“I want to have no idea what’s going on in your head.”
David Fincher is issuing instructions to a moustachioed man, who is gazing into a mirror, adjusting the shoulder strap on the woman’s slip he’s wearing. The crew, similarly delicately, adjust the lighting for this moment of self-fulfillment — one of a series of episode-puncturing vignettes of Dennis Rader (played by Sonny Valicenti), aka The BTK Killer.
Bind. Torture. Kill. And do it quickly.
Fincher is on a tight schedule for these late additions to the lengthy shoot. While the scene is set, he sits at the monitor with lead writer Courtenay Miles, adjusting dialogue, as the art department present him with crime-scene photographs and mementos of victims for sign-off. Multitasking can be murder.
Camera set, they shoot. Once. Twice. “That is fucking creepozoid,” says Fincher, after the third take. If you can manage to unsettle the director of Seven and Zodiac, then you’re probably doing your job. The next few days filming in this cavernous Pittsburgh studio will involve FBI office politics, masks (literal and figurative) and autoerotic asphyxiation. As one crew member puts it, “Some things you can’t unsee.”
Back for its second season, Mindhunter has lost none of its fearlessness. BTK returns, of course, but following impactful portrayals of lesser-known serial killers Edmund Kemper and Jerry Brudos, this year is taking on the iconic — including arguably the two most famous serial killers of all: Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam (Oliver Cooper). The latter we’ve previously seen on screen being commanded by a demon-possessed dog in Spike Lee‘s Summer Of Sam. And — on the 50th anniversary of the murders his ‘disciples’ carried out — Manson is everywhere, including in Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (portrayed by the same actor, Damon Herriman). But whereas most movies lean into the mythology of Manson, or embellish Berkowitz, Mindhunter is looking to re-examine reality. This isn’t hellhound hyperbole or gauze-softened myth. It’s the ugly truth.
“We want to believe they’re madmen,” says Courtenay Miles, “But when you read their history, their journals, letters, you see it is a human being in there. But it’s a human being gone wrong.” Miles was first assistant director on the debut series — the aide-de-camp to the director’s general — and made the unlikely but long-cherished transition to writer when Fincher gave her a shot. She immersed herself in the world of serial killers, and lost sleep as a result. “All of the characteristics that are in their mental structure and their compulsions are things that any other human being can identify with,” she says, reflecting on the long gestation of serial killers. “They’re made over 20 years. Nurturing these compulsions. That just got under my skin.”
Miles got the chance to be disturbed — and earn her first screenwriting credit — because Fincher cares considerably less about reputation than he does about his own lived experience. But while the first season saw him employ emerging directors (the most high-profile being Asif Kapadia, whose greatest achievements were in documentaries), here he’s joined behind the lens by two cinematic heavyweights. Carl Franklin is of late an in-demand director of TV, including House Of Cards, but was responsible for some astounding crime cinema in the 1990s: Devil In A Blue Dress and One False Move. In that grubby, merciless thriller, the wife of Bill Paxton‘s seemingly guileless cop observes, “Dale doesn’t know any better. He watches TV. I read non-fiction.” Mindhunter bridges that divide. The other director is Andrew Dominik, whose three features all deal with the ruthless reality beneath criminal lore and legends (Chopper, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly). Dominik has wrapped his two episodes. Franklin is shooting four, Fincher three — but, as Dominik puts it, “his tentacles are everywhere”.
Read the full on set report in the September “30th Anniversary” Special Issue of Empire Magazine, now on sale.