Born in Denver in 1962 and raised in Marin County until the mid-1970s, director David Fincher came of age in the years when the Bay Area was fogged in by fear of the eponymous serial killer who called himself Zodiac, whose encrypted messages appeared regularly in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and whose unresolved identity would bedevil a generation of police and reporters long after the killings had stopped. “I remember this so vividly,” says Fincher. “In 1976, when my parents packed us up to move to Southern Oregon, I remember looking out the back window of the car as we were driving to the Interstate and thinking, ‘Whatever happened to Zodiac? Did they ever catch that guy?’ ”
Well, they didn’t, and that elusive pursuit is the subject of Fincher’s own Zodiac, based on former Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith’s two best-selling books, which was released to strong reviews but earned tepid grosses in the spring of 2007. Now, in the thick of Oscar season, the movie, like the Zodiac case itself, seems to have been forgotten by everyone except for a few devoted adherents — namely, the dozens of film critics who ranked the film high on their year-end-best lists. (The film placed third, behind only Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, in the recent L.A. Weekly/Village Voice critics’ poll.) That’s done seemingly little to persuade Paramount Pictures, which distributed Zodiac, to mount a serious awards campaign for the film (which has a presence on the studio’s awards Web site, but few of the double-truck trade-paper ads and “for your consideration” screenings of the studio’s Sweeney Todd). No matter: As all the retrospective acclaim suggests, Zodiac has life in it yet, and seems sure to endure in the cinematic fossil record longer than many of the past year’s celluloid causes célèbres. (Atonement, hello?)
That’s okay by Fincher, who already has another film — an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s reverse-aging novella The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring his Se7en and Fight Club collaborator Brad Pitt — in the editing room, but who took time out from a New Year’s holiday in Mexico to look back at Zodiac just as a two-disc special-edition DVD (which includes a slightly longer director’s cut of the film itself) was arriving in stores.
L.A. WEEKLY: Because you directed it and it involves a serial killer, Zodiac seems to get mentioned a lot in the same breath as Se7en, but beyond some superficial similarities, the two films don’t have very much in common. In Se7en, the serial killer is a major presence in the story, but in Zodiac, he’s more of a phantom figure, and the movie is about all the collateral victims caught in his wake.
DAVID FINCHER: My agent called me on a Saturday morning and said, “I just read a script that you have to read, and you won’t want to read it because it’s a serial-killer thing.” Then he told me the title — Zodiac — and I said, “Okay, send it.” Then I read it and I thought, You know, this is not a serial-killer movie; it’s a newspaper story.
Both times I’ve seen the film, I’ve wondered if the characters’ obsessive pursuit of Zodiac — the way they navigate their way through these twisting thickets of information — is a kind of analogue for the filmmaking process itself.
If you’re talking about the theme of obsession and process . . .
Well, you are known for doing lots of takes.
I’m unaware of being obsessed about the work. I just look at it as: I’ve taken tens of millions of dollars of somebody’s money and I owe it to make the best possible movie that I can muster on any given day. That’s my responsibility. That’s my oath of office. But I never looked at Zodiac and said, “Oh my god, Graysmith is so much like me.” Quite honestly, I saw Graysmith and I said, “I know that guy. That’s my dad.” I know exactly what that personality type is like. That was my greatest concern when I met with him for the first time. I thought, “If I meet some guy who’s totally self-righteous and self-aggrandizing, I can’t make this movie.” And instead, I met this guy who was like, “Hey, if we find some new evidence that completely throws everything on its head, I’m willing to write that book. I just want to see this thing put to bed.”
The details in the film — the design of the newsroom, the hairstyles, the costumes — are exquisitely rendered, but in a way that doesn’t call undue attention to them. It feels like we’re watching a movie that was made in the ’60s or ’70s instead of one that labors slavishly to re-create them.
We really sat down and talked about that from the beginning — me and Casey Storm, who did the costumes, and [production designer] Don Burt and [cinematographer] Harris Savides. We said, “We’re not doing pastiche here. We’re not making a movie about fat ties and sideburns. We’re not making a polyester parade.” First of all, the reality of the late ’60s, in terms of a corporate setting — granted a liberal corporate setting like the Chronicle — is that a lot of the people will appear to be holdovers from the early ’60s. They’re going to look like they’re from the space program. Of course, you’re going to see some people like Paul Avery in his ascots, who’s on the verge of the hippie thing. But we weren’t doing Haight-Ashbury and flower power. This is San Francisco as I knew it. This is San Francisco at the Time-Life Building, where I used to go and have lunch with my dad, who was the local bureau chief for Life. I knew these guys: Most of the people that my dad was friendly with were journalists, so I knew them all, back when they had a tumbler of scotch in their hand and were trying to amuse everyone in the room.
It’s not just the look of the film that’s very ’70s, but also the tone of the storytelling — the same kind of bleakness and lack of resolution that one associates with movies by directors like Alan J. Pakula, Sidney Lumet, Bob Rafelson and others who flourished in Hollywood in that era.
That was the decade that inspired and informed me, without a doubt. Those are the movies I come back to time and time again. I mean, I think it’s safe to say that without All the President’s Men, I wouldn’t have had the same confidence in making a newspaper story. When you talk about Pakula, you’re also talking about Klute, which is nearly perfect too. Those are the kinds of movies that I grew up loving, and I’ve never been that concerned with telling the audience that everything’s okay. There’s enough of that. You can find that on every street corner.
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But what you can’t find on every street corner — at least nowadays — is a studio willing to give you the backing to make a movie like that.
We didn’t make Zodiac in spite of Paramount or Warner Bros. [the film’s co-producer and international distributor]. We made it because they recognized the material, loved the material, loved what we wanted to do with it, and they ponied up a lot of money to make this movie.
Yet the film is seen as a commercial disappointment. Does that make it that much harder to do something like this again?
I don’t know, because . . . look, in the end the movie business is unlike many other businesses in that, yeah, it is about the bottom line, but it’s also about a form of immortality. The players in this business don’t view this as being just about making money and getting a table at the Golden Globes. For everyone who truly cares, I think, there’s a desire to be culturally important on some level. It’s not like anybody involved with Zodiac went in saying, “Don’t you get it? There’s going to be 180,000 close-ups of different parts of this file. People are going to flock to it!” Everybody knew what the issues were going to be, and in spite of that, they wanted to make the movie. The goal here was to make an interesting movie, and I do think that movies are . . . five years from now is more important than five months from now, in my humble opinion. I’ll trade the opening weekend for a movie that can stand scrutiny five or ten years down the road.