Mindhunter is not like other crime shows. In this video essay, Thomas Flight explores some of the inventive techniques creators Joe Penhall and David Fincher employ to inject drama and conflict into the show.
This is a detailed analysis of the ways in which Mindhunter pulls the audience into the lives of its characters as they explore the minds of some of the worst criminals on earth.
There is a short list of films I consider to be perfect; that is, I’ve watched them over and over again and they not only work every single time, but they have no weak spots and just get better and better with each viewing. Casablanca is one of those. Psycho is one of those. Jaws is one of those. Fargo is one of those. Taxi Driver is one of those. The Social Network is one of those and, of course, Citizen Kane is one of those. You can’t imagine anything making the film better, and if you removed one tiny piece of it you would ruin the whole thing. From the writing to the directing to the acting to the producing, everything just works. Even time can’t break them down. You probably have your own ideas about which movies you consider perfect, but for me it’s a short list as even most of my favorite films of all time I would not call perfect. And indeed, perfection is never a goal any artist should seek to attain – it’s just that every so often a film arrives there.
The myth about Citizen Kane is legendary – the young Orson Welles with his Mercury Theater players, a keen eye, and a whole lot of ambition made what is not-arguably the greatest film ever made. Welles has always been credited with the whole thing because in America we are beholden to the hero’s journey. That he pulled off such a brilliant hat trick at 24 is part of the myth. When you have a more honest conversation about Citizen Kane, you start talking about Gregg Toland and you eventually get to (because you must) Herman Mankiewicz.
Variety reports that David Fincher will team up with Gary Oldman for Mank, a biopic about the Oscar winning co-screenwriter on Kane for Netflix. The script was written by Fincher’s late father and will be filmed in black and white!
Although no plot details have been released about Mank, one can only assume it will have something to do with Mank’s writing of Citizen Kane, or co-writing with Orson Welles. Mank had famously spent time at William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon with Hearst’s wife, Marion Davies, which gave him such close and personal access that, it is rumored, Mank knew that Hearst had a pet name for Davies’ golden clam, Rosebud, and trolled Hearst by putting it in Kane.
What is great about the story of Kane is what it says about William Randolph Hearst directly and indirectly and what a fit Hearst had about it. He thwarted the film’s release, hurting its box office significantly. He somehow turned the film industry against Orson Welles, who was booed at the Oscars, and easily handed the Best Picture/Best Director win over to John Ford and How Green Was my Valley.
David Fincher has reportedly signed on to direct his first feature film since Gone Girl in 2014, a biopic about the contentious development of the script for Citizen Kane, one of Fincher’s favorite films, by the brilliant and prolific but troubled screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewiczand legendary director Orson Welles. They both shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Master Actor Gary Oldman will play the titular role, Mankiewicz, or “Mank“, as he was nicknamed.
The film project inception dates back to 1993 and is based on a script by Fincher’s late father, Howard “Jack” Fincher. Jack Fincher was a journalist, writer and essayist specialized in science, a former San Francisco bureau chief for LIFE magazine, and a devoted cinephile. In 1997, he was commissioned to draft a screenplay for a Howard Hughes biopic, with Kevin Spacey attached to direct. But this project was later absorbed by The Aviator project scripted by John Logan, which ended up being directed by Martin Scorsese.
Mank will be shot in black and white, as Fincher always intended. This caused the project to stall in the past, but Alfonso Cuarón’s recent success with Roma, also for Netflix, has reinforced the limited commercial appeal of this aesthetic option.
The film will be produced by the traditional power couple David Fincher & producer Ceán Chaffin, this time alongside Oldman’s business partner and producer Douglas Urbanski. Urbanski is an occasional actor who played President of Harvard University Lawrence Summers in The Social Network.
Production is scheduled to begin in November in Los Angeles.
As far back as 1997, this biographical story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the writer of Orson Welles‘ epic motion picture Citizen Kane, was rumored as a pet project for David Fincher. From a script written by his father, Howard Fincher, the director’s black and white biopic targeted Seven star Kevin Spacey as the lead, with Panic Room‘s Jodie Foster in a co-starring role as movie actress Marion Davies. In production at the same time was HBO‘s telemovie RKO 281, which also covered the backstory of Citizen Kane (casting John Malkovich in the Mankiewicz role and Melanie Griffith as Davies). Still, the true story behind the creation of this mould-shattering movie and the writer behind it has enough scope for the production of a further feature by Fincher and his father.
Mankiewicz was a cynical but extremely talented scriptwriter, a former theatre critic for the New Yorker and the New York Times who left his job for the glitter of early Hollywood. Dropping out of the elite circle of New York’s high society, specifically the so-called “Algonquin Round Table“, Mankiewicz began with scripts for silent films, starting with The Road to Mandalay in 1926, working on more than 70 features during his lifetime. He once famously described Hollywood to a fellow writer in NYC by saying: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around”. As film technology evolved in the late twenties, Mankiewicz changed gears and moved seamlessly into talkies, continuing to write stories or dialogue for films like Man of the World (1942), The Lost Squadron (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933) and It’s a Wonderful World (1939), as well as an uncredited rewrite on The Wizard of Oz; he also worked with the Marx Brothers as an executive producer on movies like Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).
With his career flagging as the thirties ended and with his comedic hits behind him, Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning success with Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1942 gave him a brief respite. However, his alcoholism and large gambling debts eventually got the better of him and he died, penniless, of uremic poisoning in 1953. Remembered for Welles’ powerfully directed feature about a ruthless newspaper mogul, Mankiewicz no doubt drew on his personal experiences as a former associate of real-life magnate William Randolph Hearst and as a partygoer at Hearst’s huge Hollywood mansion. Although Mankiewicz was forced to share Citizen Kane‘s Academy Award for Best Writing with Welles, the great majority of the script was the writer’s own work, and it was not only a source of friction between the two men but of debate among film critics to this day.
Last mooted as a Propaganda Films movie, Howard and David Fincher’s Mank may yet be produced as a project at Indelible Pictures. Fincher has previously spoken of his intent to use a special film stock to shoot Mank, a black and white negative type no longer used in the contemporary industry that would have to be recreated from the original “recipe”. For the director, this feature represents an opportunity to produce a fundamentally different film from his earlier works in a genre he has yet to explore; at the same time, the life of Herman J Mankiewicz retains the streak of darkness that has always appealed to Fincher’s sensibilities. “Mank is a script that I’ve been working to get exactly right for ten years”, said Fincher, “and I hope, some day, to make it as one of the definitive ‘writer in Hollywood’ stories”.
Pierce: Your dad was a journalist and a writer. He wrote a script called Mank, about the Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Did you consider making that?
Fincher: We tried. It was too expensive. Because if you’re going to make a Hollywood insider movie—it’s nothing to do with Hollywood really, it’s Hollywood in the late thirties, early forties—you’ve got to make it really cheaply. We had a chance to make the movie for, like, $13 million, back in 1998 and, um, [guiltily] I wanted to make it in black and white. [Laughs] And that fucked up all those home video and video sellthrough and cable deals. I haven’t read it in a while. I probably should.
Pierce: Did your dad write a few screenplays?
Fincher: Yeah, he wrote a couple. That was the best of them, I think. He wrote a screenplay once about a divorce case. It was kind of based on the Keanes. Remember in the sixties, the guy who painted those pictures of the children with the giant eyes? They were in this bitter divorce. It was a very, very sardonic screenplay about two parents trying to prove what bad parents they are, so the other will get stuck with the kids! It was pretty funny! [Laughs] But it had an awful sentiment! But it was funny. It was a good script.
Pierce: There’s an element of your work—in Se7en, The Game, Zodiac— that is about professionalism and obsession. Is that something you think you got from your dad?
Fincher: My dad wasn’t very obsessive. Slightly compulsive, but not obsessive. You know, my dad did used to say, “Learn your craft; it will never stop you from being a genius.” It’s like, “Do the hard work, figure out how it works…” My dad worked a lot, but he paced himself. He paced himself a lot more than I think I probably do. […] My dad… he was an intellect and sort of a Monday-morning quarterback.
Love, Death & Robots transcends genres. It doesn’t want to be categorized, or appeal to niche markets. Instead, the broad appeal of Netflix’s animated anthology series ensures that there’s something for everyone. (Read our Love, Death & Robots review.)
For Tim Miller, creator and executive producer on Love, Death & Robots, this approach was a key aspect of the series’ development. It’s a vow that the show retains, and sits perfectly with the punchy, unconnected stories that Love, Death & Robots has brought to a wider audience.
“It really was designed to be something for everyone,” Miller told IGN, “which means a pretty broad spectrum of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and fantastic fiction. I think I chose a few more sci-fi ones because that’s where I lean a little more heavily, but we tried very hard to balance it.”
That balance is what makes Love, Death & Robots a unique Netflix property. Taking inspiration from other anthologies, such as the iconic comic book series Heavy Metal, the show is a celebration of various short stories by acclaimed authors like Alastair Reynolds, Joe Lansdale, and John Scalzi.
Led by Miller’s own animation studio Blur, the production involved 13 studios and animators from nine countries. Tasked with bringing Miller’s handpicked stories – 16 pre-existing ones, and two original tales that were written for the series – to life, each studio’s drive and love for their craft is evident in the sheer diversity of animation styles and art forms on display.
Tim: This show has been my dream project for as long as I can remember, but the real story starts when I met David [Fincher] in 2005. I showed him a long list of projects I wanted to do, one of which was an adult animated anthology. He loved it. We originally developed it as a feature film, and we planned to animate the entire thing at Blur… but it never gained traction. But, when DEADPOOL came out, it became clear that there’s an audience for this kind of material. We seized the moment and decided to bring the adult anthology back as a series. Netflix was in. And now it’s so fucking cool to see how much people love this show and this kind of material, because it’s the stuff I grew up on.
Jed: Blur has been making game trailers and cinematics for a long time, always innovating new styles as far as our clients would let us. LOVE, DEATH AND ROBOTS presented us with an incredible opportunity to make stories without restraint, and to fold in amazing partners from around the world we had always admired.
Tim: Jed heavily campaigned to be on this project for years. Which was great because we knew he’d be enthusiastic and lead the charge at Blur.
Jed: The other studios were also enthusiastic to be a part of this anthology because, like Blur, they want to keep evolving and growing. They were all great, CG studios like Digic, Axis, Unit, and Platige. And because they bring different skills and perspectives, the show has something for everyone.
What was it like working with David Fincher, Jennifer Miller, and Josh Donen?
Tim: We have a history with all of them, so it was very easy and comfortable. David first came to Blur because he wanted to develop a game. Our studio is run by artists and he was immediately drawn to that aspect. Josh is David’s longtime collaborator and producer. We’ve known each other for over a decade and have always gotten along and enjoyed working together. Jennifer is the COO of Blur and runs the company, not to mention she’s my wife. Together, all of us had worked on ZODIAC, GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and many other projects. History builds trust, so when David and Josh left for MINDHUNTER, they knew that LOVE, DEATH AND ROBOTS was in good hands.
With Love, Death + Robots now streaming on Netflix, a few days ago at SXSW I got to sit down with Tim Miller to talk about the NSFW anthology of animated stories he made with David Fincher. If you haven’t seen the trailers, the very cool series features 18 shorts that run between 5-15 minutes in length, are aimed at adults, were done by different teams of filmmakers from around the world, and showcase a variety of styles from traditional 2D to photo-real CGI. In addition, all of the stories are wildly different. You’ve got cyborg bounty hunters, alien spiders, sentient dairy products, werewolf soldiers, robots gone wild, and blood-thirsty demons from hell — to just name a few.
I caught six of the shorts before doing the interview and absolutely loved what I saw. If you’re into cool stories and incredible animation, you absolutely want to check the series out. Love, Death + Robots is now streaming on Netflix.
During the interview, Tim Miller talked about how the series was made, how they’ve been working on it since before Deadpool was released in theaters, how he became friends with David Fincher and why they did this project, and what it was like collaborating with Netflix. Plus, if he has a suggested order for people to watch the series, if he’s ready to tell more stories in some of these worlds, the possibility of a second season, how the budgets were dictated by length and animation style, and so much more.