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Mank’ DP Erik Messerschmidt On the Importance of Precision and Preparation

Mank Cinematography
Courtesy of Gisele Schmidt/Netflix

Erik Messerschmidt calls David Fincher’s process “precise.” And it is the greatest compliment. That precision is what Fincher is renowned for, his detail. He prefers the wider shots as he relays his character’s environments, but it’s what’s within the frame; that detail that gets the greatest performances out of actors, and gives audiences a full understanding of what is happening.

Mank,” a love letter to Hollywood’s golden age, is no different. Messerschmidt has collaborated with Fincher before on “Mindhunter,” and
is no stranger to the Fincher process, but this was their first feature together.

Messerschmidt reflects on how Fincher works and how they collaborated on the black-and -white drama.

ON DELIVERING FINCHER’S VISION

“David is incredibly prepared and quite specific about beats that he wants to hit, or moments that he wants to accent. “For me, a lot of our prep process is extracting that from him, and familiarizing myself with how he sees the movie. That process of extraction leads to a conversation that develops the movie.

“On this particular project, for us, we went back and forth and talked about how much homage we wanted to pay to classic cinema, and how much of it could be our own. We asked where those thresholds were; we asked where does that make sense?

“A lot of the conversations David and I have are not about aesthetics, they’re about storytelling. And breaking the scene apart into the dramatic beats and figuring out what is it that we’re trying to communicate emotionally, if it’s the exposition or if it’s an emotional beat.

The aesthetics are naturally developed. [Production designer] Don Burt, [costume designer] Trish Summerville and [set decorator] Jan Pascale provide us with an environment to work within.

THE DETAIL OF A FINCHER FRAME

“We don’t find shots in the set, we build them and we art-direct the frame. It doesn’t mean David tells the actors where to stand, he creates an environment where the actors can work the scene out naturally. And then we involve the camera within that space.

“The process is very deliberate — work the scene out, figure out what it is, how the actors need to move so they feel natural, and the drama is appropriate. Then we place the camera, and we commit to those frames. We work within the box.

“Billy Wilder did it. Hitchcock worked that way. It’s very precise about what’s within the frame. We spend a lot of time considering what is in the frame and what’s out of the frame.

“We think about the timing of the dolly move, the speed of the pan, the speed of the tilt-up relative to the actor standing up. There are  times when the speed of that actor rising with the tilt affects the audience’s experience differently from the actor’s experience.

“We do a lot of rehearsal, and we look at it. We do playback. We look at the frame and we think about what happens, and how close to the camera the eyeline is.”