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Curating Reality: Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and "Mank"

An in-depth conversation with "Mank" DP Erik Messerschmidt about his detailed work on the film.
Nicolas Rapold
Mank BTS: Picture: Miles Crist
It’s impressive when a Director of Photography’s first fiction feature is with David Fincher, notorious for his exacting eye in terms of both working methods and stringent aesthetics. But before Mank—Fincher’s passion project on Herman J. Mankiewicz and the writing of Citizen Kane—Erik Messerschmidt, ASC had been a part of Fincher’s team on both seasons of Mindhunter and even earlier as a gaffer on Gone Girl for DP Jeff Cronenweth. On Mindhunter, Messerschmidt’s camera infused the bloodless institutional interiors of its serial-killer/FBI interview set pieces with subtly vulnerable undertones, hewing to a Fincher playbook of visual control that telegraphs barely contained chaos.
Mank posed its own challenge with the director’s dream of making a black-and-white period picture in 2020, a vision of authenticity that is something of a chimera in cinema’s digital age. The story shuttles between Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) writing Citizen Kane in 1940 and his preceding years of experience with the people and society that inspired him, including Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Mank does not simulate the look of any single movie made in the 1940s but rather comprises a gentle pastiche of styles and signifiers (no office seems without slatted shades). Standout scenes include the banquets in cavernous Hearst Castle, where Mank dunks on the assembled high-flown guests; bull sessions in the screenwriter’s Mojave Desert bungalow as he hems and haws and bangs out the screenplay for Citizen Kane; a glitzy-weary 1934 election party for California’s gubernatorial contest, celebrating Republican Frank Merriam’s victory over Upton Sinclair; and anything featuring Seyfried as Davies, remarkably the sole true star in a film set in 1930s and ’40s Hollywood.
Speaking with Messerschmidt, I zeroed in on the feelings and associations within the look of Mindhunter, and the particular technical choices that went into creating Mank’s Hollywoodland.

NOTEBOOK: Early on, you worked with some photographers: Gregory Crewdson, Doug and Mike Starn. What attracted you to that work and what did you come away with?
ERIK MESSERSCHMIDT: Ever since I was a little kid I was interested in image-making and art and definitely photography. When I got out of film school, I was looking for any opportunity to do that sort of thing. But I didn’t really like the solo nature of still photography, and I was attracted to the social aspects of a film set. I started out in the movie business working on a set and then I had an opportunity to work in the fine art world with those guys, particularly Greg Crewdson. And that’s very much like a film set. I was working for people that I really respected and admired, and I learned a tremendous amount about photography and lighting and composition, and carried that forward.
NOTEBOOK: Which photos did you work on with Crewdson?
MESSERSCHMIDT: Oh, god, I worked on a lot. I did the whole Beneath the Roses series. I didn’t do any of the Twilight photographs. I worked for him for a couple of years. I first worked for him when we did a New York Times Magazine spread where we shot some celebrities. We shot Gwyneth Paltrow, William H. Macy—that’s one of my favorites: we did one of Bill Macy in a garage in Rutland, Vermont, where he’s trying to put sod down on his garage floor. That always resonated with me.
NOTEBOOK: People sometimes use the term “cinematic” to describe Crewdson’s work. I wouldn’t ordinarily ask this but, given that, what does the word mean to you?
MESSERSCHMIDT: I think there’s an element of cinema that is fantasy and fantastical, otherworldly. I don’t know how to articulate it really. Not existing entirely in realism. I think his photos are a little bit like that: there’s a fantasy aspect to it, an otherworldly aspect. It’s crafted, it’s manicured, it’s curated reality. To some degree we do that in cinema, some more than others, some are very stylized, some really reach for realism. But we’re always cleaving apart part of the world and only showing the audience one part of it. That’s what we’re doing with the camera, always. We’re restricting the audience’s field of view and telling them where to look. That’s why it’s wholly different from theater. That really is what cinema is in its very essence: this idea that we’re going to curate your experience for the next two hours or the next 10 hours or the next 20 minutes or whatever it is, and we’re going to tell you where to look, and we’re going to tell you which part of the frame to look at, we’re going to tell you what to listen to, and we’ll hope—with respect to looking at the same frame—that you’re having the same experience. I think that is what’s cinematic in a way. It’s not really heightened reality, but it is curated reality.
NOTEBOOK: That leads us straight into Mindhunter. The show is partly about a confrontation between institutions and aberration. The lighting feels at the same time heightened and stylized down, low-contrast. What feelings went into that for you?
MESSERSCHMIDT: We were always looking to find the beauty in the banal, and really trying to break these scenes down to their bare bones. In the interview scenes that are the backbone of the series, the imagery that’s discussed, the content of it, and the drama is all in what these guys are talking about, the discussion of these people’s lives. That was the real center of the show. We were never exploiting it, we were just putting it out in front of the audience and letting the audience experience it. Had we been really stylized with the photography, I think it would have taken away from the show. People say it has a style, but I think the style is minimalism. What we did have is a very distinct set of goalposts for what we were not going to do with the camera and the lighting. We tried to keep everything motivated, with a very specific palette we didn’t want to deviate from.
NOTEBOOK: I remember David Fincher saying something once about what dispassion can do for an audience’s focus. And in this series you have ostensibly dispassionate investigators chronicling the results of sometimes unfathomably violent passions.
MESSERSCHMIDT: There is a just-the-facts-ma’am procedure to how these guys are taught and how they’re trained in terms of dealing with people. To a large degree, in the show anyway, the characters are now confronted with people and communicating with people that are beyond their training. They’re writing the guidebook while they’re experiencing it and managing it. It’s less about an internal conversation, even though we do address it, than it is around the procedure and the methodology and logic—that conversation our characters are having with themselves and the world. We definitely were not looking to extract it so much as experience it. I think there’s a thing that happens sometimes where we go in and really reach for it [when shooting]: you elicit a performance and go in really close with a tight close-up or handheld camera and you’re trying to squeeze every bit of emotion out of a scene that you can. That type of filmmaking just didn’t seem right for Mindhunter. It just didn’t seem the way we wanted to tell that story.
NOTEBOOK: What does the color scheme in Mindhunter mean to you?
MESSERSCHMIDT: I’m a child of the early ’80s. I was born in 1980. My earliest memories of color are Americana emerging from the 1970s. In my parents’ home and my grandmother’s home, I remember those knitted Afghan throws that were orange and green and brown, the colors of the 1970s. Avocado green refrigerators. That kind of gold burnt orange, the okra colors, and sandstone. Those are the colors I remember—teal blue, the car that Holden drives. That is the palette of the 1970s, I think. So we lean into it. I took the show a little bit more yellow in the second season, and the production designer, Steve Arnold, and I both collaborated on this idea that we could go with this burnt yellow tone, particularly in some of these interiors. It was really just trying to lean into a color palette for the second season. There’s an element of experimentation that comes with any of that stuff, too.
NOTEBOOK: You’re triggering some flashbacks for me with those colors.
MESSERSCHMIDT: Yeah, totally. It’s not the saturated colors of the 1950s. And it’s not the pastels of the late ’80s and ’90s. It’s a very distinct palette.
NOTEBOOK: Moving on to the black-and-white of Mank, you’re again reinhabiting a past look. I’ve read about the black-and-white decision as suggesting a movie that might have been released at the time of the story. But how would you describe the particular quality of the movie’s black-and-white?
MESSERSCHMIDT: I think that what we ended up with was a little bit of a mix of style and technique and that was not by accident, it was by intent. Part of it is the recollection of what black-and-white films are and what they think they should be. To some degree, filmmakers fall into that trap as well, categorizing what style to embrace. It’s a little bit like trying to figure out what style of color photography to embrace when you’re making a color film. But unfortunately, because of the way we view black-and-white films as these things of historical record, we automatically assume that oh, okay, they’re making a black-and-white film, so either it’s a noir film, or it’s a 1930s glamour film, or it’s a Jean-Luc Godard black-and-white handheld film. In reality, with all of those movies, their technique was developed through an artistic process, and other movies around there that influenced it—we all make movies based on the influences we look at.
In the specific case of Mank, we made a strong effort to know that we’re making a film in black-and-white of a specific era, and to try to make choices that were based on the story and scene that we were shooting in the moment, with the context of the greater film. The reason I’m articulating it this way is because I don’t think of Mank as a noir film, for example, or a ’30s glamour film, although it probably has more in common with that than it does with noir. There are elements of noir when we thought it appropriate to go there and lean into those visuals. The hope is that people get sucked into it and believe that yes, this movie tumbled out of a film vault at MGM and people feel it. But of course there are lighting techniques in it that are relatively modern, and there are some that are classical from the period. My hope is never that people would ever be fooled that they’re seeing a movie that was made in 1935, but that they feel immersed enough in the experience to forget that they’re watching a movie in 2020.
NOTEBOOK: Mankiewicz’s writing room in the Mojave bungalow is one setting that the film returns to repeatedly. You use a variety of shots in framing the drama: an anchoring, wide viewpoint from next to Mank in bed (as if looking at the room from a night table); closer shots on Oldman’s face and profile; and angles on other parts of the bungalow. Could you talk about conceiving and executing these scenes?
MESSERSCHMIDT: The exteriors were shot in the Victorville bungalow where Mank actually wrote the screenplay. The interiors were built on stage as an approximation of what the interior may have looked like. I’m not sure there are any historical records of what that interior actually was, but Don [Burt, the production designer] built a set that was a representation of what the interior might have looked like. From the script we knew that a tremendous amount of coverage was going to be in and around the bed, and Mank was going to be in the bed and Rita Alexander [his amanuensis, played by Lily Collins] was going to be at his bedside, or his nurse Fräulein Freda was going to be walking around. Lots of action between Mank and people standing around Mank! Don knew this and was worried, as was I, that we were going to be shooting a guy in a bed in a white room for most of the movie and that we would find ourselves frustrated and a little bit limited. So he put in these hallways and the window into the kitchen, and these hallways go down so we could see Rita at the typewriter from Mank’s point of view at the end. Always looking for those opportunities to show patches of lit wall and dark wall in depth and tell that story that way.
That particular location and those scenes in terms of lighting technique are slightly more modern than the flashback sequences, and that was intentional. I wanted to figure out some way to tell the story that we were going back in time. And David and I talked about that at length. One of the things we chose to do is make the MGM interiors, the soundstage, the studio, the walk-and-talks, feel more classic Hollywood, and the “modern-day” 1940 bungalow could be slightly more modern and soft-lit and less gestured.
NOTEBOOK: Throughout the film’s interiors, it sometimes seems that lightbulbs are styled as the brightest thing in the room yet faces remain in shades of grey. Could you talk about your approach to the lighting?
MESSERSCHMIDT: I think that may just be personal choice and technique. That’s just kind of the way I think about the world. Generally the last thing I would do when I light a shot is the actor’s face. It’s not any disrespect toward the actor. It’s just that I find it’s better to light the room and the environment and think about what the environment would be that they’re meant to be living in—and get that to do most of the heavy lifting—and add a little key light or whatever at the last minute once we’ve done the rest. That’s obviously situational. If you’re doing glamour, as we do in the film, there are scenes in the Hearst Castle dining room where we very specifically lit Marion Davies with a key light. That’s obviously a stylistic choice and not entirely grounded in realism. I always look at what practicals I can put in the shot first and what can actually be there and exist there and do most of the work and then we’ll fill in the rest later.
NOTEBOOK: Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies definitely radiates a kind of glow, more than any other actor in the film. There’s a special pastoral beauty to the scene when she visits with Mankiewicz.
MESSERSCHMIDT: Well, Amanda is stunning and she’s really easy to light. And we weren’t necessarily reaching for glamour anywhere else in the film. The rest of the film is very grounded in naturalism, to some degree some noir and some graphic gestured light. We all felt a little bit that when Amanda was on screen there was an opportunity to lean into the glamour and the radiance a little bit. That is really because of her character and who she’s playing: she’s struggling with that in her own life as well, her career at that time was a little bit past her. We were able to experiment a little bit with that sort of style when she’s on screen.
NOTEBOOK: On a completely different tack, but also perhaps an intriguing part of the image-making: how much did you work with digital composites on Mank?
MESSERSCHMIDT: There’s some set extension in the Hearst Castle exteriors. There’s paint and things outside the MGM gates, because of course outside Sony Pictures now it looks nothing like 1930. We did some video wall virtual production work for the car driving scene, because blue screen doesn’t work very well in black and white for obvious reasons. There’s some digital paint work. I think the most significant example is the walk-and-talk outside in the Hearst Castle gardens which we actually shot day for night, which required a tremendous amount of testing and prep. The animals are CG: the monkeys, the elephants there, the giraffes. So we built white flats in the case of the monkey cage for Mank and Marion to walk in front of, so they could pull keys and put the monkeys in. There was quite a bit of previsualization and processing going into that sort of thing. It’s sprinkled about.
But the Hearst Castle interiors are all real. The ceiling is replaced in the hallway for the walk-and-talk: there’s a single wide shot leading them for that walking talk where he explains the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey, and I had to put some lights somewhere. I talked to David, and I said, “Can we replace the ceiling here, I want to place some lights here.” So they matte-painted the ceiling so that I could put some lights somewhere in the set. [The digital composite work] is as minimal as possible but as needed.
NOTEBOOK: What are you working on now?
MESSERSCHMIDT: I’m in Savannah, Georgia, prepping a film called Devotion, which is a Korean War film.

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