Joe Penhall on the Nature of Criminality in MINDHUNTER and The King of Thieves

Joe Penhall (2018, Richard Mildenhall / Independent)

John Bucher
January 25, 2019
LA Screenwriter

Joe Penhall has been telling stories in theaters, across TV screens, and on stages for almost 20 years. His screenplay based on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron, brought him acclaim and opened up doors that would lead to his most celebrated project to date, Netflix’s Mindhunter.

Penhall has returned to the world of cinema with his newest project. Starring Michael Caine, The King of Thieves is a crime story based on real events about a retired crew of criminals who attempt to pull off a heist in London’s jewelry district.

[…]

John Bucher: With both Mindhunter and King of Thieves, you really get into the psychology of criminals and you have deep insights here into the way that people who have committed and plotted crimes look at the world. How do you approach these characters to understand their psychology?

Joe Penhall: The first and only regular job I ever had was as a crime reporter in my early twenties, and occasionally, the detectives would give me a transcript to read. One of them was an interview with a serial killer and we would analyze it and we would talk about it and they would give me their insights, and over the years, I’ve just become more and more interested in psychology and the kind of pathology of people’s behavior, because the only way to know anything about people is to try and develop a proper kind of psychological perspective.

What fascinated me about Mindhunter was how these FBI agents are expected to get crew cuts and lock people up and they’re at a time in history when that’s not good enough anymore. We have to develop a more nuanced, more academic, psychological understanding of this and I think that that’s true. People accept criminals. They accept politicians. They accept the bad people and the good people in society without ever really analyzing or pathologizing them in any way at all.

These things are an opportunity for me to try and dig down and understand what makes criminals tick. These criminals are a big part of our society, and certainly when I was doing Mindhunter, I know David Fincher and I were both fascinated with psychopathy and narcissism and personality disorders because I think we felt, somewhere on the grapevine, there were other people out there who weren’t serial killers who were high-ranking politicians who had psychopathy, who had personality disorders that resembled very closely the kind of villains in our piece.

And it came to pass. Since Mindhunter was written, there’s been this book about Donald Trump’s personality disorder. It’s well known that many of history’s dictators had personality disorders. They had psychopathy. They had sociopathy. They had antisocial personality disorder.

And it strikes me as self-evident that there is a pathological way of understanding these things without just calling it evil or without just calling them monsters or without just ringing your hands, you know. I think we were on a mission with Mindhunter to show that these people were actually ordinary people, sad to say.

King of Thieves is a much lighter version of that, but it’s the same thing. It’s not Warren Beatty in a heist film. It’s not George Clooney in a heist film. They’re banal people. They’re banal people that can’t be socialized the way most people can and they end up doing odd things like robbing vaults. I just find it fascinating but fascinating for slightly different reasons than people generally find heists fascinating or criminality fascinating in the movies.

Read the full interview

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