One of the consistent differences between producing television and films is that TV moves fast; when crews are responsible for six to 22 hours of new content every year, directors don’t often have time to shoot take after take until everyone is satisfied with the result.
Well, no one told David Fincher that.
Speaking at an FYC event for his Netflix original series “Mindhunter” on Friday night, Fincher explained how much time he spent capturing one nine-and-a-half-minute scene for Season 1. Shot with three cameras all running at once, Fincher put his three-person cast and many more crew members through 75 takes before he was ready to call it quits.
Jonathan Groff, who joined Fincher on the panel along with co-star Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, Cameron Britton, and casting director Laray Mayfield, asked his director, “What was the longest scene we had? Seven minutes?”
“No, no,” Fincher said. “The scene with Happy [Anderson] was 11 pages. We had three cameras outside the cage, and we’d do a nine-and-a-half-minute take. Then I’d walk in with a yellow pad [filled] with single-spaced notes: [to Groff] ‘OK, that’s a joke, you can’t toss that off. And this? This is a statement. Make sure that’s a statement.’ And Jonathan would be there going, ‘OK, OK.’ [nodding] Then we’d do another nine-minute take and he’d do all that stuff [I asked], and I’d go to Holt and go over four pages of notes with him. And Happy was like, ‘What? We’re really going to do this [every time]?’”
Fincher said the series regulars like Groff and McCallany got used to it, but guest stars were consistently taken aback by his persistence.
Looking at Groff for confirmation, Fincher then tried to estimate how many times they ran through that scene in one day. After a few stops and starts, he said, “We didn’t have a break, well we broke for lunch — I would say we did it 75 times in the day.”
Stories of Fincher’s meticulous nature are well-known. Reports surfaced during the “Gone Girl” shoot that he was averaging 50 takes per scene, and the same number was cited by “Zodiac” star John Carrol Lynch as well. Other actors, including Jake Gyllenhaal and Neil Patrick Harris, have commented on the practice with various levels of enthusiasm, but Holt McCallany likes it.
“I didn’t mind,” he said. “I find when you do something over and over again, you discover things. When you guys would say ‘take 14’ or ‘take 20,’ suddenly something becomes apparent to you that you didn’t really realize. It’s not that we were making huge changes, but the subtle adjustments we made or small adjustments David will give you can make a big difference in the way a scene plays out. So I’m a fan of doing a lot of takes.”
Groff was also supportive of Fincher’s laborious style.
“David was really specific with us about every single word, and every single turn of the scene; he was critically specific about the purpose,” Groff said. “On the days of shooting, we would go in the room, sit down, and talk about how leaning forward could change the dynamic of a conversation.”
But long days weren’t the only stipulation coming from Fincher. He also wanted to create a specific atmosphere around one of his stars: the man playing Ed Kemper, Cameron Britton.
After noting how much of the character Britton had put together himself, Fincher explained a decision he made right away to help preserve that special element within his actor’s creation.
“One of the things that was critical [came to me] when we did a read-through of the first three episodes,” Fincher said. “It became really obvious coming out of the first read-through that: ‘Make sure Cameron doesn’t talk to anyone. He can’t fraternize [with anyone]. I don’t want this to be a social thing. He has to literally come from Pluto and be in the show.’ He can’t be indoctrinated into what anyone else is up to. It has to be that this guy shows up, he’s got all the time in the world — 13 life sentences — and he’s going to tell you what you want to know. During the read-through, it was [clear] that if we can get that on film, we’re going to be fine.”
Britton said that he wouldn’t have even been considered for the part if it wasn’t for his height.
“If I’m 6’4”, I’m not here,” Britton said. “The minimum height was 6’5”.”
After five auditions and a screen test with Fincher, he got the part. The rest is history — history that’s probably been documented 75 times over.
“Mindhunter” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.