For the upcoming major motion picture Devotion – the anticipated Korean War-era feature film based on the acclaimed book and directed by J. D. Dillard, starring Jonathan Majors, Glen Powell, Christina Jackson, Joe Jonas, and Thomas Sadoski - award-winning director of photography Erik Messerschmidt, ASC leveraged his decades of experience to create stunning visuals that entwine narrative, action sequences, landscape, and compelling insights into the human condition.
Prior to Devotion, Messerschmidt shot three episodes of the HBO Max original series Raised by Wolves from producer Ridley Scott. Messerschmidt also shot the first and second seasons of David Fincher’s hit thriller series Mindhunter for Netflix, earning a 2020 Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (one-hour). Messerschmidt’s meticulous and striking black and white vision for David Fincher’s passion project Mank earned him the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, an ASC Award for Outstanding Cinematography in a Feature Film, and several other awards.
PH: Hi there Erik! I'd love to learn a bit more about your professional background. How did you break into the business as a Director of Photography?
Erik Messerschmidt: I worked my way up, starting as a grip and electrician working in the independent film community in Boston and eventually moving to LA and moving up to gaffer. In LA I worked for an incredible group of cinematographers who taught me an enormous amount. When I started shooting, I leaned a lot on the skills I had learned from the DPs I had worked for.
PH: What was it that made you fall in love with becoming a DP?
Erik Messerschmidt: I think for me it's the collaboration with the director and the opportunity to tell a story with so many players. Everyone brings something different to the table and as DP you have a front seat to not only observe but participate in the filmmaking process. For me, it’s exciting to think about all the different ways a story can be told.
PH: How did you get involved with your latest project Devotion?
Erik Messerschmidt: I had worked with the producers before at the tail end of my gaffing career so we had a preexisting relationship. Bruce Franklin the line producer on the film called me and said “I have a project I think you should look at.” And I said, “Send me the script.” That afternoon I had the script which I read that night. The next day JD and I had a meeting which lasted two hours. We talked about everything, from the film and what he saw for it, to what he looks for in a collaborator and how he thought they could take some of the unique logistical challenges which the script presented.
PH: Did you go into the project with a vision already in mind? If so, what was that vision?
Erik Messerschmidt: When I read a script I always have ideas, but I think it’s important to spend most of those early meetings listening to a director and the producers as to what they envision for their film. For me all the early inspiration needs to come from the director. JD articulated that he wanted to make a period film through a modern lens, but wanted to reference the filmmaking style of many of the movies he and I both grew up watching. We thought it would be great to make it in a very traditional American style, with the camera on the dolly with formal compositions and a structured cutting pattern. He also expressed a desire to shoot as much of the aerial footage as possible for real.
PH: What were some immediate challenges you thought you might face making this happen?
Erik Messerschmidt: We were actually a fairly small independent film, at least in comparison to other films in our genre, so we had to be very economical in our allocation of resources. Filming aerial sequences is expensive and complicated and involved the coordination of the aerial unit and the 1st unit all working together with the precision of a Swiss watch. We didn’t want the film to be a combination of 2nd unit work and 1st unit work but instead a very structured and composed experience that all came from a place of intent.
PH: What role does the cast play in achieving these goals?
Erik Messerschmidt: Working in such a structured and formal way requires a lot of patience and discipline from the actors. Fortunately for us our actors were completely engaged in the process and up for the challenge. Everyone was on the same team, all of us focused on delivering for our leader JD.
PH: Can you share what your planning process looked like? How does this play into your creative approach?
Erik Messerschmidt: For me, prep is the most interesting part of the process. Sometimes I wish I could just prep. JD and I spent a lot of time together watching movies, discussing what we liked and didn’t like. What worked and didn’t etc. We discussed simple things like how we might lay out a scene to more philosophical ideas of how we wanted the film to feel to the audience. The audience’s experience is very important to JD.
PH: Speaking of creative approaches, can you share what types of shooting style(s) you took and how they enhanced the storytelling?
Erik Messerschmidt: When our characters are in the Naval environment the camera is very restricted and formal, it operates with military precision. When the camera is with Jesse and his family the lighting and camera are more free and expressive. It seemed important to us to differentiate Jesse’s two worlds, his formal military existence and his intimate family life.
PH: I'd love to learn more about your thought process behind using real planes shot in actual locations for scenes. How did that help deliver the breathtaking experience for the audience?
Erik Messerschmidt: Things always look better when they are real. We were very lucky to have four real F4U Corsairs with us for the duration of the shooting. Being around these planes was incredible. I think working with real planes also helps ground the film in reality, which was important to us. We knew the audience knows we can do anything digitally so we liked the challenge of restricting ourselves to a specific set of tools and methods. A lot of our rule book was centered around making sure the only places we put the camera in the film, regardless of how we were shooting were places we could put a real camera in the air.
PH: What are some of your favorite shots from the film and why?
Erik Messerschmidt: I prefer to think about the film as an entire piece of work. For me the shots are really just there to support the story, so it’s about the shots not the shot.
PH: Almost every frame that was shot made it into the final cut. How rare is that, and what does that mean to you and the work you did?
Erik Messerschmidt: For us a lot of that was driven by an aggressive schedule and limited budget. It also was our own sense of responsibility to make sure as much of our budget ended up on screen.
PH: If you had to describe what's in store for the audience visually, how would you describe it?
Erik Messerschmidt: For us the film was the story of heroism and character and integrity. We also, to some degree, made the movie as a love letter to aviation and the spirit of flight. That said we never wanted the spectacle of the aviation sequences to overshadow the drama in the story, something that was critically important to all of us. It was very much a story that we all felt deserved to be told in the most thoughtful way possible.
PH: Can you share any other projects you have on the horizon?
Erik Messerschmidt: There are a few, but you’ll have to keep your eye out!
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