“So, which side are you on? ” asks director David Fincher, beginning the interview with a question.
“Which side of what?”
Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, John Carroll Lynch, Dermot Mulroney
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 2 Mar 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 20 Apr 2007 (General release); 2007)
“The length of the movie. Are you on the `too long’ side, or were you OK with it?”
Fincher’s question is serious, and so is the movie in question, “Zodiac,” which opens Friday. In the last few months, Fincher’s somber, much-anticipated drama about the hunt for the self-named Zodiac killer has become something of a hot potato, not for its violence, which was the issue with Fincher’s breakthrough film, the much- imitated “Se7en.” Nor is it contentious for its dark examination of American culture, as was Fincher’s cult classic, “Fight Club.”
No, “Zodiac” has become an issue, at least for the studio distributing it, because it has a running time of 154 minutes. The excessive length of the second “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment was not an issue, they say, because it was action-packed, and the 3-hour “Lord of the Rings” films, with their intricate plots and extended battle scenes, apparently prevented no one from seeing and enjoying them.
But “Zodiac” is that rarest of birds in Hollywood; like Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” and Francis Coppola’s “The Godfather II,” it is designed to be long and to feel long.
“The style is reflective of the subject,” says actor Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo plays Dave Toschi, the San Francisco homicide cop who lived with the Zodiac case, a string of ritualistic serial murders that have never officially been solved. (Toschi was also the model for Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character; the first film in that series was inspired by the Zodiac killings.)
David Fincher [Zodiac]
“Everyone involved in this spent years working it. They became obsessed with it. Then they became haunted by it. And finally, at least in Paul’s case, they felt defeated by it. David’s primary interest, I thought, was not the killer, or even catching the killer, even though to my mind, the film solves the mystery. His interest is the toll it took on people. And it takes time to express that.”
“Zodiac” was to have opened in January, to make it eligible for the Academy Awards. There was wide belief it could have been a contender for a number or major awards, most notably for Robert Downey, who plays hard-living San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery. Avery covered the killings, beginning with Zodiac’s “coming out” in a letter he wrote bragging of a 1969 double slaying and a 1968 murder. Zodiac proceeded to get and hold the attention of a nation with a series of cryptic letters to newspapers, and to Avery himself, in which he played a game with the cops and the media. Were the newspapers providing a public service by publishing his missives, or simply giving the killer the publicity he craved?
But according to some accounts, distributor Paramount balked at releasing the even longer version delivered by Fincher, who contractually had final cut, and, asked him to make changes. When he declined, they elected not to mount an Oscar campaign and release the film in March, traditionally a time when movie attendance is low and the studios unload films they consider to be lacking in commercial potential.
Fincher, who admits to “doing my best to avoid those kind of political games and all the speculation that goes with it,” is somewhat coy with the subject, saying he is “really all not that certain what was going through those guys’ heads.”
“Truth is, I really didn’t have the film in the shape I wanted it in December anyway,” he says. “I don’t know what their thinking is, but I assume they have research and experts in this field.
“After all,” Fincher adds with obvious sarcasm, “these are the guys who were working `Nacho Libre.’”
“Nacho Libre,” a comedy starring Jack Black as Mexican wrestler, was positioned to be a major summer hit for the studio.
“The studio knew from the beginning this film was not another `Se7en,’” says Fincher, “even if that may have been what they hoped for. The things that made me want to make it may be some of the same things that other people find problematic. I liked the idea that there was not a neat ending, But I also find the ending satisfying, because it’s real, it feels true. Some things just don’t get wrapped up neatly. Sometimes, you just have to put things away, call it done, say `I’ve done the best I can do according to what I believe in,’ and get on with it.”
“Zodiac” follows the actual events of the long, meandering case, which spawned copy cat murders and false confessions, “to the best of my ability,” he says, but James Vanderbilt’s spare script is based in part on two books - “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked” by Robert Graysmith, who had just taken a job as a cartoonist at the Chronicle when Zodiac first wrote to the paper, and spent years following the case’s twists and turns. Graysmith, who is played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal, came to a conclusion as to Zodiac’s identity, and that is duly dramatized in the film.
“I had absolutely no doubt that this film gives us the guy who did it,” says Ruffalo. “Toschi says that after he interviewed the guy, he was completely convinced, and no one knew this case better than him. When you read the interrogation, you get chills, He was just a stone-cold sociopath and he was playing mind games with the cops. To me, the answer is in the movie.”
Fincher is not nearly as certain.
“I trust Toschi and I trust Graysmith and I trust their conviction that they’re convinced. But you know, I never really saw this as a police procedural, a case to be locked up,” says Fincher, who is currently directing a film of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” starring Brad Pitt. “I looked at this as a newspaper movie. My model was `All the President’s Men.’ You piece the thing together with a bit of info here, a hunch there, and you make mistakes long the way, and maybe you end up with an supportable conclusion as to the when and where and how. ... And maybe, with someone like Zodiac, even he couldn’t provide an answer, I don’t know.
“At some point, even if it makes you crazy, you have to say, the story’s over. That’s the story, that’s all we have. Not every question can be answered.”
Will moviegoers devote 2-plus hours?