TV I’m Watching: Mindhunter

By Shamus
on Nov 12, 2017
Filed under:
Television

I just discovered this show last week. It’s a Netflix original series very loosely based on a true story of how the FBI formed a special unit focused on using personality profiling to understand and catch serial killers. It’s set in 1977, and is careful about maintaining the look and feel of the time periodIncluding having the actors smoke. I love the attention to detail, but I often worry about actor safety. You don’t want your cast getting hooked on cigarettes just so you can make a TV show.. This is a true story in the sense that this unit really existed and this is why it formed, but all of our main characters are fictional. I assume this was done so that we can have personality flaws and interpersonal conflict among the team without slandering anyone in the name of drama.

The show is produced by David FincherAnd also Charlize Theron., who is most famous for directing the thrillers Seven (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), and Gone Girl (2014), Zodiac (2007) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). He’s only a producer and not a director here, but it feels like he directed it. It has all the hallmarks of his style. It’s a slow-burn thriller TV series with Hollywood-style cinematography.

I started watching the show because I know parts of it were shot here in my hometown of Butler Pennsylvania. I don’t know that this has ever happened before. I watched closely, but I didn’t see many places that were recognizably Butler. A lot of establishing shots are pretty tight on a single house or parking lot, probably because it’s really hard to construct a long shot that isn’t going to contain a bunch of modern anachronisms.

But there was one particular bit that caught my eye. Halfway through the final episode of the first season, we get this shot:

Main Street of Butler, PA... OR IS IT?

Main Street of Butler, PA... OR IS IT?

This shot is looking directly down main street. It pans right, over to the courthouse (the location of the next scene) which you can see in the header image of this post. The blue building you see in the distance is Butler County Ford, which you can see in the the post A Walk Downtown from earlier this year. It’s an impressive shot because they managed to find this location where (nearly) all the buildings can pass for 1977. This Google Streetview location is a pretty close match to the camera position and will let you scout the site yourself. It’s not easy to find angles like this that won’t contain at least one obviously out-of-place element that will ruin the whole thing.

The punchline is that this shot of downtown Butler Pennsylvania pans to the right before bringing up the location title:

WRONG!

WRONG!

You can’t see it in the above image, but they actually had a confederate flag flying over the courthouse, which feels really strange this far north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Just for fun, I want to nitpick this opening shot a bit.

I realize this probably feels a little Cinema Sins-ish, but I`m not really complaining about this shot. I`m just observing.

I realize this probably feels a little Cinema Sins-ish, but I`m not really complaining about this shot. I`m just observing.

A: This is a really big hill. It’s steep even by the standards of Western Pennsylvania. The real Rome Georgia is actually quite flat. Personal trivia: There’s a graveyard halfway up the hill, and my father is buried there.

B: Here’s the big naughty element in the shot. It’s a digital price display on a gas station sign. There’s no way you’d see something like that in 1977. I suppose the technology existed and you could theoretically build one, but it would probably be a display in a science museum. You certainly wouldn’t put it in front of a silly gas station.

C: I didn’t even think of it until I saw this image and started studying it, but street lines were different back then. I don’t remember what they used to look like or when they changed, and I don’t know how to look it up. Now it’s bugging me. The only thing I can say for sure is that the parking spaces would have been different in order to accommodate the much larger and less nimble cars of the day.

D: One thing that always stands out to me in period pieces is how all the cars look pristine and new. In the real 1977, there were still leftovers from the 60s and even the 50s running around. Cars weren’t as well-maintained as they were today, and so it wasn’t uncommon for cars to have dings, dents, rust spots, putty marks, mismatched fenders, cracked windows, and other signs of wear. Then again, this shot is supposedly from Georgia where it’s warm all year, and cars in that climate always look better. Freezing, slush, road salt, and ash are brutal to a car’s body. Obviously the real reason these cars look so good is because these are all classic and restored cars.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of the show. These are trivial inconsistencies in a minor shot, and “fixing” them would cost a fortune for almost no benefit. Even once technology gets good enough that we can seamlessly create the exact locations we need, we’ll probably still be using shots like this because it’s cheaper than researching and modeling a city in 3D. The only reason I noticed these issues was because I was watching a TV show and I suddenly saw some buildings that are visible out of my window, and that’s a real attention-getter.

Anyway.

I really like the show. Highly recommended, provided you can stomach stories about a few real serial killers and their crimes.

Enjoyed this post? Please share!

Footnotes:

[1] Including having the actors smoke. I love the attention to detail, but I often worry about actor safety. You don’t want your cast getting hooked on cigarettes just so you can make a TV show.

[2] And also Charlize Theron.


20201757 comments. It's getting crowded in here.

From the Archives:

  1. Baron Tanks says:

    Ohhhh, I loved Mindhunter. Kind of just started it with my girlfriend as Netflix served up a trailer, then ended up binging it in three sittings. It’s a neat concept, with obvious genre inspirations of serial killer/psychopath fare like the mentioned Seven and anything Lecter. I feel like it never reaches the highs of its peers, but it really doesn’t have to and it’s always at least good. If you’re looking for a new fix in this particular genre, it’s a satisfying ten episode meal.

    Also, on the cigarette thing. Obviously in this day and age and with workfloor laws as they are, when people are smoking onscreen they’re not actually smoking the type of cigarette you buy in a store and are actively harmful. I remember hearing about this in the context of Mad Men, where they obviously smoke like, eh, Mad Men. A quick Google search shows it’s mostly some type of herbal mixture, with no tobacco or nicotine:

    http://gothamist.com/2013/04/25/these_are_the_cigarettes_they_smoke.php

    • King Marth says:

      Unless you’re Daniel Radcliffe trying to be recognized as anyone other than Harry Potter, making a point of smoking actual cigarettes ‘for the art’ when doing scenes like this.

      The article does point out that the props are still really on fire and there’s real smoke, so calling them fake (as you don’t, but others below do) undersells the impact (compared to an actual fake with LEDs or something). Not being addicting and thus avoiding the actual pack-a-day habit probably helps a lot, though.

      • Joshua says:

        That’s awfully pedantic of you. Fake, as in, not real tobacco or similar substance that has harmful or addictive properties.

        • Pete_Volmen says:

          Hardly. Inhaling smoke of any kind is harmful. It’s perhaps not as harmful as tobacco, what with the tar, but it’s still not a good thing, health wise. Not saying it should be stopped; so long as the actors are cool with it, good for them, so long as people don’t kid themselves.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            This makes me wonder why they dont use e-cigs for most shots where the ash isnt needed(like a close up of a cigarette being lit or changing length)?They use a far cooler vapor instead of smoke,so are far safer for inhalation(not perfectly safe,but compared to smoke from actual fire WAAY better).If they use cgi for blood and other very noticeable things,why not use a plastic cigarette instead of a real one?

  2. Joshua says:

    “Including having the actors smoke. ”

    I’ve sometimes wondered if they have fake prop cigarettes to use?

    • Rich says:

      Yes. They have herbal cigarettes as props.

    • Kathryn says:

      I seem to remember an article about the actor who played the Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files, in which he said he was a former smoker, and even though the cigarettes he was puffing on were herbal, it was still pretty tough getting through filming.

      • Jordan says:

        They’ve been herbal for a long time. It’s not so much a matter of ‘tobacco cigarettes are bad for you’ so much as ’75 tobacco cigarettes in a day during all the different takes will destroy you and leave you a nervous wreck’.

      • Jabrwock says:

        He came to speak at my university, and said that he had to switch to herbals because he was looking WAY too forward to retakes for a while there… :P

  3. skeeto says:

    Did you see any of your town transformed during shooting? I wonder how long those old cars were sitting there. I lived in New Haven during the filming of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and it was interesting to see some streets dressed up as sets. Some of The Mothman Prophecies was shot in various locations in my home town outside of Pittsburgh while I lived there, and I got to see some of those sets during filming, too.

    A very common theme to these sets is exaggerated signage, often stripped of branding. The text is made bigger and more obvious. This is all probably to make it easier for the audience to read when it’s in the background of a shot.

  4. default_ex says:

    The gas station sign really stuck out to me just glancing at it. Looks really out of place for the time period they were trying to portray. If I were shooting that scene I would have went to that gas station and asked if they could shut the sign down and let my crew stick a piece of painted plastic or cardboard over it for the shot. They probably wouldn’t have objected to it if they were presented with the reason as establishing a shot that’s as period accurate as possible without blowing the budget. Painting a sheet of cardboard or plastic to look like a late 70s gas station sign from a distance wouldn’t have been that hard really, the signs were pretty basic for most businesses back then. Gradients and dithers were expensive so really all it would have taken is some masking tape and a couple cans of spray paint.

  5. Smejki says:

    Actually, Fincher did direct 4 episodes.
    And that’s all I can say. I have this series scheduled after I finish watching Stranger Things s2. And Narcos s2. And Better Call Saul s3…. Damn, this will take some time….

  6. John says:

    I can’t watch shows about serial killers. Maybe this one’s different, but my impression is that they tend to wallow in the murder, glamorize the killer(s), or, worse, both. And the less said about the evil-genius serial killer trope the better. I just can’t stand any of it.

    • Viktor says:

      John Rogers said “There’s been roughly 100 recorded serial killers in history, and roughly 1000 shows devoted to catching them.” If you want to make a police procedural, fine, but why not focus on literally any other category of bad guy?

      • The Nick says:

        In a city plagued with jaywalking and spraypaint tagging, one meter maid punches above his pay grade: Officer Rick Goth, Director of the Anti-Vandalism Unit!

        • 4th Dimension says:

          I initially completely misread the bit

          one | meter maid

          as

          one meter | maid

          That is instead of thinking of a person tending to parking meters I was thinking you were referring to a maid one meter tall was go. Which made me imagine a show where a young maid/girl fights crime that dirties up the city. She will CLEAN UP the CRIME.
          Aaand it’s official. I have watched just a bit too much anime. And am pretty sure they already did that somewhere.

    • DanMan says:

      This one doesn’t glamorize it. The show is specifically about how awful these crimes are. They do demonstrate it by showing how NORMAL these people seem, then they cut off heads and fornicate with them.

      This show doesn’t show any of the actual murders. It’s about FBI agents interviewing convicted serial killers.

      The thing I found compelling about the show was how they drew obvious parallels between the one FBI agent and the serial killers. Sort of a “how do you get steeped in all this evil without tainting yourself” kind of thing. They make it very clear throughout the show that these people are despicable, yet so alien that they become almost fascinating.

      With shows/books/movies such as the Hannibal Lecter stuff, the killers don’t get caught because they are so much smarter than everyone. In this show, killers have been on the loose for so long because we cannot fathom people killing for the fun of it.

      I’d recommend watching the first episode and trying it out. The two main characters start out because one is teaching about how the “motives of murder have changed.” They didn’t catch serial killers because they assumed that if someone was stabbed 37 times, you look for the stilted lover, not some random guy who gets off on it.

      • Dan Efran says:

        stilted lover

        “jilted”

        Unless they were stabbed 37 times from above….

      • John says:

        Well, that’s good. I guess. I doubt I’ll ever watch it, though. It’s still a show about serial killers. As a general rule, I like murder mysteries and who-dunnits, but it’s the thinking, reasoning, and putting-together-of-clues that I like, not the murder part. I don’t really want to get in the murderer’s head (so to speak) and the very last thing I want is to get in the mentally-ill murderer’s head.

        • DanMan says:

          That’s understandable. This was one of the shows I watched alone because my wife isn’t really into the disturbing content stuff. I normally am not either. There’s a lot of shows about horrible things happening to horrible people and I just don’t find that entertaining. I liked this show because there was someone actually worth rooting for.

  7. Soylent Dave says:

    It’s not uncommon for major studios to use parts of my city (Manchester, in the UK) as a stand-in for other cities in the past (ranging from London to New York) – we have lots of pre-war Victorian and industrial buildings and wide streets (some of which are still cobbled) that can been easily dressed to look the part.

    But it can be disconcerting to see Captain America chase some bad guys down a street I know is in my hometown, in England, and then turn a corner and be in NYC (or to see Sherlock Holmes failing to detect that he’s in Manchester rather than London…)

    • DanMan says:

      I live outside Philadelphia. Pretty much any police serial about New York is filmed here. It’s interesting to see the film crews come in and swap out trash cans and put these weird covers over things like news stands to make them look New Yorky

  8. Felblood says:

    Lots of zombie shows shoot here in Eastern Washington, because it’s gotten to the point that a lot of extras already have zombie costumes.

  9. Echo Tango says:

    Even once technology gets good enough that we can seamlessly create the exact locations we need, we’ll probably still be using shots like this because it’s cheaper than researching and modeling a city in 3D.

    I think we’ll have better green-screen, rather than only using real-world old buildings / areas or only doing everything in a computer. You could cover modern buildings (especially if they’re already nice and square) in green cloth or cardboard. Then you’ve got a whole buildings which can be green-screened out of the shot, and replaced with a fake building.[1] Do it for medium-sized stuff like parked cars too. It’d be far better than complete green-screen, since the actors could actually walk around the objects. As for the details of the building, important things like windows or flags could be specified with bulls-eye / augmented-reality stickers[2]. The rest can be filled in automatically by the computer. I feel like the biggest hurdle would be better algorithms, which are easier to integrate with non-algorithm things. e.g. Allowing humans to specify the location of important props, or specifying the amount of weathering on a building, or which type of brick-texture-generator to use.

    [1] If there’s multiple adjacent buildings, use one color per building/object.
    [2] I don’t know what term I’m supposed to be Googling. The unique shapes which make good markers for the camera, which are used for the…Vive? Whichever headset uses optical tracking to keep track of the room, instead of radio beacons.

    • evilmrhenry says:

      I vaguely recall seeing how TV shows are filmed a few years back, and they can do all that without needing to greenscreen the existing buildings or anything.

      • 4th Dimension says:

        Well that’s not surprising IF there is no need for someone or something to pass “over”/in front of the CGI-ed in element.

        • evilmrhenry says:

          I think I found the video: (looks like I mis-remembered some stuff)
          https://petapixel.com/2011/02/15/amazing-effects-from-popular-tv-shows/

          What I’m seeing is them shooting outside, but surrounding the shooting area with greenscreen, and just replacing everything outside the foreground. If the actors need to step around a car, that’s probably a real car on a real street, but there’s a bunch of greenscreen behind them.

          • Echo Tango says:

            The other thing I notice right away, is that those are fairly static shots. I think they’re modelling something in 3D, then replacing it into the shot by hand. What you’d want, is something where you can merge the camera shot with the computer scene on the fly, like how augmented-reality games are doing it. Since that video is from 2011, and movies keep getting better, I’m sure half of the crap I’m suggesting is already in use to some extent today. It’s probably just expensive. :)

  10. Nessus says:

    It might be a well made show, but thing that kills the appeal for me is the fact that forensic profiling has been scientifically discredited for literally two decades now. It never actually worked. People just thought it did for a while basically because no one was formally collating the data, so a lot of confirmation bias was free to go on among people who wanted to believe in it.

    Despite this, Hollywood still loves the concept, and bases a lot of detective shows and thriller movies on the premise. Often that’s handwaveable as the usual stuff with Hollywood not wanting to do its homework or being willing to take liberties in the name of cool stories. Heck, I love the Thomas Harris derived stuff, even though it’s built around profiling (and written by an IRL former profiler), ’cause it’s that cool, and makes little pretense to being anything but fiction.

    However when you’re doing something like this, that’s presented as having one foot in the real world, it gets dodgy for me. It’s one thing to to have fake non-science used off-hand in a totally fictional show like CSI or Bones, but when you’re basing a whole show not only around a specific bit of fake science, but also the premise that it’s real even if the stories are fictional, that’s where it gets dodgy for me.

    It’s like making a show about lysenkoist farmers, and unironically portraying them as not only successfully transmuting a different random plant into wheat on a weekly basis, but also as pioneers of actual modern agriculture.

    • Viktor says:

      CSI is actually just as bad IMO. They’ve started collecting more and more data that shows a lot of forensic science is basically bull. It was developed by cops and prosecutors, not scientists, so there’s no actual scientific standards for what determines a match for something like hair or ballistics. Even something like genetic testing or fingerprints can come down to how much your expert wants to find a match rather than any rigorous metric. Combine that with juries that tend to trust cops and have spent hundreds of hours watching shows like CSI talk about how great forensic science is and you’ve got a recipe for a ton of wrongful convictions.

      • Seax says:

        On the contrary: the “CSI effect” justice system people are talking about is the expectation of juries to have impecable forensic evidence, which is rarely possible IRL. They expect strong forensic evidence, and so the lack of such evidence leads to acquittals that are not necessarily justified.

        While there’s a lot of problems scientifically grounding some of the forensic “expert opinions”, a lot of effort is made in that direction in recent years, which improves the validity of forensic science. DNA evidence, when tested professionally, is valid (of course, it isn’t very professional to force a match on non-matching samples).
        I wouldn’t throw the baby with the bathwater so easily.

      • Tizzy says:

        Cool fact to keep you awake at night: DNA fingerprinting has no scientifically vetted way of establishing basic facts such as the number of people who contributed to a given DNA sample.

        Questions like these are answered by technicians based on gut an experience, even though they have never had to do double blind studies.

    • Steve C says:

      You’re just trying to throw people off your scent. Even a first-year phrenology student could see that Nessus is a cold-blooded murderer.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      But it was used for about two decades,right?And this show is set IN those two decades.So why should that be a problem?

      • Matt Downie says:

        Because it tells the audience something works when it doesn’t, thus contributing to public ignorance?

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          How does “This is how THING was invented and used back in the day” translate into “We are still using THING today”?

          • Nessus says:

            It’s not about showing the thing actually being invented and used back in the day. It’s about showing it as actually WORKING back in the day. An honest show would present it as either not really working (though with the characters believing it did) or being ambiguous (at the time) as to whether or not it really worked. A honest show done well would be a dramatic deconstruction of how an ultimately flawed idea was able to gain the illusion of legitimacy. That is not this show. This show is “see the IRL historic dawn of this totally legit forensic technique! It’s like that other profiler show you like, only in the 1970’s, and based on a true story!”

            The show is based on a dishonest appeal to audiences who think profiling is an IRL real science actually used by reputable law enforcement agencies, thanks to the popularity of other shows which, while being totally fictional, also operate on this premise. The fictional shows only promote this assumption as a side effect, but this show promotes it deliberately. It’s sort of like the difference between The X-Files talking up aliens and conspiracy theories, and one of those “documentaries” on Fox or the Discovery channel that deliberately throw gasoline on the fires of real world crackpottery because there’s ratings bucks to be made. Not as destructive, but the same type of venal irresponsibility.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              Does this show market itself as a documentary or a drama?If its the former,then I agree.But if its the later,then it absolutely can be honest and present just one view of the story,even if that view was proven to be false.

  11. `Retsam says:

    Shamus linked the Every Frame a Painting on Fincher; in a related vein, I’d also recommend “How David Fincher Hijacks Your Eyes”, which (despite the clickbait-y title) is really interesting. (TL;DW: his camera movements perfectly match the movements of the actor that you’re focused on)

  12. meltingeclipse says:

    Well, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices is what defines the standards for road markings in the US. If you really feel like investigating, here’s someone who’s researched its history and written some papers and presentations on the subject. (There are also links to previous versions at the bottom of the page, so you could also just check out the 1971 version and see what the lines theoretically should have looked like at that point.)

  13. Daemian Lucifer says:

    It’s not easy to find angles like this that won’t contain at least one obviously out-of-place element that will ruin the whole thing.

    Would it really be that hard to simply remove the few out of place elements digitally?Removing stuff is easier than adding them.

  14. Darren says:

    Speaking of comparing real and fake, the serial killers the fictional characters interview were all real people, and you can easily compare the show’s version of Ed Kemper to the real one thanks to the copious interviews he gave. He even participated in a program in which he recorded audio books for the blind!

    The real Kemper was less overtly creepy than the show’s depiction, which loops back around to being more disturbing because it suddenly becomes more understandable how Holden could become so…enamored, for lack of a better word.

    • Meriador says:

      I was looking at your use of the word “was,” and I realized — this guy’s still alive! He’s 68 and in a California prison. Aren’t there rules against using real, living people in shows like this? I thought that wasn’t allowed.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        I think you have to get consent if you are going to use their real name,but only then.Though even that might not be an actual law,but rather just a polite things some do.

      • Syal says:

        Definitely no rule against it. Netflix has three “El Chapo” shows, and he’s still awaiting trial. I don’t see why it would be a problem, they’re public figures.

  15. SAJ14SAJ says:

    I offer no spoilers, I would love to see a follow up when you have finished the last episode of the season.

  16. TigerJin says:

    Shamus, I would love to see a write up on your thoughts of the actual show itself. It sounds interesting.

  17. Syal says:

    Started watching it after this recommendation.

    They do the “two guys talking in a car” thing slow-paced thrillers do, and eventually they do the “two guys talking in a car suddenly get T-boned” thing, and it makes me want to see a show where that happens in every driving scene; every single expositive driving scene ends with them getting T-boned in an intersection. A buddy cop show featuring the worst driver in the country, constantly running stopsigns and crashing his car everywhere.

  18. My first thought…. Rome isn’t flat!

    After a field trip, okay, it kinda is compared to the mountains around it. Since I go up into the mountains to get there, I have mountains in my head when I think of it.

    That really does look like a lot of small Southern towns I’ve driven through. Just needs a few gun racks on the cars, really… Actually, if you hadn’t told me what town that was, I’d have thought it was one I went to a wedding in (it’s in TN), and the main street looks almost identical to that. Sadly, I can’t remember what the name was, and I may not even have the state right (it was part of a road trip and I was 20 and mostly I remember Biltmore and lots of mountains).

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