With Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” executive producer David Fincher delivers a gripping crime series about the early days of FBI behavioral profiling in 1977 without any grisly murders. (Fincher directed the initial two episodes as well as the concluding two.) And for Oscar-winning editor Kirk Baxter (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Social Network”), this dialogue-heavy walk and talk between agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) was a gift.
“The skill that David has with blocking scenes is what’s most enjoyable,” Baxter said. “With 25 different angles of different set ups, it’s very dense and takes a lot of man hours in perfecting, but a walk and talk with an A and B camera, all I have to do is pick the best take.”
The Dance of Death
While the first episode was about “laying pipe” in setting up the fledgling Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, “Mindhunter” kicks in when Ford interviews imprisoned serial killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) in Episode 2 to better understand how he thinks. It’s the beginning of the agent’s dangerous journey down a rabbit hole of death.
“It was an intriguing scene to put together,” Baxter said, “because Holden is the one who wants to get information, to push the conversation forward, and Kemper sits back and willingly hands over the information. But he does so at his own pace.”
At the same time, the erudite killer becomes fascinated by Ford’s curiosity and sense of empathy. However, the editor (who uses Adobe Premiere Pro) made an important discovery in cutting the cat and mouse between them throughout the episode: Kemper’s response time had to be slow. Otherwise, it was less compelling. “He’s in prison and has all the time in the world, and has a steady pace,” added Baxter. “If Kemper speaks too quick, the spell is broken. If his response is slowed down, then Kemper keeps control of the room.”
This sense of control commences with Kemper’s insistence that Ford order an egg salad sandwich. “And we use the close-ups in those moments to dominate him,” said Baxter. But it became obvious to Baxter in viewing subsequent scenes with Kemper that he didn’t edit that the spell was broken. “And it was purely pacing. So I passed a simple note to the editor saying Kemper is never in a rush, and the next time I looked at the scene, it was perfect.”
Inserting the Traveling Montage
After shooting the series, Fincher decided to add a traveling montage in Episode 2 between Ford and Tench after a complaint from true crime co-author John Douglas (“Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit”) that it lacked a sense of authentic road weariness.
But first Baxter compiled a sizzle reel of Fincher highlights (mostly culled from “Fight Club”) to get the proper vibe for the traveling montage cut to Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.” “This was to give David an idea of pace and how many shots he wanted. Once we had that together, I came back and cut it in isolation,” Baxter said.
“To me those montages are so much fun. We presented shots and mostly it told David that he needed brevity and humor. Where it really dances is when you get repetition of action: Four or five plates going down in a row or walking into four or five motel rooms, That musical rhythm of how many am I gonna use? To get the point across with three and then punctuate it with a plop of sugar going into the coffee cup.”
Closure with Kemper
Ford’s final final encounter with Kemper in the hospital (cut to Led Zeppelin’s eerie “In the Light”) brings their relationship full circle and scares the hell out of the FBI agent. At first, he thinks he’s in control until Kemper asserts his dominance and Ford fears for his life. It’s yet another brilliant example of Fincher’s blocking.
“We start wide and move closer and Holden sits down,” said Baxter.”Then we go wide again when Kemper is standing. Now they’re slowly going to get closer together until he’s finally going to be wrapped like an anaconda by this guy. And then he makes a break for it and you’re wide again. That’s the stuff editorially that you’re looking for…slowly tightening the noose in the frame so that it’s in lockstep with the danger.”
Soderbergh and the BTK Killer
Finally, Baxter acknowledged that the cold openers with the mysterious and mustachioed ADT serviceman (Sonny Valicenti) are a setup for future exploration of Dennis Rader, the BTK (“Bind, Torture, Kill,”) Killer, who murdered 10 people in Kansas between 1974 and 1991.
“That again came after the fact,” Baxter said. “We shot everything and then went out and did these and found places for them in the story. At first, I found the spots within the episodes where there were concluding points in story lines, where it wasn’t confusing. But then we moved them to the very front and had that awesome one at the end [with the burning of the disturbing drawings].”
Turns out that the placement of the last one was Steven Soderbergh’s idea. The director, known also for his great editorial skills, has been providing notes to Fincher on a few of his most recent projects. “And both David and I loved it because it just gave the promise of Season 2. And it allowed that we tracked the file [of the drawings] all over it, which I adored.”