David Fincher is a notorious perfectionist. Any actor who has worked with him will tell you that the man likes to do a lot of takes and there are dozens of video essays on YouTube that can attest to the precision of his cinematography. But, in a recent group interview at Vulture Fest, the cast of Netflix’s Mindhunter gets into the deeper minutiae of Fincher’s approach, which consists mainly of hyper-specific adjustments and an eschewing of overall notes.
Of the four members of the principal cast—Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Anna Torv, and Cameron Britton—only McCallany had worked previously with Fincher, so he was a bit accustomed to the director’s eccentricities before arriving on set. The others, however, got a brief rundown of the do’s and don’ts on their way into the audition.
Jonathan Groff: (Casting director Laray Mayfield) gave me these tips before I was going, just general David Fincher tips. She said don’t move your forehead. (...) Don’t act with your forehead. Don’t blink, don’t up at the end like this, which I do all the time.
Holt McCallany: Don’t segment the lines, no segmentation.
JG: Yes, and don’t be …
HM: Get to the end of the thought.
JG: Yeah, don’t be musical. And so I applied that.
HM: And be prepared to do a lot of takes.
For Groff’s character specifically, Fincher had one note that he repeated again and again: Don’t smile. While Jonathan Groff is a charming, affable presence in real life, FBI agent Holden Ford is meant to be a bit of a drip. Through Fincher’s attentive direction, Groff said that he became aware of the fact that he was smiling even when he didn’t think he was smiling and was forced to consciously adjust that in his performance. Minor adjustments and notes like this would come out during the hours of private rehearsal the cast did with Fincher before even arriving on set. Then, as Britton says, once they began shooting, “it’s cut, and then there’s a little note thrown in from video village, and then rolling, and then action.” That pace continues all damn day.
But none of the actors describe this as a grueling, sweatshop-like experience. On the contrary, they all heap mountains of praise on Fincher for his masterful attention to detail and surprisingly light touch as a director. Rather than give broad strokes about an actor’s performance or try to get in their head about their character’s intentions, Fincher simply nudges them this way or that. The director himself described his process to Groff and Torv as being “in a plane looking down at you and you’re in a cornfield and I’m telling you where to walk.”
Anna Torv: He didn’t say I’m telling you how to walk, he said, “And I’m gonna tell you if you’re getting too close to the rocks.”
Jonathan Groff: Right. Yeah. They direct you.
AT: We need to get back into this.
JG: Yeah, that’s wet over there. I see you moving in that direction, but that’s actually an unsafe area to be, why don’t you move over here? And we find the way together.
You can read the full interview with Vulture here, which includes a discussion of how the show’s dark subject matter has effected the cast after the cameras stop rolling.
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