MINDHUNTER, A NETFLIX ORIGINAL SERIES
David Fincher returns to Netflix with MINDHUNTER, a rigorous study of the damaged psyches of serial killers and the innovative FBI Agents who attempt to understand and catch them.
Fincher made his Netflix debut with the Emmy ®- and Golden Globe ® -winning political drama House of Cards and his return to long-form storytelling is highly anticipated.
MINDHUNTER follows ambitious FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) as he struggles to comprehend incarcerated killers, so that he might use this knowledge to catch others.
He’s teamed with experienced agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) in the Behavioral Science Unit and will work with his sometimes reluctant partner to find new methods of investigation.
Together they will meet some of America’s gravest killers – and face the cynicism and scorn of the tradition-bound hierarchy of the 1970s’ Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Ford will risk empathizing with ‘evil’ in order to save lives. But, as Tench says, when arguing the case for their work: “How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”
Written by Joe Penhall (The Road) and Jennifer Haley (Hemlock Grove), MINDHUNTER was inspired by the memoir of FBI veteran John R Douglas, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit (written with Mark Olshaker).
All 10 episodes of MINDHUNTER will become available to Netflix members worldwide on Friday, October 13, 2017.
MINDHUNTER starts with FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) seeing a need: a gap in the agency’s understanding of what motivates violent psychopaths.
Ford joins veteran Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) in the Behavioral Science Unit, on a tour across the states, trying to teach local police the latest in Bureau thinking.
But the pair must make new discoveries for themselves, by talking to the most violent offenders already in prison. What can they glean from these twisted minds?
The material was brought to Fincher by executive producer Charlize Theron. Two things piqued his interest: “One was this notion of the serial killer as evil genius. I wanted to take that back. We’ve overdone that. I wanted to get back to the more sad, realistic truth of these people.”
The other was being at the cutting edge of investigative thought. The FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in the 1970s was asking questions no one else was really asking – about what creates the psycho-sexual sadist.
Fincher: “I liked the idea of somebody saying that the only way to fight something we can’t understand – that we consider beneath our dignity – is to meet it with the humanistic understanding that this is, however perverse, a part of us.”
Inspired by real-life FBI pioneers John R Douglas and Robert Ressler, the characters of Ford and Tench are caught between the established way of investigating and the desperate need for the FBI to evolve.
MINDHUNTER’s writers took real cases but fictionalized the agents to provide narrative freedom – allowing the story to roam, exploring the ideas and incidents that powered the birth of psychological profiling.
MINDHUNTER explores many things we – in the 21 st century – take for granted about why some people kill repeatedly – and how to identify their very personal signatures.
“I think the very first person we saw was Jonathan Groff,” says Fincher, of the actor best known for the shows Glee and Looking, as well as playing King George III in Broadway hit Hamilton. When Fincher watched his taped reading, the decision was easy. “I was like, ‘Well, we’re done – because that guy’s amazing.”
“It was a wonderful, surreal feeling,” says Groff, of sitting down with the Seven and Zodiac director to discover he’d got the part. “The idea of meeting David Fincher feels so intimidating, because of the work he’s created, but the minute I sat down I felt completely relaxed. He makes you work harder than anybody else, but he makes you feel more at ease than anyone else.”
Co-star Holt McCallany, in contrast, had worked with Fincher on Fight Club and, back in the early ’90s, Alien 3. “I can’t tell you what David ever saw in me,” says the 54-year old. “When he first cast me I had almost no resume. Then he put me in Fight Club, which is an iconic film, but I’m not a major character. Now, as Bill Tench, I’m one of the leads. It felt like I graduated.”
“Holt will say he was lucky,” says Fincher. “But he really was the best person we saw for this. He gets a lot of roles where he’s the brusque boxer or corrupt military guy. But in real life he’s this incredibly sensitive, incredibly funny and warm human. And deeper into the show we’re going to be leaning on that more. We were lucky to get him.”
Tench is based on the late Robert Ressler, who wrote Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI. Often credited with coining the term “serial killer”, he was a pioneer of psychological profiling. “Of all the profilers,” says McCallany, “Ressler was the most tenacious. You wouldn’t want him on your trail because he’d pursue you to the end.”
“When we read the two of them together it was pretty apparent there was a great chemistry,” says Fincher, of his male leads. “The physical disparity, the sound of their voices, their tone. They’re both extremely polite people, so to get them to rub each other the wrong way is a testament to what good actors they really are.”
Ford and Tench have sometimes contradictory views and the audience’s empathy will switch between them, says Groff: “They’ll think ‘I understand where Holden is coming from’ in this moment. Tench is more world-weary, but there are moments when his perspective is more relatable. Then you have Anna Torv’s character, who’s an incredibly intelligent psychologist. You understand her perspective.”
Torv is best known to television audiences playing an FBI agent herself, in the paranormal investigation series Fringe. But here the Australian has a more academic interest. “She’s fascinated with what they’ve come up with,” says Torv, of her character, Dr. Wendy Carr, a professor of behavioral psychology intrigued by the possibilities of this improvised study of psychopaths. “Because she thinks it can help not only people in law enforcement, but it’s her area of interest as well. There really isn’t a way to find people like this, let alone sit down and interview them. So she’s incredibly excited.”
David Fincher directed four episodes of MINDHUNTER, but took the opportunity to bring in other filmmakers he admired, to flesh out the season. “I adore this cast, so I really wanted to put people with them they would not only respect, but actually like,” says the director, who put in an early call to “extremely talented documentarian and wonderful photographer” Andrew Douglas.
“David knows me primarily as a director of commercials,” says Douglas. “So when Josh Donen – Fincher’s producing partner and consigliere – called me out of the blue and asked me to read MINDHUNTER I was surprised and thrilled.”
Douglas shadowed Fincher on the first two episodes and was put to work on day one photographing stills of crime scenes for the show. “I went on to shoot more grisly images for subsequent episodes, including my own,” recalls the British filmmaker.
Douglas has directed feature-length work before – indie thriller U Want Me 2 Kill Him? and acclaimed documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus – but this was his first experience of long-form TV. He soon saw why it appealed to Fincher. “It takes its time. For him it’s also more literary, no longer restricted by three acts, he’s able to flex and explore odd directions that would be difficult in a movie. He regards the episodes more as chapters.”
“It was humbling to see the level of thought and preparation that Fincher puts into a project,” says Douglas. “It was a masterclass for me and made me fall in love with story all over again.”
The next filmmaker brought on board was suggested by Charlize Theron, who pointed Fincher towards Tobias Lindholm, director of 2012 Danish piracy thriller A Hijacking. He watched it and was amazed at “how much tension you could wring out of a conference call!”
“I was contacted by Fincher and Charlize and asked whether I could be interested,” says Lindholm. “It was not hard to know the answer to that question! For me David is among the five best directors living now and probably in the group of the 10 best ever.”
Seven and Fight Club were particularly formative films for the 40-year-old Dane, who is also an ardent admirer of The Social Network. Not that he was in awe of the American. “I respect him, but what I respect even more is his ability to make everybody around him comfortable – he has trust and confidence in you as a filmmaker.”
Lindholm shot episodes five and six, staying in Pittsburgh for three months. He worked closely with all three main characters, and of Anna Torv said, “I was lucky enough to work a great deal with Anna, since her character really steps into and tries to make her way in this masculine world in these episodes.”
The final part of the directing team was Asif Kapadia, who won a Best Documentary Oscar for his intimate musical portrait of the late singer Amy Winehouse. “I think he became interested through the notion of tape-recorded interviews, because that’s how he made Amy,” says Fincher. “He kind of is Holden Ford – the polite inquisitor.”
Kapadia confirms that the interviews aspect certainly intrigued him. “The way I make my feature docs is I meet people and talk to them – I essentially record voices only. It was interesting that the whole process of the characters in MINDHUNTER is to meet people where some awful crime has taken place and do these interviews trying to understand the psychology. I felt like, weirdly enough, there was this connection between the kind of films I’ve made, in Senna and Amy, and the process which the characters themselves go through in the show.”
Kapadia directed episodes three and four, though the show wasn’t shot in sequence, so by the time he came to set the production was already very much in its groove. “The machine was up and running and everyone was up to speed,” he says. “It’s kind of a scary thing coming in when everyone knows everyone. And anything where you’re meant to be following David is nerve-wracking. But he’s very good at sharing information and very collaborative.”
Fincher shared footage and scripts with Kapadia online, when the director was back home in London, “So I could see there was a style, a kind of method already in place, and I saw my job, as best as I could, to continue the style David had set up in episodes one and two.”
Kapadia felt there were unwritten rules to how the show would operate – what the style and the tone would be. “That’s the challenge. For certain people it might feel restrictive, but it didn’t, because within that you get a lot of freedom.”
“The show goes to some pretty weird places,” says Fincher. “All of these guys are damaged goods. And they do things that should make us want to dismiss them, but you dismiss them at your peril – because there is a petri dish there as to how human needs can be distorted and perverted and become something that we might never understand.”
Virtually all serial killers share one thing: horrific upbringings. “Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole [a pair to whom hundreds of murders have been attributed] had horrendous upbringings, but it doesn’t excuse what they did. I’m conflicted. And that is the kind of push-pull of the show.”
MINDHUNTER chews over questions of whether killers are born or created, whether they can be reformed, how we can learn from the evils of the past to prevent them in the future.
“It’s so extremely complex,” says Tobias Lindholm, “One of the things that intrigued me in the first place is the show accepts that the world is definitely not black and white. There is nuance out there. And instead of being afraid of it, we should explore it.”
Several of the key creative figures on MINDHUNTER visited the FBI headquarters at Quantico, not simply to understand how killers are caught, but how the hunt affects those who catch them.
Andrew Douglas, who directed episodes seven and eight, spoke to agents in the Children’s Unit, which deals with profiling in relation to minors in jeopardy. “Many of the people I spoke to were previously regular cops who for personal and moral reasons had applied to this unit,” he says. “All of them expressing a vocational, rather than professional, commitment.”
It’s a commitment that can take a toll on those who make it. “With this dreadful job, witnessing and dealing with the darkest side of humanity, came some damage,” says Douglas. “The men and women, their view of the world was bleak; they walked through a park and saw not beauty but instead a place to drag and mutilate a body.”
Jonathan Groff, who has the inquisitiveness of his character, Holden Ford, shares an analogy about killers recounted by FBI agents he met. “They said ‘It’s like making a cake with motor oil. You can’t remove the motor oil after the cake is baked – it’s just there’. So there’s one school of thought that someone is born this way and they’ve got this inside them. But it’s easy to see how the environment in which these killers grew up fans the flame of their desires. It’s complicated.”
“I’m fascinated in how people’s brains work and why they do what they do,” says Asif Kapadia, of the appeal of MINDHUNTER. “It is fictionalized, but it is dealing with real people and real incidents. And I really am fascinated by understanding these types of people and trying to get under the skin of them. It’s just the idea that if you understand who these people are and where they’ve come from then you can understand where they’re about to go.”