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The director of photography behind Oscars frontrunner Mank discusses his background in stills, collaborating with David Fincher, and reimagining black-and-white cinema using contemporary technique
In 2020, Erik Messerschmidt made his feature film debut as director of photography (DOP) on David Fincher’s Mank. A love letter to Hollywood’s “Golden Age”, the sumptuous black-and-white film – which leads this year’s Oscars hype with 10 nominations – follows alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) through the 1930s and 40s as he races to finish the cinematic masterpiece that would eventually become Citizen Kane.But rather than simply emulating the iconic imagery pioneered by Gregg Toland – one of film’s most legendary cinematographers, in large part due to his work on Kane – Fincher and Messerschmidt set out to leave a masterfully modern mark on the story.
“I felt like it was quite possible – and I’ve seen it before, with black-and-white in particular – for the images to become almost a parody,” says Messerschmidt, speaking over the phone from LA. “And parody was the last thing we wanted.” The pair were wary of leaning into a cinematic style that would draw “too much” attention to the period, thereby detracting from the authenticity of the narrative; rather, they hoped to transport viewers to old Hollywood in a less contrived way.
Messerschmidt, tipped as a favourite to win at the Oscars next month, served as DOP on both series of Fincher’s Mindhunter (2017 – 2019). But hefirst bonded with the director over an affinity for stills photography when working as chief lighting technician on the film Gone Girl (2014). “My mother gave me a Nikon FM when I was a little kid, and I was always shooting stills,” he says. “Even as a [film] student, I was shooting black-and-white stills and printing in the dark room.” Throughout his 20s, he assisted eminent American photographers such as Gregory Crewdson, Larry Sultan and Mike and Doug Starn, and much of his formative influence in visual culture came from these experiences. “This simultaneous education happens,” he muses, “where you’re learning to use the tools and execute someone else’s vision, but through the process of that, your taste is curated or created. I absorbed a lot of that from them.”
“As a cinematographer, as a photographer, as an image-maker, a lot of us are seduced by this kind of stark, dramatic, film noir imagery. But then I got the script. And I said, ‘this is not a noir film’”
As Messerschmidt’s trajectory in film took off, seeing him move steadily up the ranks over 17 years, stills photography would continue to prove instrumental in the evolution of his cinematic sensibilities. He cites the likes of Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and Mary Ellen Mark as further inspirations; for Mank in particular, he gathered extensive references from black-and-white fine art stills, as well as street photography. He also drew on classic films through the ages, from works made in the same era as Citizen Kane, such as Rebecca (1940) and Casablanca (1942), through to later decades, like The Big Combo (1955) and Paper Moon (1973).
“As a cinematographer, as a photographer, as an image-maker, a lot of us are seduced by this kind of stark, dramatic, film noir imagery,” he says, recalling his initial ideas for the film after being invited to work in black-and-white with Fincher. “But then I got the script. And I said, ‘this is not a noir film’.” While the noir aesthetic – which typically creates an oppressive atmosphere through use of harsh shadows and distinct shafts of light – had certainly attracted Citizen Kane director Orson Welles in his time, it is but one narrow entry on a broad spectrum of black-and-white cinema techniques. So it was back to the drawing board, for Messerschmidt and Fincher to fine tune a visual language that was uniquely their own.
While parts of Mank speak to 1940s noir, others pay homage to 1930s glamour – “that kind of Marlene Dietrich look, which we referenced with Marion Davies’ look” (Amanda Seyfried) – and some employ lighting techniques that are altogether more modern. The result is part stylised dramatisation, part contemporary realism; all a meticulously mapped-out combination, Messerschidmt explains, of intent, taste and practical preference.
Today’s standard for producing black-and-white films is to shoot in colour and desaturate afterwards, allowing for more flexibility in post-production. But, after ample testing, it took “all of 30 seconds” for the Mank team to agree that shooting black-and-white from source was what their film needed: “It just gave a three-dimensionality,” Messerschmidt describes, “a kind of dynamic range, to the image that did not exist in the colour camera, no matter how much we tried to recreate it.” The richness was worth the distinct challenges that black-and-white posed in itself – like the many hundreds of tests they had to conduct across makeup, wardrobe, set and lighting to observe how the tones rendered on camera. “Particularly in terms of looking at the combinations of those things,” Messerschmidt says. “For example, which colour wardrobe separated best against which background, and in which lighting condition. We got really fractile [exacting] with it. But that stuff really matters.”
Another defining feature of Mank’s aesthetic, and indeed a legendary aspect of Citizen Kane, is the use of deep focus. The technique originated in landscape photography with the f/64 photographers of the 1920s (Messerschmidt cites Ansel Adams as a key point of reference for Mank), before being popularised in cinematic form in Citizen Kane, lending a signature dramatic weight to every detail of Gregg Toland’s frames. But despite referencing certain elements of Toland’s original cinematography, “neither of us felt like we should go to great lengths to make the movie look like it’s a replica of a movie made in the 1930s,” Messerschmidt says. Hence why Fincher in particular felt no obligation to shoot on film. “A large part of David’s methodology is that he doesn’t want to be surprised by anything,” the cinematographer continues. “He wants the ability to art direct every frame… Which just meant that digital was clearly the way to go.”
Indeed, much of what allows Mank, like the rest of Fincher’s oeuvre, to hijack the mind of the viewer in such an astounding way is its painstaking technical perfection — from every subtle camera pan to soft shadow to slight hand movement. But it is largely testament to his collaboration with Messerschmidt – alongside production designer Donald Graham Burt and costume designer Trish Summerville – that Mank, in its indelibly heady fusion of business, glamour, politics and power, is so achingly beautiful to behold.
Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently a staff writer. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, BRICKS Magazine, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.