Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’: A Suspenseful and Thrilling Combination of Police Procedural and Newspaper Film That Masterfully Chronicles the Progression of Obsession

‘Zodiac’ poster by Barret Chapman

 

By Koraljka Suton
Robert Graysmith knew he was a guy on the sidelines of this story. He wanted to be a part of it and he made himself a part of it. He was doing it on his own time because he wasn’t a reporter. It was Robert who went after it and after everybody else had pretty much walked away. Everything we included in the movie, we used from what Robert gave us. But, we had police reports and we backed everything up with documentation, our own interviews and evidence. Even when we did our own interviews, we would talk to two people. One would confirm some aspects of it and another would deny it. Plus, so much time had passed, memories are affected and the different telling of the stories change perception. So when there was any doubt we always went with the police reports. The one thing about the Zodiac story too is there are so many people out there who are convinced Robert is wrong about some things and that their version or interpretation is right and there are so many myths that sprang up so you have to keep all of that in mind when you are dealing with the story of Zodiac. That is why we chose to tell the story the way we did, through Robert’s eyes. My goal was to capture the truth of those books.David Fincher

If you asked David Fincher about the childhood years he spent in San Anselmo in Marin County during the 1960s, the topic that would undoubtedly pop up would be that of an infamous serial killer who, in the director’s eyes, was “the ultimate boogeyman.” For it was precisely that time and that general area that saw the rise of the Zodiac, a murderer who frequently wrote letters and sent coded messages to local newspapers, gleefully taking credit for the gruesome killing sprees that would inevitably trigger waves of paranoia across the West Coast. As Fincher recalls: “I remember coming home and saying the highway patrol had been following our school buses for a couple weeks now. And my dad, who worked from home, and who was very dry, not one to soft-pedal things, turned slowly in his chair and said: ‘Oh yeah. There’s a serial killer who has killed four or five people, who calls himself Zodiac, who’s threatened to take a high-powered rifle and shoot out the tires of a school bus, and then shoot the children as they come off the bus.’” Fincher’s fascination with the mystery man who wreaked havoc in Northern California during the late 60s and early 70s, claiming to have taken the lives of thirty-seven people (out of which only five were confirmed as being his victims), ultimately resulted in the director gladly accepting to work on Zodiac, a 2007 movie written by James Vanderbilt. The screenwriter had read a 1986 non-fiction book of the same name while he was still in high school, years before pursuing his eventual career. After getting into screenwriting, he had the chance to meet Zodiac author Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist who had been working for one of the newspapers the killer wrote to during the 1960s, and decided to make a screenplay based on the information-packed book. Having creative control over the material was of the utmost importance to Vanderbilt, given the fact that the endings of his previous scripts had been altered. Together with producers from Phoenix Pictures, Vanderbilt bought the rights to both Zodiac and its follow-up, entitled Zodiac Unmasked, after which the Seven director was asked to come on board.

Apart from having a personal attachment to the story of the notorious serial killer who was never brought to justice, what drew Fincher to work on the project was also the fact that the ending of Vanderbilt’s script was left unresolved, thereby staying true to real-life events. But Fincher’s perfectionism and his wish to depict the open case as accurately as possible led to him asking that the screenplay be rewritten, for the wanted to research the original police reports from scratch. He also decided that he, Vanderbilt and producer Bradley J. Fischer should personally interview the people who were involved in the case so that they could discern for themselves whether the testimonies were to be believed or not. The people they spent months interviewing were family members of suspects, the Zodiac killer’s two surviving victims, witnesses, investigators both current and retired, as well as the mayors of Vallejo and San Francisco. As Fincher elaborated: “Even when we did our own interviews, we would talk to two people. One would confirm some aspects of it and another would deny it. Plus, so much time had passed, memories are affected and the different telling of the stories would change perception. So when there was any doubt we always went with the police reports.” They also hired a forensic linguistics expert to analyze the killer’s letters, with the expert’s focus being on how the Zodiac spelled words and structured sentences, as opposed to the emphasis that was put on the Zodiac’s handwriting by document examiners in the 1970s.

 
Fincher’s tenacity in regards to research and preparation is nothing short of admirable, but it is also reasonable, because although the murderer was never caught and Fincher’s movie stayed true to that fact, both Graysmith’s book and its celluloid adaptation undoubtedly put the blame on a main suspect who ultimately died of a heart attack in 1992. Therefore, Fincher wanted to tread carefully and make the movie as responsibly as possible. And that he truly did. For Zodiac is, in fact, not about the killer, his potential motivation and the psychology behind it, but rather about the people who dedicated and sacrificed a substantial proportion of their private and professional lives in pursuit of the elusive murderer. Fincher’s Zodiac, a police procedural combined with a newspaper film that miraculously manages to avoid the clichés of either, laden with heavily researched, cross-checked facts and based in truth, turned out to be a movie that centers on the phenomenon of obsession and its alluring depths that invite anyone who falls victim to them to slowly drown without even noticing.

The three main protagonists are detective David Toschi (played by Mark Ruffalo), crime reporter Paul Avery (portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.) and Robert Graysmith himself (brought to life on the silver screen by Jake Gyllenhaal) who all work the Zodiac case during certain time spans. And while Toschi and Avery are expected to be involved due to their respective professions, Graysmith is the uncalled-for outsider within this trio, a cartoonist who observers the case from afar, quietly collecting material for his own Zodiac scrapbook while building a family life with his new girlfriend (Chloë Sevigny) and children. It is not until the interest of both the police and the public wavers and the case starts going cold that Graysmith decides to get off the sidelines, take the reins and embark on a wild goose chase of his own, thereby risking not only his personal safety, but also the alienation of his family. As Zodiac’s director of photography Harris Savides stated: “I like the fact that the audience will walk away from this movie thinking about what happened to these people. It’s not a happy ending, but there couldn’t be one if we stayed true to our story.” Fincher added: “The studio certainly would have preferred it if the police had caught the Zodiac. But you can’t change things on a story like this [arbitrarily]. You just have to hope the audience is involved in the characters and the story and willing to go down the rabbit hole with you.”

 
And down the rabbit hole we voluntarily went. During its runtime of two hours and thirty-seven minutes (with an extra five minutes added in the director’s cut), Zodiac manages to slowly draw its viewers in, beckoning them to see the case through the eyes of the three protagonists who allow themselves to get swallowed whole by it. There are no shootouts or car chases, nothing that would give the audience either closure or satisfaction (the way the movie Dirty Harry did, with Toschi himself being the role model for Eastwood’s titular hero), just the depiction of the methodology behind years upon years of dedicated police work. And not for a single minute does it cease to be interesting, engaging, captivating and terrifyingly suspenseful. For the purpose of Zodiac lies not in its outcome, but rather in the ways in which the procedure itself is carried out. Fincher navigates the entangled labyrinth of facts and assumptions with such ease, that the movie’s countless scenes of nothing other than expositional dialogue create more of a thrill than any action sequence ever could. As Fincher said: “Part of the approach on Zodiac was to make it look mundane enough for people to accept that what they’re watching is the truth. We didn’t want to hype anything or design anything to be seductive.” We are meant to follow the characters every step of the way, as they strive to find silver linings upon reaching dead ends, until they become so possessed by getting to the bottom of things that they have to start asking themselves whether they are pursuing certain suspects because they really believe they had done it, or because they just want the whole ordeal to be over with. Each of the three characters gets their moment to shine and subsequently burn out, with Graysmith waiting the longest to jump on the bandwagon, ultimately finding himself alone in his endeavors and futile pursuits, but taking us, the viewers, along with him for the ride.

For Graysmith, time becomes irrelevant—years have passed between his first encounter with one of the Zodiac’s letters and the moment he finally gets to “stand there (…) look him in the eye, and (…) know that it’s him.” And yet, it makes no difference to him, for he is willing to leave the ever-evolving world behind (his family included) for the sake of digging up the past and stirring shit up. For us, the passing of time also bears no meaning, for we do not feel it, so we gleefully follow Graysmith in his maddening quest. But for all the other characters, time is a very tangible variable that begs for them to drop the dead weight they had been carrying for far too long. This incessant passing of time is presented to us in a variety of ways—there are on-screen subtitles that indicate how many months or years have gone by, there is “a music montage of hit songs signaling the passage of time from Joni Mitchell to Donna Summer” over a black screen, as well as most critics’ favorite, the construction of the Transamerica building via a time-lapse.

 
Fincher shot his film with the digital Thomson Viper Filmstream camera, thereby making Zodiac the first major studio feature to be shot and produced digitally, with the result being unparalleled quality. Fincher had already become more than familiar with the Viper over the previous three years while shooting commercials for brands such as Lexus, Nike, Heineken and Hewlett Packard. This experience enabled him to get comfortable and really experiment with the camera, which is the same thing Savides had to do. His first experience with the Viper was filming a commercial with Fincher, and after having discovered the camera’s limitations, the DOP finally felt at ease with using it. Still, not everything was shot digitally—the slow-motion murder sequences were filmed with traditional high-speed film cameras. When it comes to the ways in which Zodiac was shot, Fincher wanted to present the action objectively, without any razzle-dazzle, not just because it would be hard to be subjective while presenting the plethora of information meant for us to digest, but also because the goal was not for us to see the events from the Zodiac’s perspective, which, in the director’s words, “would have turned the story into a first-person-shooter video game,” something he wanted to avoid at all costs.

But as Savides pointed out, there was one scene in Zodiac where the camera does indeed become subjective. The scene in question is the one in which Toschi and his fellow officers go to a factory to interview the main suspect. As he presents them with admissions and improvable alibis and flashes his fancy wristwatch made by a manufacturer called Zodiac, what we are presented with are the detectives’ individual viewpoints—shots of them looking at the watch are followed by their POV shots, implying that the camera takes on each of their individual perspectives as they slowly go through the process of realizing that that might just be their guy. As Savides himself said, it is “a subtle thing, but it adds immensely to the anxiety level of the scene without us having to resort to more camera movement or quick cutting.” Fincher also talked to his actors about how the scene was going to be played out, letting them know that he did not want them to have any preconceived notions about the suspect, because he wanted the camera to follow their deduction process as the pieces of information started snowballing and falling into place. And we as the audience are right alongside them, stepping into the detectives’ point-of-view, with their realization process mimicking our own.

 
But although Fincher decided not to include the Zodiac’s perspective so as not to glamorize the murderer, and even though the vast majority of scenes objectively follows police procedures, we are, in fact, shown several of the Zodiac’s shocking crimes, but never do we see his face. What is more, Fincher even used different actors for every scene involving the killer so as not to implicate the main suspect even further than both the book and the movie had already done. But this decision actually plays well within the context of the story, seeing as how the Zodiac descriptions given by the surviving victims actually did differ.

And when it came to casting his leads, Fincher knew from the get-go he wanted both Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo. He had liked the former in the Richard Kelly cult classic Donnie Darko (2001) and claimed the versatile actor was a double-sided coin who could do both naivete and possession with the utmost conviction. He indeed hit the mark with Gyllenhaal, whose progression from a shy, boy-scout-like cartoonist to a proactively crazed person might as well be considered an acting masterclass in and of itself. The actor took the role seriously, meeting with Graysmith and videotaping him so that he could study his behavior and idiosyncrasies. Ruffalo, on the other hand, was not initially interested in doing Zodiac, but after the actor heard Fincher was set on rewriting the screenplay, Ruffalo was game. In preparation, he read every report on the Zodiac case and met with Toschi, who had perfect recollection of all the details. But not everyone was enthusiastic about the way Fincher worked with his actors. Gyllenhaal was frustrated with the director’s insistence on doing not just numerous takes, but also reshooting certain scenes time and time again. Downey Jr. agreed with Gyllenhaal and even went as far as leaving jars of urine around the set, thereby protesting the lack of breaks. He ultimately decided to just give the director what he wanted in terms of performance and later on said: “I think I’m the perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags.” But Ruffalo had more than enough understanding for Fincher’s methods: “The way I see it is, you enter into someone else’s world as an actor. You can put your expectations aside and have an experience that’s new and pushes and changes you, or hold on to what you think it should be and have a stubborn, immovable journey that’s filled with disappointment and anger.”

 
Called by critic Roger Ebert “the ‘All the President’s Men’ of serial killer movies,” Fincher’s Zodiac is a perfect example of how to create genuine suspense and thrill without the usage of cheap tricks. The only tricks used were highly intelligent writing, objective camera movement and precise editing, as well as the craftsmanship of an incredibly talented cast. Thematically speaking, Zodiac is a mesmerizing, in-depth study of obsession and its potential consequences. For although the focus is placed on neither the murderer nor the psychological motivation behind his crimes, he never ceases to be the sun around which all the other characters orbit (occasionally colliding with one another), a phantasm that always remains just slightly out of reach, eating away at the protagonists’ souls and constantly bringing into question their sense of safety. As well as their sanity. In fact, this topic of obsession painstakingly mirrors Fincher’s obsession with making the perfect movie. An endeavor he ultimately succeeded in.

Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »

 

“When you begin an adaptation, the only thing you can be sure of is you’re gonna end up throwing out of your source material for the simple fact that you can’t fit it all in,” explains screenwriter-producer James Vanderbilt. “Add to that the facts that the movie is based on two books, as well as a ton of interviews. The one thing we had going for us is that the movie is about these guys who get sucked down the rabbit hole of the Zodiac case, Graysmith in particular, but also the detectives and a reporter. The dearth of information worked for us, because there was always another conversation to be had, theory to be discussed, suspect to examine. I think the movie itself is one of the most ‘informationally packed’ I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t even scratch the surface in terms of the sheer volume of material out there.” —James Vanderbilt, Zodiac Production Notes

 
Screenwriter must-read: James Vanderbilt’s screenplay for Zodiac [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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DAVID FINCHER OF ZODIAC

David Fincher of Zodiac, by Shawn Levy. From the Oregonian, March 2, 2007.

Zodiac is a story about real people who were brutally murdered or wounded and who are either still around or still have families alive. Do you feel an obligation to the survivors and relatives?
Yes. You know, we could’ve made this movie without ever having interviewed anybody, and we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to get the real story, and we wanted them to know that we didn’t just want to depict their anonymous suffering as “Victim No. 4.” We wanted to know what really happened and the fallout from it. I feel a responsibility to that. When you’re portraying people’s real lives, you owe them the responsibility and dignity of telling them what you’re gonna do and then sticking to that. My reputation aside, I really don’t set out to offend anybody. And especially not people who’ve suffered.

The film is built around this trio of people trying to solve the crime (reporter Paul Avery, detective David Toschi, and cartoonist and independent investigator Robert Graysmith). Do you feel particularly close to any one of them in personality or attitude?
I feel about the same for all of them. They’re sort of all pieces of who I am. Avery, the pro, says things like, “This guy killed only five people; more people die every year in the East Bay commute.” He’s the tortured realist; he’d love to get involved and get broken up about stuff, but he doesn’t. And then Toschi, who thinks you have to let things go. Graysmith is the compulsive part of my personality.

Internet sites that follow film production have suggested that this film might have been out sooner, maybe in time for Oscar consideration. Was there a lot of delay in finishing?
Well, making movies is hard. It takes a long time. And we reshot a lot of stuff, and some of it’s better and some of it’s not. We had to play around with it and do some test screenings, with the intent of assuaging everyone’s fears. And we didn’t. So then you go through that whole rigmarole of, “Let’s all see what the movie actually is.” And we did that for six months, and it got to the shape that it has now. We reached a concession point. I wasn’t gonna make it any shorter, and they weren’t going to let me make it any longer. So it’s where it should be.

What sort of things did you lose that you wish you had saved?
There was some stuff in the original cut that I would have loved to have seen in the final cut, but they just wouldn’t sit still for it. There was an entire scene where the cops run down some district attorney with their case against Arthur Leigh Allen (a suspect). And I just love it because it’s so Charlie’s Angels: just three guys talking into a speakerphone. But the audience was, “You’re kidding, right? Five minutes of guys talking into a speakerphone?” Well, the audience spoke, and the audience said no.

You took great pains to achieve a period look for the film, it seems to me. What portion of your attention do you reckon you put into things like decor and props and wardrobe?
Probably far too much! I hope it’s the right amount. It starts early on. We would always try to find anything that was real. Reality is good enough for me, and that’s what we did. “What would the outside of this character’s house look like?” Well, we got some pictures and we knew. Between the truth and something that was beautiful, we opted to go with the truth. Our other mantra was, “Let’s make sure that we don’t do pastiche.” It’s one thing to do an homage, but I didn’t want to make a movie about sideburns. I wanted it to be a movie about people, and I wanted it to be about the seventies in San Francisco that I knew growing up. So when in doubt, I would reference old photos and go, like, “Yeah, that’s about how many Volkswagen Bugs you’d see on the street, so that’s what we’ll do.”

When you did that visual research, did you find that the period differed from your impressions from your childhood?
It was pretty much as I remembered it. The one thing that changed was my understanding of the Zodiac case, which was based on a seven-year-old’s memory. As a kid, I always thought Zodiac’s body count was much higher and that there was this huge manhunt to find this guy. It turns out it was two guys with these rotary phones and Bic pens. Even when they were telling us on television that they were going through computer files comparing fingerprints, the reality was that the technology didn’t exist in any truly useful format until later. The seventies was a little bit of a technological backwater. They didn’t have fax machines. And we wanted to talk about that—not to harp on it but to remind people that those times were more primitive.

 

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL

The Devil Is in the Detail, by Nev Pierce, Total Film, March 26, 2007. This is the story of how a committed director and the cast he drove crazy created the most compelling movie of 2007. Nev Pierce follows David Fincher from script to set to edit suite for the making of a modern classic.





 

HARRIS SAVIDES, ASC

“I grew up on the East Coast, so I’d never heard of the Zodiac before this project,” says Savides, a New York native who had previously collaborated with Fincher on commercials and the features Seven, and The Game. “I loved the Zodiac script, but I was concerned about the amount of non-cinematic information that had to be conveyed onscreen. There was so much exposition, just people talking on the phone or having conversations. It was difficult to imagine how it could be done in a visual way. I told David we had to figure out ways to make these scenes interesting and cinematic, but our solution was the opposite: to simply have faith in the material and present it truthfully.” —Harris Savides, ASC and director David Fincher plumb the depths of human obsession

 
“The story had so much expository information to get across. At every point in the process, we thought about clarity. How does this angle make the story we’re telling more real for the audience?” —Harris Savides, ASC hunts a killer

 
Harris Savides left us way too soon in 2012, at the age of 55. Harris was a pure artist, and a gentle bear of a man, intelligent, considerate and humble. He was universally admired by his peers, and sought out by top filmmakers including Gus Van Sant (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Milk, Finding Forrester, Restless); David Fincher (The Game, Zodiac, and the opening title sequence in Seven); Martin Scorsese (The Key to Reserva); Wong Kar Wai (The Follow); Ridley Scott (American Gangster); Sofia Coppola (Somewhere and The Bling Ring); Noah Baumbach (Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding); John Turturro (Illuminata). Harris also lit notable music videos for Madonna and REM.

 

ANGUS WALL, ACE

David Fincher on digital filmmaking and Zodiac, by Michael Kunkes. Here you get a look at the editing of the film; Zodiac was shot mostly digitally using Viper Cam and then edited using Final Cut Pro (6) by Angus Wall (A.C.E.).

How did you pick Angus Wall to edit Zodiac?
Angus and I have worked together for many years—exclusively for the past couple—and on commercials. Beyond his skill and sensitivity with character, and his tireless pursuit of the most streamlined narrative, we’ve been talking about our all-digital pipeline for some time. And he was, in my mind, the only guy to lead this charge. We both hate tape, and with the Viper camera as a “performance harvesting” tool, and the S.two [digital field recorder system] as a “mastering device,” we could finally do it.

What was your day-to-day interaction like?
Angus and I have a very intuitive relationship. I leave him alone because I trust what he does, and also because I want to see what he comes up with. So often, he can look at footage and say, “You didn’t mean that, you meant this.”

Like Seven and Fight Club, Zodiac is very darkly themed. How does it differ from your other movies?
This movie is very different for me in terms of the staging. There are not a lot of close-ups, because I wanted everything to play as wide as it possibly could. Most scenes are: Two guys walk into a room, sit down over a cup of coffee and then proceed to rip through six pages of dialogue. We were trying to be super-simple and super-direct and wanted audiences to form their own opinions of things, and not have to go, “Oh, that’s the killer; that’s the evil guy.”

What was the reaction at Paramount and Warner Bros. to your workflow?
I think that in the end, they were freaked out by little weird things, like, “Who’s going to handle the digital material?“ “What’s going to happen to these D.Mags [digital film magazines]?” “Where will they go?” The answer is that they’ll be dealt with in the same way that your single copy of your camera negative is dealt with: A production assistant delivers it somewhere in a van, and it’s ingested there. Once they realized they were going to have back-ups and copies of everything—and once they started seeing stuff happen on PIX [Private Internet Exchange firewall], which put everyone on the same page—they were sold.

As a filmmaker, what did Zodiac mean to your craft?
The great thing about digital moviemaking is that for the first time in the history of motion pictures, everyone—from the cameraman to the hair and makeup people—is looking at the same 23-inch monitor, reviewing a take and talking about the exact same thing, and that’s never been possible before. The idea was not to be as “digital” as we could for its own sake. The idea is to use everything that’s available to us to make the filmmaking process cleaner, keep everyone informed, and communicate better so we can get more of what we want. It’s just another way of democratizing information.

 

ZODIAC FILM SCRAPBOOK

Zodiac Film Scrapbook by Kasey Jeffrey is a commemorative film scrapbook for the 2007 film Zodiac directed by David Fincher. To view a digital, interactive version of the book click here.






 
Documentary covering every aspect of the investigation, including interviews with the original investigators and surviving victims. From the Special Edition DVD of Zodiac special features.


Open YouTube video

 
Commentary with director David Fincher.


Open YouTube video

 
Josh Forrest put together an excellent supercut of every insert shot in Zodiac.

 
The fourth installment of The Directors Series’ examination into the films and career of director David Fincher, covering his first feature-length forays into digital filmmaking. Written, edited and narrated by Cameron Beyl.

 

DAVID FINCHER ON FILMMAKING

How does David Fincher make films? And what are his influences in that approach? What does making films mean to him?

“I always wanted to give a lecture at filmschools. You go in and you see all these fresh faces, and you say: ‘You! Stand up, tell me your story. Tell me what your film is going to be about.’ And they start, and you go: ‘Shut up and sit the fuck down!’ And if they do, you go: ‘You’re not ready.’ Because the film business is filled with shut-up and sit-the-fuck-down. You got to be able to tell your story in spite of sit-down and shut-the-fuck-up. If you are going to let something like that derail you, what hope do you have against transportation department? What hope do you have against development executives?” —David Fincher

 
In loving memory of Harris Savides (1957–2012)

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Fincher’s Zodiac. Photographed by Merrick Morton © Paramount Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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