David Fincher’s keenly anticipated Netflix original “Mank” is a valentine to old Hollywood glamor in the shape of a character study of the larger-than-life screenwriter of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” Herman J. Mankiewicz, played with gusto by Gary Oldman.
Speaking in an online seminar at the EnergaCamerimage Film Festival, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mindhunter,” “Gone Girl”) described the production team’s obsessive pursuit of the lustrous black-and-white look and feel for the period project, which brought together the in-depth research of production designer Donald Burt and costume designer Trish Summerville.
Getting pre-war Hollywood right while paying homage to one of cinema’s most iconic films, said Messerschmidt, was no easy task, even with the incredible range of digital camera technology now on offer.
The original cinematographer for “Citizen Kane,” Gregg Toland, “is incredibly influential,” said Messerschmidt. “Obviously we looked at ‘Citizen Kane’ and looked at his work.”
“Mank” pays homage to his signature techniques – “deep focus, relatively low camera angles, limited focal length,” said Messerschmidt. “We limited ourselves to just a few lenses.”
At the same time, he said, the filming needed to serve the story rather than draw attention to itself.
“We wanted people to get really sucked into the time period, to really feel like they were there and not get distracted too much by the photography but to feel like they were watching a movie of the period and help them connect to the story in that way.”
Borrowing from Toland’s now famous shots, which reveal whole worlds in the background, was key.
“‘Citizen Kane’ was shot at very deep F-stops for deep focus. We aimed to do the same for most of the film. I shot in anywhere between an 8 and an 11 the entire movie, for the most part.” But Welles’ classic aside, Messerschmidt added, “David and I felt black and white just looks better that way anyway. That’s referential of early black and white still photography – Ansel Adams…we wanted the film to have that feel for sure.”
To achieve the look with modern cameras was not as simple as some might expect.
“We did lots of testing,” he added, trying out lenses, color grading techniques and “figuring out what the right recipe was for that.”
Messerschmidt ended up shooting on a Red 8K Helium monochrome sensor camera, which the company put together just for “Mank.”
“We did test color cameras – we considered it as an option in the very beginning. We shot a series of tests. It took all of 30 seconds, I think, for us to decide, ‘No, we wanted to shoot black and white for black and white. It just looks so much better for us and what we were going for.”
The range of looks in black and white film is more vast than many realize, Messerschmidt pointed out, noting that even film noir classics weren’t necessarily definitive.
One “Mank” scene in which the research paid off, he said, is set in a dramatically lit election night party. Working closely with Burt, Messerschmidt worked out how the scene would be constructed and lit, largely based on concept art Burt had put together. The scene, which follows conversations at several tables, needed to be illuminated largely with practicals, said the cinematographer, adding that a custom-built sign covered in light bulbs reading 1934 was a key source along with lamps on the tables.
“I’m really pleased with the way that scene turned out and that we didn’t do a lot of off-camera lighting.”
Messerschmidt added that a busy production schedule in Africa forced him to launch into “Mank” with less prep time than he would have liked, but he still managed to put together a look book for the team to go over that contained everything from fine art work to street photography – “just inspirational images – it wasn’t anything specific.”
Fincher’s feedback on the looks was crucial. “He’s so reflexive when you ask him questions,” Messerschmidt said. “You get an immediate answer. Immediately he’s like ‘This works. I don’t want to do this.’ ”
When he arrived in L.A., Messerschmidt’s first stop was Burt’s office to look over his plans for the sets. “A lot of the decisions cinematographers are confronted with are kind of practical considerations – what we have to accomplish, where physics limits us. Where we can put the camera, where we can put lighting equipment.”
Already in synch and working on a unified vision, he said, “Mank” was off to the races.
“We didn’t really storyboard much – but I think that’s because of the way we work and communicate. We’re not doing these elaborate action sequences. It’s for the most part pretty straightforward.”