Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan and the technical team behind Netflix’s Mindhunter Season 2 (cinematography, sound editing, editing, prosthetics, and rerecording mixers) break down why each killer interview is completely different.
Mindhunter Season 2 starts with a “doozy” of a sequence.
“You’re not sure where you are,” said Mindhunter re-recording mixer Scott Lewis.
The opening sequence reacquaints us with the mind of a killer—in this case, specifically the BTK Killer (Sonny Valicenti), who we’ve been following in Season 1 through vignettes. BTK’s wife comes home to discover him tying himself up in the bathroom while wearing a mask. Lewis and his re-recording mixer partner Stephen Urata went back and forth about how the sound of the door, bumping from BTK’s aggression, was supposed to sound from down the hall.
“[Director] David [Fincher] gave some vague directions for that,” said Urata. “We tried to keep it really mysterious. We started with really dreamy, big reverb, did some fabbing, and [the wife] starts picking up on those knocking sounds. We took our liberties with it. The knocking sounds probably wouldn’t be that loud.”
It had to compete with Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” something they had to find the right timing for with the knocks. When it came to editing the sequence with the music, editor Kirk Baxter felt like he was working on a music video.
“The track was predetermined, so I could plot everything to the music, when it was gonna hit,” said Baxter. “So much of the reaching, the hand, it was based around being stretched so the door opened at the exact beat I needed it to. To me, it was like a Christmas present. When you’ve got all of the angles and coverage, you can expand the tension and manipulate the hell out of it.”
The Crafts Behind the Madness of Mindhunter Season 2
It’s specific technical details like this that take Mindhunter to a new level of creepy with each episode. And though these elements are subtle, they add so much to each and every scene, especially when Holden (Jonathan Groff) and Tench (Holt McCallany) interview the killers.
While they might seem like they’re similar in format, each interrogation scene is completely different and tells you so much about the killer they’re questioning, with precise engineering and great care that goes into them. Let’s look at how Berkowitz, Tex Watson, and Manson are all completely different from each other.
Kirk Baxter, editing Kazu Hiro, prosthetics Scott Lewis & Stephen Urata, rerecording mixers Erik Messerschmidt, cinematographer Jeremy Molod, sound editor
Episode 2: Meeting Berkowitz
In Episode 2 of the second season, Tench and Ford meet with Son of Sam, aka David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper) to gain insight into his demons (literally and figuratively) to help them track BTK. The team essentially toy with Berkowitz, complimenting him in order to gain information, and the way the scene is structured illuminates that.
“They’re leveling with him,” says cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt. “David [Fincher] directed that scene, and he and I felt that we should try to keep the camera very straight and square. And when he blocked the scene, he put the two agents at the one end of the table, and Berkowitz at the head of the table. We felt they positioned him at the head of the table so he felt in control.”
Fincher and Messerschmidt did 90-degree coverage, where the shots are very square, so the camera is meant to cut rapidly around the table, while being very formal and straight. And the lighting, since he’s incarcerated in New York, tries to depict a dreary, upper-state look, with a subtle Mindhunter glow. Plus, since he was in a lot of makeup, they tried to make sure the lighting made him look like Berkowitz and had to take consideration into how it would present the prosthetics.
Early on, prosthetic makeup designer Kazu Hiro knew that it was going to be difficult to find the right face for Berkowitz, since he had a distinct look.
“[With Oliver Cooper] I ended up covering his neck, to make the neck thicker, along with his cheeks and nose and forehead and eyelids,” says Hiro. “I also made his body change because Berkowitz has a body shaped like a football player, with really wide shoulders. To balance the body, I had to give a wider shoulder width.” The typical process involves head casts and pieces to make a mold of each section.
In this scene, the sound in the background is especially noisy, courtesy of sound editor Jeremy Molod.
“There were a bunch of things going on,” says Molod. “We had bells, buzzers, and doors closing, and a lot of guards’ footsteps, boots walking back and forth. Keys jingling. We had effects of background prisoners screaming and I think the loop group [voice actors that revoice those who are not the principal actors] really helped sell that scene. We went and recorded a bunch of loop group actors who were the off-camera prisoners, screaming and yelling and laughing and booing. We strategically had waves of those sounds come and go during that scene at opportune times.”
Where Fincher was vague with directions to Lewis and Urata in the opening scene, he had a specific task in mind for Berkowitz’s voice in this scene, wanting it to transform in pitch over the course of the interview.
“He starts out in a higher register,” said Lewis, “and then as the interview goes along, his pitch slowly drops until we find out our heroes Holden and Tench reveal that he’s actually playing everybody and he’s not crazy. When that happens, his voice drops into a little bit of lower register. It was kind of imperceptible, but it was a lot of little tweaky things back and forth to make sure that you don’t notice it, but you’ll feel it. He is revealing he’s lying to everybody. It was one of those subconscious tricks we used to help that scene along.”
The two big challenges for editor Kirk Baxter were the length and the immense number of options.
“David smartly got a lot of angles in a confined space, so you’ve got opportunity to go from wide to tight depending on the intensity of the moments,” said Baxter. “You had to work your way in to tie the coverage as things get more and more tense.”
In building the intensity, Baxter also had to anticipate where you want to be for a line at any given point, with an endless number of choices when it comes to angles.
“It takes a lot of selecting, responding, and trying. I found myself building rhythms of sections of that scene. I’d do the opening 40 seconds three different ways. You could go this path if you want to do this path. It was a lot of exploring, and it’s only through the exploring that you know what it’s about.”
And as much as the scene is about Berkowitz, it’s also about Holden.
“Once I had it all together, the biggest point was to bring the question mark of Holden into the scene. There was so much story line of Holden beforehand, of his panic attack and whether or not he was going to be able to pull it together. So we had to dial up the tension with Holden and that’s why we had a lot more coverage on him watching and waiting, so the audience is included in whether or not he’s gonna crack.”
Episode 5: Tex Watson in a Gymnasium
What kind of environments in prison can you have a private conversation? Mindhunter strays from the typical interview setting with Tex Watson’s (Christopher Backus) one-on-one set in a beautifully-lit gymnasium, completely in contrast to many other interrogations we’ve seen on the show, including some of the more darkly lit chats with Ed Kemper.
“Tex Watson is just coming clean,” says Messerschmidt. “It’s just Holden and Tex, and they’re having a straight-up, man-to-man conversation. He’s spilling his guts. As the tension in the scene builds and Holden becomes more enlightened, we start to bring the camera up, so they’re more on the same level. We also had those spectacular windows in the background that we wanted to frame.”
When Fincher went to shoot this scene, he knew he wanted to take a risk, but he wasn’t sure it was going to work. In addition to building tension with having windows rattling from wispy wind, offset with a basketball game going on, he also wanted to include sound effects in Tex’s storytelling. When he mentions a scream, you hear a woman’s scream.
“We actually took a chunk of that, our sound effects editors and cut something together, to follow the story along, but not be too obvious,” said Urata. “We had to be really, really subtle, and the choices had to be appropriate, not sound canned from a sound library. When we get to that part of the scene [where Tex is talking about what happened], I made a choice to really hold back on those sound effects and really not perfectly time it with the storytelling. It’s kind of like just going on in the background. You feel what’s happening, but it’s not obvious.”
Episode 5: Charles Manson, The Main Event
If the T-Rex is the star captive of Jurassic Park, Manson is the star captive of Season 2 of Mindhunter. All of the techs agreed that this was one of the most highly anticipated scenes of the season, when Tench and Ford finally go toe-to-toe with Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), the ultimate power-shifter.
“He was a small man,” says Messerschmidt, “so it was interesting from a power dynamic standpoint to have him sit up on the back of the chair. We’re splitting Holden and Tench, because in that particular scene, Tench kind of loses control. He starts to get very affected by what Manson is saying over the course of the scene. Manson is driving a wedge between them.”
There are a lot of shots in this scene, and even still, Manson’s face isn’t completely visible.
“When he leans his head forward, we don’t really see his face. It’s hidden by his hair. And then he comes to life, and we see who he is. Those are the things you figure out over the course of watching the rehearsals and watching the actors work it out.”
Just as he did with the Berkowitz interrogation scene, Hiro did a lot of research to get Manson right. When it came down to it, he put together the appropriate wig and beard, plus a prosthetic Nazi symbol on the middle of his forehead. In addition, he had to change Herriman’s eye color with a contact lens and add tattoos to both arms.
“Usually what I do is once I get a job, I will go through the whole Internet for the images watch as many documentary films as much as I can. I study the face and look at what would be necessary to change when it comes to the actors.”
In order to show how captivating and aggressive Manson could be, Molod and the sound team played with the background noises.
“We wanted to give him time to breathe his story to be told and not to focus on the off-camera prisoners,” says Molod, “so we did slowly fade them out as Manson’s conversation became very intense. And when he left, we brought those prisoners back up again. You get mesmerized by Charlie Manson. We wanted the audience to focus more on what Charlie was saying.”
Holden is excited about his new recording microphone in this scene, and when he slides it toward Manson, you hear every creak and sound of it as it rolls across the table. As Manson approaches, he’s sonically made out to be like the prison’s BMOC.
“Then comes Manson down the hallway, obviously he’s really short,” said Urata, “but [Fincher] wanted to make it like this huge, big person was coming down the hallway, super important and super scary. So he was big on those chains. When he gets his chains unlocked, ‘I want to hear every single lock.'”
“The acting performance is incredible, obviously,” said Lewis. “He draws the viewer in, and you get thrown back in your chair when he starts screaming, and it was something we had to make sure to maintain.”
Seasons 1 and 2 of Mindhunter are streaming on Netflix.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.