“Have we got a show?” David Fincher asks. He is joking, but not really. The show in question is Mindhunter, a new drama Fincher has created for the all-powerful Netflix. The setting is a non-specific late 1970s, the principals a pair of FBI agents at the dawn of modern criminal psychology. Fincher, an executive producer, also directed the first two and last two episodes. When we meet in a starched London hotel, these are all that have been shown to a small group of journalists. Through scarcity alone, my opinion is valued. I tell him the truth — I found it very moreish — and he nods. “OK. Good. Good. You just never know.”
For much of his career, Fincher has enjoyed a reputation for a certain spikiness. Now, at 55, his goatee beard has silvered to the point of a minimalist Santa Claus. At times he almost seems avuncular. Santa, however, never brought anyone the kind of visions on which Fincher made his name. While his movies have been many and various, the best of him has surfaced in tales about the most depraved human behaviours, the horrible brilliance of Se7en and Zodiac now joined by another story of serial killers and those who pursue them. I ask when Fincher first became aware of what in Mindhunter are still called “sequence killers”?
“Zodiac,” he says, the alias for the Californian killer — never arrested — active while Fincher was growing up in the state. He remembers being on a school bus, a police car trailing behind. It was October 1969, a few weeks after his seventh birthday. When he got home, he asked his father what was happening. “He said: ‘Oh. That’s right. There’s a guy who’s been killing people, and he’s written a letter saying he’s going to take a high-powered rifle and shoot out the tyres of a school bus and pick off the kids as they come out.’” Fincher smiles a little smile. “My dad was pretty dry.”
His father was a writer, his outlets including the magazine Psychology Today. By the era captured in Mindhunter, the younger man was a teenager, besotted with film, working after school as a projectionist at a scruffy movie house. But psychology — “sorting through the walnut” — always fascinated him. Not just him. I wonder aloud if with Mindhunter, Fincher is circling back to the unfinished business of Zodiac, a slow-burn modern classic that sank at the box office in 2007. Maybe too, I say, he keeps returning to that seven-year-old boy wanting to know why a stranger planned to shoot him. Journalists, I say in the moment of silence that follows, often fancy themselves as amateur psychologists. Another smile. “Highly amateur psychologists.”
If you want to make studio movies, you stay in their lanes, which are romantic comedy, affliction Oscar bait, Spandex summer, superhero tentpole, moderately budgeted sequel
His version of events begins more simply with the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, a non-fiction history of criminal profiling given to him by the actress Charlize Theron, now his co-producer. His response was tepid. “I said ‘Serial killers? Charlize, please.’” They, he insists, are of limited interest.
“But what did intrigue me was the idea of these FBI guys, blunt instrument G-Men from this monolithic post-Hoover bureaucracy, wrestling with psychology at a time it was still seen as the province of pipe-smoking Freudians.”
The show was originally destined for cable network HBO, until it became clear that the company’s hugely successful True Detective series presented a possible problem of house space. In short order, Fincher and his series arrived at Netflix, his one certainty that this had to be a TV show — and not a movie.
“Because it’s about character,” he explains. “There’s no time for character in movies.” He flatly leaves it there. In movies now or movies full stop? “No, now. Look at All The President’s Men — everything is character. Now, movies are about saving the world from destruction. There aren’t a lot of scenes in movies, even the ones I get to make, where anyone gets to muse about the why. It’s mostly the ticking clock. And in this show it’s hard to find the ticking clock. But the thing is: I don’t care if the whole scene is five pages of two people in a car sipping coffee from paper cups as long as there’s a fascinating power dynamic and I learn something about them. And I do not care if the car is doing somewhere between 25 and 35 miles per hour.”
The subtext is that he would only get to make something this good on Netflix. And it is good, glinting with deadpan wit. As the streaming giant knows, there is a particular kudos to Fincher joining their displaced army of movie directors. That start in the projection booth — baptised into what he calls “the religion of film” — led to a career making some of the most vital, slickly unnerving American movies of the last quarter century. You may have your own favourite, perhaps the grand guignol horror of Se7en or the rat-tat-tat Facebook biography The Social Network. (Fincher, as honest about his own work as any critic, defends the “horribly misunderstood” Fight Club while sniffing at Panic Room.) But he has also always been an early adopter. In 2013 he produced a series for Netflix, again directing the first two episodes — the political drama House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey gave Machiavellian congressmen a bad name.
Four years on, the world is changed. Netflix has gone from upstart disrupter to market dominance. As Fincher notes, where he once made films, he now creates “streamable chronological narrative content”. Still, he and Netflix make a good couple — they with their massed pinpoint data about viewing habits, he a famous stickler, his films delivered to budget and on time.
“I see Netflix as people who are bold enough and interested enough to build a playground between film and television. And that playground can be a safe haven for adult drama, which has been squeezed out of the multiplex. With Mindhunter, I just wanted something a little bit ruminative. As the guy who sold Paramount and Warner Bros on Zodiac, that’s not something I would do again. I don’t think movie studios have the stomach for it.”
There is a pause, the sound of a caveat being drafted. “Look, many people at studios are still fighting the good fight. There are executives there who are friends of mine. But if you want to make studio movies, you stay in their lanes, which are romantic comedy, affliction Oscar bait, Spandex summer, superhero tentpole, moderately budgeted sequel.” Even his recent Hitchcockian smash hit Gone Girl, he says, took a hard fight to get financed at $65m, before going on to make $370m. “I’m 55 years old. I want to be directing stuff, not auditioning it.”
The typical analysis of the decline of modern Hollywood has it that the crash of 2008 suddenly left studios terrified of risk. To Fincher, now on a roll, the crisis goes back further. “For 25 years, cinema has been distilling down to this thing we have now. ‘We know what you want. You want a lot of movement, a lot of colour, objects twisting and flaming through space. You want to see people fall and catch hands at the last minute and dangle over the lava.’ There’s been this balsamic reduction of that into exactly what will justify you spending 14 bucks.”
But in the promised land of peak television, Fincher is aware he has to compete with an epidemic of rival content. “It’s why I get so anxious about marketing. The risk with our show is people seeing it as an entire season of conversations at stainless steel picnic tables. We have to catch people’s attention. If you miss that you’re just left with the historical perspective.” He makes that sound dark and cold indeed.
Watching Mindhunter, what strikes you aside from how simply gripping it is is how it feels like a fractionally new artform — scenes as meticulous as anything in Fincher’s films rub up against touches that must have been tailored to viewing on a phone, place names announced in full screen capital letters (QUANTICO, VIRGINIA). If this is the future, it feels bracing. And Fincher seems braced too.
The magic aura of a live movie audience still enthrals him. “The gasp. I know. But it’s changed now. The cinema isn’t dead. It just does something different. The place is still filled with kids, it’s just they’re all on their phones. It’s a social event like a bonfire, and the movie is the bonfire. It’s why people gather but it’s not actually there to be looked at.” He smirks and shrugs, a man who learnt at seven years old to accept uncomfortable realities. “Because the bonfire is always the same.”
‘Mindhunter’ debuts on Netflix tomorrow
Copyright The Financial Times Limited . All rights reserved. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.