The Netflix original series Mindhunter is, by far, one of the best new shows currently running. The true story-based, 1977-set drama chronicles the early days of criminal psychology and criminal profiling primarily through the eyes of three people at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit: eager newcomer Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), somewhat jaded veteran Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), and brilliant psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv). That this show is immaculately crafted from top to bottom will come as no surprise to those aware that it’s the brainchild of David Fincher, who serves as executive producer and directed nearly half of the series’ first season.
This is without doubt one of the best looking pieces of entertainment released in 2017, regardless of medium, with classical framing, motivated camera movement, and a tremendous palette that gives a mere peek into the darkness inside the minds of the criminals and serial killers who are the subject of the Behavioral Science Unit’s interviews.
So when I got the chance to speak with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt about his work on the series, I was thrilled. Messerschmidt shot eight of the first season’s 10 episodes, including the Fincher-directed closing installments, and as he revealed during our interview, this was essentially his first major gig as a cinematographer. Messerschmidt had worked previously as a gaffer on shows like Mad Men and Bones, and then later the feature film Gone Girl where he first came into contact with Fincher. Based on their work together on that film, Fincher called Messerschmidt up when they were looking for a new DP for Mindhunter after the show’s original cinematographer exited over creative differences.
This promotion from gaffer to DP is a familiar refrain with Fincher’s cinematographers, as he did the same with his The Game and Fight Club gaffer Claudio Miranda, who was brought on as DP for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and went on to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work on Life of Pi.
Messerschmidt’s rise to the primary cinematographer of Fincher’s brand new TV show elicits similarly spectacular results, as the DP’s work on Mindhunter is elegantly classical and incredibly motivated by character and theme. During the course of our conversation, Messerschmidt talked about the road that led to him becoming the cinematographer on Mindhunter, the specifics of his working relationship with Fincher, what it’s like to serve as a DP in the world of episodic television, how the work of production designers and costumes designers goes under-appreciated, and trying to maintain a consistent aesthetic with multiple directors. He also teased a bit about Mindhunter Season 2, including revealing their extensive shooting schedule.
Check out the full interview below.
So how did you first get involved with Mindhunter? I know you worked as a gaffer on Gone Girl, was that the connection?
ERIK MESSERSCHMIDT: Yeah I know David Fincher from Gone Girl and he and I worked together on that movie, which Jeff Cronenweth was shooting. I have a background in stills, and David and I had the opportunity to do some promotional stills for Gone Girl together, he and I shot them together. So that was kind of the first time we worked together in a creative relationship, and then when Mindhunter came around they thought of me and they gave me a call.
Was it daunting not only coming on to shoot a brand new David Fincher Netflix series, but shooting eight episodes of it?
MESSERSCHMIDT: I had done television in the past as a gaffer, I worked on Mad Men for a little while, I worked on Bones, so I understood the realities of life in the TV world. But I was excited, I was thrilled, I couldn’t wait to get to work. There’s always a little bit of anxiety coming into something and trying to find it, figuring out what it is aesthetically that you’re trying to accomplish and how you’re gonna explore the themes of the show visually and collaborate with the directors. We were still kind of trying to figure out what the show was from a storytelling standpoint and an aesthetic standpoint. Every day you’re making a decision that leads to the visual language of the show, and I love that part of the job, it’s really fun to narrow it down and figure out what the rules are, what choices are acceptable and what aren’t.
What were the conversations about the show’s aesthetic like? I know another cinematographer shot the first two episodes.
MESSERSCHMIDT: Well Chris Probst shot the first two, and I replaced Chris. There were some creative differences, and I ended up reshooting some of the first and second episodes. David and I talked a lot about fine art photographers that we admired, movies that we admired, we had some visual references in mind—Mississippi Burning was a reference we used, All the President’s Men of course was a reference we used, and we looked at a lot of Stephen Shore images and we looked at William Eggleston. So we sort of narrowed our scope of this is where it works, and obviously David has his own aesthetic that he brings to every project he’s involved in, he’s very specific about what he likes so that makes all of our jobs a lot easier. He’s holistic; he’s looking at performance and camera direction and art direction lighting and everything in equal parts.
It helps working for a director like that because I can have a very nitty gritty technical conversation with him, and then 10 minutes later we can have a broader thematic conversation or storytelling conversation. I think David and I are pretty in sync visually, I think we have similar taste and we react to things in similar ways, so a lot of it was just shorthand. We sort of spoke in broad terms and then we narrowed it down as we went along, and you’re constantly course correcting and narrowing the field and saying, “Oh that worked, that didn’t work, I liked this, I didn’t like that,” that’s part of the process.
Did it take a while to nail down that shorthand? I know David’s been working with Jeff Cronenweth for a long time.
MESSERSCHMIDT: It’s intimidating of course, I mean I basically changed my career on this show. I was ostensibly just a gaffer before I got this job, so that part of the job was a little bit daunting. But I worked for Jeff for several years and I worked with Claudio Miranda quite a bit as well, and both he and Jeff had worked with David and so at least in terms of technique I think we have a similar approach. I learned a lot from both of those guys in terms of how to react in certain situations. Certainly in my experience as a gaffer, you learn to kind of attenuate your own taste to the people you’re working with, and taste is acquired and aesthetic is acquired so I think having that background really helped me. Certainly the time I spent with David working for Jeff, you do learn what people respond to and how they expect the set to run, and how you might choose to cover a scene. Those sorts of things are all learned. So I never felt like the learning curve was that steep for me, I felt like I came in and David was incredibly supportive and the crew was very supportive, and the production designer and I became very good friends and good collaborators and that really helps.
A lot of people like to credit cinematographers with the way a show looks, and personally I really feel like production designers, set decorators, and costume designers deserve way more credit that they often don’t get. I’m just kind of the last piece of the puzzle that comes in, but a lot of the legwork is done by them. Obviously of course we’re prepping and talking about things, talking about lighting fixtures and paint colors and wardrobe and all that stuff, but both Steve Arnold and Jennifer Starzyk, the costume designer, they deserve tremendous credit for the way the show works. We all worked together really hard to try and make it feel cohesive visually.
Fincher gets kind of unfairly pegged as “the serial killer guy,” even though a film like Seven and a film like Zodaic could not be more different, but Mindhunter does tackle similar subject matter, and not only that but there’s now more good TV than ever before. Did you guys have discussions about making Mindhunter not only distinct in terms of Fincher’s filmography, but distinct in the realm of television?
MESSERSCHMIDT: Well I think these days a lot of people are using the handheld camera, and a lot of people are using it in my opinion for the wrong reasons. I think there’s a place for that and there’s nothing wrong with handheld—I love the French New Wave—but we were really interested in the idea of going in the opposite direction, going very classical and being very objective with the camera and really let the performance take the lead. The thing that people say is, “You have to make this interesting,” and the thing I get asked all the time is, “Oh you have these eight-page dialogue scenes, how do you make that interesting?” and my response to that is, “That’s not my job. That’s the performer’s job.” We’re there to give the audience information in the order that is most effective for the story we’re telling, and it’s essentially through sequencing and editing.
Cinematography, for me, you have to think like an editor. How are you gonna lay this story out for the audience? How are you gonna give them the information? How are you gonna cleave the pieces? So the lighting is a small part of it, but we were interested in really locking the camera down and really only moving it when it was story-forward, and when we felt like it was gonna enhance the audience’s understanding of what was happening. But we put a lot on the cast to carry the show, and I think it was a good choice. I think we were trying to do that differently and set ourselves apart there and really try not to be fancy and not move the camera all over the place in unmotivated ways and not use a lot of cranes.