Mank (Netflix) marks cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt’s first narrative feature. It continues a series of firsts for the DP in collaboration with director David Fincher.
Messerschmidt, who earned ASC membership distinction last year, got a major break back in the day while serving as a gaffer for cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, most notably on the Fincher-directed Gone Girl. During the course of that movie, Fincher had Messerschmidt do some promotional still work for Gone Girl and the two struck up a rapport. This eventually led to Messerschmidt becoming the DP on Fincher’s Mindhunter, the thriller series centered on an FBI agent’s quest to track down serial killers in the late 1970s.
Last July, Messerschmidt garnered his first career Emmy nomination for his lensing of Mindhunter. He’s shot the lion’s share of Mindhunter episodes, representing his first major TV gig as his DP endeavors prior to that were primarily in commercials and other short-form fare.
Fincher then further expanded Messerschmidt’s reach--this time into the feature realm with Mank which centers on screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (portrayed by Gary Oldman) as he races to finish the script for director Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane on a tight timetable, secluded in a bungalow in a desert town miles removed from Los Angeles as he recuperates from a car accident in 1940. Attending to him are his secretary Rita (Lily Collins) and his German nurse (Monika Grossmann).
In the process, through Mankiewicz’s worldview--marked by his abiding social conscience and wit, at times caustic--we are introduced to not only Hollywood but life in the 1930s, ranging from the struggle of the rank and file during the Great Depression to the grandeur of Hearst Castle and high society. We also become privy to Mankiewicz’s own inner struggles with alcoholism, as well as a professional battle with Welles (played by Tom Burke) over screen credit for what became the classic Citizen Kane. The Mank cast also includes Charles Dance (as William Randolph Hearst), Amanda Seyfried (as Marion Davies, Hearst’s wife), Tuppence Middleton (as Sara Mankiewicz, Herman’s wife), Arliss Howard (as Louis B. Mayer), Sam Troughton (as John Houseman), Tom Pelphrey (as Joe Mankiewicz, Herman’s brother), Toby Leonard Moore (as David O. Selznick) and Ferdinand Kinsley (as Irving Thalberg).
The period piece was shot digitally in black and white, which prompted contradictory feelings in Messerschmidt. “I was romanced and seduced by the idea of shooting black and white, and at the same time intimidated by that prospect,” he said, explaining that the potential pitfall was that becoming so enamored in black-and-white noir rapture could distract from the story. He didn’t want to fall into the trap of the movie becoming what he described as “a parody of black-and-white cinema.” Thus he had to walk a fine line, being stylistically aware of what black and white could bring to the narrative while not undermining that narrative by deploying a photographic approach too preoccupied with black and white artistry.
Initially part of Messerschmidt was enthused over the chance to delve into noir lighting. But he quickly realized that the movie was “much more varied than that. It’s not a noir film. It would not have been appropriate to take that approach in totality.”
He also couldn’t fall into the trap of being unduly influenced by the photography of Citizen Kane, done by the legendary Gregg Toland, ASC, a six-time Oscar nominee, including a nod for Citizen Kane and a win for Wuthering Heights. Messerschmidt noted that Toland has been an idol for him, “a titan of photography,” the author of “so much that we admire.” At the same time, though, Messerschmidt noted that it was important for him to remember that Citizen Kane is primarily a story that’s told in these vast, cavernous interiors--the castle (dubbed Xanadu in the film), the library, the newspaper offices. The classic 1941 film is set in these huge, dark interiors. By contrast, that wasn’t the case to a great extent in Mank which was often marked by bungalow scenes in the desert, and bright exteriors on the Hollywood movie lot.
Helping Messerschmidt deal with the challenges were his collaborative relationship with Fincher as well as the nature of the feature experience relative to what he had become used to in television. On the latter score, Messerschmidt observed, “An argument can be made that it’s a little bit easier to wrap your head around a feature film as compared to a TV series with the number of pages we had to shoot per day, the scope of the work. A feature film lends you a little bit more time typically compared to television. You’re only working with a 130-page script as opposed to an hour of narrative content that has to be turned around quickly from episode to episode.”
As for working with Fincher, Messerschmidt shared, “David and I are at a place now where we don’t need to verbally communicate very much about what we’re trying to do. I can anticipate him quite well. We can have a brief conversation and both can move forward with our part of the job. Our shorthand is pretty well developed at this point.”
Fincher and Messerschmidt opted for the RED Helium Monochrome camera for Mank. At first, Messerschmidt recalled that they weren’t sure about going with a camera that only shoots black-and-white images. But ultimately they did just that, a decision that he said wasn’t nostalgic but rather empirical. Messerschmidt cited the tonal depth, the camera being significantly more light sensitive than a color camera, and affording him grain prospects. The Red Helium Monochrome camera was in turn paired for instance with Leica Summilux-C lenses which provided a large depth of field, giving Messerschmidt the deep focus dynamic he wanted for certain grand, larger than life sequences like Louis B. Mayer’s birthday party and the Hearst Castle dinner party.
Relative to what he walks away with first and foremost from his experience on Mank, Messerschmidt offered, “Mank arguably has one of the most talented casts I’ve had the opportunity to work with. To participate in a storytelling process with them and David was a dream for me. It gave me a new perspective on the craft of acting and how David brings that out by working in a specific and nuanced way.”
Matthew Libatique, ASC
A two-time Best Cinematography Oscar nominee, Matthew Libatique, ASC is known for his work with director Darren Aronofsky on such film as Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan, Noah and Mother!. Libatique earned his first Academy Award nom for Black Swan in 2011. Eight years later, his second Oscar nod came for Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star Is Born.
Now Libatique is again in the awards season conversation thanks to another first foray for him with a director, this time Ryan Murphy on The Prom (Netflix).
Adapted from the Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical of the same title, The Prom, directed and produced by Murphy, tells the tale of Broadway stars (portrayed by Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman) whose sputtering careers need a jump start. With Streep’s and Corden’s characters fresh off a Great White Way flop, they and two others whose careers are on the outs (played by Kidman and Andrew Rannells) reason that attaching themselves to a cause will give the illusion of altruism and in turn benefit them professionally. The cause they find takes them to a small Indiana town where an independent-minded Emma Nolan (played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) is banned from the high school prom because she wants to go with her girlfriend, Alyssa Greene (Ariana Debose).
Our self-obsessed theater stars jump on the gay rights bandwagon, with proponents and opponents alike singing and dancing in a fun-filled ride that at the same time--in classic Hollywood musical fashion--raises awareness of intolerance and brings people together. The cast also includes Keegan-Michael Key, and Kerry Washington.
Libatique didn’t know much about the project when he got together for the first time with Murphy. All the DP knew was “I wanted to meet the man.” Libatique recalled when talking to Murphy over lunch, “I sensed that this film meant something special to him. When a director feels that way, it’s a big draw for me.” Libatique added that “two other words hooked me--Meryl Streep.”
Also attracting Libatique was Murphy’s affinity for being “a world builder. Whether television or film, it’s important for him to build worlds aesthetically within the construct of his narrative.” Libatique wanted to collaborate with Murphy in building worlds for The Prom, which marked the cinematographer’s first musical.
Libatique had to mesh and balance the worlds created by Murphy--primarily the worlds of Broadway and Indiana. Those worlds are contrasted from the outset as the movie opens on a doomed musical, the streets of Broadway, and an after party at Sardi’s where the realization sets in that the production is a flop, The pace is fast and entertaining with the camera moving a lot, starting wide, showing the theater marquee and then pushing out into the Great White Way. A high-energy camera navigating Broadway and a musical number at Sardi’s gives a major jump start to the proceedings.
But the camera movement slows when our Broadway stars find themselves on a bus to Indiana, and then at the small town high school. The difference between the two worlds is set, and then they meld during much of the rest of the film. Libatique worked closely with Murphy and such artisans as production designer Jamie Walker McCall and costume designer Lou Eyrich to make that mesh both believable and captivating.
The coming together of worlds also symbolizes what The Prom is about at its core as reflected in the musical number which contains the song lyric “build a prom for everybody.” It’s about people, different cultures, different orientations coming together to celebrate love, tolerance, music and dance.
Libatique said what he took away most from The Prom was the value of getting to do something he hadn’t done before--in this case not only a musical but one with an optimistic bent. “I had never done anything so noncynical,” he said, finding the experience gratifying.
There were plenty of other new wrinkles for Libatique such as breaking away from his anamorphic norm to embrace spherical lenses for The Prom, and moving from the ARRI Alexa Mini he had been most recently deploying on features to the Alexa Mini LF, reasoning that large format would be the way to go. “This was my first film with the Alexa Mini LF. I had previously done three or four anamorphic films with the Alexa Mini. I wanted to go with something new for one because we had such a large cast and I knew that we’d have a lot of group shots. There were so many scenes with so many people.”
A distinctly unique first experience for Libatique on The Prom was the shutting down of production due to the COVID-19 pandemic with four shoot days remaining. The hiatus lasted from March into July. Returning to set, said Libatique, necessitated lengthy discussions with all involved, including what unions, guilds, each local needed in order to come back safely and with some degree of comfort. “Netflix did a great job of making people safe, doing research and understanding as much as we could possibly understand at that point. It was reassuring that we were a group of people who already had gotten to know one another. We may have been easing into a new world but we weren’t new to each other. The situation would have been much more unnerving if we had been a bunch of people who hadn’t worked together before.”
COVID-19 also impacted cinematographer Marcell Rév in that production was shut down just as he was about to commence shooting on season two of the HBO series Euphoria for its creator/director/writer Sam Levinson. Euphoria last year earned six primetime Emmy nominations, winning three: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (for Zendaya’s portrayal of Rue), Contemporary Makeup, and Original Music and Lyrics.
“We were on hold and not sure when we could get back to work,” recalled Rév. “Sam and I began thinking of possible projects we could do while waiting, using some of the crew and cast (from Euphoria). Sam had the idea to shoot a movie with just two actors in a house.”
What Levinson wrote turned out to be Malcolm & Marie (Netflix), which he also directed, teaming with a limited crew comprised of his Euphoria colleagues--keeping much of that series family intact--and starring John David Washington and Zendaya, respectively, as a director and his girlfriend whose relationship is tested after they return home from his movie premiere and await critics’ reviews.
Due to COVID safety requirements, Levinson, Rév, Zendaya, Washington and their Euphoria compatriots had to quarantine together for a couple of weeks at a remote location for Malcolm & Marie. “I spent a lot of time with Washington and Zendaya, figuring out how to deal with the script, how to shoot certain scenes," recalled Rév. "We had a chance to explore possibilities. Sam had the chance to explain and figure things out. He changed some lines. That kind of concentrated work for two weeks was a great part of making this movie. That’s one of the biggest takeaways for me.”
Rév shot in black-and-white 35mm, deploying the ARRICAM LT with Zeiss super speed lenses from the 1980s. The DP said that he and Levinson had the same gut feeling that black and white was the way to go in terms of capturing the right feel for this performance piece.
“The challenge was to show two amazing actors in the best way,” said Rév. “We wanted to create a certain kind of aesthetic around them that you can enjoy. But we also wanted to get out of the way for the audience to enjoy these amazing performances. We wanted visual excitement but to not be in the way of the actors.”
Rév meanwhile enjoys a special collaborative bond with Levinson, dating back to their first project together, the feature Assassination Nation. That was followed by Euphoria and then Malcolm & Marie. “Sam likes to call me whenever he has an idea,” related Rév. “He likes to kick around ideas, imagine the possibilities. From the first moments, we like to work on ideas together. I like to be involved this way. It has given us a good shorthand. He gives me the freedom to develop an idea from day one, to shape the visual influence and how to best approach a project.”
The nature of collaboration on Malcolm & Marie was particularly special for all involved. Rév noted that with COVID considerations, everything had to be kept simple and safe, limiting crew size and the number of tools that could be deployed. Those limitations/constraints created a creative energy. “It reminded me of a film school project in a way,” observed Rév.
This is the ninth installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, March 15, 2021. The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021.