Back in the 1970s, the focus of solving crimes was still very prominently on the “who” and the “what.”
It was men like John E. Douglas and Robert Ressler, the first FBI criminal profilers on whom the lead characters of Netflix’s “Mindhunter” are loosely based, who paved the way for the “why” — a new way of investigating some of the most heinous crimes.
“This is one of those situations where you kind of have the best of both worlds. You can base the guy on someone who is real, but you can decide what best fits our story – the story we’re trying to tell,” Holt McCallany, whose character Bill Tench is drawn from Ressler’s work, tells Variety.
For example, Ressler did not support the death penalty, something McCallany says he was surprised to learn when he read Ressler’s books. (“Ressler thought that John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy should be put in a separate facility where they could be studied and interviewed and their psychology further explored,” he notes.) But in order to draw more conflict between the veteran Bill and Jonathan Groff’s fresh-faced Holden Ford, Bill became the kind of “old school” cop who saw things in a bit more black-and-white terms – especially in the beginning.
Groff says that the conceit of “Mindhunter” was always going to “keep all of the personal lives of the FBI agents fictional and then have all of the extremely insane details of the killers be 100% factual.” This means that while much of the dialogue in scenes featuring Holden interviewing serial killers like Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) were taken directly from real transcripts of those prison meetings, the time spent at home with the FBI agents were designed to offer a more fully-fleshed out view of each person’s life.
McCallany shares that he thought it was important for the show to go home with the characters. “I don’t think those guys can do those jobs without taking their work home with them. They become obsessed with trying to find those killers, and they’re thinking about it all of the time,” McCallany says. “It does become an obsession. They pay a price for that, and so do the people closest to them.”
In the course of its first 10 episodes, “Mindhunter” reveals Holden’s struggles with a new relationship, Bill’s inability to connect with his autistic son (though they don’t use that word, given the 1970s setting), and Wendy’s (Anna Torv) secret relationship with another woman. “Wendy’s got a very specific function, and it was nice to be able to pop out of that for a little while and see the person in there,” Torv says of her character, who was inspired by Dr. Ann Burgess, a forensic nurse and crime victim expert.
Part of the excitement of the project for Groff was that with the exception of the first scene, “there’s no visual violence or flashy murder,” he says. “David [Fincher] really trusts his audience – that they’re intelligent and patient and interested enough to stick with a show that will tell you the ‘why.'”
Even without seeing the crimes, there is a lot about “Mindhunter” that stayed with the cast long after they stopped shooting. “Those Kemper scenes were just so bloody brilliant,” says Torv. “I’ve never seen anything like that on television.”
For Groff, too, it was a Kemper moment that had him the most unnerved. “The gasping moment at the end is someone standing up in a bed,” he says of when Holden finally visits Ed in the hospital, and Ed gets in his personal space. “It’s so interesting to me and such a testament to how [Fincher] was able to build something over the course of 10 hours that you’re asking the audience to go on this very cerebral journey with you. The moment of action at the end is so chilling.”
“Mindhunter” is streaming now on Netflix.