David Fincher brilliantly pushes his cinematic formalism in “Mindhunter,” Netflix’s 10-episode crime drama that explores the FBI’s fledgling Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, in the late ’70s. But, for the dialogue-heavy creepy interrogations with imprisoned serial killers by agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), executive producer/co-director Fincher manages to visually convey constant power shifts.
“It’s about control and dominance and also about misogyny,” Fincher said. “People forget that this goes all the way back to Jack the Ripper.”
And Fincher’s collaboration with production designer Steve Arnold (“House of Cards”) and gaffer-turned cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mad Men”) was crucial to the authentic ’70s look and dynamic blocking of the interrogation scenes, particularly those involving Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), who captivates and mentors Holden.
Visualizing a Walk and Talk
“There aren’t that many shows that have eight pages of dialogue on a regular basis,” said Messerschmidt, who first worked with Fincher as a gaffer on “Gone Girl,” and then replaced DP Chris Probst who left after shooting the first two Fincher-directed episodes because of creative differences. “For me, there were very visual opportunities without dialogue because ‘Mindhunter’ is about blocking.”
Messerschmidt had the benefit of shooting with Fincher’s customized Red Dragon (called the Xenomorph from “Alien”), which is ergonomically friendly and has a small camera footprint. “”We shoot a lot of coverage because it’s all about pace,” he said. “My favorite part of the job is thinking about sequencing on a set. We’re so classical and so formalist about how we tell story. There’s a power dynamic there too between Holden and Bill. There’s a lot of dialogue and off-dialogue looks and little shifts, the moment between moments.”
Delving so deeply into the dark, grisly world of serial killers causes a clash of egos between the two FBI agents, and also cultivates hubris in Ford. But it serves him well in his rapport with Kemper, who relishes the attention and the chance to tell his life story. Yet Kemper always maintains control, willingly handing over information at his own slow, deliberate pace.
The production design and lighting of the Kemper interrogation scenes were open and bright with a monochromatic background. It was set at a prison in California, but shot in Pittsburgh, where the production was based, and where Arnold went to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University.
“We went to a couple of prisons that were no longer functioning,” Arnold said. “The interview with Kemper was at one in Greensburg. We altered the space that was the interview room. It was a couple of different rooms that we expanded. We made it as though it was the library reading room in prison. David wanted it to be a different kind of space, less threatening, in a way. The thing that’s threatening about Kemper is himself.”
In the season finale, also directed by Fincher, during an unnerving showdown between Ford and Kemper in a hospital, Kemper acts like a scorned lover, convalescing from self-inflicted wounds to get Ford’s attention.
“We shot the hospital at a closed-down VA mental hospital,” said Arnold. “It’s an interesting complex with a triple room, and it had a little nurse’s station/viewing room, which works for the story line, where Kemper points out that he’s left alone during emergencies. And that scares Holden. We put bars in the hallway, so it seemed more like a prison medical facility.”
Messerschmidt initially wanted to go dark and spooky, but Fincher disagreed and demanded that it had to look authentic. “What that scene does need thematically is the condition of the environment,” the cinematographer said. “Holden has to suddenly realize that he may be in a compromised situation. You see the guards leave and the reality of that situation shifts for him. You have to see a little bit of fear in his eyes.
“So the solution we had was: It’s not bright but it’s still top lit. And he’s the only patient in the room, so we don’t need to light the rest of the room. I saw an opportunity to be as dramatic as the set would allow but still remain a real environment.”
Then the power shifts back to Kemper, who hugs Ford like an anaconda. The FBI agent then pulls away and bolts out of the room. Messerschmidt said it took two days to shoot the scene, and, according to Britton, who played Kemper, they reshot the scene because it was too on the nose. “Kemper put a guilt trip on Holden when they’re talking and then when he hugs him. They realized it was unnecessary.”
Added Messerschmidt: “It’s curious to think about how we tell this story with the camera, and make sure the audience understands what’s going on without showing them every beat editorially.”