sunshine, meant it was fairly uncomfortable for Gary and Amanda, and they ended-up squinting. So we had custom sunglass-tinted contact lenses made to help their vision.”

Looking back on his overall experience of shooting Mank, Messerschmidt says, “We made the film we wanted to make, and I am extremely proud of that. I actually came out of it with zero interest in shooting colour ever again. I fell in love with B&W completely. It breaks down cinematography into the bare elements of composition, light and shape. I like that, and learned a lot.”

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