David Fincher hits the small screen with a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller that, sadly, isn’t a pre­quel to Mind­hunters. Stand down, Chris­tian Slater.



It’s a crisp Septem­ber morn­ing in 2016 and the 54-year-old di­rec­tor is stand­ing amid his crew in the lobby of a po­lice sta­tion in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia, dou­bling for the late ’70s Adairsville Po­lice Depart­ment, Ge­or­gia. He’s bran­dish­ing his new show’s “sides” in his hand: the day’s script pages, which have been sta­pled to­gether in the wrong or­der. “Okay, we’re al­most ready,” he calls out, un­pick­ing staples. “Bring in the master thes­pi­ans!”

Moments later, the lead ac­tors of MIND­HUNTER walk across the room’s sap­phire-tiled floor, past a cig­a­rette ma­chine and a wall plastered with “Wanted” posters. Holt Mccal­lany wears cropped hair around a hand­some pit­bull face, a short-sleeved white shirt over an im­pos­ing frame and a con­ser­va­tive (for the ’70s) tie. He is se­nior FBI agent Bill Tench, based loosely on the late Robert Ressler, a pi­o­neer of psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­fil­ing. And he looks like a ham­mer in search of a nail. But when he stops be­side Fincher he’s quiet, def­er­en­tial: “David, can I ask you a ques­tion?”

Mccal­lany’s co-star Jonathan Groff strides in be­hind — bounds re­ally, ex­cept that im­plies a lack of el­e­gance. He wears a pow­der-blue shirt, trim grey trousers and a sun­beam face that sug­gests this isn’t just a job: it’s an ad­ven­ture. He’s Holden Ford, also loosely based on a real agent, John Dou­glas, from whose book the Netflix se­ries finds its in­spi­ra­tion: Mind­hunter: In­side The FBI’S Elite Se­rial Crime Unit. Dou­glas was on the bleed­ing edge of in­ves­ti­ga­tion: talk­ing to in­car­cer­ated se­rial killers to get in­sight into their in­stincts and then help po­lice with live enquiries. These were G-men be­com­ing am­a­teur psy­chol­o­gists.

It was this an­gle that first in­trigued Fincher, a di­rec­tor who has long been fas­ci­nated by se­rial killers but had never seen their psy­ches ex­plored in this way. “It was the fact that this mas­sive crime-fight­ing bu­reau­cracy was en­gag­ing with this kind of crim­i­nal be­hav­iour on the level of, ‘Let’s un­der­stand it,’” he ex­plains. “That was in­ter­est­ing.”

The scene about to be shot will in a way en­cap­su­late the thrust of the whole show. Holden is ex­plain­ing to a lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cer how he in­tends to ques­tion a sus­pect in the mur­der of a young girl. He’s go­ing to try to get the guy to open up, he’s go­ing to try to un­der­stand him, he may even seem like he sym­pa­thises with him. The gist: things are go­ing to get weird.

Cam­eras roll, the ex­change plays and at its close the cop turns to Tench, a bit be­mused: “All this an FBI thing?” The weary re­ply comes: “It’s his thing.”

“Cut!” calls Fincher. “Mov­ing on!” There’s a pause, from shock. Then laugh­ter, as it dawns upon cast and crew that their di­rec­tor — not ex­actly known for be­ing shy of re­peat­ing takes — is tak­ing the piss. As de­tail-ori­en­tated as any FBI pro­filer, Fincher is hardly go­ing to rush through a scene as nu­anced as this. Walk­ing over to the mon­i­tor, he says, “Okay, play that back. Let me see ev­ery­thing that was fucked up about it.”

THE LIST OF things that are “fucked up” about MIND­HUNTER would be quite ex­ten­sive. It is deal­ing in the most de­praved and vi­o­lent of hu­man be­hav­iour. Grub­bi­ness is noth­ing new, of course, for its pri­mary di­rec­tor and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. But Fincher’s re­turn to Netflix — af­ter launch­ing House Of Cards back in 2013 — could be an evo­lu­tion in terms of his sto­ry­telling, as at its core it’s more rooted in char­ac­ter than any­thing he’s done be­fore. (Fincher di­rected four of the ten episodes, with the oth­ers shot by Dane To­bias Lind­holm (A Hi­jack­ing) and Brits An­drew Dou­glas (U Want Me 2 Kill Him?) and Asif Ka­pa­dia (Senna).) He de­scribes it as be­ing about “the moments be­tween moments”, as op­posed to the rat-tat-tat plot machi­na­tions of crime pro­ce­du­rals on screens big or small.

“It’s a much more theatri­cal pre­sen­ta­tion,” he re­flects. “It’s a lot of sit­ting at a ta­ble with a guy in man­a­cles, try­ing to get him to tell you what was go­ing through his head when he did the most in­hu­man things to another en­tity you can pos­si­bly imag­ine.”

The time the show will take to ex­plore be­hav­iour — to get in­side the heads of its killers — is one thing that made it dif­fer­ent enough from Fincher’s pre­vi­ous sorties into the se­rial-killer sub­genre to war­rant engagement. It was Char­l­ize Theron, act­ing as a pro­ducer, who brought him the book and, af­ter a false start with another writer, in­tro­duced him to Joe Pen­hall, whom she knew from The Road. Pen­hall wrote a pi­lot and a se­ries bible, which took true cases but fic­tion­alised the in­ves­ti­ga­tors to a de­gree that gave dra­matic li­cence and shape to the show. Of course from Seven to Zo­diac to The Girl With The Dragon Tat­too, Fincher has dealt with more than his fair share of suc­ces­sive slaugh­ters. The in­ter­est may stem from his youth. His dad was a jour­nal­ist, his mum a men­tal­health nurse, and con­ver­sa­tions about killers weren’t in­fre­quent at home.

“There were a lot of se­rial killers in the ’70s,” he re­mem­bers. “And we prob­a­bly talked about most of them. My mom would come down much more on the no­tion of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and my dad would be like, ‘Once you un­der­stand what’s re­ally go­ing on, you prob­a­bly have less em­pa­thy than you would go­ing in.’ So that might have been what made MIND­HUNTER ap­peal­ing. Then again, when­ever I can blame my par­ents, that’s my de­fault.”

“I THINK PART of the in­trigue of the show is watch­ing some­thing that we’re fa­mil­iar with slowly get built and come to­gether,” says Jonathan Groff. “You re­ally see this spark of an idea in some­body’s brain.”

As much as we now take the idea of psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­fil­ing for granted, back in the ’70s it was new. In that sense, while MIND­HUNTER is about mur­der, it bears some the­matic com­par­i­son to Fincher’s Bafta-win­ning

The So­cial Net­work, in that it is also about in­ven­tion. Fincher knew Groff from that, in fact, rather than any of his TV work (“I know this is gonna shock you,” says the di­rec­tor, “but I’ve never seen Glee”). The ac­tor — who would go on to be a sen­sa­tion as King Ge­orge in Broad­way smash Hamil­ton, and can cur­rently be heard on in­ven­tive di­vorce-com pod­cast 36 Ques­tions — had au­di­tioned to play en­tre­pre­neur Sean Parker (a part that even­tu­ally went to Justin Tim­ber­lake). “He could have acted the shit out of it,” says Fincher. “But he has ab­so­lutely no ve­nal­ity.”

It’s Groff’s pu­rity — an earnest, in­her­ent de­cency — that makes him right for Ford, who is hard-charg­ing and am­bi­tious, but for the right rea­sons. “At the be­gin­ning of the show he’s hav­ing an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis,” says Groff. “He has an ex­pe­ri­ence in the very first scene of the first episode that rocks his world and makes him think that per­haps all this train­ing he has re­ceived from the FBI hasn’t done enough for him to be able to do the job in the real world.” With his part­ner, Tench, an ini­tially re­luc­tant ac­com­plice, Ford sets out to in­ter­view se­rial killers. “Who at the time, in the late ’70s, weren’t even called se­rial killers yet,” Groff ex­plains. “That was a phrase that was cre­ated by the Be­havioural Science Unit at the FBI.”

THE FIRST TWO ini­tials of the unit’s name summed up the at­ti­tude of many peo­ple to the work the BSU did. Holt Mccal­lany’s char­ac­ter is caught be­tween the old and new school: he has been shocked and hard­ened by the bru­tal­ity and ba­nal­ity of evil, but can see the value in try­ing new ways to catch killers. It’s deft cast­ing. Mccal­lany has had a know-the-face char­ac­ter ca­reer built on play­ing toughs, prob­a­bly peak­ing as a de­men­ti­aad­dled boxer in FX’S Lights Out. But Fincher has known him more than 25 years, hav­ing cast him in Alien 3 and Fight Club, and sees the sen­si­tiv­ity and hu­mour be­neath the teak ve­neer — a depth that MIND­HUNTER will ex­ploit as the show goes on.

“My guy, Tench, doesn’t have the same de­gree of em­pa­thy for the killers that Jonathan’s char­ac­ter of­ten dis­plays, but he’s got a cu­ri­ous mind and he’s a good de­tec­tive,” says Mccal­lany. The same ap­plies to the ac­tor him­self. His ques­tion for Fincher on set was not un­usual — he is a re­lent­less in­quisi­tor of his di­rec­tors. “The se­rial killer will mur­der you and des­e­crate your corpse. But the se­rial ques­tion-asker will bore you to death over many long months of film­ing.”

The “third leg of the tri­pod”, in Fincher’s words, is Anna Torv as Dr Wendy Carr, a psychologist who sees a huge op­por­tu­nity in what Tench and Ford are do­ing: the chance to re­ally un­der­stand what cre­ates killers. “She re­ally wants to put a fire un­der them to make it a le­git study,” says Torv, who you may recog­nise as an FBI agent her­self, al­beit in­ves­ti­gat­ing the para­nor­mal in Fringe. For MIND­HUNTER Torv read ex­ten­sively and “kind of went down the rab­bit hole — ev­ery­thing’s so ac­ces­si­ble on the in­ter­net”, to the point where she had to con­sciously pull back, be­cause the hor­rific na­ture of the crimes left her feel­ing “vul­ner­a­ble”. Still, she had to try to see the ma­te­rial through the eyes of her char­ac­ter, who has an enor­mous amount of em­pa­thy. “Be­cause you look back at the his­tory,” says Torv, “and not one of [the killers] had a re­ally beau­ti­ful child­hood and then de­cided they were gonna go out and blud­geon some­one to death.”

The cast have clearly been chew­ing over ques­tions of moral­ity — the na­ture of evil; the pos­si­bil­ity of ref­or­ma­tion, if not re­demp­tion. “The thing that re­ally struck me the most is that it’s so easy to write peo­ple off as good or evil,” says Groff (who Fincher de­scribes, not in­ac­cu­rately, as “the sweet­est man who ever lived”). “But af­ter spend­ing al­most a year in Pitts­burgh sit­ting and lis­ten­ing to these peo­ple’s sto­ries, you just get in­volved in the com­plex­ity of all of it.”

Mccal­lany, per­haps in keep­ing with his char­ac­ter, seems less am­bigu­ous about the po­ten­tial re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of these peo­ple — though it’s strik­ing how no-one in­volved in the show seems com­pletely cer­tain in their views. “I was at [FBI Acad­emy] Quan­tico and I met some of the guys that are cur­rently in the Be­havioural Science Unit, what they now call the Be­havioural Anal­y­sis Unit,” he re­calls. “If you ask the guys in law en­force­ment [about re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion], the anal­ogy they of­ten give is, ‘Imag­ine you’re bak­ing a cake. The cake has eggs and it has flour and milk and sugar and a lot of per­fectly nor­mal in­gre­di­ents. But imag­ine just be­fore you put the cake in the oven some mo­tor oil spilled into the bat­ter. Well, when that cake comes out of the oven, is it pos­si­ble now to re­move the mo­tor oil? It’s not.’ And that’s what they think.”

THERE MAY BE no cure, but per­haps there can be pre­ven­tion. That’s part of what drove the work of Dou­glas and Ressler. Vis­it­ing Quan­tico, Fincher walked down into a base­ment and came face-to-face with a life-size man­nequin of Han­ni­bal Lecter: the ul­ti­mate se­rial-killer icon. “The Si­lence Of The Lambs was a huge re­cruit­ment tool,” says the di­rec­tor, who, when asked by his FBI guides what he wanted to do with

MIND­HUNTER, told them he wanted to strip away the su­per-vil­lainy of se­rial killers.

“I feel like Den­nis Rader [‘The BTK Killer’] is a lot of things, Gary Ridg­way [‘The Green River Killer’] is a lot of things, Richard Ramirez [‘The Night Stalker’] is a lot of things,” he says. “But they’re not gour­mands. We want to show these peo­ple as they re­ally are, which is quite sad and hu­man. Even though the as­pect of them that they’re keep­ing hid­den is this in­tensely sub­hu­man part.”

It’s an at­ti­tude you might not ex­pect from the man who once put Gwyneth Pal­trow’s head in a box. But there’s em­pa­thy here. Re­calls Fincher: “Jef­frey Dah­mer [can­ni­bal, necrophil­iac and mur­derer of 17 peo­ple] said, ‘I’m sex­u­ally aroused by see­ing peo­ple’s in­sides.’” He pauses, be­fore adding wryly. “Okay, well, there’s not a lot of clubs for that… Sun­tan lo­tion and beer and bub­blegum and au­to­mo­biles are sold by cleav­age, they’re sold by abs — there’s this com­min­gling of our sex­ual im­pulse in al­most ev­ery kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. If that doesn’t work for you, what must the world be like? I mean, I’ve seen the crime-scene pho­tographs from Jef­frey Dah­mer. He was a sub­hu­man. And yet you can’t help but lis­ten to him and go, ‘Was there a chance had we got­ten there ear­lier?’”

Not that the em­pa­thy ex­tends eter­nally. “I like to think of my­self as a lib­eral,” says Fincher. “And yet there are def­i­nitely moments where I find my­self go­ing, ‘Give me a back­hoe and some quick­lime and let’s stop wor­ry­ing about the ap­peals process.’” It’s this push-me, pull-me within the mak­ers which will power the show. “We need to find jus­ti­fi­ca­tion,” says Torv. “We want there to be a rea­son­able ex­pla­na­tion, be­cause if there isn’t then that’s fuck­ing fright­en­ing. I think that’s part of the ques­tion of the show.” Fincher is in­ter­ested in what makes us tick — and what makes us sick. “Be­fore this time at the FBI the at­ti­tude was ‘These peo­ple are ra­bid dogs, they’re be­neath our con­tempt.’ I thought it was in­ter­est­ing that some­body said, ‘Maybe, but the dif­fer­ence be­tween them and ra­bid dogs is you can talk to them.’”

Dou­glas, in his book, reaches a per­haps sur­pris­ing con­clu­sion for some­one who spent so much time talk­ing to mur­der­ers and has seen such hor­ror: “I truly be­lieve that along with more money and po­lice and prisons, what we most need more of is love. This is not be­ing sim­plis­tic; it’s at the very heart of the is­sue.”

See­ing killers as bro­ken peo­ple, rather than face­less mon­sters, was part of what the FBI learned to do, in a bid to stop more killing. What cre­ates killers, how can it be stopped, what po­ten­tial evils do we have in­side us?

MIND­HUNTER is ask­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions. “It is also en­tirely sala­cious!” says Fincher. “Let’s not kid our­selves. But hope­fully we’re go­ing to be deal­ing with the things that make us sim­i­lar as op­posed to the things that sep­a­rate us.”

It’s not that every­one is ca­pa­ble of great evil, of course — at least not on the scale of the psy­cho­sex­ual sadists in MIND­HUNTER. But there’s great fascination in ex­plor­ing the dark­ness in peo­ple’s hearts. And a ca­reer in it, too. Back in Pitts­burgh — on a break from shoot­ing out­side a high-rise apart­ment block — the di­rec­tor is show­ing Em­pire how his new cam­era works and we’re nod­ding and smil­ing and pre­tend­ing to un­der­stand, when a res­i­dent comes over to say she’s a fan. Fincher smiles. “It’s al­ways nice to know there are pervs out there!” She laughs. “We keep you in busi­ness!”

“That’s true,” says Fincher. “With­out pervs I’d be noth­ing.”

Above: Seven, Zo­diac, and Fincher (right) on set of Gone Girl. Above right: MIND­HUNTER’S Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt Mccal­lany). Here: And with train­ing chief Shep­ard (Cot­ter Smith).

Top: Ford and Tench get to grips with Be­havioural Science tech­niques.

Above: Se­rial mur­derer Ed­mund Kem­per (Cameron Brit­ton) gets a lit­tle close for com­fort with Ford.

Top: Ford walks the prison halls.

Above: Tench is joined by Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), MIND­HUNTER’S “third leg” ac­cord­ing to Fincher.

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