Mindhunter: David Fincher vs Hollywood's serial killer

Morgan Jeffery
Photo credit: Netflix

From Digital Spy

From factual TV series – Making a Murderer, The Jinx – to podcasts – Serial, My Favourite Murder true crime is one of the buzziest genres right now across all media.

The new Netflix series Mindhunter is the latest project to take inspiration from the crimes of real-life killers, and while it's a scripted series, adapted by Joe Penhall from a book by former FBI special agent John Douglas, this psychological thriller promises to deliver "authentic" insights into the minds of murderers.

Related: Mindhunter review: is David Fincher's Netflix drama all killer, no filler?

Jonathan Groff plays Holden Ford, a special agent in the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit, loosely based on Douglas. Of the popular obsession with true crime, he says: "I think part of it is the intrigue of the unknown, and the fact that motive is so elusive, and sometimes you can pinpoint it and sometimes you can't.

"I also think people are really repressed, sexually repressed, and this weird, f**ked-up version of things provides an opportunity to look at sex and violence in a way that is safe for us, because it's so far from who we are."

Further adding to Mindhunter's appeal is the involvement of David Fincher, seeking to deconstruct the popular image of the urbane, sophisticated serial killer – one he arguably helped to popularise more than 20 years ago with Se7en.

Photo credit: Netflix

"Nothing against Hannibal Lecter – but the incredibly charming, very witty serial killer who's an opera aficionado and a gourmet chef... it does not bear much resemblance to the way these men are in real life," says Holt McCallany, playing Ford's partner Bill Tench (again based on a real-life figure: FBI agent Robert Ressler).

"David's notion was to strip away all of those conventions and try and show these guys as they really are."

The fictional characters of Ford and Tench are, we're told, Mindhunter's one major deviation from established fact. "When it comes to the lives and the crimes of the killers, every attempt has been made to tell that part of the story in as authentic a way as possible," McCallany insists.

The 10-part series – which has Fincher on board as executive producer and in the director's chair for its first two and final two episodes – follows Ford and Tench as they establish the art of psychological profiling. (The real Ressler is widely credited with having coined the term "serial killer".)

The duo's efforts see them interrogate a number of notorious killers from recent US history – from "the Co-Ed killer" Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) to the "BTK strangler" Dennis Rader (Sonny Valicenti) – and these experiences "bleed into their lives in really fascinating ways".

As Groff puts it: "Holden's kind of having an existential crisis – he doesn't know who he is... and then he finds himself while sitting across the table from a serial killer."

Photo credit: Netflix

These lengthy interrogation scenes are the lynchpin of Mindhunter – spanning between 10 to 15 pages in Penhall and co-writer Jennifer Haley's scripts, and with Fincher employing his trademark of filming dozens of takes per scene, this meant the process of shooting the sequences was "exhausting" but rewarding for the cast.

"He pulled things out of me I didn't know existed, and challenged me in ways no-one had before," Groff says. "When you do a scene multiple times, looking for every possibility, you feel exhausted but you have a sense of pride.

"That's what it's like working with him. You're just giving all that you've got, so it leaves you feeling drained and content at the same time."

The story that inspired Mindhunter has been a fascination of Fincher's for over a decade. He originally optioned a book by Robert Ressler, Whoever Fights Monsters, before opting instead to develop Douglas's Mind Hunter – first at HBO, and ultimately as a series for Netflix.

"David brings so much passion to every project that he does," McCallany says. "He's such a meticulous director and so driven to get things as good as they can possibly be. So I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that every project is a passion project for David.

"But yeah, if we're going all the way back to optioning Ressler's book, which would've been over 10 years ago, then clearly this is something that David has had in mind for a very, very long time."

All episodes of Mindhunter are available to watch now exclusively on Netflix.

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