Erik Messerschmidt ’02 earned his first Emmy nomination this year for his cinematography work on the Netflix true-crime drama Mindhunter. We spoke with the cinematographer about his work, how he’s coped with the coronavirus pandemic, his time at Emerson, and his cinematography on the upcoming David Fincher-directed biographical film, Mank.
Answers have been edited for length and flow.
ET: You didn’t win, but how does it feel to be a first-time Emmy nominee?
EM: It’s really nice to be recognized for the work. It’s a good way of knowing whether or not people respond to the work. Knowing that your peers are responsible for the nomination process is particularly wonderful.
ET: The Mindhunter episode you were nominated for involves FBI agents searching for missing children in Atlanta while other characters interview a convicted killer. How did the themes of the episode influence your choices as cinematographer?
EM: It’s always about the script. It’s always about the work. All of the choices come from there. The drama is in the words, so it’s not about the photography. It’s all about how do you present the info, how do you preserve the integrity of the storytelling as much as possible without drawing any attention to it.
That episode in particular is the first time the agents really venture out into the field. Up until this point in the story, they’ve been dealing with previously tried cases and previously convicted killers. They haven’t really had to apply their techniques in the real world. It’s a new experience for them. The scope of the episode is a little bit grander compared to previous episodes.
ET: The show is on indefinite hold right now. Would you want to go back and do another season?
EM: I love the show. I love the people. I love the actors. They’ve all been very good friends of mine. David Fincher is a very good friend of mine. It would be great to go back and do more episodes, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with the show.
ET: What’s it like working with Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, Gone Girl)?
EM: It’s fantastic. David is great. David is a student of cinema. He’s incredibly prepared. He’s collaborative. He has a point of view and he enforces his point of view. It’s kind of the ideal situation of cinematography to work with a director who has a point of view and directive. We have a lot of fun together.
ET: How did you first meet?
EM: Before I became a director of photography (DP) full-time, I worked for a long time in the movie business as a gaffer. I was a gaffer on the film Gone Girl, which David directed. We became friends on the film. Then he had to do some still photography for the film’s promo, and he knew I had done some still assisting and still lighting. While we shot promo photos, I connected with David on a personal level. We would email back and forth periodically and just stayed in touch. Then he asked if I wanted to be a DP on Mindhunter.
ET: You are the cinematographer on the upcoming Netflix film, Mank, which is about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his personal and professional battles as he races to finish the screenplay for Citizen Kane. The film will delve into Mankiewicz’s struggles working with Orson Welles on the classic film. It’s getting a lot of Oscar buzz. What was it like working on that film?
EM: It’s in black and white, which is an incredible experience. It’s really great to work in that space and apply techniques in a slightly different way. The film is really special. I hope it’s well received. We have a great cast telling a complex story. We are telling it in a somewhat 1930s style. Without being too tongue in cheek, hopefully it’s referential while still letting us put our own little touch on it. I look forward to showing it to people and hearing what they think.
ET: Had you shot in black and white before?
EM: I did at Emerson. Of course, back then nobody shot in HD or anything like that. That was my first exposure to that kind of filmmaking. It was a really good foundation to learn under. Periodically throughout my career, I’ve done music videos and other things in black and white, but nothing of this scope.
ET: Do you have a favorite class or memory from your time at Emerson?
EM: I think more than anything it was the other students I met and became friends with and am still friends with today. We had the opportunity to work on everybody’s movies early on, freshman year of college. Every weekend we were up and crewing on someone’s movie right away.
I did the LA program and interned at Panavision, and a number of us worked together for a long time after that. I was also really involved with the Emerson film organization Frames Per Second, which I found to be incredibly important and valuable. All the connections I made in film school and the experiences I had at Emerson were really important and influential to my growth as a filmmaker.
ET: How are you coping with the coronavirus pandemic?
EM: The shutdown was the first time in 20 years when I stopped and didn’t feel guilty about not working. It was really great to have that moment. Obviously, I don’t want to take away from the incredible impact this has had on people’s lives and the loss of life and the substantial financial impact it has had. In my case, it was a really good reminder of the other things in your life that are equally, if not more, important. Spending time with my wife and being in the house and thinking about what the next project might be and what it needs to be for me — it was really great to have that moment to breathe.
ET: How did you fill your time?
EM: I was home for just under four months, which is the longest I haven’t worked since I graduated from Emerson. I stayed at home, cleaned up the house, walked my dog. All the things I don’t usually get to do. I finished doing post work on Mank remotely from home. Then, I shot Fargo when we were in a kind of post-COVID situation. It went fine. We figured it out, but it certainly adds challenges to an already challenging job and art form.
ET: Any advice for students who want to be where you are one day?
EM: Be prepared to work hard. Get as much experience on set as you possibly can and fight for it. Don’t expect that anyone is just going to give it to you. Inject yourself into the world. I made a real effort to meet everybody I possibly could.
After graduating, I considered getting a job at Panavision. If I had a full-time job, I wouldn’t be able to work on movie sets, and I wanted to be a DP and had to get out there. I started working on low-budget filmmaking and making very little money shooting short films and music videos with friends. It took a long time, but every day was a little bit of a step forward and the jobs eventually got bigger. It’s not for the faint of heart. The life in this business is hard, so people should go into it knowing that.