5 Screenwriting Tips You Can Learn From 'Mindhunter'
Mindhunter brought serial killers into our homes. Joe Penhall and David Fincher scared the pants off us in Season One. How?
Serial killers seem to be all the rage on podcasts, in movies, tv, and streamers. But few shows capture what it's like to understand these people. To know why they attack and thus learn how to catch them. Mindhunter is a singular achievement for Netflix. It successfully dramatizes the FBI work while still maintaining the horrific edge that brings people in.
I mean, a naked guy blows his head clean off within the first minutes of the pilot. And that's not even the most gruesome part of the series. Since the show is grounded in reality, a lot of work goes into creating each season. Now, as Season Two premieres, I wanted to look at this video that chronicles David Fincher, Jennifer Haley, Cameron Britton, and the original "Mindhunter" John Douglas' work on how they worked with show creator Joe Penhall to make such an incredible show,
Check out the video from Behind the Curtain and let's talk more after the jump!
Writing True Crime: How They Script 'Mindhunter'
1. It's okay to only dramatize the time and place, and make up the characters
The first thing that struck me about Mindhunter is that all of the killers are real. We spend a majority of time in the first season talking with Ed Kemper. Sure, he's played by an actor, but the existence of the person and their crimes is real. But the people interviewing him are not.
These actors are composites of the investigators who revolutionized the research at the time.
Penhall was concerned about life rights and making up drama, so Fincher just told him to capture the era and make up the rest.
This idea freed him to dig deeper into the people who would be investigating this stuff. Sure, he could base them on real life, but when it came to problems within the bureau and their personal lives, it was much easier to make them up.
2. No one really thinks they're evil
One of the hardest part about writing antagonists is not making them seem over the top or evil. One of the best tips I got from this video was the idea that no one really believes they're evil. That means the serial killers here and the more unscrupulous characters all are the heroes of their own stories.
They might be evil in our eyes, but not theirs.
When you attack these kinds of situations you need to go out of your way to figure out the mood of the bad person. Try seeing it from their eyes. What's motivating them? What would their logical moves be?
3. Things that are appalling can be compelling
The show details some pretty horrific murders. Season one covers lots of killers, season two chases the BTK killer. We learn methods, behaviors, and predilections. It's not for the faint of heart.
But it's also marketable.
The power struggles between good and evil have a human core that makes the show accessible to people. Much like a horror film, the roller coaster here is in their taboo. So if you have idea like this, they can't all be grotesque, they have to have balance.
The team hunting the killers functions like a family. we can see bits of ourselves in all of them.
Making anything relatable helps to bridge the gap when you explore the obscene.
4. Talk to the experts and keep the interesting parts
Like we mentioned up front, a lot of the characters are made up but the facts stay true. The show balances this so well. So they take all the facts, the interviews, the research, ands keep the parts that fit the narrative.
Take the investigative topic of "Why + How = Who" which drives the narrative story forward. It's a great tactic and a great way to pitch what this show is really about.
So what parts of your idea are based in facts? What parts of the time period are set contribute to the overall story? Like for Mindhunter, they use the pruden-ess of the era to butt up against the investigation at hand. They need to be gritty to get things done but society keeps holding them back.
5. Books and articles contain multitudes
So much of my time is spent on the internet that it can be hard to realize that there's a real world out there. And that world contains libraries.
One of the best lessons I learned on a recent project is how amazing it is to talk to real experts and page through old books. We tend to want to go to the easiest sources for our writing, but there's value in spending an afternoon with a stack of literature or talking to someone within the field.
You can get all sorts of nuggets and ideas for characters.
Plus, believe it or not, there's a ton of facts and anecdotes out there not on the internet. So open up your bubble and get out there!
You probably won't be murdered!
What's next? Writing lessons from The Wire!
Ever wonder how they wrote "The Wire"? Hear David Simon and Ed Burns talk about their experiences in the writers' room and how they built five seasons of perfect television.
Click the link to learn more!