Mindhunter: An examination of serial killers

Oliver Ferguson, Writer

What is one of the most popular subjects on TV shows today? It’s crime. Throughout history, television viewers have seen hundreds of crime shows like Making a Murderer, American Crime Story, CSI, Cops, NCIS, and numerous others. As much as viewers might appreciate these popular shows, some of them neglect the mindsets and philosophies of the criminals featured. As a result, the viewer feels further separated from the story and more confused. One show that rises above this issue is the 2017 Netflix series Mindhunter.

Mindhunter is based on the true stories detailed in the novel of the same name by FBI agents John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. In the show, Douglas is portrayed in dramatized form as Special Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Olshaker as Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). They are members of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit, or BSU, who travel around the country interviewing serial killers. The first season of the show, which premiered in 2017, details the growth of the BSU. It is formed when Agent Ford conducts an interview with infamous serial killer Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton), also known as the Coed Killer. Ford discovers that from these interviews, he can begin to develop profiles of what potentially dangerous behavior looks like in an effort to find help for possible serial killers before they strike. They are later joined by Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a professor from Boston University, who aids them in their research. The three of them analyze recordings of the killers in their interviews to attempt to profile the killers. Throughout the season, small vignettes are placed throughout the episodes detailing the activities of an ADT serviceman (Sonny Valicenti), who is later revealed as the BTK Killer, an infamous serial killer who strikes all across Kansas.

The second season, which premiered just this August, shows the growth of the BSU, as they are told by the FBI to go to Atlanta to investigate Atlanta’s mysterious child murders spanning from 1979 through 1981. They also continue their interviews, interviewing more infamous like Richard Speck (Jack Erdie), David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper), aka the Son of Sam, and even Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). Another part of the second season is Agent Tench trying to balance his life at home and at work following a horrific tragedy involving his adopted son.

The series was created by Joe Penhall and David Fincher, who has directed seven episodes in the series. Fincher has directed critically acclaimed films such as Fight Club, The Social Network, Seven, Zodiac, and Gone Girl. Like other films from Fincher, this show does not disappoint. It’s excellent. It is different from any other cop or crime show I’ve ever seen. Groff and McCallany are perfect for their roles and have terrific chemistry. Ford’s analytical and dry personality meets Tench’s more casual and seasoned attitude to create a perfect blend. Anna Torv also gives a magnificent performance as Dr. Wendy Carr, an intelligent professor who gives a more scholarly aspect on the issues Ford and Tench face. The aspect I find so magnificent about the series is the way they portray the killers. Ford and Tench both break down the mentality behind serial killers, which helps them in finding other serial killers. When they go to investigate the murders in Atlanta, they use information from their interviews to create a profile of the killer. Not only does this information help Ford and Tench, but it helps the viewer. The viewer can observe the strategies used by the two agents to help them identify dangerous behavior in real life. We live in a time where mass violence happens everyday. A show like this highlights the behavior that some of the perpetrators display. If it can be identified at an early enough stage, it can be stopped. The breakdown and analysis of the killers also helps the viewer better understand their conflicts. Some films and TV shows portray perpetrators of crimes as caricatures and exaggerate their felonious behavior. Mindhunter is slow in revealing the horrifying nature behind the killers so that the audience better understands them, resulting in the viewer being able to follow the story more clearly.

Another interesting fact about the show is that it was shot right here in Pittsburgh. There have been numerous films and TV shows shot in the area such as The Dark Knight Rises, Jack Reacher, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and several others. Mindhunter definitely stands out among the rest. Some filming locations in the Pittsburgh area include the Oaks Theater in Oakmont, Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor in the Strip District, Washington and Jefferson University, and several more. Because of this, I interviewed Dawn Keezer, the director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, to learn more about the production of the show.


Q: Have the creators of the show discussed why the chose Pittsburgh to shoot the show in?

A: Many locations across the Southwestern Pennsylvania region were scouted for Mindhunter to film. We were thrilled that our region had the look that David Fincher and Netflix wanted for the show. The locations coupled with our successful film tax credit program is why the chose Pittsburgh and the surrounding region.

Q: What was it like to work with a distinguished director like David Fincher?

A: David and his team were amazing, and our entire local industry enjoyed working with them!

Q: Could you list some of the areas in the Pittsburgh area where the show was shot?

A: Both seasons 1 and 2 utilized locations throughout the entire region. They were all over- from Warrendale to Harmar, from Churchill to Mt. Lebanon. They really utilized every inch of Southwestern PA.

Q: What processes did the producers of Mindhunter have to do to transform areas of Pittsburgh into other areas of America (Sacramento, Atlanta, etc.)?

A: Movie magic is really at play. It is one of the greatest selling points of the Pittsburgh region that we look like almost anywhere in the world, so long as you don’t need a beach or desert.

Q: There have been some discussions around the production of a third season. Have they discussed if Pittsburgh will be used again if it goes through?

A: We are extremely hopeful a third season will be created and that it is shot in our region!

Q: Has it been easier or harder for the production team to not shoot in Hollywood?

A: There is not a difference in filming in Pittsburgh versus Los Angeles. We have an incredibly talented crew, equipment, and vendors that are based here that work on a full-time basis. The only challenge is the lack of nonstop flights from LA to Pittsburgh.

Q: How did you work with the locations manager to find the best places to shoot?

A: We have an excellent team of local location managers who know the region well. Using their experience and our photo database of over 50,000 photos, we are usually able to find a filming location for every project.

Q: What were some of the difficulties the production team faced during the making of the show and how did they manage it?

A: In Pittsburgh, weather is always a challenge. The production also had to make sure that everything seen on the screen fit the time period for the show.

Q: Is there anything else interesting about the production of the show?

A: Mindhunter provided almost 2 full years of employment for our local crew and utilized many local businesses while filming. It is important to realize what true business the film industry brings to Pittsburgh.