“I didn’t want the movie to be a parody of black and white,” reveals “Mank” director of photography Erik Messerschmidt in an exclusive interview with Gold Derby about the greyscale cinematography of the period biopic on Netflix (watch the video above). “I was concerned that that could absolutely happen and if we leaned into it too heavily that the audience would be distracted by the fact that they were watching a black-and-white film,” continues Messerschmidt. He muses, “In many cases, by the way, the photography doesn’t have to take the front seat.” Messerschmidt concludes, “I adored the experience of shooting in black and white. It was fantastic and it was a challenge that I’ve never really had before.”
The first-time Oscar nominee says that black-and-white esthetics have changed over the years and “it didn’t feel appropriate, for this movie anyway, to pinpoint a specific look.” He explains, “We were cherry-picking different styles, depending on what the scenes were.” To commit to one might have been disingenuous in light of how it is “through a modern lens” that the narrative explores its period setting of the 1930s and early 1940s. “What we were trying to do was find our own look, while nodding at different styles of black-and-white cinema. The spectrum of black-and-white cinema is so broad,” explains Messerschmidt. He adds, “The hope really was that people would see the film and be reminded of some of those bespoke moments of cinema history that the movie is referencing, but still appreciate it as its own unique piece of work.”
An Emmy Award nominee last year for the second season of “Mindhunter,” Messerschmidt is nominated now at the Oscars for his first Oscar-eligible work. “I came up through the ranks,” recounts the cinematographer about the last two decades, in which he primarily held lower positions, doing electrical and lighting work in film and television. “Not really any differently,” admits Messerschmidt about how he approached “Mank” as his feature debut as a cinematographer. He explains, “You got to give everything 100 percent.”
Messerschmidt will contend at the Emmys this summer for work on the first season of “Raised by Wolves” and the fourth of “Fargo.” Currently shooting “Devotion” in Savannah, Georgia, he teases, “It’s a Korean war film, so we’re having a blast. It’s a film about aviation, so we have some period airplanes and we’re doing some exciting stuff.”
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