The television show, Mindhunter, created by Joe Penhall and executive produced and directed by David Fincher, is one of the most visually distinctive shows and for good reason. David Fincher's filmography has become something that we aren't used to seeing. From the Cinematography to the Production Design, Fincher has achieved a level of mastery that other films and television shows do not seem to have.
Based primarily in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the show depicts incredible locations and interior spaces, such as a variety of interrogation rooms that are both visually stunning and exceptionally detailed.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, we spoke with Steve Arnold, who is the Production Designer for Mindhunter. The images are property of Steve Arnold and his team.
INT: First off, we were curious how the opportunity to do the show, Mindhunter, came about? What was it about it that made you want to work on it?
SA: I first met David Fincher when I worked on the reshoots for the film “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”. I’m an extremely detailed oriented designer so we seemed to hit it off right away. We have a similar esthetic, and I was immediately impressed with his attention to even the smallest detail. When he started the Netflix series “House of Cards” I was asked to be part of the project and readily accepted. Up to that point I had worked almost exclusively on feature films and had heard quite a few nightmare stories about the process of doing TV. Although the show was considered New Media, with David it turned out to be more of a cross between shooting a film and making a TV series. Fincher sets the bar very high but in the best way possible, and being a perfectionist myself I felt at home with his way of working. Of course any chance to work with a director of David Fincher’s stature is something most designers would jump at.
A couple of years later I saw him at a screening of “Gone Girl”. He told me then if I ever decided to leave “House of Cards” he might have another project for me. I had already committed to another season of “House of Cards”, but I asked him to keep me in mind. Several months later I got an email from his producer saying Fincher had a project he wanted me to design. It wasn’t quite ready to go, but would I consider leaving “House of Cards”. I answered absolutely. A few more months went by, then I heard that this new series, “Mindhunter” would be starting just after the first of the year. Since I had designed 50 episodes of “House of Cards” I thought it was time to move on to another show. And when you get a call from David Fincher it’s hard not to answer yes.
The subject matter of “Mindhunter” seemed right down Fincher’s alley: that dark world of real people who are so far outside the norm that studying them is a fascinating exercise that draws the viewer in. I am also attracted to stories set in another time period. This era in particular was very familiar to me as I was a college student during the late 1970’s.
There was the added bonus that the show was shooting in Pittsburgh where I had been a graduate student in set design for theater at Carnegie Mellon University. I had not visited the city in many years and although much of it was still familiar and unchanged, I was pleasantly surprised how successful it has been at transforming itself into something of a tech mecca.
INT: The show has a very distinct visual palette – not only in its Production Design but its Cinematography. Was it a collaborative process working with the Cinematographer and Costume Designer to achieve that particular style?
SA: I always try to be as collaborative as I can with every department on a show, from the prop department to the person handling the picture cars. Since the art department is one of the first to get started, we tend to set the vision, if you will, for everyone else who comes after. I tried to involve cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt in the process as early as possible, starting with the spatial ideas of the sets, the color palette and lighting.
Lighting, particularly with practical sources (fixtures seen on camera) becomes a huge part of the final look the camera records. These days, digital technology and the advances in a camera’s sensitivity to light allows for shots to be made with very little light. Many times we are able to shoot a scene using no additional “movie lights”, just practical lighting to illuminate the set.
Both David and I tend to think similarly about color palette. I use a very controlled range of color in the sets, allowing the actors and costumes to provide the contrast and focus against fairly monochromatic backgrounds. These colors are often lighter in tone than what would be traditionally thought of for such dark and moody scenes.
Costume designer Jennifer Starzyk and I discussed the overall color palette of the sets so there would be no visual conflicts with the costumes. We also worked together if special details such as badges or emblems needed to be designed into costume elements that were part of a character’s wardrobe.
INT: The show was filmed mostly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Was there a particular Architectural style or aesthetic that drew you to certain locations or buildings?
SA: Pittsburgh is an older city that has gone through a number of stages. It was originally the affluent center of the 19th & 20th century steel and aluminum industries. It was one of the very earliest areas to develop oil drilling. And it was home to a number of other important industries. With these industries came vast fortunes and the development of a sophisticated city with fine architecture and strong philanthropic support of the arts.
In contrast with and in addition to this great wealth, a huge immigrant population provided workers to fill the factories. They settled in close knit neighborhoods and towns, many of which still exist. When the bottom fell out of the steel business, many of these smaller towns around the city fell on hard times; some remain suspended in time as if still caught in the past of 40 or 50 years ago. Because “Mindhunter” is a period show, Pittsburgh has been a great location choice for the series. There is so much there that is caught in the amber of the past.
In addition, the topography of the surrounding area is extremely diverse and offers such a variety of looks that we have used it for parts of California, Iowa, Virginia, Georgia, Massachusetts and Illinois. It was also extremely helpful to be in an area where there were several closed down prisons that we were able to access for shooting.
INT: Some of the most captivating scenes in Mindhunter take place in the interrogation rooms at the various prisons. Each sequence is unique and offers a different feeling for the audience. What was the process like designing these spaces? Also, did the different subjects (Kemper, Brudos, Speck) influence your design decisions in any way?
SA: Because there were so many interrogation/interview rooms, I consciously tried to give each one a completely different feel, both spatially and tonally. With the Kemper interviews, since it’s California, it needed to feel fairly open and spacious and quite light in color. We strove for the feel of being in a sunnier part of the world. Of all the interview spaces I wanted this to feel the most benign to contrast with the giant and initially intimidating Kemper character. I chose to make the space like a library reading room where you would ask for a book from someone behind the counter and sit at a table to read it but not be able to take the book from the room.
The space we used for Brudos was actually a prison gymnasium that we divided into sections with chain link fencing. We based it on an existing solitary confinement space we had seen in a West Virginia prison. The overall space is fairly large but the fencing reinforces the feeling that this guy is really a caged animal. We designed the heavy steel tables with large O rings set into the table tops so prisoners could be shackled to the tables and still use their hands.
The space we built on stage for the Speck interview was designed to be similar in feel to the exterior prison we used to portray Stateville where Speck was incarcerated. It was the darkest and most heavily layered interview set of the show (“Medieval” was what Fincher had asked for), so I used a combination of heavy roughly cut stone walls along with sections of riveted metal plates that I had seen at another prison location. Our scenic painters applied heavily textured materials to simulate peeling paint, and everything on the set was kept in cool dark tones. Fincher had asked for a special overhead light fixture, so I designed the rectangular cage light that hangs above the table. The table itself was heavily distressed and had graffiti carved into it.
INT: The contrast between Holden’s minimal apartment with Debbie’s bohemian space is extremely compelling. Besides contrasting their different styles, were you hoping to reveal something more about the characters based on the spaces where they live?
SA: In Holden’s apartment we were trying to show a young guy who is less concerned with his surroundings and creature comforts, and more focused on doing his job well and getting ahead. The apartment is bland, sterile, sad and fairly empty. With just the minimum amount of things to seem lived in, it’s one of those rental units people live in while they’re waiting to figure out where life will take them. Holden is such an insular guy that he hasn’t really figured out what he likes or wants in terms of furniture and accessories.
In contrast, Debbie’s apartment was an exploration into college student life with all the bohemian elements that were rampant in the late 1970’s. With the punk rock posters and brightly colored scarves on lampshades, the funky furniture and drug paraphernalia sprinkled around, set decorator Tracey Doyle and I tried to evoke the pent up self expression of a young college student’s first foray into living on her own. The interior apartment set was based on a shared student house in Pittsburgh that we were using for its exterior. A curious post Victorian style house with a very European flavor, the inside had been divided up in an unusual way. It sported a bedroom with one wall that had been covered in 1950’s blond brick that I copied on our stage set.
INT: The basement of the CIA is another exceptional space where scenes flow so effortlessly through the room. It is also a space that evolves throughout the show as the characters get more comfortable. What was the process like designing this area especially since you knew it would change over time?
SA: The basement set was meant to portray the actual space where the Behavioral Sciences section of the FBI Academy was started. That space at Quantico no longer exists, but the elevator entry hall does so we copied that area and used it as a jumping off point to devise our own interpretation of the basement. Fincher had asked we start with a fairly large room that could over time be divided with partition walls and doors so there would be a visible evolution over the course of the episodes. We planned 6 different iterations of the space through time starting with it just being a storage room piled with unused furniture and odds and ends out which emerges a fully working office space. Of course we had to shoot out of order many times, so there was the inevitable switching back and forth among them.
We tried to match the materials used at the real Quantico basement as much as possible: blond brick, cast concrete, and VCT floor tile. We were unable to get enough of the terra cotta floor tiles in time, so we used 6” squares of 1/4” painted Masonite glued down and grouted in between. Built into the set are sloping poured concrete buttress walls that mimic architectural elements that exist on the exterior of the actual Quantico buildings. These are meant to convey the sense we are deep in the foundation of the building. We also did the ceiling with cast concrete coffers, again indicating we are far underground, and the ceiling is supporting many levels above. Finally, we added layers of pipes, heating and air conditioning ducts, along with cable chases with wiring and fluorescent lights to match what I saw at the actual Quantico location.
Steve Arnold is a Production Designer and has worked on various Films. You can visit his Website to see more of his work.