When Erik Messerschmidt stepped into the role of David Fincher’s cinematographer on “Mindhunter” — a series centered on an elite FBI serial crime unit that premieres on Netflix on Oct. 13 — he and the director were already in sync.
“David and I see the world in a similar way,” says Messerschmidt, who was Fincher’s gaffer on “Gone Girl.” “I felt like I had a lot of freedom to try things visually and take some calculated risks. He was a huge supporter of that.”
Working as a cinematographer was Messerschmidt’s goal since he got his film degree from Emerson College. But in the early years of his career, like so many beginning DPs, he was shooting mostly low-budget music videos and short films, none of which broke through to bigger work.
“It was frustrating,” Messerschmidt says, and as time passed and he needed to support himself and his family, he began to take gigs as an electrician and gaffer on small movies. He eventually joined the union as a gaffer and worked his way from television to features.
“That was a great way to come up,” he says, “because I saw so many wonderful DPs at work. I was able to learn from them in a really intimate way. They’ve all become tremendous mentors and lifelong friends. I’m really glad I took that path; it was like a 15-year master class.”
Messerschmidt had done a few commercials with DP Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher’s longtime collaborator, and it was Cronenweth who brought him on “Gone Girl.” That relationship led Messerschmidt to his first big project as a cinematographer — with Fincher no less.
“Jeff is a true master, and he and David have a kind of shorthand that’s really special,” Messerschmidt explains, adding that he watched their collaboration closely. “Gaffers learn to tune their taste to the people they’re working with,” he says. “It’s a way to better anticipate a DP’s needs. Because I had worked a lot with Claudio Miranda [‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’] and Jeff” — both of whom have shot films for Fincher — “my intuitive decision making had been influenced by them in a major way.”
Key to Messerschmidt’s work on “Mindhunter” is a new RED camera that Fincher — who is an executive producer and directed four episodes — commissioned from the manufacturer to shoot the series.
According to Messerschmidt, the concept, which Fincher had been talking about for years, is to get back to the days of simpler cameras. “Lately, we stick all sorts of aftermarket boxes on cameras: wireless video transmitters, timecode boxes, focus controls, motors, etc.,” he says. “All of these boxes need cables and mounting hardware, and they turn an otherwise elegant camera into a big mess. David’s idea was ‘Hey, if we need all this stuff on the camera, why can’t it be built in?’ That’s what RED did for us.”
“Mindhunter” used three of the so-called Xenomorphs delivered by RED Digital Cinema president Jarred Land and his team of engineers. Messerschmidt loved simply sticking a lens on the front, a battery on the back and shooting. “No messing around with extra stuff,” he says.