David Fincher went looking for the 1970s — and found them in Pittsburgh. but that was just the start for the esteemed producer-director and his team, who recreated the era for Mindhunter, the Netflix series about two pioneering FBI profilers.
Watching the Netflix series Mindhunter, you may shudder as convicted serial killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) casually chats about his string of brutal murders, or flinch when — spoiler alert! — a bird hits the fan courtesy of mass murderer Richard Speck (Jack Erdie).
What you're less likely to notice is the precision with which the show's late-'70s landscape has been created. David Fincher considers that a win.
"It's really important that it feel like two people having a conversation — and that 40 people aren't on their iPhones simultaneously just outside of frame," says Fincher, who is executive-producing the series with Joshua Donen, Charlize Theron and Ceán Chaffin. "The great news is, I lived through the '70s, so I remember what that looks like."
Created by Joe Penhall — and based loosely on FBI agent John Douglas's book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit — the series explores the birth of criminal profiling.
Special agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff, playing a fictionalized version of Douglas) and his partner, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), work alongside psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) to dig into what makes murderers tick. Shot in Pittsburgh, the show is a window on a time before the term serial killer had been coined, much less become the focus of TV shows and casual conversations.
While that seemingly more innocent time is reflected partly in the show's relative lack of gore, the decade's thornier complexities required a critical eye (or, in this case, eyes) to see past the polyester-covered clichés.
"David is the most holistic filmmaker I've ever met," director of photography Erik Messerschmidt says. "The tone of every scene is important, and [so are] how the costumes and lighting and set decoration and everything play a part in creating the finished product."
Fincher, who directed four of the first season's 10 episodes, is famously meticulous, but he says the secret to getting it right is finding the right people.
"I don't think you keep a project in a kind of design and aesthetic wheelhouse by being a dictatorial influence. Just stomping your feet and holding your breath is not going to make stuff work," he says. "A lot of times, you have to empower people who are the advance troops and the follow-up troops to make decisions that are based on conversations that you have."
In this case, one of the first decisions — where to shoot — was daunting.
"Our biggest issue," Fincher says, "was: where do we find 1978?"
Production designer Steve Arnold was familiar with the Pittsburgh area from attending Carnegie Mellon University.
"Because the surrounding areas were hit very hard when the steel industry disappeared, a lot of these towns are caught in the past," Arnold explains. "Things haven't changed in 40 or 50 years there, so there's a sensibility and a look that hasn't really changed. We had to bring period cars in and remove a lot of things that were contemporary, but if you wanted the '70s, you just opened a door, and there it was."
Removing modern elements was often a function of postproduction digital tinkering. Though the areas outside Pittsburgh had much of the architecture the show needed, they also had a modern improvement that can be found in any American town — wheelchair-and stroller-friendly curb cuts lined with electric-yellow plastic.
"I'm glad for the people who have wheelchairs that people are taking the time and effort," Fincher says. "But, oh my God. They're everywhere and they're yellow and plastic. It's horrendous. Nothing screams 'post-1984' like a wheelchair ramp."
As time-consuming as it might have been to digitally erase parts of the sidewalk, recreating period-accurate airplane travel was a greater hurdle. Ford and Tench don't spend much time in the air, but a convincing 1970s airplane interior was still essential for their in-flight conversations.
"I knew the guy to get the parts from, and we put them all together piece by piece," Arnold says. "Still, all the seats and trays had to be remade because they'd been sitting out in the desert."
Although the '70s don't seem so long ago, achieving accuracy wasn't easy. Some people complain today that technology is moving too quickly, but the '70s saw major changes in appliances and machinery — changes that went far beyond avocado green colorways. Even determining exactly when some gadgets became common was tricky.
"We did a lot of research to verify when they started making this product or that typeface. It's such a long list," Arnold says. "It was 40 years ago, but that was a fairly recent time, so you'd think it's documented, but some of it just isn't. We really had to dig deeply."
When the script called for a microwave oven in Ford's apartment, a deep dive nixed it. "That was a lot of digging. The microwave oven was developed in the '50s, but they weren't used in the home until the late '70s, and then they were almost a gourmet food–specialist thing," Arnold says. Since Ford was far from a foodie, it didn't work.
That lack of documentation — aside from the broad, familiar Saturday Night Fever take on the decade — also plagued the wardrobe department.
"You get addicted to the hunt of finding pictures of real people from the time," costume designer Jennifer Starzyk says. To dress some of the secondary characters, she couldn't refer to '70s fashion or lifestyle magazines.
"I've never used the word downtrodden so much in my life, but it was a theme throughout the series. Everyone knows the glamorous looks of the '70s, but I had to find pictures of real people who probably didn't have a lot — and they weren't doing selfies."
One creative choice, harking back to a time before Steadicams and drone photography, was the decision to keep the camera locked down. They broke that rule for one shot that tracks Ford's dramatic emotional breakdown — and even that was done with an old-fashioned dolly.
"Not that we're not going to use the tools at our disposal, but we didn't feel that we needed to move the camera to spice up the action," Messerschmidt says. "When we do move the camera, it is designed around letting the camera be an omniscient voice, deliberately delivering information."
Another key factor in recreating the '70s — as well as capturing a moody, retro aesthetic like that in Fincher's 2007 feature Zodiac — had to do with light and shadow.
While modern audiences are used to seeing every corner of a scene illuminated, sometimes with colored light, cinematographers in the '70s often stuck to a more muted, low-key style that relied on natural light. That approach has become less popular, thanks to more sensitive film stock and digital filmmaking.
"Steve Arnold and I talked a lot about the spaces the characters are in, and the lighting being a function" of that, Messerschmidt says. He notes that when color was used in lighting, it was often employed to subtly separate characters within a scene. "Sometimes that meant keeping the lights off the set and letting the characters be in darkness."
Even Messerschmidt had to fight his 21st-century impulses when faced with a drab hospital setting in the finale of the 10-episode first season, when Ford and Ed Kemper have a fraught conversation.
"When I read the scene and talked to David [Fincher] about it, because it's so dark and dramatic on the page, my first response was to make it dark and moody," he says. "Cinematographers love to go for it that way, but David said, 'Let's make it what it is, and in the lighting, let it be what it will be — a banal hospital room.'"
As Fincher explains, "I love beautiful lighting, but I don't like beautiful lighting that feels like if you step back three feet, you're going to see 800 technicians and 3,000 C-stands."
There was another, more practical reason to keep lighting simple throughout the series, he adds. "There's no reason to get into big shafts of sunlight and then have to control that all day, when part of the experience of being in a prison is [thinking], 'What happened to the sunlight?'"
That less-is-more aesthetic also had an impact on wardrobe. While disco gear wouldn't have been inaccurate, given the era, it wasn't right for characters firmly enmeshed in academic and detective work. "Any over-the-top details fell aside," Starzyk says. "David didn't like anything too 'character.'"
While other shows have tried to recreate the time period with lush Farrah Fawcett waves and wide bellbottoms, those didn't work for Mindhunter. "People wore those, yes, but in hindsight it looks silly," Starzyk says. "For us, it was a process of elimination so nothing they wore was distracting. The boys are FBI, so it's gonna be suits. But I worked with solids and patterns so it wasn't all navy blue and gray."
Dressing the two major female characters — Holden's girlfriend, Debbie Mitford (Hannah Gross), and psychologist Wendy Carr — allowed more freedom but also required restraint. "Debbie could have been pushed to the limit and been the cool, feminist, hippie chick, but if you look at Gloria Steinem, many women of that time were very streamlined," says Starzyk, who cites the Faye Dunaway character in 1976's Network as an inspiration.
Though it might be tempting to assume that inmates on the show wear standard-issue prison garb, their costumes are also precisely detailed and based on reality. The doubled T-shirts on serial killer Jerry Brudos (played by Happy Anderson) were a detail provided by a retired prison official who knew the inmate before his death in 2006.
"He was tickled pink when we reached out to him," Starzyk says. She spent hours on the phone with the former guard, who also told her that Brudos wore suspenders and kept a rubber band on his wrist.
"You may not see it, but he definitely wore it, and the two T-shirts were because he was hated in his prison community and had been attacked, so wearing them was his armor. It's those kind of details I loved to tell David, because they fueled the fire, and the actors enjoyed learning that stuff, too."
Perhaps the one area where that '70s aesthetic was most flexible was music. Ironically, composer Jason Hill created a glass harp (water in upright wine glasses played by running a finger along their rims) without realizing that the instrument had been used in the iconic theme to 1965's Dr. Zhivago and again in Pink Floyd's 1975's Wish You Were Here album. Either piece of music could have been on Ford's turntable.
"David gave me one word: slippery," Hill says. "And that made sense to me. My going to the glasses was very innocent — I had a bunch of wine glasses, grabbed all of them, filled them up with water and set them up like a piano."
Hill was also inspired by some period references. "If you watch old French movies or The Conversation or Marathon Man or Chinatown, a lot of great movies from the period had a melody. I wanted to bring back melody, but also do a modern approach to creating a soundscape. I was not going in with an orchestra. We don't want anything to be of this world. It should be liquid and slippery and elusive, the way thoughts are."
That's also how recreating the not-so-distant '70s was for the Mindhunter team, which is now looking toward season two (Netflix announced the renewal late last year). For Fincher, beyond erasing sidewalk cuts and banning extreme bellbottoms, it ultimately boiled down to letting character dictate every decision, no matter how small.
"You have to define your cultural touchstones," he says. "You have to say, 'This character is somebody who's interested in music, so [he] might be more plaid and colorful than this guy who came out of a Truman-era journalism school.' It's about identifying the characters and deciding what tells the story about them."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2018