The divide between people who like Mindhunter and people who love Mindhunter seems to hang on episode 8. Two episodes before the end of its first season, Netflix’s 1970s FBI drama about the development of psychological profiling takes an odd detour to an elementary school where our hero Holden Ford investigates a small-town principal accused of tickling his students’ feet. What at first seems like a silly premise is actually a game-changing incident in the development of the series’ morality, and Holden’s (further reading HERE). The episode raises far more questions than it answers, so we reached out to Outstanding Writing for a Drama nominee Jennifer Haley to find out how the episode developed and what went into balancing Mindhunter‘s tricky blend of reality and fiction.
What writers have always inspired you?
Well, I’m a playwright, so I really loved the playwrights. Caryl Churchill is my favourite playwright. In terms of TV writers, I love Alan Ball, what he does. In terms of book writers, I really like Philip K Dick.
Television writing tends to be really based in realism, which is kind of the opposite of Caryl Churchill’s style. Is that less concrete theatrical style something you try to bring into your television work?
Yes. I think it’s easier, playwriting. With screenwriting, you do have to be so much more explicit, whereas [with] playwriting and theatre, you can let the audience do a lot of the heavy lifting – you just have to suggest the world of the play. I think one of the things [Churchill] is so great at is that, in some ways, she sets the puzzle for the audience. She sets up puzzles and patterns, and the audience can figure out how that’s working, and the architecture of the play. With screenwriting, it’s so much more granular, and it’s so much more about following the characters, the explicit detail. Very different forms.
Has your background in theatre made you a better television writer?
Absolutely, in terms of the character work, but when I started working in television on screenwriting, my big challenge was learning how to write action and stage direction. I’m actually a playwright who doesn’t write very many stage directions at all. I put the characters in a dialogue, really create the world – however that appears is up to the designer. But in screenwriting, I had to learn how to be super economical with the action and the stage direction, and say volumes in a sentence. That was a big challenge and one of the big learning curves I faced when I started screenwriting.
How did you make the transition between mediums?
I moved to LA, and I took a class in writing for TV, and I wrote a really pretty terrible script. And I decided [laughs]– the metaphor I used was that I have learned to play the concerto in terms of writing plays. When I was trying to write a TV show, it’s like the theory translated that I was having to pick up the violin, because the music theory translated, but [it was a] different instrument.
That first script I wrote was just so awful. It was like a drawing by a five-year-old. [laughs] I was like, “What’s wrong?” And then I decided the easiest way to learn this form is to get on a TV show, and I’d heard of people who’d gotten into TV based on plays, or articles they’d written, or novels. So I decided I was just gonna keep writing plays until a play of mine got me onto a TV show, and that’s exactly what happened.
I wrote a play called The Nether, and it was produced here. A few months later, I was hired on the second season of Hemlock Grove. I was working with a showrunner, Chic Egley, and some other senior TV writers. The contract was for six months, and I got to write two of the episodes out of the ten-episode season. On my first episode, I had the senior writers helping me a lot, and then by the second time I did it, I was able to do much more on my own, so it was such a great place to train, with writers who had been doing it for years. And by the end of the six months, the form just made a lot more sense to me. It was a great boot camp crash course, and I was able to learn so much more quickly than sitting at home with work books, and class notes, and trying to do it on my own.
Do you watch much TV?
Other than what you work on, what’s your favourite show currently on the air, and why?
Currently on the air, I’d have to say I’m a Game of Thrones nerd. I’ve always loved fantasy, even when I was younger, and reading novels. I’ve really enjoyed The Leftovers. I still haven’t seen the third season, but that’s a recent show I’ve really enjoyed. Schitt’s Creek – that’s a fun one. Silicon Valley, and Atlanta.
I love the classics. I got into TV watching The Sopranos. I hadn’t been watching TV in a long time, Sopranos is one of the things I watched where I was like “Oh. If this is what’s going on in television- it’s smart, you can make a living out of it – maybe I should move to LA.” Friday Night Lights, Six Feet Under – I loved all the classics.
How did you get involved with Mindhunter?
My play The Nether was running in London, and one of the creators Joe Penhall is a London-based playwright, and he saw my play, and The Nether has a lot of interrogation scenes in it. As you know from Mindhunter, there’s a lot of criminal interviews in that, so I think that’s what made Joe go, “Oh, I think Jenn would be a great addition to the show.” This was long before it was even lined up for production. They were just developing it, but they were going ahead and writing the first season, so I was given the job of writing a freelance episode for the series.
I wrote Episode 5. I knew Joe was writing most of them, and they were giving a few episodes out to write freelance by other writers. So I wrote Episode 5, and eventually the show went into production, and they needed someone to come on. They were filming in Pittsburgh, and they wanted to do some work on some of the other episodes, so they brought me to Pittsburgh, and I did a lot of writing there as well, for about three months, on the first season.
Tell us a little bit about the research that goes into telling a story that deals so heavily with psychology and law enforcement history.
The source material for Mindhunter as a book, of course, is just filled with information. It’s written by John Douglas, who was kind of the Holden Ford though I will say that Holden Ford is, character-wise, very different from John Douglas. Mindhunter is this wealth of information, because he and his partner Rob Ressler really did go out and interview a bunch of these killers, and then were also called in to comment on local cases. So that really helped us, all that information.
In terms of much grittier research, the two FBI agents and Anne Burgess, the female psychiatrist, did eventually publish a book in the early 80’s called Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives. It was this really comprehensive study of violent killers and serial killers, and very data-driven in terms of how many came from broken homes, and what age – was there sexual fantasizing at an early age? All of this kind of data. So that book is a very interesting read on its own.
And then there was all the things we had to make sure that we were careful about. You and I have a much deeper vocabulary for psychology right now than people did in the 70’s, so we had to make sure we weren’t introducing ideas that weren’t even necessarily around in the 70’s, or terminology that hadn’t been come up with in the 70’s. In the 70’s, people weren’t talking about dysfunctional families. That was later terminology. David [Fincher, executive producer] was actually very keen that we were being very true to the time.
How do the particular strengths and skillsets of the cast come into play when you’re writing, especially something you started working on before the casting process started?
When their voices come in, no one knows who those people are. Once we know their voices, and we know what their energy is like, it’s so much easier to do the dialogue. But then also the Mindhunter folks were great about bringing the actors in to read the scripts beforehand, and we trust them enough that they got the comment, and sometimes we would write according to them.
I remember one of the things that was still a bit in development, even as we were working on the scripts and it was in production, was what was going on with Bill Tench’s son, and what was going on with his family. Holt McCallany actually had the idea of “What if my son finds one of these crime scenes photos I left it out, or he got into my office, or whatever?” We thought it was a great idea, and that inspired that whole sequence in Episode 7, I believe, where he and his wife come home. Their son is adopted and clearly has some learning disabilities and communication disabilities that he and his wife don’t even quite know what they are, how to put their finger on it. They come home, and the babysitter is completely freaked out because the son has got hold of one of these really vicious crime scene photos. So that breaks open stuff in the marriage about Bill trying to keep his work life so distant from his family life that his wife feels completely blocked out of his life in general. So that whole sequence is based on Holt saying, “Hey. What if?”
Let’s talk a little bit about Episode 8, which is what you’re actually nominated for. It stands out a little bit from the rest of the season. How did the idea of the tickling story develop, and was it a hard sell at all?
The tickling story was actually in John Douglas’s book, Mindhunter. It’s only a paragraph or less, and he brings it up in a section where he’s talking about Jerry Brudos, the foot fetish killer. They found a woman’s foot in a high heel in his freezer, in his basement. So John Douglas talks about a principal who liked to tickle the children’s feet, and it was John Douglas’s opinion that that was very suspect behaviour. I don’t know if he gets the guy fired, but his feeling is that this guy should not be allowed to be around children. So Joe Penall took this one little paragraph, and spun it out into this whole backbone for the episode. It’s a great way for us to watch Holden dancing on this vine of what behaviour is okay, and what behaviour could lead to other things, and Holden starting to become so suspicious of everybody that there’s this question of, “Is this principal going overboard?”
Episode 8 is one of my favourite episodes and I loved the story of this tickling principal because- we know, of course, principals cannot be touching kids’ feet- but back in the 70’s, those kinds of lines hadn’t necessarily been drawn. Even now, there’s a question in schools: should teachers be allowed to hug kids? If you made the rules saying “No, teachers can’t hug kids” – is there a basic form of contact and communication that’s missed?
One of the things that I loved playing with in the episode is you could see the characters keep going back and forth- the parents and the teachers- going back and forth on is it creepy, or is it not? Is it creepy that he’s giving them nickels, or is it all harmless behaviour? It was a real fun question to explore. Is it just warm behaviour, or is it creepy and potentially sexual, and completely inappropriate?
As you touched on a little bit, the episode really delves into a whole new moral boundary, and the ethics of profiling, which re-contextualizes the entire series, and this project that these characters are working on. What are some of the discussions that you had about how far Holden could bring things, in terms of reporting the guy and investigating him and using FBI resources on this tickling thing, and what that would mean for his character?
David was doing a lot of filming, so he was in and out. But his right-hand guy producer Josh Donen [and I] were having a lot of conversations about it. I remember Josh feeling that Holden behaving this way was almost going overboard with the character – like the character was clearly so far out of propriety in terms of what he was doing as an FBI agent, and also, how could he be taking this thing with the principal so seriously? So there were questions: is this really going overboard with the character, and is Holden starting to become crazy? But the fact that we were having those questions about the character itself is great.
I felt like the way it was all mapped out in the episode, combined with the suspicion that he has about his girlfriend potentially being interested in this other guy, also brings up the question of “is Holden onto something and are these questions he’s asking and tactics he’s using entirely appropriate? Is he onto something, is he getting closer to something, or is he losing his mind?” [laughs] His suspicion and doubt clouding his brain. He’s just grasping at straws. That’s the basic question about his character in the first season, and this is the episode that really starts exposing those questions about his character.
The show is based on a piece of non-fiction, but the show itself is a piece of fiction. How do you approach finding the right balance between telling true stories of real people who actually existed, and exist still, and telling fictional characters’ stories that work on a dramatic level?
It’s a tricky proposition, and never something that I have taken on on my own. I’ve always been a bit leery of doing anything approaching a biopic. But this project had already been developed when I came on, and I think that Joe had just done this really great job at stepping completely away from the actual characters, John Douglas and Rob Ressler, and creating Holden Ford and Bill Tench, who were completely different for us as writers. We could do with them as we wished, without having to worry about, are we getting too close to the realities of John Douglas’s life?
In terms of doing truth and writing true crime, there’s already so much out there, and there’s certainly not legally a problem with writing about the actual circumstances. With some of the actual crimes, we would change the name. We would have to change some of the circumstances, and just stay faithful to what was going on in the crime itself, and what the crime said about that criminal, and then what conclusions the FBI agents could draw from those crimes. Then, within that context, we could make up our own stuff, and dramatize what we wanted.
How involved was David Fincher in the writers’ room, and what was his influence on the show in a larger sense?
He was super busy, so he would come and go. We would read through the scripts, and he would be there for that, and he would often offer comments, and he had a really fantastic global idea of what the show should be, and the larger movements of these characters. That was really helpful. And when we were in script rewrites, we would e-mail the script, and he would do notes and send it back. Then he would get incredibly detailed in terms of those notes.
One of the things that he just demanded of us all was specificity in the dialogue, specificity in the ideas, and specificity in terms of what these guys were learning from these interviews, and what they were extrapolating, and how that was moving the story forward. So, very involved.
What are you working on now, and what’s coming up for you?
I’m working on a couple of plays. I’m turning one of them into a screenplay, and I’m working on that right now. Then I have another play of mine that I’m developing a television show around, so I’m not with Mindhunter right now because I needed to keep moving these projects forward. But a lot of working at home alone time right now. [laughs] I’ve really missed the teamwork and collaboration part.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
I’d just like to say between the time I worked on the show and the time it came out was almost a year. I was so excited when it finally came out. When we were working on it during production, we were doing a lot of rewrites, even as the cameras were rolling I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, I hope this all hangs together and makes sense!” and it was so great to finally see the show, and I felt like, “Ha, it does hang together, it does make sense.” So I’m quite proud of it. And thank you for the nomination. I really appreciate it.