If you google Mindhunter you’ll mostly find articles that connect David Fincher with it, even if he, in fact, directed only four episodes, and although Joe Penhall wrote the screenplay. How comes? The story behind is a bit complicated and gives insight on how series come into being.
John Douglas, on whom the main character, Holden Ford, stands, was the FBI agent that initiated the Criminal Profiling Program, after starting to work for the Behavioral Sciences Unit in 1977. While lecturing on criminal psychology at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, also in units all over the country, he had interviewed killers and offenders that didn’t match anymore the usual criminal profile, having committed murders comprising no motive, and no purpose. Triggered by wanting to understand what set them in motion, Douglas developed new, more suitable interview strategies. Profiling is not about finding the offender, but about detecting the kind of person who would allegedly commit a certain specific crime. One of the books that he has written on this topic, together with Mark Olshaker, is Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. And this is the book that Charlize Theron (the other executive producer) gave to Fincher, sometime around 2009, and Fincher was completely hooked. A couple of years later, and after he did some work on House of Cards on Netflix, he decided the time was eventually ripe for it. Theron then recommended Joe Penhall for the screenplay, because, as Fincher means: “He’s a theater veteran, so he’s not afraid of 10-page scenes of people talking – my kind of guy”. The problem was that Penhall lived in London, and he wasn’t going to move to LA. So, after writing a 75-pages-long bible for the prospect of 5 sequels (“It was like giving birth, it was just insane.”), he had to find writers for the writers room to cover for him: Jennifer Haley, Erin Levy and Carly Wray: “You are supposed to have a writers’ room and one of the writers goes and covers set. I didn’t really have a writers’ room. I chose three other writers that I loved and offered them an episode each and wrote the rest myself. (…) You’re planning the whole thing, that’s the vertiginous thing about it. If you’re ever going to get involved in one of those things there are pros and cons of getting involved. It is a monster. I wouldn’t recommend it for writers who want to write plays, or want to do anything else with your life because they own you every minute of the day – that’s why you have a writers’ room because if you’ve got 10 people in the room then you can take it in turns.” With Penhall not really committing Hollywood-style, Fincher took over the script and changed the tone, in the process.
For the accurate and gloomy end-of-the-seventies setting, Fincher collaborated with Erik Messerschmidt. They also found inspiration in Stephen Shore’s photography, mostly in his series Uncommon Places. Apparently static, it is drenched in greyish browns, yellows, and greens, rarely spiked up with the blue of a very pale sky or someone’s shirt. At troubled moments a dark conglomerate, the visual comes in layers-like of very distinct light hues, in which the characters either blend in, sliding smoothly in a cloaking, background shadow, or they are out-singled, occasionally cornered, every chance of fending off blown in the wind.
Each character a clear silhouette, the chemistry between them works its magic to build a strong, a well-balanced structure. Holden (Jonathan Groff) and Bill (Bill Tench, the presumable avatar for Robert Ressler), the young – old cop pair, not like any before. Holden doesn’t pretend to know it all, and Bill (Holt McCallany) is not the one-sided, untimely conservative. Both set off by the same motive, they are even, to a certain point: “How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?” Impressive their respectful, acknowledging relationship to their partner, Dr.Wendy Carr, who, like the real Dr.Ann Wolbert Burges, on which this character might be based on, is a pioneer in the treatment of trauma and abuse victims. Unlike Wendy (Anna Torv), Holden’s girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross) has only a sporadically appearance, and although she is a strong character, she is here solely to help Holden grow-up. Big and haunting, not only physically, but because of his striking, solid, and creepy performance as Ed Kemper is Cameron Britton. Jonathan Groff about him, on Rolling Stones: “I got to read with him once, and he just walked in and started saying his lines in character, and … ee had the voice and everything. I had done the scenes in the audition, and I’m not a Method actor, but it was like ‘Holy fucking shit!’ To be sitting in this room with him in Los Angeles, all by myself, was terrifying.”
In good Netflix tradition, Mindhunter strikes a new tone, this time in the thriller-making genre, and it comes, except the haunting intro, with almost no bloody scenes. Nevertheless, the low paced, low toned, unaffected dialogs, appeal and disturb – their powerful descriptive character bringing up trivial breakdowns and confessions that result in stirring images in our minds, in a subversive, unavoidable way.
The other engine is the contrast between these abnormities and Holden Ford’s baby-faced, pure-like appearance, combined with his tenacious, abiding work towards his goal of decoding, tracking, and foreseeing the offenders’ next moves, regardless of all impediments and denial he experiences. Falling in love and research work mash together. His personal transformation comes in the last two episodes to its peak, bringing up, more than in the previous episodes, a polemic of the ethics. What does it take to find the answer, the truth? How far is Holden ready to go, how much of himself is he willing to give up, or forget, to achieve that? When does a person, that might or not be a criminal, stop being human-treatment-worthy, and who, and in what measure is to decide that? The visible fascination with the dark famousness of his subjects of research, spiced up with his own dash of wackiness, intertwine with the power that his position lends him; dazzling him to the point of seeing himself a friend, a trustee to some of the criminals, and remorselessly manipulating others into confessing. A pioneer and a risk-taker nonetheless, enveloped not only in his thirst of knowledge but also in an aura of youthful healthy opportunism, Holden crosses the path from just overcoming an edge situation to the brink of being addicted to it. He reaches the stage where he believes himself untouchable and almighty, each time he steers, pulls, and presses the right buttons in these criminals’ minds. As ties around him break apart, an embrace will turn him mortal again, making him crumble on the ground, and gasping for air.
Talking sequel, Penhall seems to be out of the game, because “I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of season 2, 3, 4 and 5 because that model is probably unworkable. Me writing 7 episodes and 3 Emmy award-winning writers writing the other three, it’s high maintenance.”
Also, word went that Fincher might lack time to go on with it, also due to other commitments (like directing World War Z 2), even he had already divulged some plans for a second sequel, and even he seems not to need resting: “David, I don’t know when he sleeps. He would go home and watch the dailies and come in the next day with rough cuts of the scene. He just is obsessive and loves working.” (Jonathan Groff)
Anyway, Netflix had recently ordered the second season, and at least now, it looks like Fincher is on it, and I’m not the only one to hope it stays that way.