Deeper Cuts

Nev Pierce
August 8, 2019
Empire (September 2019 Issue)

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.

Previous profiles and interviews with Fincher by Pierce at nevpierce.com

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Highlights from “The Killers Inside” (Empire)

While with MINDHUNTER, David Fincher aims to get inside the minds of the serial killers, Nev Pierce tries the same with the series director.

Words: Nev Pierce
Portraits: Marius Bugge
Digital Imaging: Justin Metz

September 7, 2017
Empire (October 2017 Issue)

“I DON’T WANT WHOEVER DID THIS KILLED,” SAYS DAVID FINCHER, “BUT I DO WANT A DIGIT.”

[…] He’s brandishing his new show’s “sides” in his hand: the day’s script pages, which have been stapled together in the wrong order. “Okay, we’re almost ready,” he calls out, unpicking staples. “Bring in the master thespians!”

[…] “Cut!” calls Fincher. “Moving on!” There’s a pause, from shock. Then laughter, as it dawns upon cast and crew that their director — not exactly known for being shy of repeating takes — is taking the piss. As detail-orientated as any FBI profiler, Fincher is hardly going to rush through a scene as nuanced as this. Walking over to the monitor, he says, “Okay, play that back. Let me see everything that was fucked up about it.”

[…] Fincher directed four of the ten episodes, with the others shot by Dane Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking) and Brits Andrew Douglas (U Want Me 2 Kill Him?) and Asif Kapadia (Senna).

[…] “It’s a much more theatrical presentation,” he reflects. “It’s a lot of sitting at a table with a guy in manacles, trying to get him to tell you what was going through his head when he did the most inhuman things to another entity you can possibly imagine.”

[…] Of course from Seven to Zodiac to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Fincher has dealt with more than his fair share of successive slaughters. The interest may stem from his youth. His dad was a journalist, his mum a mental-health nurse, and conversations about killers weren’t infrequent at home.

“There were a lot of serial killers in the ’70s,” he remembers. “And we probably talked about most of them. My mom would come down much more on the notion of rehabilitation and my dad would be like, ‘Once you understand what’s really going on, you probably have less empathy than you would going in.’ So that might have been what made MINDHUNTER appealing. Then again, whenever I can blame my parents, that’s my default.”

[…] As much as we now take the idea of psychological profiling for granted, back in the ’70s it was new. In that sense, while MINDHUNTER is about murder, it bears some thematic comparison to Fincher’s BAFTA-winning The Social Network, in that it is also about invention. Fincher knew Groff from that, in fact, rather than any of his TV work (“I know this is gonna shock you,” says the director, “but I’ve never seen Glee”).

[…] Visiting Quantico, Fincher walked down into a basement and came face-to-face with a life-size mannequin of Hannibal Lecter: the ultimate serial-killer icon. “The Silence Of The Lambs was a huge recruitment tool,” says the director, who, when asked by his FBI guides what he wanted to do with MINDHUNTER, told them he wanted to strip away the super-villainy of serial killers.

[…] “I feel like Dennis Rader [‘The BTK Killer’] is a lot of things, Gary Ridgway [‘The Green River Killer’] is a lot of things, Richard Ramirez [‘The Night Stalker’] is a lot of things,” he says. “But they’re not gourmands. We want to show these people as they really are, which is quite sad and human. Even though the aspect of them that they’re keeping hidden is this intensely subhuman part.”

It’s an attitude you might not expect from the man who once put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box. But there’s empathy here. Recalls Fincher: “Jeffrey Dahmer [cannibal, necrophiliac and murderer of 17 people] said, ‘I’m sexually aroused by seeing people’s insides.’” He pauses, before adding wryly. “Okay, well, there’s not a lot of clubs for that… Suntan lotion and beer and bubblegum and automobiles are sold by cleavage, they’re sold by abs — there’s this commingling of our sexual impulse in almost every kind of communication. If that doesn’t work for you, what must the world be like? I mean, I’ve seen the crime-scene photographs from Jeffrey Dahmer. He was a subhuman. And yet you can’t help but listen to him and go, ‘Was there a chance had we gotten there earlier?’”

[…] Not that the empathy extends eternally. “I like to think of myself as a liberal,” says Fincher. “And yet there are definitely moments where I find myself going, ‘Give me a backhoe and some quicklime and let’s stop worrying about the appeals process.’”

[…] MINDHUNTER is asking difficult questions. “It is also entirely salacious!” says Fincher. “Let’s not kid ourselves. But hopefully we’re going to be dealing with the things that make us similar as opposed to the things that separate us.”

[…] A resident comes over to say she’s a fan. Fincher smiles. “It’s always nice to know there are pervs out there!” She laughs. “We keep you in business!” “That’s true,” says Fincher. “Without pervs I’d be nothing.”

Read the full profile in the October Issue of Empire, now on sale: Print, Digital, Subscription

Previous profiles and interviews with Fincher by Pierce at nevpierce.com