Erik Messerschmidt films Mank with Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman

Creative COW with Erik Messerschmidt: A Labor of Light

Mank could have easily been a parody of old school Hollywood, but Erik Messerschmidt and David Fincher weren’t going to let that happen. They went for broke on thoroughly reproduced sets, meticulous lighting, smoke filled offices, energetic conversations, and characters that breathe.

Once Mank opens its first scene, the scenery and intelligent dialogue make it hard to look away. As much as I thought I knew about San Simeon, having grown up ten minutes away from Hearst Castle, it was exciting to look into the bygone era when this California location was a lively hotbed of social chemistry, and parties, and movie creation, rather than just a stale museum where no one can touch the furniture.

When preparing to speak with Erik Messerschmidt, I would almost get lost working back through the layers of filmmakers contributing to this story. Mank pays homage to the legend Gregg Toland’s game-changing eye for cinematography. The dynamism between Toland, Orson Welles and the writer Herman J. Mankiewicz would be recrafted 80 years later by this modern team of David Fincher and Erik Messerschmidt, with Jack Fincher writing the screenplay.

In mid April 2021 Erik Messerschmidt took the ASC Award for Outstanding Cinematography, and then in May, deservedly, the Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar for his lensing of the period piece Mank.

Despite his youthful appearance, Erik’s film career has already spanned decades, working his way up through the ranks as a grip, an electrician, and a number of years as a gaffer. Some of his gaffer work included Gone Girl, as well as DP on Mindhunter, with Fincher, further developing that relationship till the day when David asked Erik if he wanted to shoot this next project, Mank, and Erik said “Of course I want to shoot the movie!”

Mank, Erik’s first cinematography role outside of television, his first movie as DP, has won multiple awards this year. What kind of heavenly dream must that be for any cinematographer? Who hits a grand slam at their first baseball game?

I’d like to congratulate you, this is quite an accomplishment in a very short period of time. You must be blown away by the whole thing!

Erik Messerschmidt: Yeah it’s been overwhelming. It’s pretty special, and humbling for sure.

I can tell you, honestly, I knew that you were going to win, but that’s just between me and you.

Erik: (laughs)

How did you make this step from television to film?

Erik: I’ve been going between feature films and and television and commercials as a crew member for a couple decades, and I never differentiated much between films and television, other than just what the realities of the storytelling was.

If television is different from feature films, it’s because of the length. I mean, I think particularly today we are somewhat living in the golden the Golden Age of television.  The step from television to feature film isn’t isn’t always a step up as it is often, or certainly as it has been considered in the past. It is considered a side step in many ways.

But, do you see a difference in the setups that you do for your television shots compared to what you would do for Mank?

Erik: Well, we had more time to make the movie. And in terms of page count, that is for sure true. But, that that didn’t lead to any more time for the cinematographer I can assure you! (laughs). I used every bit of the available time we had, and I would not say that we had, in terms of my part of the process, substantially more time than I did on, say, Mindhunter to set each shot up. The energy of the production, at least in the case of David Fincher, was toward maximizing his time with the actors. In the complexity of what we’re doing, I suppose,  you probably could say that there are instances of this. Mank is obviously a black and white film, and it’s a period film, so there’s other considerations to be made. It’s not like I was suddenly given the opportunity to light for two and a half hours! That certainly was not happening, and it rarely does.

I think there is a propagated false narrative that directors of photography in big budget feature films have the world as their oyster, and they can light for hours and then hand a baton over to the director and actors. That’s just not the case in my experience. We’re still under enormous time pressure. We have to make our decisions and they have to be practical choices, first and foremost.

So you started out as an electrician and a gaffer for many years, doing films and shows. What made you aim for DP?

Erik: I always felt that way. I always felt like that’s where I wanted the land. I was never someone that wanted to direct, what I really wanted to do is shoot. And I I was doing that throughout my early career, shooting little documentaries and short films for friends and actor friends of mine that wanted to direct. I’d spec commercials and all sorts of small projects and art films. As things went on, maybe there was a small commercial that someone would actually pay me to shoot, or something I could do on on the weekend, or to fill in some time with the director I knew, or a cinematographer I was working with was directing or something. Those sorts of things came up, so I was always kind of shooting. I knew I wanted to do it from a from a young age, before I went to college I was like, “that’s what I want to do with my life”.

Starting out as the gaffer and the electrician surely developed your intuition for the lighting and shots. Has it influence the way you work with the gaffers that are on your sets now? Did it build an understanding and rapport with your crew on Mank?

Erik: I think so. To do your job responsibly as a cinematographer takes more than good taste. You have to understand the process and the technique. You have to know how to communicate to your intentions to those that are actually doing the physical work that it takes to set a shot up, and execute a shot, and light a shot. I think it is really good to have an idea of what it takes to do that, and to understand what the labor requirements are, and what the equipment requirements are, and what the potential pitfalls might be, and to protect the crew from from all sorts of bad situations that they get presented with all the time: bad weather, exploitive productions, unreasonable expectations, etc. Having that experience helps.

Learning to communicate with the gaffer helps. Certainly when I was a gaffer there was some photographers that communicated really well with me, and others that didn’t. I tried to take that experience with me in terms of how I communicate with the crew.

I really view my crew is my family. In many cases we see them more than our own families, so it’s very important. 

You become very close.

Erik: Oh for sure. I mean, they’re my best friends.

So Mank was an outgrowth of your relationship with David Fincher?

Erik: Yeah, David and I are pretty close collaborators. I’m honored every time the phone rings. And if he has something that he wants me to be involved in, I’m thrilled. I’m certainly never expecting the phone to ring, but when it does, it’s great. The only thing better than getting this job is getting invited to do another one. That’s fantastic.

He and I see the world in a very similar way, in a lot of ways, and we respect each other. We’re in a creative place where we can challenge each other, and I think that’s important. I do my very best to understand what it is he’s going after and support him. David is a great director and knows what he wants. He understands the film better than anyone, and is extremely good at articulating what he wants in an efficient way. I do my very best to communicate back with him in the same manner, an economy of words, and we have a shorthand. Over the years now we’ve developed a very quick way to communicate, and that really helps our process I think.

I’ve heard that David Fincher works in a unique way, that he shoots very wide so that he has more to work with, then he can zoom into frames and reposition scenes during the edit. Was that part of the process in Mank?

Erik: Yeah, we’ve been doing that for a while. He was doing that on Gone Girl. While we are still setting up compositions and setting up shots, he protects himself with an extra 15% or so around the outside of the frame, and a lot of that is for stabilization purposes. On a moving shot, for example, or a tilt-up, where you want to make sure that the composition is perfectly executed, that is something that is extremely difficult to do. Particularly on a moving shot where you’re rolling the dolly, even on the best surface still gives a little bit of sub-pixel blur and shake in it that is easily stabilized in post. I’ve come to be quite fond of that process.

And we have, in my opinion, one of the greatest camera operators on planet. His name is Brian Osmond, and he is exceptional at what he does; better than anyone I’ve ever worked with. And yet, he would be the first one to admit there’s always room for improvement. And so we try and get it as close to what David is looking for as possible. So, there’s always a little bit of insurance in the frame to protect for that.

Also on Mank, you used a RED Camera. Was that because it was able to give you those classic lense looks and styles, or is RED a standard for you?

Erik: I think cameras these days are a little bit like electric guitars, you know? Some people play a Stratocaster, some people play Les Paul. They all make great images. You go to a guitar player and you ask them which guitar is the best, they’ll always tell you it’s the one that they’re playing.

We’ve been shooting on the RED Camera for a number of years now and I understand it. I adore the images I can get out of it. It feels like an instrument I can play. And you know I can pick up an Alexa or Sony Venice, and I can get equally good images out of it, but it feels slightly more foreign to me. I end up gravitating back to the RED camera, for whatever reason.

There are certain things about it that lends itself to David’s process, too, and the process we’re working in. We like to over sample in terms of resolution, so even if we’re finishing in 4k we would prefer to capture in a resolution slightly higher than that, and that helps with noise and under exposure to some degree, I would argue. It’s always better to oversample and finish in a lower resolution than uprez in my opinion. And I happen to work quite a bit in the toe, so to speak, which means I work a lot with under-exposure, and that particular camera performs extremely well in that sort of scenario. I’m quite fond of it.

But really in terms of Mank, RED happens to make a monochrome version of the camera called a Helium Monochrome, which is a black and white camera. It doesn’t record any color information at all and that’s the primary reason that we shot with that camera.

You channeled some of the feeling that Gregg Toland gave to his cinematography in Citizen Kane. Yet, you did not go overboard on Toland. Mank was your own movie. This was a period piece, whereas Citizen Kane was a mysterious, abstract kind of movie.

Erik: Yeah!

So you struck a balance. Where did you draw the line in your mind?

Erik: That was a big conversation, and I was fearful. I felt like black and white cinematography immediately runs the risk of becoming a parody of itself. When that happens, it discredits itself. I was certainly concerned that if we if we leaned into it too much, that would be irresponsible. I didn’t want to be tempted by the medium we were working in and take away from the story we were telling. I was scared about getting seduced by the black-and-whiteness of it.

You walked a fine line.

Erik: Yeah, for sure. Every day I was asking myself on the car ride home if I’d made the right choice, and hoping it had been right. There are moments in the movie that are quite gestured and dramatic, and we picked those places really strategically. Then there are other parts of the film that are quite naturalistic, and simple, and less stylized. I was really trying to walk the line.

And Gregg Toland is really an absolute hero of mine, and someone who really changed cinematography I think for the better.  He made it acceptable, and actually encouraged people to take creative risks in their photography. That’s why I think he’s the most important, because he was willing to suggest that “hey guys, maybe there is another way to do this, and lets explore that”. He did not live a long life, but the life he did live, and the impact he left on our craft is profound.

There were certainly things about Citizen Kane that we responded to and we wanted to pay homage to. But there was other work of Toland’s, like Wuthering Heights for example, or Grapes of Wrath actually are really good references for Mank, just because of the locations that they were shot in.  They are, in many cases I think, more appropriate references than Citizen Kane itself, even though the movie we’re making is about the writing of that script. The style of that film is not necessarily applicable to our movie, because the setting is so much different, and the theme is so much different.

Was Toland was an influence on you before Mank?

Erik: Oh way before Mank. Citizen Kane was the movie that made me want to make movies. He is someone like Gordon Willis, like Robbie Mueller who was a cinematographer that pushed cinematography forward into a different place, and encouraged other cinematographers to look at their job through a different lens. It still happens today that cinematographers, we all get set in our ways. We’re under enormous time pressure, and creative pressure and economic pressure. I can certainly speak for myself, we end up leaning on techniques that we know will be successful. It takes energy and people like Gregg Toland to push. We need to push each other into being willing to take some risks sometimes, and try to do something a different way. I think that’s really important. He is someone I really admire for that more than anything. And of course, the images he made are incredibly memorable and important pieces of movie history as well.

There was a point in Mank where he falls asleep, and the booze bottle rolls out of his hand onto the floor… Was that kind of a foreshadowing of how Mank perhaps gets his idea for the snow globe to fall out of Kane’s hand?

Erik: You’re 100% right. That’s a perfect example. We were winking a bit there, for sure.

Also, I’ve noticed that especially with Marion Davies, actresses with platinum blonde hair on the black and white screen, their hair just seems to glow. Is that purposely lit? How do you make Amanda’s Seyfreid’s hair glow like that?

Erik: We lit her that way. In most of the scenes that Amanda is in, she’s lit just a little more lit than everybody else, and she’s a little bit more glamorous than everybody else. Most of the other scenes, and certainly the scenes with Mank and Hearst, it’s sort of just drab top light. It’s meant to be what we imagine San Simeon probably was like in those interiors. We were trying really hard not to over-dramatize that environment, try to let it look like what it probably looked like.

I read that you have a background in the fine arts?

Erik: I do. I did quite a bit of work very early in my life in fine art photography. I was involved in and really interested in theatre when I was in high school, and I loved building sets and doing the lighting and sound. I was never interested in acting. I was interested in screen craft, and stage craft, and production and the adrenaline of putting on a show, and the collaboration of doing something with a team. I’m not a particularly athletic person, so it was a perfectly good alternative to playing soccer or whatever. I like the collision of science and craft and teamwork and art. Filmmaking includes all of my favorite things.

If you have one favorite scene out of Mank, what would you say your favorite scene was?

Erik: I have a number of favorites. I watch the movie now, and I think about all the things I would do different.

I’m proud of the day-for-night walk-and-talk with Marion and Mank, where they’re walking through the garden. That’s something we worked really hard to prep. David and I were very much in sync about how we were going to do things, how we were doing it, and what time of day we were going to do it. We went back to those locations several times and looked at the sun position, and discussed how much time we would have for each shot. We really calculated it all out, and it was a tremendous amount of work. I think it worked pretty well, so that is something I’m fond of.

The movie is ostensibly the movie we set out to make. You know, typically they say you make the movie three times; You make it in the screenplay, then you make it in production and you make it a third time in editing. And it’s a different film in all three stages. That has been my experience throughout my career in making movies, and this is the first time really where I feel like the movie we set out to make in the prep is extremely close to the movie that we ended up making. That feels good, you know? It feels like we did the hard work, we decided what we were going to do, and then we did it. It’s one way to make a film, but it doesn’t happen that often, and that was pretty cool.

In the day-for-night scene, I heard that Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman had to wear special contacts in their eyes so that they didn’t squint?

Erik: That’s right! I had done some day-for-night work on a TV show called Raised By Wolves for Ridley Scott, and we were doing all the night work, day-for-night. I hadn’t done it before, and I sent Fincher some still frames of what we were doing, and he said “oh that’s pretty cool, maybe this will work on Mank“.

On Mank, we did some tests in the prep process of the film. We shot Gary and Amanda outside the sound stage one day when we were doing some make-up tests. The thing about day-for-night is that, essentially you underexpose the camera several stops to get the sunlight to look like moonlight. What that means is you have to add all sorts of extra front light or side light to the actors faces if you want to see them, otherwise they would just go into complete silhouette. So everywhere outside the frame I had all these bounce lights, putting it right on Gary’s face. And he’s a very good sport, and he’s up for anything, and he’s a photographer and he understands the process and he’s always trying to make the shot better. But, he came up to me after that test and said, “I don’t know man, I’m not sure I can deal with this. I mean I’ll do it, but I’ll be squinting the whole time.” 

And we looked at the footage in the tests, and sure enough he was squinting. You don’t squint in the middle of moonlight.

So we reached out… it’s very common in Hollywood to make custom contact lenses for people’s eyes when they want to change their eye color. If they’re playing a character from history or what have you, or playing a fantasy characters that has dramatic eyes or whatever. So we said, “can you make these contacts but make them like sunglasses?” And they said “Yeah sure.” And so Amanda and Gary put them on. They look ridiculous when you see someone wearing them, but on camera you don’t notice. It was basically sunglasses. They were able to act under those circumstances and it worked out really well.

Mank is available to stream on Netflix.

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