This week on Pop Culture Confidential we are thrilled to have screenwriter Liz Hannah in conversation about the incredible new season of Mindhunter, as well as working with Steven Spielberg on The Post and more!
Liz Hannah burst onto the scene a couple of years ago when her first screenplay, a spec script about Washington Post owner Kay Graham and her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, was picked up none other than Steven Spielberg. That became The Post starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Liz Hannah went on the write the critically acclaimed comedy Long Shot starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen.
Now she is onboard Mindhunter season two as a writer and producer. Liz Hannah talks to us about her career, working with David Fincher (exec producer and director on Mindhunter), writing and staging one of the most intense episodes of TV this year, the Charles Manson episode, getting into the heads of serial killers and much more.
“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
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”.
The Netflix original series Mindhunter is, by far, one of the best new shows currently running. The true story-based, 1977-set drama chronicles the early days of criminal psychology and criminal profiling primarily through the eyes of three people at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit: eager newcomer Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), somewhat jaded veteran Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), and brilliant psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv). That this show is immaculately crafted from top to bottom will come as no surprise to those aware that it’s the brainchild of David Fincher, who serves as executive producer and directed nearly half of the series’ first season.
This is without doubt one of the best looking pieces of entertainment released in 2017, regardless of medium, with classical framing, motivated camera movement, and a tremendous palette that gives a mere peek into the darkness inside the minds of the criminals and serial killers who are the subject of the Behavioral Science Unit’s interviews.
So when I got the chance to speak with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt about his work on the series, I was thrilled. Messerschmidt shot eight of the first season’s 10 episodes, including the Fincher-directed closing installments, and as he revealed during our interview, this was essentially his first major gig as a cinematographer. Messerschmidt had worked previously as a gaffer on shows like Mad Men and Bones, and then later the feature film Gone Girl where he first came into contact with Fincher. Based on their work together on that film, Fincher called Messerschmidt up when they were looking for a new DP for Mindhunter after the show’s original cinematographer exited over creative differences.
This promotion from gaffer to DP is a familiar refrain with Fincher’s cinematographers, as he did the same with his The Game and Fight Club gaffer Claudio Miranda, who was brought on as DP for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and went on to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work on Life of Pi.
Messerschmidt’s rise to the primary cinematographer of Fincher’s brand new TV show elicits similarly spectacular results, as the DP’s work on Mindhunter is elegantly classical and incredibly motivated by character and theme. During the course of our conversation, Messerschmidt talked about the road that led to him becoming the cinematographer on Mindhunter, the specifics of his working relationship with Fincher, what it’s like to serve as a DP in the world of episodic television, how the work of production designers and costumes designers goes under-appreciated, and trying to maintain a consistent aesthetic with multiple directors. He also teased a bit about Mindhunter Season 2, including revealing their extensive shooting schedule.
Fincher will direct the two-hour long season premiere and finale:
Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James,” “Killing Me Softly”) will helm another two, and filmmaker Carl Franklin (“Devil In A Blue Dress,” “One False Move”), who’s become something of a journeyman director on TV in recent years (“House Of Cards,” “The Leftovers,” “13 Reasons Why,” “Vinyl” and more), will direct the rest and bulk of the show.
Fincher is currently in Pittsburgh doing prep on season two which starts at the end of the month. It should keep him busy for most of the year and regardless, I’m told Netflix intends to hold it for an early 2019 release. The “Mindhunter” filmmaker directed all the reshoots for every episode of season one and he’ll be doing the same for season two; they’ll be baking in time for that as well.
Dominik was apparently a big fan of Fincher, and their connection is through Brad Pitt who starred in the aforementioned ‘Jesse James’ and has obviously led many a Fincher movie including “Seven,” and “Fight Club,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and possibly the “World War Z” sequel if they can ever figure out the script.