There was never any doubt that David Fincher was going to shoot “Mank” in black-and-white. His biopic about alcoholic and acerbic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) struggling to churn out a first draft of “Citizen Kane” cried out for monochromatic treatment. And yet Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mindhunter”) were not about to indulge in a “Kane”-like re-enactment, or be confined to shooting on film, or composing in the period accurate aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Not with Fincher’s digital prowess and penchant for the 2.39: 1 widescreen format.
So Fincher and Messerschmidt struck a balance between retro and modern, taking advantage of the director’s efficient digital workflow to approximate the look of a movie made around the time of “Kane” in 1940 yet “Photographed in Hi-Dynamic Range” (as the title card proclaims).
“Filmmaking has always been a medium where we selectively employ the techniques that are available on the day,” Messerschmidt said. But shooting in black-and-white was a lot to unpack for the cinematographer, who had only done a few music videos and commercials outside of still photography and film school projects.
“It was an exploration,” added Messerschmidt. “I was worried about being seduced by the opportunity and lured in side directions of a noir-expressive type of lighting. I didn’t want to distract from the story.” At the same time, he didn’t want to refrain from being bold when necessary. “I learned that the process of distilling it to light, shadow, and texture was color separation from three dimensions to two,” he continued. “The absence of color forces you to be more nuanced in telling the audience where to look in the frame.”
The choice of camera was always going to be Fincher’s preferred RED, and it was a no brainer to use the RED 8K Helium Monochrome. The black-and-white sensor allowed them to attain a pure monochromatic picture but also shoot faster and capture than with the color RED Helium. After a lot of lens testing, they settled primarily on the Leica Summilux-Cs and emphasized mid-range focal lengths.
Although they toyed briefly with creating frame lines for the retro 1.37:1 aspect ratio, neither Fincher nor Messerschmidt liked composing in the boxy format. “‘Chinatown’ was obviously not made in the [’30s], but it was shot [in Panavision anamorphic widescreen],” said Messerschmidt. “I think the window that we used for the audience to look through has to be the window that we are comfortable with. And we would rather them see a letterbox than a pillar box on their home screens.”
For the black-and-white look, they referenced “Citizen Kane” DP Gregg Toland, as well as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Apartment,” “Manhattan,” and “The Big Combo.” Fincher and Messerschmidt decided to avoid the theatrical flamboyance of “Kane” and to dial back on the chiaroscuro lighting except for emphasis. However, they maintained Toland’s distinctive use of deep focus and low angles. “Deep focus wasn’t so much about ‘Kane’ as it was collective taste and making it look better,” said Messerschmidt. “We kept the camera at [Mank’s] eye level most of the time and shot him on middle lenses. [William Randolph] Hearst [Charles Dance] is always shot on a 25 [Toland’s preferred lens on ‘Kane’] and slightly lower. There’s a shot of him sitting in a chair in front of the fireplace in that first living room scene.”
They also reintroduced another old movie trick — shooting day for night — for the moonlight stroll at San Simeon between the inebriated Mank and Hearst mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfriend). They forge a platonic bond during their witty political discussion about the feuding Hearst and gubernatorial hopeful Upton Sinclair, traversing the garden, statuary, and wild animals (CG monkeys, giraffes, elephants, and zebras from Industrial Light & Magic).
“We wanted the scene to have significant scope with the Marion and Mank walk through, and we wanted the audience to appreciate the grandeur of the Hearst estate (shot at Huntington Gardens and a private mansion in Pasadena),” Messerschmidt said of the nuanced look. “And the resources it would’ve required to light the locations would’ve been profound. And, in actuality, impossible in the fountain sequence where she’s playfully running around the rim and he catches her. There was no place in that environment where I could put any heavy equipment to light the size of that background with them at the fountain and get it to look the way we wanted and appreciate what it was.”
Messerschmidt had previously shot some day for night on the “Raised by Wolves” HBO Max series (executive-produced by Ridley Scott). Fincher approved the technique for “Mank” after reviewing a few stills. The cinematographer did extensive testing and developed some Look Up Tables (LUTs) for the camera for coming up with contrast ratios and helping to evaluate necessary fill light. And it was a real luxury doing it digitally, fixing contrast and underexposure in post. “And part of that is managing the brightness for the sun on the back of people’s faces,” he added.
Shooting generally in a daylight environment, faces get significantly underexposed in relation to the brightness of the sun. Messerschmidt added more light to the actors’ faces to reduce the amount of contrast.
“Because we’re changing the contrast of the natural environment, I had enormous bounces and enormous sheets of white fabric on the floor and on the ground and on the sides getting Amanda and Gary’s faces brighter,” he said. “So much so that we had sunblast-tinted contact lenses made for both of them. You don’t want them squinting, which gives it away that it’s not nighttime.”