“David Initially Said, ‘What if We Do the Whole Movie Handheld?'”: DP Erik Messerschmidt on The Killer
The Killer begins with an assassin (Michael Fassbender) in a half-completed WeWork office awaiting the arrival of his latest target. As he waits, he details his vocational mantras for the audience in voiceover: stick to the plan. Don’t improvise. Never yield an advantage. Forbid empathy. Fassbender proceeds to miss his shot and spends the rest of the film breaking each and every one of those tenets in the chaotic aftermath.
Many of the pieces written about the film have pointed out perceived similarities between the film’s methodical, detail-oriented titular character and the perfectionist reputation of its director, David Fincher. However, what makes Fincher’s approach to filmmaking so fascinating is the way it combines the fluid with the obsessively regimented. For The Killer, the illusion of handheld camerawork, anamorphic lens characteristics and glass filters were all created in post, where they could be minutely modulated. Conversely, Fincher often prefers to design coverage on the day after blocking rehearsals and is open to the spontaneous comedic possibilities of the cheese grater.
On Fincher’s Mindhunter, Mank and now The Killer, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt has been the director’s partner in that duality. The Oscar-winning DP graced this column for a fifth time to discuss his latest work.
Filmmaker: After you first read the script for The Killer, you called David Fincher up because you weren’t sure what to make of the tone. That draft didn’t have as much of the voiceover in it. Did it read as funny at all?
Messerschmidt: No. So much of that is in Michael’s performance and David’s sense of humor. That wasn’t really in that draft. It was far more methodical. Also, a lot of the funnier moments that don’t come from the voiceover—like when Michael [blindly searches a kitchen drawer for a weapon and comes out with] a cheese grater—weren’t scripted. Michael just reached in there and that’s what he pulled out. That was just a serendipitous thing.
Filmmaker: When did you realize how funny the movie was going to be?
Messerschmidt: I wouldn’t say that there was much levity in the shooting. So much of [the humor] is from the comic timing of the voiceover and the crew was not hearing any of the voiceover while we were shooting. If you watch the movie with the sound off, it’s a completely different experience. (laughs)
Filmmaker: If you did that, the only clue to the humor would probably be the shots of Fassbender’s TV character aliases on his boarding passes, rental car agreements.
Messerschmidt: Which was an afterthought, by the way.
Messerschmidt: Yeah, we did those as reshoots. The aliases were in the script, but then David and [screenwriter] Andy Walker said, “That’s actually pretty funny.” So, we went back and shot all the inserts of the tickets and everything.
Filmmaker: So, during the main shoot you had, for example, the rental car counter person says, “Thank you, Mr. Bunker,” but you didn’t have the insert shot of the rental car agreement with the name on it.
Messerschmidt: Yeah, exactly. It wasn’t a repetitive kind of idea until the editing process where David was like, “Okay, we’re going to shoot tickets.” And I was like, “Really, we’re going to shoot tickets? Only three people are going to get this joke, David.” And he’s like, “No, no, we think it’s funny.” And, of course, now it’s a huge thing. How wrong was I?
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot the pickups?
Messerschmidt: In L.A. We built a countertop or whatever we needed for each one. Sometimes on David’s movies you do two or three days at the end where you shoot all the inserts.
Filmmaker: I think the funniest one is the name on the bank form toward the end. At that point we’ve seen all the aliases, so as he’s signing the audience knowns it’s going to be a funny reveal. You’re just waiting for him to pull his hand away from the document so you can see what name he’s used.
Messerschmidt: That one was an insert too. I think the only one we shot for real is the driver’s license in Chicago when he gets off the train and rents the car. That one we did [during principal photography].
Filmmaker: You used Red’s new V-Raptor on The Killer. You beta-tested the camera while it was still in development?
Messerschmidt: They sent me a camera body before it was officially released. David and I were scouting for the move in New Orleans when it arrived. So, we threw a lens on and just started shooting around the city, seeing what it could do. After the scout, I did some more tests—lighting tests, dynamic range tests, color sensitivity tests—and then we graded them. It wasn’t really formal, to be honest, more just kind of messing about a bit. But I definitely got my hands on the camera quite early.
For me, there’s a general kind of opinion or concept that has been propagated, this idea that the camera has something to do with the ultimate visual aesthetic of the movie, as if the camera is a film stock. I don’t really believe that. The camera has a part to play in the image making process, but it’s akin to a hammer, a tennis racket or a guitar. All guitars have, to some degree, their own sound, but we don’t conflate the sound of Led Zeppelin with the Les Paul. We conflate the sound of Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page.
Filmmaker: But isn’t the difference in the color science from camera to camera similar to how a Fuji stock might look different than a Kodak stock? If you put the same lens on two different digital cameras, you won’t get the same image.
Messerschmidt: True, but that’s just the initial way that the color science and the debayer processing is handled in terms of what immediately comes out of the camera. The reality is I feel quite confident that I can get [the same image out of multiple different cameras]. It’s kind of funny, because we talk about film all the time in a really nostalgic way, but for most of Kodak’s experience, the release of new stocks was perpetually in the service of tighter grain, lower noise, higher speed. We’re looking for the same thing with [digital] cameras and then we go back and try to screw them all up. [laughs]
The way the camera looks is not really why I choose to shoot Red. It’s more that I like the form factor. I like where it sits in terms of its dynamic range capabilities. I like how I can easily manipulate color temperature and contrast without building elaborate LUTs. I like the concept of oversampling. I like the ability to shoot with Super 35 lenses or large format lenses. I can shoot the camera in 9×16 mode. That camera is super flexible for me in a way that some cameras aren’t. Those are the things that attract me. It’s not that I go with the Red camera because I like the way it looks, though I do like it very much.
Filmmaker: Right, but when there’s a new version of a camera, it’s going to have certain improvements over the previous model. Maybe it has another stop of dynamic range or it’s a little less noisy in the shadows at higher ISOs. Were there things you were excited about with the Raptor?
Messerschmidt: Absolutely. For example, all the previous iterations of the cameras that Red had been making had interchangeable low-pass filters [OLPFs]. You could pick different low-pass filters and I never really liked that. I always shot with the skin tone OLPF regardless of what my shooting conditions were. Then when the Komodo came out, Red basically locked one OLPF in front of the sensor. That was very successful for Red, I think, in terms of dynamic range and spectral sensitivity and color reproduction, things like that. They did the same thing with the Raptor and, all of a sudden, we had two distinctly different camera bodies with almost identical color science and that was a huge improvement. It helps with the processing, it helps with matching and all that stuff.
Filmmaker: Did you use the Leica Summilux lenses again?
Messerschmidt: I did.
Filmmaker: You’ve used those for all the Fincher projects we’ve spoken about. Those lenses are roughly ten years old now. When you work with Fincher, do you still test lenses and those keep winning or do you just default to them?
Messerschmidt: For The Killer we tested the Leicas, because we were doing lots of post destabilization. So, we wanted to see, for example, if we shot in 7K, where the image circle stops covering and how much overscan we can use so we can screw the image up. We tested them like that, but I didn’t test them for characteristics. I know them pretty well now. On Mank, we did a lot of lens testing and the Leicas ultimately won. I think there’s a bit of comfort [with them]. I don’t really like the lens conversation either, to be honest. It’s almost insulting to cinematographers [to reduce their work to] “What camera did you shoot? What lenses did you shoot?” That recipe gets published, and people think that the way to get stuff to look like Greig Fraser’s work is to shoot the lenses and the camera that Greig Fraser shoots. The reality is there’s all this skill behind it that nobody talks about.
Filmmaker: Yes, but they’re still important tools. If this was a story about carpentry, I would be interested in, you know, the kind of wood you picked and why. I understand what you’re saying—the reason your work looks so good isn’t just a formula of camera and lens package. But you do choose those tools for specific reasons. It’s not arbitrary, and I find those reasons interesting.
Messerschmidt: You’re right, but they’re like a set of irons in a golf bag, in a way. It’s like, “How far away are we from the pin? Alright, cool. We’ll use this lens.” I’ve tried getting lenses with lots of character and that can be interesting, but it doesn’t excite me. I actually find it more frustrating than anything else, because then it changes the kind of lighting I have to do. It changes the types of shots we can accomplish. If you shoot anamorphic, for example, or a lens with a lot of character, sometimes it changes your composition. It can be like, “Well, the lens doesn’t resolve on this side of the frame” Or maybe if you don’t want all sorts of crazy artifacts on a certain lens you have to shoot it at a T4. Or maybe one lens in the set might perform fine at a 2.8, but one lens tighter and you need to go to a 4.5. Now I have to light to different exposures and use a lot of ND. I just don’t really like working that way so much. I like a set of lenses where the 29mm comes out of the box and it’s the same size as the 40mm and it just goes straight on the camera and now we have a tighter shot. I don’t have to change my lighting. I know how the flare characteristics are going to be affected by backlighting. I know what my resolution is going to be on every lens. I know that it’s pretty consistent. Those things are really comforting for someone who’s completely full of anxiety all the time like I am. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Let’s circle back to how you created a handheld look through destabilizing the footage in post.
Messerschmidt: David initially said, “What if we do the whole movie handheld?” But there’s a practical consideration to that, which is that the camera is going to be on the operator’s shoulder for 10 hours a day The way David shoots, we have maybe 30 or 40 seconds between takes and we’re rolling again. It’s not the sort of thing where we shoot one or two takes, then go to the next shot. The way that we work, I just didn’t think it was practical, honestly, and ultimately, he agreed. So, then David said, “Well, maybe the whole movie isn’t handheld. Maybe there are scenes that are handheld, and we do this thing where we tie the camera movement and the scene structure to the character’s point of view, his mental state.” I thought that was an interesting idea. So, David said, “Go through the script and mark off the scenes you think should be handheld and the ones that you think should be static and I’ll do the same.” The two lists were almost identical. So, that’s what we ended up doing.
I shot some handheld tests against, like, a lens grid or a chart—I can’t remember exactly what it was. I did some steady ones, then I’d have a couple shots of espresso and do some [less steady] ones. Then I shot some static shots, and we sent them to post, and they basically mapped my camera shake onto the (static) shots. It actually became really exciting because it was like, “Oh, now we can art direct the handheld. We can make this really shaky, then we can stop it, then it can be really shaky again. We can put a bump with a sound effect, or we can take a bump out.” That became really seductive. I would say probably 90 percent of the handheld in the movie was done on a fluid head. We did have a Ronin there, but we didn’t use it like a gimbal [with an operator holding it by the handles and moving]. I used it more like a remote head, particularly in places where it’s just not practical to put an operator. There are some shots—like when Michael is running along the side of the house in the Dominican Republic—that are actually handheld shots. There’s some in the fight [in Florida] as well, but not many.
Filmmaker: It would’ve been less controllable than the approach you ultimately took of destabilizing in post, but did you look at using the handheld mode on the Oculus head?
Messerschmidt: For that you basically put the control of the Oculus on the operator’s shoulder. So, you can put the Oculus on a Technocrane and then the operator [has a handheld device that they move around to control the camera]. We looked at that and David ultimately said, “I can do this in post and decide exactly how much shake I want.” With [real handheld], controlling [the level of shake] can be a problem, especially in a complex scene like a fight scene that shoots for several days. The personality of the operator ends up coming into the shot and it’s difficult to attenuate the amount of shake from shot to shot. In that Florida fight scene, there might be 60 shots. Fatigue is a factor and body position is a factor. Those things end up translating to the shot and you can have a lot of almost schizophrenic operating in the process, because shot five of the day is going to be slightly different from shot 25 of the day just by nature of [the operator] being a human being. So, we wanted to be able to really control the arc of how much the camera moves in a scene—which may be a little bit obsessive, but I think it’s certainly interesting.
Filmmaker: Since we’re talking about adjustments made in post, tell me about this digital filter emulator you used on The Killer called Scatter.
Messerschmidt: David said to me that he wanted the Dominican Republic [portion of the film] to look humid. So, I thought about diffusion. I don’t generally like to use very much diffusion. I find it to be difficult to control. I like to use a lot of soft backlight and that lighting technique is just not really conducive to filtration, because the filters pick up veiling flare so easily. I was talking to my friend Mark Doering-Powell, who’s a cinematographer, and explaining the problem and he said, “You should look at the Scatter plugin [for DaVinci Resolve].” The colorists I work with almost all work in Baselight. So, I thought, “That’s not going to go over very well with the colorist, if they have to work in Resolve.”
I told David about it and said, “This is interesting. I want to shoot a test.” So, I shot the test, and we thought it was great because you can actually go in and say, “I want to see what a 1/8 Hollywood Black Magic looks like on this shot.” It’s fairly convincing. You can really manage it. You can control how much of the highlights you want halated. You can be really specific in ways that you can’t with glass filtration. The other thing you can do is key frame it and make it dynamic. So, if I’m looking toward a bright window and I only want 1/4 or 1/8, and then we’re going to pan into side light where I would want heavier diffusion, I can actually dynamically change the level of diffusion during the shot. The plan initially was only to use it in the Dominican Republic scenes, but ultimately we used it in Chicago as well, where we wanted it to feel cold, like there was that kind of cold humidity bleeding through the windows. I really enjoyed it, but it meant the colorist had to grade the whole movie in Baselight and then re-render it again through Resolve at the end with the Scatter pass. So, it was kind of a double process, but the colorist didn’t complain about it.
Filmmaker: Let’s go back to the beginning of The Killer, which opens with Fassbender in an under-construction WeWork office in Paris waiting for his latest target to arrive at a hotel room across the street. To shoot this, you did the WeWork interiors on stage and then the view out the window is plates you shot in Paris—except for the target’s floor of the hotel, which you shot in an old mill and then comped into the plates. Tell me more about that mill. Was that a building that had already been converted for production purposes or was it literally a disused mill that happened to be large enough to accommodate your needs?
Messerschmidt: It was a modified warehouse that now functions as a film studio.
Filmmaker: So, you weren’t sweeping out sawdust in order to build your sets in there.
Messerschmidt: No, we didn’t have to move machinery out of the way and shoo the goats out. [laughs] It wasn’t anything like that. We just needed a space that had a lot of throw, because we wanted to replicate the camera distance [from Fassbender’s perch to the hotel across the street].
Filmmaker: Tell me about how the look of that WeWork space progresses through the day. [Click to expand image.]
Messerschmidt: A lot of it was driven by the plates. Outside of those windows are LED walls. We shot the plates in Paris at specific times of day and discussed the color palette of the city. So, all of the ambient light that’s coming through those windows, for the most part, is driven by the color temperature of the plate. For some of the shots, in order to get the shape I wanted, I had to use artificial light as well. I couldn’t just use the LED walls because they were too soft. So, I’d use harder sources as well to push light through the windows.
Filmmaker: What did you use for that on-camera work light for the night scenes? Was that something off the shelf from a hardware store or something custom made?
Messerschmidt: It’s a work light that the electricians modified. We put an LED in there so we could control color temperature and brightness. I love that kind of burnt yellow look, obviously. [laughs] I could get that color quite easily by putting the camera at like 3800 Kelvin, then bringing in that light at 3000 Kelvin and pulling the red out of the image.
Filmmaker: Some of the humor in the film comes from Fassbender’s hitman being the antithesis of the classically cool cinematic assassin. When he has to flee that opening hit, he does so on a little scooter. Tell me about shooting that sequence.
Messerschmidt: We didn’t want to get into a thing where we were putting the scooter on a platform and dragging Michael around the streets. It just didn’t really seem practical. There were shots where we rigged the camera to the scooter [and drove it through the city], but we also built a plate vehicle that had a bunch of cameras on it. For things like close-ups, we shot clean plates and then shot elements for that on the stage. For some of the wider shots of Michael that we ended up needing but didn’t have, we ultimately used a digital double. [The VFX vendor] had already scanned him and the bike, so that was kind of an obvious choice. I was a little skeptical of it, actually, but David was very confident, and it ended up working fine.
Filmmaker: Was it hard to find streetlights in Paris with that warm sodium vapor look?
Messerschmidt: We didn’t want to do a thing where we put up big condors and just backlit everything. I wanted the streetlights to do most of the lighting. The streetlights in that section of Paris are that color, but the problem was they’re not the same color. Some of the bulbs are older than others and some of the lamps were burned out. It actually took a lot of work on our part, and really [the locations department’s] part, with the city of Paris to get them to agree to change the light bulbs. There’s bureaucracy in Paris, just like anywhere, but that’s ultimately how we did it. We did do some lighting in the distance and on some of the buildings, but it’s all motivated from the streetlights.
Filmmaker: I’m interested in this balance you’re striking in the film when expressing the drudgery of Fassbender’s job. Some scenes unfold in drab locations like a Marriott, a Starbucks or a Hertz, but there are also times when you make seemingly mundane locations look very striking. I’m thinking of things like the gas station, the car wash, the bank of airport phones and the casino parking lot.
Messerschmidt: David is always like, “Don’t be afraid of the banal. Lean into it.” We’re never really looking for beauty. It has to serve the story and serve the tone. I can never add something into the set that doesn’t already exist and be happy with it. If I’m in a top lit office and try to make it look like something other than a top lit office, I’m always dissatisfied. It doesn’t look real. It’s not interesting. It looks forced. I find it’s more about embracing what’s already going on. Like the shot at the airport where Michael is on the phone [and a row of airport windows are reflected in the phone booth’s glass]—that reflection was completely accidental. We added those phone booth pods to the real Air France lounge where we shot and we were like lining it up with a finder and I said, “David, look at this reflection! This is amazing.” And the color temperature [contrast] was obvious. We had this blue window, so I could put in all this warm top light and get a split tone thing. That ended up being kind of the look of the movie, this cool cyan and yellow/green split tone.
That shot you mentioned in the casino parking lot was the same thing. David was like, “You’re going to love this location. You’re not going to have to light anything.” And then we lined up the shot and where he wanted to put the characters’ truck was totally black. (laughs) We tried moving the camera over, but then we couldn’t see the building. So, I said, “What if I put some lights on the roof and then you paint CG signs over them?” And David said, “What if they’re like a Hard Rock Café stripper girls things?” And I said, “Great, then we can animate them.” So, we got that effect [of the light from the sign moving] with a SkyPanel 360 doing this kind of magenta/purple color. Then they created the sign in post to match [the moving lights of the SkyPanel].
Filmmaker: It’s been a while since I’ve seen some of the Fincher movies, but I don’t remember a lot of purple.
Messerschmidt: Yeah, it’s a bit of a coup, right?
Filmmaker: Was it hard to get that in there?
Messerschmidt: No, David was like, “I’ll give you this one.” [laughs] He will always make the choice that’s right. He won’t fight responsible ideas if they serve the shot. But he does have his aesthetic. I don’t think I’d be around very long if I wanted to light everything in red and pink.
Filmmaker: That casino shot has a great wet down effect. I love the old film noirs where the streets at night had that look.
Messerschmidt: The wet down does a couple of things. For one, it builds so much depth into the shot. Also, concrete is actually bright. If it’s not wet and it’s just lit gray concrete, it’s really hard to control that exposure. The second it’s wet, it comes alive.
Filmmaker: I interviewed the special effects coordinator for Killers of the Flower Moon and he talked about how when Fincher first started shooting digitally on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network, Fincher wanted him to use a little bit of haze for all the interiors just to add texture to the digital image. Is that something he still likes to do?
Messerschmidt: Yeah, I use it a lot. David sort of has a love/hate relationship with it. I always insist on it and he’s like, “No smoke!” because it’s hard to keep it consistent, but we’ve gotten pretty good at it.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the dinner scene where Fassbender sits down with Tilda Swinton. The restaurant is full of these little dome lights on the tables.
Messerschmidt: I find the whole idea of the top lit restaurant to be really difficult. They are these big spaces, and you want to see all the people. Maybe it’s just a cheap parlor trick, but I said, “Why don’t we do some sort of table lights?” David was like, “Can it not be the Goodfellas thing? I don’t want to do the Goodfellas thing.” So, production designer Don [Graham Burt] found these domes. We shot some tests and initially it was like, “It’s too many of them. It’s going to be a scene about the domes.” Then we decided that maybe we could use them to kind of structure the compositions.
Filmmaker: You seem like a very meticulous person. Are you moving all those dome lights, you know, an inch to the left or an inch higher to get them all in the perfect spot?
Messerschmidt: Absolutely. We don’t really cheat that stuff shot-to-shot, but we’re definitely art directing it. This is really the one scene in the movie where it’s mano a mano. It’s a showdown. It’s not like the scene with the lawyer Hodges [played by Charles Parnell], where Michael is sort of orbiting this guy and there’s a lot of motion. Here, he’s sitting down and having a conversation across the table. So, it was an opportunity to be really structured with the compositions and the dome lights became part of that.
The dome lights that Don originally found were super green and 6,000 Kelvin. So, we cracked them open and spent a bunch of money changing out the inner workings with movie-friendly LEDs that wouldn’t flicker. Then, at least, they all matched, and we could say to the board operator, “Okay, take the back ones down a little bit,” because I always wanted the dome light near Tilda to be the brightest. Most actresses you probably wouldn’t want to light from below like that, but it’s no problem for Tilda.
Filmmaker: And by leaning in or out, she can really control the light on her face for specific moments of emphasis.
Messerschmidt: Yeah, actually she and I talked about that. She would come back and look at the monitor to understand how it was affecting the shot. She is so clever. She really gets it.
Filmmaker: For the interview scenes in Mindhunter, you told me before that you usually didn’t cross-shoot, but rather you’d do multiples sizes on the same actor. Did you take a similar approach for that Swinton scene?
Messerschmidt: We did some cross shooting in The Killer, but not in that scene. Mostly the reason we didn’t cross shoot that is because we had to cheat the seat that Tilda is sitting in out of the way in order to get the camera [in the right spot] to shoot Michael, because it was so close to the wall. That scene took two days to shoot. It was super methodical.
Filmmaker: I find it interesting that you and Fincher don’t do a lot of storyboarding and for many scenes you prefer to design the camera positions on the day after a blocking rehearsal. I think I would’ve assumed that Fincher was much more regimented in his approach to coverage.
Messerschmidt: I think it’s a good idea to have a conversation around the types of shots you need and how much coverage you think you need to assemble the scene. There’s a place for storyboarding, but it can also really be inconsiderate for the actors. A lot of the greatest moments I’ve seen on set have been blocking considerations that the actors bring to the table after you throw the scene up on its feet. Even something like a simple pause in a doorway for a last line [rather than the line being delivered seated at a table] could completely change the structure of the scene. Now maybe I have the opportunity to put the camera in the doorway, or maybe looking back through the doorway so you can see another character in the background. But if you’re like, “No, no, no. I storyboarded this and I’m going to shoot a closeup of you at the chair,” you’re not taking advantage of everything the actor brings to the table.