The phrase “From the director of `Seven’” conjures up a certain expectation, especially when it’s plastered on the posters for “Zodiac,” a movie about the notorious serial killer who preyed on San Francisco in the 1960s and the 1970s.
But “Zodiac,” which opens Friday, could not be more different than the relentlessly bleak and gloomy thriller that instantly turned director David Fincher into a Hollywood hotshot in 1995—and spawned a thousand and one head-in-a-box jokes. Replacing “Seven’s” clinical gore and shadow-drenched atmosphere with talky newsrooms and drably lit detective offices, “Zodiac” is an obsessive police procedural—a long (nearly three hours), scrupulously researched drama, based on Robert Graysmith’s best-selling nonfiction books, that recounts the decade-long hunt for the murderer who became a pop culture boogeyman during the Summer of Love.
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)
Fincher, 44, grew up in San Francisco and remembers the wave of panic that swept through the city when the killer, who was never apprehended, went on his initial rampage. It was that childhood connection that drew him to the project, which had been kicking around Hollywood since the early 1990s. But it was the level of accuracy in the screenplay by James Vanderbilt, who had already been researching the case for nearly a year, that made him decide to direct the film.
Fincher recently spoke with The Miami Herald via telephone from New Orleans, where he’s in the midst of shooting “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who ages backward.
Q: The natural assumption when you hear David Fincher is making a movie about the Zodiac killer is that you’re going to get a companion piece to “Seven.”
A: I think that expectation helped me get it made. But it was never my intention.
David Fincher [Zodiac]
Q: This movie is more like “All the President’s Men,” in that there is almost nothing in it that doesn’t have to do with either the reporters or the police officers who were working the case as it unfolded.
A: That movie was our model for “Zodiac.” I did want it to be emotional, not just facts like Court TV. But I wasn’t interested in spending time to tell the back story of any of these characters. I just wanted to know what they did in regards to the case.
Q: The movie is also a departure for you stylistically, in that it’s shot in a very straightforward manner—flat lighting, simple set-ups, no cool camera angles or movements—unlike the other films you’ve made.
A: That was part of the intent. How do we remind people at all times that what they’re seeing is true, that is has absolutely nothing to do with artifice? We decided, rightly or wrongly, to present it in the simplest conceivable way. The actors would walk into a room with a Styrofoam cup, deliver their four pages of dialogue, and that would be it. We were going to make the information king and the movie would live or die by the believability of the performances.
Q: You made some interesting casting choices, like Anthony Edwards as Inspector William Armstrong (one of the key detectives on the case). How did you think of him?
A: Anthony and I live in the same neighborhood and our kids play together. I’ve always loved him as an actor, but I’ve always thought of him as the guy who lives up the street. When it was time to cast the part of Armstrong, I knew I needed the most decent person I could find, because he would be the balance of the movie.
In a weird way, this movie wouldn’t exist without Bill Armstrong: Everything we know about the Zodiac case, we know because of his notes. So in casting the part, I wanted to get someone who is totally reliable. Anthony is a wonderful actor and he turns in an astonishingly underplayed performance. It’s kind of a thankless role, but he’s so good and so minimalist and empathetic.
Q: You were a kid living in San Francisco when the Zodiac killings first started and panic broke out. Were you aware of what was going on?
A: I remember vividly the day he called (attorney) Melvin Belli on live TV during the Jim Dunbar show. I was in the second grade and I remember my dad taking the day off from work after that. I don’t think we ever found out it was a hoax—a guy calling from a mental institution—but I do remember people talking about that day.
Q: Was there any pressure from the studio (Paramount Pictures) over the running time of the movie (2 hours and 45 minutes)?
A: Oh, no. (laughs) They said `Make it as long as you can!’ Look, some people aren’t going to like how long this movie is. I respect that. But I couldn’t figure out a way to cut out more stuff and have the same emotional net effect. We screened the movie many times. We tried to make the movie as short as we could. But we also made promises to people that we were going to tell their story and they would not be turned into plot devices—Nameless Victim No. 1. And whenever possible, we tried to make good on those promises.
Q: You also resisted the temptation to make the movie scary in a traditional sense. The murders play out in a very flat manner. I think the scariest moment in the whole movie is when one of the cops notices the particular kind of watch a suspect is wearing.
A: We wanted the murder sequences to feel like you were there. When we asked Mike Mageau and Bryan Hartnell (the Zodiac’s two surviving victims, who served as consultants on the film) about it, they both said it came out of nowhere and happened very, very quickly.
If you stretch the moment and you make it about a close-up of the guy’s feet walking through the reeds—as soon as you amp it up, it becomes serial-killer porn. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to capture the feeling of what it would be like to be there chatting with your girlfriend, life seems OK and two minutes later, you’re listening to someone scream for their life and you’re hoping the police show up.
My goal from the beginning was to make a scary movie that would have the same effect on the audience as (the real-life case) had on me. But I didn’t want to pander and I didn’t want to be salacious. It’s not just a Friday night at a scary movie. It’s not “Saw.”