The serial killer variations: David Fincher on Mindhunter at the 2017 LFF

The Seven and Zodiac director took to the stage at the BFI London Film Festival to discuss his latest riff on the serial-killer genre, working with actors and his changing attitude to treating thematics.

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Kelli Weston

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Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany and Cotter Smith in David Fincher’s Netflix detective series Mindhunter

Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany and Cotter Smith in David Fincher’s Netflix detective series Mindhunter

For the final talk in the London Film Festival Connects series, David Fincher took to the stage to reflect on a career that has yielded its fair share of beloved cult classics: Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999) and Zodiac (2007), among others.

Hosted by Nev Pierce – who has written from the sets of several of the director’s films – Fincher unveiled the first two episodes of his latest project, the Netflix series Mindhunter. Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany star as FBI agents in the 1970s who use their interviews with the era’s most notorious serial killers to solve other cases of deranged crimes. The series, released on Netflix on Friday, bears the unmistakable touch of Fincher with its stylistic precision, his characteristic muted, crisp visuals buttressed with a pulsing, wildly fitting soundtrack (the second episode ends hilariously with Psycho Killer by Talking Heads).

David Fincher at the 2017 BFI London Film Festival

David Fincher at the 2017 BFI London Film Festival
Credit: Tim P. Whitby, Getty Images

“It was about the genesis of serial killer profiling,” Fincher told the audience, describing how he came to direct the series, after Charlize Theron brought him the script. “I had never done television. I didn’t understand what the compromises were going to have to be. I didn’t know if I felt like it was something I could wrestle to the ground. So I went off and did House of Cards and learned a lot.”

Despite having ventured into serial killer territory many times before (including his somewhat overlooked 2011 adaptation of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), the series still feels fresh in Fincher’s meticulous paws. The dynamic between the seasoned investigator and the earnest novice only vaguely recalls Seven, and by the season’s end, the agent spinning obsessively out of his depth incurs different consequences from Zodiac. A less capable director may have been doomed to repeat himself, but Fincher manages here to preserve his own style and develop something new within the parameters of the same genre.

Yet for his longtime reputation as one of the most fastidious living directors, he revealed himself to be far less concerned with the thematic underpinnings of his film, preferring instead to leave these questions for the audience to answer.

Se7en (1995)

Se7en (1995)

“I have issues with theme. When I was involved in making [Seven], I probably felt that it was something that you needed to provide or at least provide an inkling that you knew what the theme was. But I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m much more interested in a defined narrative and very clear, distinct characters, and what they need or how they oppose one another. And I kind of feel like the theme avails itself to the cast. It avails itself to the filmmakers. You have to hold hard and fast to the narrative. You have to understand the beats. You have to understand the usefulness: why something should take three minutes of an audience’s time, why something needs to be 28 seconds of the audience’s time.

“I used to think picture was half of the experience and sound was half of the experience,” he added. “But I now really believe picture is 25 per cent of the experience and sound is 25 per cent of the experience, and the audience is half. They’re going to fill in the blanks.”

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Throughout the talk, the director – a formidable presence who, for many, has filled the space left by Stanley Kubrick – won the audience over with humour and an earnest approach to cinema, which includes his irreverent, if generous way with his actors. “Actors are extremely precocious children, and you have to play with them. And they have to stay in a state of wanting to play. Because let’s face facts, what we do is stupid,” said Fincher to laughter across the audience. “You’re building sets and playing dress up. So there’s all of these things that you’re doing to sort of engage them to make them – not pliant – but ready to play.

“There’s a horrible baseball analogy which will probably go over really well at the London Film Festival: you can’t take a pitch back. You wind up, you’ve got it in your hands, and it leaves your hand and you’ve got to let it go. And that’s what I feel actors need to do. They need to know that you know you don’t have to throw a strike every time. Just let it go, let’s see what it looks like, and let’s work to modulate it to find really interesting accidents.”

Mindhunter (2017-)

Mindhunter (2017-)

Recalling his work on Fight Club, he described his recurring partner Brad Pitt (they’ll reunite on the upcoming World War Z sequel) as “a goofball”. He also spoke of the lack of stunt people on set, leaving the actors to perform their own fight scenes.

“There were a lot of injuries. You would think that actors would know how to fight. Not really. They can all sword fight,” said Fincher, to the audience’s titters. “But there were so many dislocated fingers. It was the only time in my life where the on-set medic was doing anything.”

Before opening the floor to audience questions, Pierce asked the director what he had learned from making Zodiac ten years ago that he then brought to Mindhunter. “People don’t like sitting still for two hours and 45 minutes. Newsflash!” shot back the director wryly.

Zodiac (1997)

Zodiac (1997)

“We couldn’t get to three hours and we couldn’t get it under two and a half, and it couldn’t be a TV show,” he continued. “Mindhunter is about characters and what they want and where they were when this new bomb was dropped, this idea of serial killer profiling. We’re trying to understand people’s motivations and their signatures through their subconscious. It’s much more character-based, and it’s much more about how these guys talk to each other and what they reveal in these intimate conversations. And Zodiac is a movie about the unattainability of truth, justice, closure. You couldn’t string it out.”

With Mindhunter, Fincher joins more and more directors imbuing television with the cinematic.



In the November 2017 issue of Sight & Sound

Killer instinct

David Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter explores the genesis of behavioural profiling in the FBI in the 1970s. The director discusses psychosexual sadism and how to make sense of people who like cutting up hitchhikers with Simran Hans.


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