We here at Absolute Music Chat have been privileged to interview ten cast members from the hit Netflix show Mindhunter. In this article we have selected excerpts from these actors’ interviews about their experience working with the world-renowned director, David Fincher.
Interviewers: Paula Courtney and Davina Baynes
(Excerpt from interview with Cameron Britton by Paula Courtney originally published November 3, 2018)
“ CB: After that we had real rehearsals, table reads, wrote on our scripts and had conversations – which just doesn’t happen in television, there’s just no time, there’s no money to be sitting down and rehearsing. And then David, being so thorough, he actually showed up at my fittings, which is just unheard of, especially someone as busy as he is, to be showing up and making sure I take my pants home and sleep in them just so they would: a prisoner would only have a couple of articles of clothing, so to fit to him like ‘stiff’.
PC: When you were sat in that room with Fincher, was it hard not to show your nervousness, what did you do to combat those feelings or were you not nervous?
CB: It was back and forth that I thought, ‘Oh I’m doing a terrible job, he’s going to fire me,’ and Jonathan would talk me down from the ledge. There were days when we had done 50 takes – let’s do 50 more, 70 more I don’t care, I’m having a blast, I’m just lost in the moment, because it’s not just the takes it’s how quickly we get back to the top of the scene. Often when someone says ‘Cut!’ you know you don’t actually get to start the scene again until 10 minutes later, with him it’s 15 seconds! We are back in it. I’d never done that in my life before and that in character, for that long for a whole day of, since you’ve been awake you’re in character. It just starts becoming this sort of spiritual experience where you kind of forget what you planned on doing, you’re surprising yourself, you’re going, ‘Oh oh God! I’ve never delivered it that way before! Where did that come from?’
PC: I was talking about that with Adam Zastrow and he said by the time you do the 50th take you feel like it’s going through the motions, you don’t have to think about it but by then you are delivering something that is more natural, or organic, and that is what Fincher is looking for: that very moment when you are not acting, you are being it, doing it, aren’t you?
CB: You are! And day one I thought, ‘Are they going to fire me? Am I going to get too tired to do this?’ And that is just not the case. I met a few people playing killers who were nervous – anyone who’s worked on Mindhunter and worked with Fincher – they all think, ‘Ah, they’re going to fire me!’ But when you are in there, man you just keep going. Being fired is the last thing you’re thinking about, you are just alive. It’s a hell of an experience and honestly is moving forward my career. I’ve been fortunate enough, because of my character, to get to do bigger projects now, like that’s sort of my standard. When I go to other projects now I go, ‘Okay, are they living up to what Mindhunter taught me and are they making good art?’ And if they are not then I sort of politely find a way to come off what’s going on.
PC: With regards to David Fincher’s style of directing, is there any room for a bit of give? Do you feel you could suggest to him that perhaps you’d like to try something different or is it all very controlled by him or the other directors?
CB: With David there’s a line here, a line there, in this big, giant script where he says, ‘I want this to be arrogant,’ or, ‘I want this in a form of a question.’ And I think, when he says ‘arrogant’ there are many, many, many ways to do that so it’s up to you how you want that to be conveyed – the rest of the script is all yours. And maybe that’s just my experience. David puts you in: he guides you in the right direction. So if an actor strays too far this way or that way he’ll sort of put you back on track, but the point of all those is not to do anything you’ve prepped and just be truly alive ‘in the moment’. If you’re over-directing somebody then it won’t be that: then you’re just using all those takes to get this exact delivery or performance out of them, which is fine, but it’s not allowing… like he’s so trusting that inspiration will come; you know if he has too much vision for a moment he’s not allowing for a better vision to show up. If he’s saying it has to be this way then how do you know if something better wouldn’t have come along? He’s very trusting and it empowers you; you can tell [when] your director is letting you do your job. There’s been times he’s had to put me back on track: the hospital scene in the final episode when I stand up and turn around he let me go two or three takes where I just went ballistic. When we first started shooting that part I stood up like a maniac and then by the third he said, ‘I can’t think it up with the rest of that part of the scene. You can’t do that’. It needed Kemper to stay calm and collected but, in a way, I needed to go crazy for a second, I needed to really feel that wild, impulsive energy, that’s sort of Kemper though isn’t it: even when he’s calm you can feel his urge to hurt; he’s almost masking a lot of violence, no matter how mellow he looks.
PC: Then boom! Lights out! I read that Fincher said – and I’m assuming it’s true – that he didn’t want you to mix and mingle with the cast because he wanted to keep you from being influenced or informed, he wanted you to be the way you had set Kemper up to be and not start thinking, ‘Maybe I should do this or that.
CB: Yes I think he wanted me to outside of those few rehearsals, show up and really, really, truly not know anything about who Holden and Tench are and what it needed to feel like in the episode where Ed’s like, ‘FBI agents are coming to see me! What do they want?’ They needed to come into the room and say, ‘I’m about to interview my first serial killer ever and he is a giant. He’s done horrible things to his mother’s corpse.’ So, as he put it: he wanted us to ‘come from outer space’ until, once we got on set, we were then free to do what we wanted. There was sometimes, between takes, that if I had a little extra time I might just be sitting there and sort of getting where I needed to get but more often than not there would be singing or dancing; Jonathan is better at both of those so he would do it with me and Holt would join in and we would joke a little and have a little fun. Everyone else has a ‘real job’ so they’re running around making sure everything is perfect and we’re just goofing off. The stuff is heavy and it’s nice to be light for a second.”
Link to full interview:
(Excerpt from interview with Thomas Francis Murphy by Davina Baynes originally published November 23, 2018)
“ DB: So, what is David Fincher like working for when he’s directing?
TFM: Well he’s obviously a guy who knows what he wants. Clearly. So that’s always good! I guess the thing you know is that, if he didn’t get what he wanted, you’d still be shooting! (Both laugh) You take your gratification where you can. My comparison that I have in my mind is that now you’re working with an NBA coach, you were in college basketball, it just has that kind of feeling to it. I’d certainly seen his films and I had certainly paid attention.“
Link to full interview:
(Excerpt from interview with Adam Zastrow by Paula Courtney originally published October 14, 2018)
“PC: Getting back to David Fincher. I was reading the other day someone saying the reason he shoots a scene 70 times is because he suffers from OCD but that isn’t the case at all is it. He wants to get the best possible scene, it’s not because he has perfectionist issues.
AZ: I hate when people use the word ‘perfectionist’ when they are talking about David and the amount of takes he does because I was told about that – I don’t want to say ‘warned’ but I was ‘told’. Before going out I was told be prepared for long days Fincher likes to do a lot of takes. After having done it – those 70 takes fly by, it does not feel like you are doing 70. Fincher himself addressed this in an interview – he really hit it right on the head – it’s not that he’s a perfectionist (that’s not the issue at all) it has more to do with your pre-production staff. The guys will build sets for months, the art guys, you have all these people spending the better portion of a year just to make sure a scene looks the way it’s supposed to or to just make sure the drinking fountain in the back works even if nobody is using it. All these people put all this time and effort into this production and how dare you rush through shooting! It’s almost like a slap in the face to all these people. It’s like, ‘Okay, you spent 6 months building this scene and we’re going to come in and just shoot three takes in 12 minutes, now we are going to walk away and ask you to tear the damn thing down.’ No. No. No. I think it’s as much trying to find the best performance as it is taking the time to finding the best performance. You owe it those people not to rush through anything. When I heard that I thought, ‘Oh my God! That makes so much sense.’
PC: That’s a great explanation actually.
AZ: It’s one thing to say you shoot a scene 70 times and it looks more ‘natural’ but what does that mean? That exactly what ‘natural’ means. You are putting your keys on the hook because you’ve done it a million times, it’s like getting all of your emotion to that point where you forgot that you did it, like when you leave the house and get half-way down the road and have to turn back because you don’t remember if you have locked the door. It’s that exact thing. Fincher wants your emotions and everything on camera to be stone natural – that you are not even 100 percent sure that you did it.
That’s what I think makes all of his stuff so, so good. I’ve heard so many people talk about the 70 takes thing and how it’s unnecessary, but after doing it I’m almost wishing everyone would do it: because everything looks so much better, and so natural and yeah, you might not see it, but those that do, it makes that difference.”
Link to full interview:
(Excerpt from interview with Cotter Smith by Davina Baynes originally published September 14, 2018)
“DB: When you actually got the call from David Fincher: how did that come about?
CS: It was a call from my agent, initially, saying, ‘There’s interest. Would you be willing to read for David Fincher, for this series?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely. I’m a big fan.’ They said, ‘Well first of all let me tell you, it’s a guaranteed ten episodes already ordered for Netflix, but it would be a required eight months, in Pittsburgh.’ So I said, ‘Well I have one phone call to make and I will call you right back. I will call my wife.’ So I called my wife and said, ‘So here’s the deal, there’s this possibility, it’s not an offer but they’re interested in me, to come in and audition and we would be eight months in Pittsburgh.’ And she said, ‘Cotter, go get it, and get me out of here!’ (Laughs)
DB: She was packing her bags!
CS: She was so keen to leave New York. (Both laugh) So I auditioned. The first audition was three pages, and I did it, and then the agent called the next day and said, ‘He wants you to come back, for a callback.’ And I got about 20 pages of text to come back with – which is quite a lot. I asked if there were any notes and he said, ‘No, no notes. Just come back.’ So I went back and I did those and then I got another call saying, ‘He wants you to come back again.’ Again 20 pages and I said, ‘Any notes?’ And he said, ‘No notes, just be sure you’re completely off book this time.’ So I went back. Then the wonderful casting agent, Julie Schubert, who was so helpful to me – she is really lovely, a casting agent who really loves actors and believes in the whole process – we had prepared, I think it was, these three or four scenes (I never met David) it was all on tape, that third one went off to him. She said, ‘You know, he takes a very long time to cast, so just relax. Everything he does he takes a very, very long time: from casting to shooting.’ So I said, ‘Okay,’ and week later my agent called and said, ‘You got the job.’ I said, ‘What?’, ‘Yeah, you got the job!’ That was the first time it was ‘real’. I didn’t honestly believe I was going to get the job: I knew many, many, many people would want this job and, as an actor you do these auditions and you don’t actually put much on them because it’s too heartbreaking if you don’t get them. I was so thrilled, and stunned. It’s exactly the kind of work that I want to do, with a kind of director that I want to work with: I love serious drama; he’s a master, master filmmaker. Just knowing he had cast me made me realize: ‘He knows what he’s doing, so this is going to be good.’ And it was. He’s so fun to work with. He’s challenging. He’s tough. He’s fast. He’s improvisational and you’ve really got to come with your A-game – which I like. He does endless takes: 30, 40, 50. My record was 64 takes on one scene. Endless shooting: we took eight months to shoot ten episodes. That’s a long time! Usually a director will be given eight days for an episode so that’ll be three months – he had eight months. But he’s David Fincher.
DB: And aiming as near to perfection as you can get?
CS: He’s a perfectionist. When you look at his work the proof is in the pudding.
DB: What about marks for the camerawork, are they really rigid?
CS: They’re necessarily rigid, at times, but it changes. On the spot he will change things, change intention, change everything. It was fun.”
Link to full interview:
(Excerpt from interview with Jonathan Groff by Paula Courtney originally published July 29, 2018)
“JG: Well I think David doesn’t have time for bullshit. He’s not going to waste time. He’s all about the work. He’s all about finding the best way to tell the story and has a hard-working discipline and I think partially intentionally (but maybe subconsciously) finds people that want to work. Not to have this thing lead into the next thing but to have them go work on specifically that job. Which sounds like obviously something everyone would do but. like you said, generally it’s not. I think David, whether it’s intentional or not, ends up surrounding himself with people that are there to work. In the case of Mindhunter, you’re right: it is a very special group of people and that’s partially just that simple fact that everyone is there because they want [to be there], they’re showing up to work and trying to make something that’s really good.
PC: Tell me more about working with David Fincher. Obviously his name is on everyone’s lips nowadays and we know his style of directing – we all know he may shoot the same scene 70 times – but there’s much more to him than that. I always like to get information first hand, if I can. What kind of impression has he made on you?
JG: Well it’s just the whole idea, for me at least, [of] having complete faith and trust in someone and knowing that they are going to take you somewhere that is interesting, and working with him is different to working with anyone else. One of the reasons being that you go, ‘Okay, I will just do whatever you want,’ because I so believe in him and in his brain and in his vision, and his point of view, because he’s just proven time and time and time and time again – with all of his films and projects – that he’s one of the most interesting, creative people working today. So just to get the opportunity to be a part of his world is exciting and especially with this TV experience, particularly right now, in this very moment, it’s the first time he’s ever come back to a television show. He directed the first two episodes of House of Cards and he was Creative and Executive Producer on that show, but he never came back to direct it again. He very much had his hand in every episode on the first season of Mindhunter. We weren’t sure if he would come back and do the second season or not, because he has never done that before and now here he is, and we are working on the second season. Just to get that extended time with him and to see how… I guess the thing that is so inspirational about him is that he doesn’t sit back and go, ‘Okay, we know what we are doing. We know who these characters are. Let’s just continue comfortably down the road we were going down before.’
We came back to the second season and obviously some of the sets are the same, and we actually basically know who the characters are, where before we didn’t know what the show was yet – we were still making it. So there’s that element, which is great. But it’s still the same process as it was the first time around: it’s not laid back and comfortable; it’s not pressing the same notes; he’s really trying to move things forward and make things different, evolve it and grow it and change it as it goes along – that’s just an artist that is always searching, always changing and always asking the questions. He’s just always trying to get to a better version of the truth: in the writing, then in the shooting and in the editing, he just never stops working and never stops asking questions, and it’s just so rare to find someone like that.
PC: So how does it work that David Fincher directed the first two episodes and the last two: what happens in-between when he hands the reins over to another director but is obviously still on set?
JG: There’s a bit of a balance: you know he lets them do their thing and they are of course directing in the context of the world he created, so he can’t just hand it over.
PC: It’s not total control for them, he’s leading it?
JG: Yes, he’s set up the vocabulary of the show and the vocabulary of the shot and how the show is made, so they are allowed a certain amount of creative freedom, but in David’s world. In the first season he would occasionally come on set and help us stage certain scenes or certain shots in the morning, then he would leave and let us figure it out from there, or he would let the director set up their shot then give them notes later. He was literally in Pittsburgh for the entire year so his presence was there regardless of if he was on set or not. But then in rehearsals and stuff – because one of the other things about the show is we get a lot of rehearsals, we get to read through all the scenes with the writers before we shoot them – he’s there for all of those.
So we are always talking about the intention of the scene and what the intention will be on the day. He said this great thing on the first season that I’ve really stuck with: that when the writer is asking, ‘Why do we have to bang out every specific word of the scene before we start shooting?’ David talked about how, when you show up on set the crew gets the sides, the actors get the sides, the extras get the sides – everybody gets a copy of the sides – and everyone will have a different interpretation of what these sides mean and how the scene is going to look, so you want the scene to be as specific as possible once it gets into the hands of all those people. So that there is this innate direction of where the scene is going by the specificity of every word, of every line; and really taking the time to craft that out – so everyone getting their hands on those on the day, on set, is very important. Even just the attention to detail in that regard, in the writing and in the rehearsing, affects how the guest directors will then come on and direct the scenes because we spent so much time rehearsing specifically – exactly– what every line, and every word, is intended to express.”
Link to full interview:
(Excerpt from interview with Chris Dettone by Davina Baynes originally published April 3, 2018)
“DB: In Mindhunter you play a reporter in the explosive episode 1. What was the filming of that pilot like and what is David Fincher like as a director?
CD: David Fincher is, arguably, as interesting to watch at any one time as all of the talent on set. He’s focussed, he’s driven, he’s passionate and if the scene isn’t right down to one drop of water he’ll redo it. I admire that level of perfectionism. As a matter of fact, filming that scene was very cold – two o’clock in the morning, in January – it’s raining, and he wants the scene to be wet, so he brings in water trucks to wet everything down. I’m watching as he does this and thinking, ‘No other director would have done this!’ It’s that extra that he has, like in Fight Club, the layers upon layers of physical texture to each image and it comes from that dedication. Without spoiling anything for anyone who may have not seen the show yet, that episode has… surprises! When he comes out I did not know that was going to be happening. I had spent primarily most of my time as a stand-in on the set, so when I did the role of the reporter there were a few scenes that they shot of us and when he comes out… the first take… pure reaction! I think that’s the one they used: the eyes wide because when I looked at the screen caps from that I was thinking, ‘I’m pretty sure that’s a genuine reaction to what’s going on there.’ It was a great scene to be part of because there were a lot of facets to it. As crowded as it was on-screen there was probably three times that behind the scenes going on to make that scene and it was a really cool experience to watch another part of the machine. To be honest my eye was on Mr Fincher the entire time: he’s moving all of these pieces around and he doesn’t look as though it’s straining him; he’s at home. He’s intense. He’s a very driven, dedicated director and I don’t think there’s anyone else like him in the industry. I hope that I get a chance to work with him in a closer capacity someday.”
(Excerpt from interview with Chris Dettone by Davina Baynes originally published April 3, 2018)
Link to full interview:
(Excerpt from interview with Tobias Segal by Davina Baynes originally published March 16, 2018)
“DB: How many days were you filming for?
TS: That was two days and it was really amazing because the scene was very long! I think it was five or eight pages, which is very unusual for a television show (even a large scene might be four pages) and this was just us speaking to each other for that long. It seemed like everything was that way, they just let you do the scenes in a way that most shows don’t. To see them take their time with it and to make sure that everything was correct and David [Fincher] was there and he was making sure that everything was running smoothly but Asif [Kapadia] was really running it, it was his episode. I think things were going well because Fincher wasn’t stepping in and being like, ‘This is my show!’ He was joking around with everybody and seemed really happy.
DB: What was it like working with David Fincher?
TS: I was there for rehearsals with him which really just consisted of reading through the scene once and then listening to him break down all of the changes in the scene. (Laughs) He was very engaging! It was a fascinating day because I got to watch him working and doing his thing and he is very particular and he knows what it is that he is going for and he knows how to tell a story, obviously. It was all business: get it done, it’s going to happen, okay everybody’s on the same page, let’s move on. And I think it was quite the opposite from (at least from what I’ve heard) his shooting style which is, ‘Let’s live in this moment as long as we can.’
Holt and I were talking and Holt said, ‘Be grateful that you’re not working with David today, smoking all these cigarettes, because we would do this a hundred times!’ That’s just the way he works. You saw it in the rehearsals but ultimately Asif was directing the episode and he was really lovely. I got to meet him beforehand and he was the one who had passed me, which was awesome, and I am so grateful to him for making that effort. He was great. He knew what it was that he was looking for. He wanted to talk through everything and make sure that we were on the same page beforehand and it was just a bit of the two of us chatting through what we needed to do, so that once we got to set, we could just sort of plug that in.”
Link to full interview:
(Excerpt from interview with Alex Morf by Davina Baynes originally published March 7, 2018)
“It was the first show I’ve done that involved table work: where we actually get to sit around the table and talk about each moment of each scene. Originally, I think Ocasek was written less smart than he ended up being and more just your general small-town rube, and I think it was David who really pushed the idea that he was just someone who hasn’t dealt with something like this before and not someone who is unintelligent. So we kept pushing things in that direction and I’m so glad that we did because I think it gives integrity to the character, and to the plight of somebody in his position, dealing with something that is unimaginable, really awful, but at the same time, there’s also a whole town of people relying on him to figure it out.
DB: When you are very first about to walk over to the guys who are sitting in the car, you are smoking a cigarette. Was it a real cigarette?
AM: Oh yeah. I was told early that David Fincher doesn’t like the way that herbal cigarettes look on film. Luckily I only smoke in that one scene – and I’m not a smoker either. I think I smoked (I don’t remember) maybe six packs of cigarettes in that one night or something like that. I was very hyper by the end of that night because I had inhaled a lot of nicotine.”
Link to full interview:
(Excerpt from interview with Holt McCallany by Paula Courtney originally published January 6, 2018)
“PC: I do hope so! It’s such a good show you must be on cloud nine at how successful it’s been. The first episode, I have to say I struggled a little in the scene with Holden where the music is playing in the background. I was concerned it might be one of those where you can’t hear the actors as clearly as you would like. But after that I was like ‘whoo!’ I couldn’t leave it alone. Everyone is talking about it.
HM: You know, David is such a gifted, and experienced filmmaker, I don’t ever think he would make that kind of mistake, you know, letting the soundtrack overtake the dialogue.
PC: Oh absolutely!
HM: I mean if you are shooting a scene in a bar or a concert or a nightclub and the music is deafening because that’s the location, that’s one thing. He is very precise. It’s one of the best things about this experience, Paula: I really am working with one of the best directors in the world. It’s often said that he’s one of the greatest directors of his generation and I think when film historians look back at David’s body of work … and of course he’s not finished, he’s still a young man, I think it’s arguable that he’s one of the greatest directors of all time. And he’s very driven to continue working. I am a very, very lucky actor to be in such good company.
PC: Do you think he always had you in mind after Alien 3 and Fight Club and was waiting for just the right role to have you working with him again? As in, ‘I’ve got this guy, he is special and I’m going to keep him until the perfect role for his acting skills is created.’ (I believe Joss Whedon did that with James Spader, had a meeting with him, said he would at some point create a role especially suited to him, and three years later cast him as Ultron).
Do you think David Fincher kept you back for his special project so to speak?
HM: It’s an interesting question Paula. I can’t really figure out what it was that David saw in me all those years ago (and that’s not false modesty or my trying to avoid the question).
For example: when he cast me in Alien 3, his first movie, which was a big movie. Sigourney Weaver was, I think, the highest paid female actress in the world at that time. The franchise was a huge success and it was David’s first film. It was shot in London on the old James Bond stage at Pinewood Studios and the cast were all British, there was only myself and one other actor he brought over from America. You have to remember at that time I’m still in my early twenties and I haven’t really done anything and I don’t really have a resumé. I’d done a couple of small parts in smaller movies, and yet he took me with him to London and I spent 5 months with him there shooting Alien 3 then he brought me back again for Fight Club. Along the way there were other a couple of other little things: I was offered a part in Panic Room which I couldn’t do because I couldn’t make the dates; I was offered a scene in a video he shot that starred Madonna but I don’t think I made it in the final cut – so he did kind of keep me in mind over the years, which I’m grateful for. However I had no suspicion, or no ‘expectation’ is a better word, that it was leading to this kind of an opportunity: being one of the leads in a series.
Remember now, when you decide to go into business with someone in a television show it’s a very different situation than if you are going to make a movie with somebody. If you make a movie with someone, we are going to be together for about 90 days, sometimes less, sometimes it’s a little bit more, but very rarely that much more. This could be a five-year job, do you know what I mean? You have to think carefully about who you want to go on that journey with. So just the fact that he would consider me for that kind of an opportunity was very gratifying to me.
And I don’t take anything for granted Paula because, you know, I had a lot of fun playing Bill – it’s a great part. There are a lot of very talented, very experienced, accomplished actors in Los Angeles and elsewhere who would give their left arm to be on Mindhunter for David Fincher. I’m the lucky one who got picked. If the question is: why? I have no idea.
What do I think about? I get a script, I read a scene and I try to think about what David’s approach to this particular scene in the episode might be and how I can help him to achieve that. I don’t always get that right: sometimes he shows up and has a very different idea about some things than what I imagine he might have. But when you do work with someone over a long period of time you get a sense of their tastes and of their style, and of their rhythm. Every director is different and the things that interest David and David’s style of working are very different.
Link to full interview:
(Excerpt from interview with Jack Erdie by Davina Baynes originally published December 3, 2017)
“DB: What was your experience of working on the show itself, and with David Fincher, the director?
JE: Great! It was a great experience: from the rehearsal, through the wrap of my two scenes – really one scene, but the intro where I’m screaming at the guards as they are tossing my cell. I learned a lot about his process. I talked to Cameron Britton [Ed Kemper] and Adam Zastrow [Gene Devier] we have met now three times, and the first and second times we spent a lot of time talking about working with Mr Fincher and his process. We each spent a day on set, when we didn’t have to be on set, just so we could watch him work. I just sat behind him and watched him through an entire day. It was a very tight, gifted and serious group of people that he works with. It was a master class in film making and I’m glad to have had that opportunity as well as to have worked with him. But I didn’t get a lot of feedback from David – I always want, I’m fairly confident in what I do but I also want that touchstone – and I feel like if he withheld it, it was for a good reason. I asked him, of course, ‘Is there anything you want differently? Is there something you would like me to not do, do, to bring forward, anything else you’d like me to add to the palette?’ He said, ‘You know, if I’m not getting what I want, you’ll know.’ So I took that to be encouragement that I was doing well. And the only other note he would give me was that I was not dumb enough.”
Link to full interview:
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