‘Mank’ DP Erik Messerschmidt on How He Added Luster to B&W Images for David Fincher’s Tale of Hollywood’s Golden Age

“Mank” cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and director David Fincher have a shorthand way of communicating: They worked together on Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” and Messerschmidt served as gaffer on 2014’s “Gone Girl.”

Messerschmidt makes his feature film debut as director of photography on “Mank,” the story of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s stay on a secluded ranch, where he works on the masterpiece that will eventually be “Citizen Kane.” Continuous shots and chiaroscuro lighting contribute to the film’s noir vibe.

Fincher and Messerschmidt always intended the movie to be in black and white, but also tested shooting on digital in color converted to monochrome before settling on black and white directly to achieve the luscious framing and silvery monochromatic effect that recalls Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Below, Messerschmidt breaks down two key scenes from the movie and how lighting and VFX played key parts:

The Lady in White at Hearst Castle

“Hearst [Charles Dance] was famous for throwing elaborate costume parties for his guests. In this scene we find Marion [Amanda Seyfried] dressed in costume for a dinner party at Hearst Castle.

Trish Summerville, the costume designer, made this beautiful bright white costume for Amanda. When I saw it, I quite liked the idea of making Amanda the brightest thing in the room. I slightly overexposed her compared to everybody else so she would be a bright beacon within the dark castle walls.

We had initially considered several locations for Hearst Castle, but in the end, we decided to build it, in part because of the lighting requirements. David was very specific, and he wanted the Hearst Castle interiors to feel very castle-like and musty.

There are many parts in the movie that are very stylized, with a lot of noir contrast. David and I felt this scene could be moodier, more top lit, almost modern in terms of lighting. I also felt like I could reference a little 1930s glamour with Amanda, as I had done in most of her scenes.

I lit the entire scene predominantly from the top, as if it was lit from the chandeliers and the candlelight of the room, with the exception of Amanda. She was lit from the floor — the only character who is individually lit in the scene.”

The Funeral of a Mogul

“We looked all over Los Angeles for a synagogue to shoot this scene in. We wanted one with tall ceilings that felt Gothic, as the script specifically called for a shaft of light on the coffin. The location we ultimately found had windows, but they were inaccessible and on the right side of the room.

To further complicate things, the scene that follows this had to be played right to left because of the way we wanted to stage it and the background we liked. As a result, we had to make sure the funeral screen direction was also right to left, putting the windows on the wrong side of the room. David said, ‘You’re fucked.’

I decided to hang some robotic theatrical lights on the wall to create the shafts of light we wanted and suggested we digitally add the windows over the lights. David loved the idea, as it allowed me to light the room with backlight and edge light and maintain the screen direction we needed.”

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