David Fincher takes us behind the scenes on Zodiac

Director David Fincher has never been afraid of controversial subjects, who could forget the gruesome murders that haunted his 1995 film

Q: Did
Zodiac require a huge amount of research,
re-examining all the original evidence of the case?

A: 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. 

Q: When did you first hear about
the Zodiac Killer?

A: 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.
And going back, 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…
it’s been an 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.

Q: 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

: 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…

Q: Is it
interesting to you to explore what toll unsolved cases have on
the people who investigate them?

A: 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 did find them and maybe they got away with it, or maybe there
is another alley that you haven’t pursued and over time all of this
begins to unravel…And what is it 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.


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

Q: Cops get a gut feeling about
cases, don’t they?

A: And 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.

Q: In the same way you can tell
someone’s a cop.

A: You can smell them.

Q: A lot of serial killers have
obsessions with policemen.

A: 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.

Q: He apparently took some of
his cues from movies.

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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 cooperated with that
movie. It’s an interested scene in the movie and kind of the bridge
in the movie.

Q: When
David Toschi and the other cops watched it in real life it must have
been horrendous.

A: 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.

Q: Make it a document?
A: 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.

Q: You were striving for a real
sense of reality?

A: 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.

Q: 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.

A: 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.

Q: When you first consider a
project do you think about how it will
be presented to the public?

A: 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.

Law & Order is quite compulsive.

A: Yeah, and that’s the
way that it works on you. It is a compulsion because it’s very much
about narrative, but it’s always about the narrative and how it affects
these characters, even though you get little more than skin deep into
what’s happening. They rip stuff from headlines and in that way they’re
dealing with moral issues that are pertinent. But I do think that people
are interested in the idea of the machinations of justice. So, based
on that, when I read the script I thought, ‘Oh, this could be a good

Q: In real life, police investigations
are generally quite expansive – it’s never just one detective.

A: Yeah, and there’d be
somebody going, ‘Yeah, I’ll talk to blah blah blah,’ ‘Oh, let
me write that down. What was her name again?’ ‘I’ll have to get
you that last name. I’ll get back to you.’ It’s always disseminated
information. That’s the thing I always hate about movie villains.
It’s never Dr Evil; it’s never one guy. To me evil is always so
much more realistically portrayed when it’s corporate.