Hailing from a small town outside of Portland, Maine, Erik Messerschmidt is an established gaffer who has worked on the hit show "Bones" since 2006. When not working in episodic television, Messerschmidt works on features – most recently with "Lovelace," a biopic starring Amanda Seyfried. In this interview, he tells us a little about himself and what his tools of choice are.
Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been doing this work? What inspired you to get into filmmaking?
I’m originally from a little town outside Portland, Maine where I started my career working as a PA at a local ABC television affiliate during the summer in high school. That was a great job as I was exposed to so many different types of production. We did live studio work and small regional commercials, industrials, and documentaries. I was often involved in the lighting on those projects so I was exposed to the equipment very early. After high school I studied film production at Emerson College in Boston. While in film school, I shot lots of student films and had the opportunity to work in Boston’s thriving independent film community as an electrician and grip. I joined the IATSE Local in Boston while I was in college and worked on commercials and features full time in the summers as a electrician, best boy and sometimes gaffer on smaller projects. It was a great way to start out. After Emerson, I moved to LA and continued to work as a gaffer on low budget movies and commercials and eventually got in the union here. I’ve always been inspired by the problem-solving aspects of filmmaking and love a good challenge. My favorite thing about this job is when you get a bunch of talented people in the room they come up with great solutions to otherwise hopeless problems.
What is your favorite movie?
My favorite movie is "Chinatown." I saw it as a young teenager and it’s the first time I remember noticing a film’s visual style. It left a tremendous impression on me.
Favorite project that you’ve worked on?
I shot a documentary called "In a Dream" for a director whom I went to school with. We made the movie over seven years between projects and on the weekends. Much of the film was shot on 35 mm, which is rare these days for docs. We ultimately took the film to several festivals including the Camerimage cinematography film festival in Poland. I’m really proud of that project.
You work on a really diverse slate of projects, from TV to indie and blockbuster studio films. What lights do you depend on?
I recently bought the whole line of incandescent True Blue Fresnels from ARRI and couldn’t be happier. They’ve been unbelievable workhorses. Every DP I work with remarks how clean they look in comparison to some of the older equipment we’re used to working with. It’s not only their color consistency, but also the flood/spot range and brightness are unprecedented improvements over other lights of similar wattage. Lovelace" was the first film in a while where I haven’t carried any 20Ks. I have two ARRI T12’s that I think we used almost every day in some capacity. I love those lights. I don’t think it gets much better in terms of light quality, brightness, and design. They’re my favorite on the truck.
Other lights that we use a lot of are, of course, the M18 and ARRIMAX. Both of which are must-haves. We used our M18s every day where we used to use 4Ks and 6Ks. We couldn’t believe the output we were getting out of that little light.
On "Lovelace," how would you describe the lighting style? With the subject matter you are dealing with, I imagine there was a lot of nudity or simulated nudity. How was it lighting with this in mind?
We had a very ambitious schedule on "Lovelace" with some tough locations. DP Eric Edwards shot 16 mm on "Lovelace" and we rated the film at 250 ASA, which was a challenge on some of our night exteriors for the lower budget level. We tried to give the camera as much freedom as possible and often integrated as much lighting in frame as we could. The art department was fantastic in helping us with practicals and street lamps, which did a lot of the work for us on some of our night exteriors. Much of the film was shot on location in small hotel rooms and real 1950’s era homes with short ceilings, so we were often limited in where we could put our lights. While there was quite a bit of nudity and some tough subject matter on "Lovelace," the cast was so professional and accommodating that it never felt like we needed to address the lighting any different. We just lit the scene as best we could to give them the space they needed to work.
Can you describe a scene that you were especially pleased with? What did you like about it?
We shot a scene on "Lovelace" in a theater where Hugh Hefner (James Franco) is screening "Deepthroat." Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) comes out for a bow after the screening and is greeted by tremendous applause. The production couldn’t fill the theater with extras due to costs, but we still had to show the expanse of the theater. DP Eric Edwards came up with the solution of putting Source 4s in the back of the house rimming the audience heads in the first few rows. When we added smoke, the empty seats in the background disappeared. It was a great effect as the point sources showed how big the theater was without showing the absence of audience members. It was very clever.