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Zodiac - David Fincher interview

David Fincher, director of Zodiac

Compiled by Jack Foley

DAVID Fincher talks about his interest and research for Zodiac as well as his earliest memories of growing up while San Francisco was in the grip of the serial killer…

Did Zodiac require a huge amount of research, re-examining all the original evidence of the case?
As much as possible. We have a couple of hunches. There are things you have to create or things you have to consolidate. We have discrepancies between police reports and people’s memories of things and wherever possible, wherever we have the police report, we defer to the police report, except in one instance. We [also] tried to be as faithful to the telling of [author and Zodiac investigator Robert] Graysmith’s point of view as we can.

When did you first hear about the Zodiac Killer?
I remember coming home from school and having the Highway Patrol follow our school bus… It happened for a couple of days and I remember going to my dad, who was a writer, worked at home, who said: “Oh that’s right, yeah, there was a guy who’s murdered four people and he’s sent a letter to the newspaper threatening to take a high-powered rifle and shoot out the tires of a school bus and kill the children on it.”

[I was like] “You work at home, you could drive us!” I remember that was the first time I really wondered whether my parents were competent to take care of children… But yeah, I remember the day, I think I was in first or second grade, I remember being on the playground where the kids were saying: “Zodiac called Jim Dunbar, Zodiac called Jim Dunbar!” We were six, seven years old. It was a weird time. It was a very odd time.

But going back and seeing it from the perspective of an adult was even weirder, when you actually look at this case and at the characters and you realise, you couldn’t make this stuff up. So, it’s been interesting… not a walk down memory lane, but it’s interesting to have the perspective of being on a bus going: “Someone’s going to shoot us…” And then being an adult and looking at it and going: “Oh, that’s a fairly calculated risk. This guy is killing people in Vallejo and Napa and we’re 25 or 35 miles from that so we’re all safe.” But I remember at the time thinking my parents were lunatics.

There’s a moment in the movie where Robert Graysmith – played by Jake Gyllenhaal – locks eyes with the prime suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch)...
There’s a good ten-year period when Graysmith was checking up on him – basically stalking him. It’s so funny. Somebody said: “The thing you realize about Robert is it’s not a tenacity; it’s just he’s got this kind of personality that he just wants to understand it and he’s not going to leave until he has as complete an understanding as he could possibly have…” Whatever Arthur Leigh Allen may have done, he certainly paid when the fates unleashed Robert Graysmith on him to follow him around.

Is it interesting to you to explore what toll unsolved cases have on the people who investigate them?
Well, the point of the movie is: What is justice? Is it justice knowing? Is it justice seeing them strap the guy down and stick the needle in his arm? Is it someone being lead away in handcuffs? What is the eye for an eye? What are the varying degrees? What are we prepared to accept as the end of the story? Or the end of an episode? You have a movie that begins not unsalaciously with some brutality to innocent people and then it becomes about: “We have to find him, we have to find him, we have to find him.”

And then maybe you do find them and maybe they get away with it, or maybe there’s another alley that you haven’t pursued and over time all of this begins to unravel… And what is at the core that stays important to you? What is the thing that you go: “I have to come away with this?”

Someone once said to me: “You don’t have to annihilate all the rattlesnakes in the world, you just need to know where they are.” And I think that’s kind of the conclusion they come to in the case – they’re not going to slam the door on somebody, anybody, even the person they thought it was, they’re not going to get the movie satisfaction.

Life isn’t like that…
No, it doesn’t tie itself up. It presents itself in complicated ways.

Cops get a gut feeling about cases, don’t they?
That’s one of the things I was really impressed with about the cops on the case. I mean, you meet cops and they have their intellect but then they have that other thing, that thing that you describe: it’s the gut, it’s the reflex, it’s the thing that’s like: “I looked in his eyes and I knew it was him, but there’s nothing I can do.” And, like, that’s an oddly valuable thing that can’t be discounted.

A lot of serial killers have obsessions with policemen…
When you’re talking about a serial killer you’re not talking about the most confident people [laughs]. That’s the thing that’s so odd, is that they’re always pictured in movies as being incredibly tough and assured and that’s not the case. The thing that’s fascinating for me about Zodiac is I believe his compulsion and his addiction was not ultimately about maiming people or murdering them, it became about communicating with the San Francisco Chronicle and that became far more gratifying and far more seductive then what he started out doing.

He apparently took some of his cues from movies…
I don’t know how much of that is true. I mean, look, in order to get past that normal kind of human restraint you have to have a pretty fulfilling and powerful fantasy component. So, obviously that stuff was stoked by movies. I always used to question whether or not you put a movie like Se7en out and then the eighth or ninth week it’s in the theatre you go to the matinee and you just arrest everyone who’s there… [laughs]. Or Saw. If they’re going to see Saw in the ninth week of the matinee it’s because there’s another kind of gratification going on. Yeah, I think it’ll be interesting. It’s a very different kind of portrayal of a serial killer.

The ‘Scorpio Killer’ in Dirty Harry is based loosely on Zodiac – which is pretty shocking when you consider it was made in 1971, as the letters were still arriving at the Chronicle. Was it shocking to realize the connection?
I didn’t like it. I’ve got to tell you. When I saw it I resented it. I thought: “Wow, they’re making light of something that I remember.” There’s a big moment in the movie based on that. It’s the San Francisco Police Department watching a screening of an as-yet-unreleased Dirty Harry and kind of going: “Wow.” And all those guys co-operated with that movie. It’s an interested scene in the movie and kind of the bridge in the movie.

When David Toschi and the other cops watched it in real life it must have been horrendous…
Well, it’s funny. They talk a lot about laughing, how they laughed. But I remember, maybe this is just me sort of insinuating myself, I remember being appalled, because it was such a big deal. Zodiac ruined a couple of Halloweens for us, you know? People were in fear. I mean, people didn’t board up their houses and buy shotguns and stand vigil, but it was upsetting. It was very upsetting, the letters and the taunting. And so then, in the middle of that – it was late ’71, so it was kind of over by then – but to have this movie.

The movie exists on its own movie terms. It’s really about kind of that entertainment value, and so it sort of used Zodiac as a jumping off point. But I remember kind of going: “That’s not nice.” It’s not that it was insensitive: it was just that it just seemed odd. I feel that way about re-enacting the stabbings of Berryessa [in Zodiac]. It was a creepy thing. It’s a creepy thing to ask people to do. Every time someone talked about Zodiac, they talked about the stabbing of Berryessa, but a lot happened after the stabbing of Berryessa. It took hours. I mean, Cecelia Shepard didn’t die for days, and Bryan Hartnell wears those scars to this day.

This guy crawled half a mile onto a road, blacking out, to try and get help, and they were bound and stabbed. So, there’s a responsibility to that. We didn’t want to use Zodiac as a jumping off point. We wanted to try and stay as much to the letter of what Graysmith was talking about, as much as it was verifiable by police reports, and stay away from conjecture.

Make it a document?
Not even a document. Because it’s not a document. Look, it’s pointed. It has a point of view. We bought two books. They were written by one guy. And the guy gets a lot of flak to this day about the conclusions that he drew, and some of the evidence that he has, and how it was obtained or whatever, but the fact of the matter is, he did. He does have a really pretty profound understanding of what happened. And we’ve tried to present as complete and compelling a case as we can.

You were striving for a real sense of reality?
I wanted it to feel real to me. I wanted the ’70s to feel like and look like they felt to me. You can’t look at The Game and go: “I was there.” So, you’re making it up, going: “What would his house be like? What kind of car would he drive?”

But here, we not only knew which cars people drove, we knew what their licence plate number was, so we could do all that stuff. I didn’t want to make a movie about sideburns. I didn’t want to make a movie about plaid, and flared pants, and bell bottoms, and platform shoes. I didn’t want it to be kitsch. I wanted it to feel like it felt to me. I wanted those people to look like the people that my parents knew, that I’d come into contact with and I’d seen pictures of.

There’s a theme in a few of your movies, of a character needing to do something that isn’t necessarily the most healthy thing for them…
Maybe. A bit. I mean, most of the drama in movies is the person who refuses to give up, or the person who refuses to turn away, and what happens, and then the glory that comes from that, which is obviously the one thing we don’t have.

When you first consider a project do you think about how it will be presented to the public?
Yeah, you kind of go: “How can we market this movie?” And obviously there’s no way they’re going to put a poster up which doesn’t in some way talk about Se7en, so I knew that, but I think the criteria always has to be when you go: “Wow, I would enjoy seeing this movie, I would be interested by this movie.” I don’t think I’m that abnormal. I mean, I like Law & Order and I like CSI.

Read our review of Zodiac

Read our interview with Mark Ruffalo