‘Mank’ Cinematographer Talks Bringing Black and White Film to the 21st Century

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Photo Source: Netflix

“Mank,” David Fincher’s new Hollywood film about old Hollywood, pays homage to its source material by shooting in black and white. But if you ask its cinematographer, Erik Messerschmidt, the Netflix feature is anything but a throwback. 

How was it that you came to work on “Mank”? 
I have worked with David Fincher for several years. We had done the television show “Mindhunter” together. We had developed a really good working relationship and a friendship. I met him on the film “Gone Girl”; I was the gaffer on “Gone Girl,” and I initially met David there. After we did “Mindhunter” together, we had a really good shorthand, and I made it my business to really align myself and try to figure out what it was that David wanted, and try to support him as best as I could. He and I see the world, I think, in a very similar way, at least visually. So it was very easy to be in sync in terms of which decisions are needed. We’re very rarely in opposition, and when we are, it’s a constructive one. I was so thrilled to be invited; it was like a dream.

The film is shot in black and white. How did that inform your preparation and your work with David?
He told me about the movie, and he told me he wanted to shoot it in black and white. Then he sent me the script, and I realized what it was. I had initially, naively… Your mind immediately goes to black-and-white images you want to make before you read the script. It’s the narcissism of a cinematographer. It’s like, “Oh, great, I get to do this,” and I had formed all these preemptive images in my head. Then I read the script and was like, None of these images work for this script, because that’s not what this movie is. It’s not a noir film; it’s not a whodunit. It’s much more nuanced. I had to reorient myself. I collected some images, and I sent them to Fincher. At the time, I was acclimating myself to the spectrum of black-and-white cinema. It’s not just noir; it’s not just ’30s glamor. I was relearning the idea that those things are historically stylistic [and] they’re historically relevant, but they’re also very story-relevant. 

The wonderful thing about working for David is he has an opinion about everything. I sent him the images, and he looked at them and was like, “OK, I like this. I don’t like this. This is interesting. Elaborate on this. Tell me why you like this. Where do you see this?” David really understands the movies he’s making, and this was the way for me to understand the movie he wanted to make and feel like I could best support the ideas he was trying to get across to the audience. We would get in situations where it’s like, “OK, I really want to hard-light this scene” for example, or, “I feel like this scene needs to have some contrast.” And then the conversations are based on blocking and the design of the set and where the windows are in relation to the blocking and how that will impact the visual idea that we have in mind. It’s like cooking. It never tastes the same way twice. You’re adding a little bit of salt. It’s much more fluid than I think people give it credit for. It has a lot more to do with jazz than it does with classical performance.

How did the black-and-white filming style change your approach to shooting the actors?
The acting style, I would say—and I’m not a director—is classical. It’s: Hit the mark, say the lines. That has a lot more to do with the camera direction and technique we were using than the “black and white versus color” conversation. We were doing very formal compositions, and the camera is operated on the dolly on a head. It’s very classic, very structured coverage, and it requires the actors to be cognizant of their marks. I think [for] actors who were maybe used to more improvisation, or used to a looseness in terms of where they needed to end up when they made the turn, there was an adjustment to understanding that the style of film that we were doing meant they had to be more diligent in terms of where they needed to be. All the actors we have on this movie are ostensibly classically trained, and they understand those things. Gary [Oldman, who plays Mankiewicz,] is, of course, a master, and it wasn’t like that was a hard conversation to have with anybody. They immediately understood the value and stepped up to the plate. This is one of the most special cast experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Everyone was working in concert, and it was a wonderful environment for that reason.

Can you speak to how you generally work with actors as a cinematographer?
I will sit in the rehearsal, and David spends a lot of time blocking, which I wish more directors did. He considers everything, and he’s very classical with his staging. They rehearse it [and] they figure out what the choreography is. David and the actors are discussing the motivations in the scene—the character motivations—and the subtle nuances and lean-ins and adjustments of the shirt, and what those things mean in relation to their characters and the characterization and the context of the story. Often, David has a very good idea about where he wants to put the camera, at least to start, [and] what direction he wants the background—if he wants windows in the background. Or, if there’s a specific story beat, like if he needs an actor to pick something up, then we’re going to track with a prop and move over with them, like classic Hitchcock-style coverage. I generally watch the rehearsal, and I’m watching the screen direction and the blocking and staging [to see if there’s] anything that is going to impact something he and I discussed, or if I have an idea about light—maybe someone stopped in front of a window, and I know I need to put a light there now. 

READ: Lily Collins on ‘Mank’ + ‘Emily in Paris’

I can pull David aside at the right time and say, “Gary’s stopped right in front of that window, and I need that window to light her. Can we explore a version where he stops short of the window?” I never ask an actor to do something without discussing with the director first. Sometimes those conversations are very fluid and open, and it’s an active discussion amongst David and myself and the actors. And in other cases, I ask David to intervene or take a look at it. David is great like that because he really understands cinematography, and he understands what we’re up against. Those sort of practical considerations are easy for him to adjust. Sometimes it doesn’t work, or sometimes I am not capable of, in the moment, understanding the broader scope of what’s happening in the scene as well. So it’s like, “No, they have to stop here because he has to see her around the corner” or whatever, and then I have to change the lighting approach. It’s a two-way street.

How would you describe the role of the cinematographer?
Oh, boy. When you figure it out, will you let me know? I think the cinematographer is the director’s appendage. We’re in some ways the instrument through which the director can orchestrate the visuals in their film. Part of that is interpretation—part of that is didactic construction, part of that is inspiration and our own personal stamp. It’s different with every director, but I see it very much like that. I also think, to be honest, cinematographers probably get too much credit for the way movies look and not enough credit for the way the story is told. In actuality, the production designer and the costume designer deserve more credit for the way the movie looks, and cinematography has a lot more to do with editing than it does with photography. That’s one thing that is just never fully discussed, because of course we have a huge part to play in the way the movie looks, but we have a lot to do with the way the story is told, too.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 21 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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