I was late in discovering David Fincher’s gripping series on serial killers, Mindhunter. But last summer, I noticed the Netflix original lurking in my suggested titles and decided to give it a whirl. I burned through both seasons within a week. The show is both thrilling and chilling, but the majority of these moments are not achieved through blazing guns, jump scares and pyrotechnics. It instead focuses on the inner lives of multiple murderers and the FBI agents whose job it is to understand them through subtle but detail-rich conversation.
Sound plays a crucial role in setting the tone of the series and heightening tension through each narrative arc. I recently spoke to rerecording mixersScott Lewis and Stephen Urata as well as supervising sound editorJeremy Molod — all from Skywalker Sound — about their process creating a haunting and detail-laden soundtrack. Let’s start with Lewis and Urata and then work our way to Molod.
Scott Lewis, Stephen Urata, and Jeremy Molod
How is working with David Fincher? Does he have any directorial preferences when it comes to sound? I know he’s been big on loud backgrounds in crowded spaces since The Social Network.
Scott Lewis: David is extremely detail-oriented and knowledgeable about sound. So he would give us very indepth notes about the mix… down to the decibel.
Stephen Urata: That level of attention to detail is one of the more challenging parts of working on a show like Mindhunter.
Working with a director who is so involved in the audio, does that limit your freedom at all?
Lewis: No. It doesn’t curtail your freedom, because when a director has a really clear vision, it’s more about crafting the track to be what he’s looking for. Ultimately, it’s the director’s show, and he has a way of bringing the best work out of people. I’m sure you heard about how he does hundreds of takes with actors to get many options. He takes a similar approach with sound in that we might give him multiple options for a certain scene or give him many different flavors of something to choose from. And he’ll push us to deliver the goods. For example, you might deliver a technically perfect mix but he’ll dig in until it’s exactly what he wants it to be.
Urata: Exactly. It’s not that he’s curtailing or handcuffing us from doing something creative. This project has been one of my favorites because it was just the editorial team and sound design, and then it would come to the mix stage. That’s where it would be just Scott and me in a mix room just the two of us and we’d get a shot at our own aesthetic and our own choice. It was really a lot of fun trying to nail down what our favorite version of the mix would be, and David really gave us that opportunity. If he wanted something else he would have just said, “I want it like this and only do it like this.”
But at the same time, we would do something maybe completely different than he was expecting, and if he liked it, he would say, “I wasn’t thinking that, but if you’re going to go that direction, try this also.” So he wasn’t handcuffing us, he was pushing us.
Fight Club cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth talks us through this iconic shot and many others in David Fincher‘s masterpiece. We also discuss how the relative naturalism of The Social Network was just as difficult to achieve, and whether something is lost with VFX even when it looks perfect.
“I was fortunate enough to meet David Fincher on Panic Room in 2001 when I was working as a sound editor and the relationship I developed with him and his No. 13 production company has carried through until today with Mindhunter. He’s someone I can bounce ideas off and he’s constantly challenging us. For the second season of Mindhunter he asked to design a real-time telestration solution that would enable him to communicate the thoughts and ideas he came up with during production via annotations attached to the image captured by the camera. We came up with PIX RT it immediately creates clips of the take and presents this clip to the director and certain other approved crew members via a tablet, so he or she can make annotations and notes on the image. This media, metadata and the notes are then securely synchronized with the PIX cloud to all the approved members of the production who can review them. And of course, it is completely secure and integrated with all of our other services. And now we’re working with the CODEX team on the next evolution of these tools.”
“Sometimes it takes working with the most demanding and yet most exceptionally talented people to push you to design the best products. That’s certainly the case with cinematographers like Bob Richardson and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. On Gravity we worked with Chivo and his crew along with our services company to design an efficient, color critical, ARRIRAW workflow that would support this complex, multi-camera shoot which involved “The Cage”. The Cage was a lightbox consisting of 196 2’x2′ LED panels which simulated the light coming from stars and the sun and reflected light from Earth, but could also project images of Earth, distant stars, or, images of Sandra Bullock‘s child character, as the actor was suspended within. It was ground-breaking. And funnily enough, I recall that Chivo talked to David Fincher before the shoot and he thought that it was a couple of years too early to pull it off. Projects like Gravity inspire us to push the boundaries of what is possible.”
Read the full interview (part one) on the X2X magazine app (App Store & Google Play). You’ll find interviews and Q&A’s with some of the world’s leading DITs, directors, and cinematographers. Best of all, it’s free!
Erik Messerschmidt, ASC had a childhood dream of becoming a cinematographer, which he began pursuing at Emerson College, where he studied film production. While in school, he hit the ground running, working on film sets as an electrician, which then led to work as a gaffer in features, television and commercials. Before he graduated, he was able to join the IATSE Local 481 in Boston. During this time, he also served as a lighting technician and lighting director for many well-known photographers, including Gregory Crewdson, Mike and Doug Starn and Larry Sulton.
Following graduation, Messerschmidt relocated to Los Angeles to further his career in the industry. Shortly thereafter, he met Mark Doering-Powell, ASC and Mark Weingartner, ASC, who served as early mentors. Doering-Powell hired Messerschmidt on several smaller feature projects as a grip and later gaffer, which allowed him to join Local 728 as a gaffer. He developed relationships with numerous ASC members, including Claudio Miranda, Jeff Cronenweth and Tami Reiker, who Messerschmidt calls his “closest mentors.”
Gordon Lonsdale, ASC hired Messerschmidt as his gaffer on the television series Bones, and the two worked together for six seasons. During this time, Messerschmidt also gained experience as a director of photography, shooting several commercials, short films and documentaries.
Erik Messerschmidt, ASC on the set of the Netflix series Mindhunter.
Cronenweth hired Messerschmidt as his gaffer on David Fincher’s Gone Girl, and subsequently encouraged the director to hire Messerschmidt to photograph his next project, the Netflix series Mindhunter. Since then, the cinematographer has shot the bulk of episodes on both seasons. (See story here.)
Messerschmidt has also photographed several episodes of the television series Legion as well as second-unit work on the feature Sicario: Day of the Soldado, shot by Dariusz Wolski, ASC. On the recommendation of Wolski, Messerschmidt was hired to photograph the HBO Max series Raised by Wolves.
His upcoming credits include Fincher’s latest feature, Mank, depicting the life of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and the writing of the script to Citizen Kane.
If you asked David Fincher about the childhood years he spent in San Anselmo in Marin County during the 1960s, the topic that would undoubtedly pop up would be that of an infamous serial killer who, in the director’s eyes, was “the ultimate boogeyman.” For it was precisely that time and that general area that saw the rise of the Zodiac, a murderer who frequently wrote letters and sent coded messages to local newspapers, gleefully taking credit for the gruesome killing sprees that would inevitably trigger waves of paranoia across the West Coast. As Fincher recalls: “I remember coming home and saying the highway patrol had been following our school buses for a couple weeks now. And my dad, who worked from home, and who was very dry, not one to soft-pedal things, turned slowly in his chair and said: ‘Oh yeah. There’s a serial killer who has killed four or five people, who calls himself Zodiac, who’s threatened to take a high-powered rifle and shoot out the tires of a school bus, and then shoot the children as they come off the bus.’” Fincher’s fascination with the mystery man who wreaked havoc in Northern California during the late 60s and early 70s, claiming to have taken the lives of thirty-seven people (out of which only five were confirmed as being his victims), ultimately resulted in the director gladly accepting to work on Zodiac, a 2007 movie written by James Vanderbilt. The screenwriter had read a 1986 non-fiction book of the same name while he was still in high school, years before pursuing his eventual career. After getting into screenwriting, he had the chance to meet Zodiac author Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist who had been working for one of the newspapers the killer wrote to during the 1960s, and decided to make a screenplay based on the information-packed book. Having creative control over the material was of the utmost importance to Vanderbilt, given the fact that the endings of his previous scripts had been altered. Together with producers from Phoenix Pictures, Vanderbilt bought the rights to both Zodiac and its follow-up, entitled Zodiac Unmasked, after which the Seven director was asked to come on board.
Apart from having a personal attachment to the story of the notorious serial killer who was never brought to justice, what drew Fincher to work on the project was also the fact that the ending of Vanderbilt’s script was left unresolved, thereby staying true to real-life events. But Fincher’s perfectionism and his wish to depict the open case as accurately as possible led to him asking that the screenplay be rewritten, for the wanted to research the original police reports from scratch. He also decided that he, Vanderbilt and producer Bradley J. Fischer should personally interview the people who were involved in the case so that they could discern for themselves whether the testimonies were to be believed or not. The people they spent months interviewing were family members of suspects, the Zodiac killer’s two surviving victims, witnesses, investigators both current and retired, as well as the mayors of Vallejo and San Francisco. As Fincher elaborated: “Even when we did our own interviews, we would talk to two people. One would confirm some aspects of it and another would deny it. Plus, so much time had passed, memories are affected and the different telling of the stories would change perception. So when there was any doubt we always went with the police reports.” They also hired a forensic linguistics expert to analyze the killer’s letters, with the expert’s focus being on how the Zodiac spelled words and structured sentences, as opposed to the emphasis that was put on the Zodiac’s handwriting by document examiners in the 1970s.
Roger Durling’s wildly successful Santa Barbara International Film Festival is underway with tributes and with honors being handed out for the next week or so. Last night, Brad Pitt was honored with the Leonard Maltin Modern Master award.
After a lengthy interview with Maltin, which covered all of Pitt’s work with directors like both Ridley and Tony Scott, the Coen brothers, Tarantino, and beyond, Pitt’s frequent collaborator David Fincher made a rare appearance to hand Pitt his Modern Master award. They have made three films together, if you didn’t know (which of course would be insane to not know). Pitt is a muse of sorts for Fincher, starting with Se7en (1995), then Fight Club (1999), and finally Benjamin Button (2008). Pitt said when accepting his award that he hoped the two get to do five more collaborations together. Wouldn’t that be something?
Brad Pitt is having quite a season. It’s as though we’ve never seen a movie star. Movie stars of his stature are “as rare as albino pandas, and here’s one of them,” said Fincher. What that means is that it’s rare indeed for an actor to possess that thing — that movie star thing. Charisma that could power an entire planet. You can’t teach it. You can’t learn it. It’s there or it isn’t. And with Pitt, it was there from his first appearance onscreen.