David Fincher's Directing Style Made For Some Demanding Days On The Mindhunter Set

When you have a show like "Mindhunter," it seems only natural that filming would often be an intense and emotionally draining experience. I mean, the show's whole premise is about getting into the heads of famous serial killers, for god's sake. The on-screen interactions that FBI Agents Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) have with serial killers like the Son of Sam and Ed Kemper are often difficult to even just watch, so one can only imagine what it must be like to fully embody those characters and act through those scenes on set.

For me, I am partial to any of the scenes where Ed Kemper makes an appearance. It's not that I like his character — he is, after all, a despicable man — but Cameron Britton's portrayal of him (a portrayal that led him to an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series) is so singlehandedly creepy and enticing that anytime he's on screen, you're mesmerized. Kemper's appearance takes place mostly in the show's first season, but that doesn't mean season 2 is without its heavy hitters. In fact, some might even go so far as to say that season 2's interviews with killers are even more intense and emotionally charged than season 1.

So just how is director David Fincher able to create such nuanced portrayals of Tench and Ford's highly demanding conversations with these dangerous men? It turns out the answer involves lots and lots ... and lots of hard work. 

Maybe let's just try it ONE more time ...

In an interview for Vulture, McCallany, who plays Tench, opens up about how Fincher is able to get such precise emotion out of him and the rest of the cast. In one particular moment in season 2, Tench interviews Kevin Bright, the man who survived an attack by the BTK Killer (Dennis Rader) but was unable to save his sister who was murdered by Rader in the next room. It's a tense moment as Bright only agrees to talk in a secluded location, and won't allow Tench to look at him, even in a mirror.

Fincher is known for his love of multiple takes, and according to McCallany, filming this scene was no different. McCallany recalls filming "many, many, many, many, many" takes of his scene with Andrew Yackel, the man who plays Bright, saying, "You have to remember it's not just the number of takes; there's also the number of setups, you see what I mean? There's a wide angle, there's a wider angle, there's a two-shot, there's a three-shot — there's a lot of different coverage, and then it's multiple takes within these setups." He explains that Fincher very clearly "cares about the work," and that this dedication to getting it right is what makes the director's work so engaging. 

"David likes to do these things properly. So you're not breaking it up in pieces. You're doing the whole scene every single time. And then we do it again, and we do it again, and we do it again, and again, and again, and again, and again until he feels that we have it from that angle."

IndieWire has also reported on Fincher's multiple takes method, detailing how Fincher explained, at an FYC event for "Mindhunter," that he once took 75 separate takes of a single scene between Tench, Ford, and the killer, Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson). That's a lot of time to spend in the mind and the presence of a single, murderous man, even if it's just pretend.

The beauty of repetition

McCallany admits this way of working "requires a lot of conversation," but he's an actor who's never bothered by the repetition. This is probably a good thing since season 2 sees Tench struggling to cope with the pressing demands of both his home life and his job. Because of this, Tench has a lot of screen time, which most likely translated to a lot of takes. 

Tench's journey in season 2 is pretty intense. His son has recently been involved in the tragic death of a young toddler and may even be exhibiting some of the classic signs of a serial killer that Tench and the rest of the behavioral psychology unit have been working so hard to qualify. His wife is struggling to handle their son's needs on her own (and rightfully so!), but Tench has been assigned to a high profile case in Atlanta, Georgia, that demands most of his time and attention. He is a man trying to quite literally be in two places at once, leading to some very charged emotional moments between him and the people that he talks to, and McCallany does an extremely impressive job portraying the multi-layered emotions of Tench's character

McCallany attributes the Tench/Bright interaction to Fincher's repetitive methods, but it's clear that his methods enhanced the entire emotional weight of Tench's character trajectory in the second season. McCallany explains this to Vulture by saying:

"[Fincher] believes that the longer that an actor inhabits a particular scene, the more that he becomes comfortable in it and comes to understand it and lets go of the artifice and the preconceived decisions that he may have made in his hotel room the night before the shoot."

He explains that this doesn't mean improvisation is occurring — "David likes things to be very precise," he says — but the cast does partake in "extensive rehearsal" where they work together to break down scenes and ask questions in order to better understand where their characters are coming from. 

Not exactly everyone's vibe

Filming a scene with Fincher is about nuance. Each take is subtly different from the ones before it, with Fincher adjusting small things each time. McCallany tells Vulture, "Fincher's] giving you small adjustments, so it's not like we're just doing take after take after take after take in a vacuum." Still, it's well known that not every actor who's worked with Fincher has been partial to this way of filming.

Jake Gyllenhaall, who stars in another of Fincher's serial killer oriented films "Zodiac," famously hated the constant repetition that was expected of him. In an article for the New York Times, Gyllenhaall explains how Fincher's methods weren't always encouraging. "Sometimes we'd do a lot of takes, and he'd turn, and he would say, because he had a computer there, 'Delete the last 10 takes.' And as an actor that's very hard to hear," he says. For Gyllenhaal, a seemingly large part of his frustration was because he felt the collaborative aspect between actor and director was eclipsed by Fincher's own specific vision. However, Robert Downey Jr., who also stars in "Zodiac," gives Fincher the benefit of the doubt saying, "Sometimes it's really hard because it might not feel collaborative, but ultimately filmmaking is a director's medium." 

Fincher's repetitious way of working has occurred on the sets of many of his films. IndieWire reported that before hiring Justin Timberlake to appear in "The Social Network," Fincher told him, "I'm going to have you do it until you have gone past memorizing it, gone past knowing your own name, until we can get all of the physical nonsense so ingrained that we can get to what the actual text is," and reports of Fincher filming on average 50 takes a scene during the production of "Gone Girl" are all over the internet. 

At this point, Fincher's way of working just comes with the territory of being in his films, and for the cast of "Mindhunter," even though the process was occasionally demanding, it paid off in the end with a really amazing show.