David Fincher isn’t exactly alien to the concept of serial killers. His breakthrough masterpiece was Se7en (1995) and another of his greatest films, Zodiac (2007), chronicled the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, a man who was active in the late 1960s to the early 1970s and still remains unidentified. When he was reading a book back in 2000 called ”Whoever Fights Monsters” by Robert Ressler, Fincher was intrigued by the idea of depicting how the FBI came to improve its investigative skills, but nothing came of it.
Fast-forward a few years and Fincher had been involved with House of Cards, learning that TV had its benefits. That’s when Charlize Theron gave him a book called ”Mindhunter” by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker and he was instantly reminded of the serial-killer story that never got made.
Learning about serial killers
In 1977, after a traumatic experience during a hostage situation, FBI Special Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) begins teaching at the Bureau. He soon connects with Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) who is head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Even though they are very different in many ways, they realize that there is much to learn about people who commit multiple murders over a long period, knowledge that could be used by the FBI to catch future killers.
They start traveling all over the country to interview some of America’s most notorious murderers, including Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), the imposing Co-ed Killer, who’s locked up in California. He committed ten murders and treated his victims in horrifying ways. Interviewing him turns out to be a controversial move that not only becomes a point of contention between Ford and Tench, but also puts their project in jeopardy.
Reflecting our own feelings
The idea of a person who becomes obsessed with serial killers is hardly new; Fincher explored it in Zodiac, but this time the lead character is not a journalist but an FBI agent. Mindhunter was inspired by how the FBI learned to use psychology as a way of improving their methods. The agents are fictional, but not the killers; apart from Kemper, we (along with Ford and Tench) meet Charles Manson, Jerry Brudos, David Berkowitz, Richard Speck, among others. And then there’s a special guest in the shape of a mysterious figure, an ADT serviceman, whom we follow in each episode as he becomes increasingly active in the mental journey that will turn him into ”BTK”, the serial killer who was revealed many years later to be Dennis Rader.
The two agents, Ford and Tench, perhaps reflected our own conflicted feelings toward these killers. We are disgusted by them, yet also intrigued, but how do we handle those emotions and how do we keep them at bay if we are to learn anything from their profiles? Things got increasingly complicated over two seasons as Ford began to suffer from panic attacks and a child murder in Tench’s neighborhood turned into a personal crisis. Playwright and screenwriter Joe Penhall made sure the scripts kept us glued to this grim, bright and sometimes surprisingly likable series, with Fincher serving as producer and occasional director, providing a darkly blue-green hue to its visual look. A formidable cast, especially McCallany, was icing on the cake.
The original idea was to continue this series for a few more seasons, but it took too much of a toll. Exceedingly ambitious, Mindhunter was very expensive to produce and exhausted Fincher who wanted to get back to making movies. The third season was initially delayed and then the actors were released from their contracts. It’s a shame… but Netflix wouldn’t close the door definitively.
Mindhunter 2017-2019:U.S. Made for TV. 19 episodes. Color. Created by Joe Penhall. Cast: Jonathan Groff (Holden Ford), Holt McCallany (Bill Tench), Anna Torv (Wendy Carr), Stacey Roca, Joe Tuttle, Michael Cerveris (19), Hannah Gross (17), Cotter Smith (17).
Last word: “Joe Penhall was the first person to say, ‘I think I can do a better job of dramatizing this if I’m given the leeway to take some of the attributes of this person and some of the attributes of this person and create a new character.’ So that’s what we did. A lot of [the interviews with serial killers] were taken verbatim. The Kemper interviews, the Manson interviews – that stuff is pretty well documented. We stayed as close to that as we could while still having a dramatic arc. I don’t think we attribute anything to Kemper that he didn’t say. I mean, he may not have used the word oeuvre.” (Fincher, TIME Magazine)