How Mank cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt paid tribute to Citizen Kane
Erik Messerschmidt didn't hesitate when David Fincher pitched him Mank, his ambitious, black-and-white epic about the making of Citizen Kane. "In my business, when David Fincher asks you to do a movie, you don't ask that many questions," the director of photography says with a laugh. "You say yes."
Ultimately, that "yes" paid off: Earlier this year, Messerschmidt scored his first-ever Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. (In all, Mank earned 10 nominations, making it the year's most-nominated film.)
Still, despite Messerschmidt's initial eagerness, lensing Mank was anything but a sure thing: He had collaborated with Fincher before on the Netflix series Mindhunter, but he knew recreating Old Hollywood would be a tall task.
"The thing I was most fearful of was the risk of black and white becoming a parody of itself," he says. "If you're too heavy-handed with it, it can very quickly turn beyond pastiche into parody."
Before shooting, Messerschmidt pulled about 100 inspiration images from classics like Rebecca, Casablanca, and Grapes of Wrath, poring over each with Fincher. And although he didn't want to explicitly copy Citizen Kane, he still looked to Orson Welles' influential masterpiece as a guide, using the same stylized tricks that legendary Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland did — like deep focus photography and dramatic lighting fades.
One key scene, where Gary Oldman's Herman J. Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried's Marion Davies walk through the Hearst Castle gardens, was filmed using the old Hollywood trick of shooting "day for night," where the daytime set was lit to appear as if the sun had already gone down. "We tried to apply our own tastes and tip our hat to the cinema of the period, while at the same time signing our own names to it," Messerschmidt explains.
Rather than converting color footage later, Messerschmidt shot the entire film on set in black and white, which required close collaboration with the costume and production design teams. (For consistency, he asked them to do camera tests using the "noir" mode on their iPhones.)
And although the final product was in black and white, he still had to pay careful attention to color: For one scene in the famously green Paramount bathrooms, he and production designer Don Burt tested about 200 types of ceramic tiles.
"For a couple of days we looked at green tile," Messerschmidt says with a laugh. "Nothing but green tile."
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