Zodiac: David Fincher’s Personal Obsession?

Based on the true story of the serial killer who terrified the San Francisco Bay Area and taunted authorities in four jurisdictions with his ciphers and letters for decades, “Zodiac,” David Fincher’s first movie in five years, is an epic-scale psychological thriller–and his best work since “The Fight Club,” perhaps even “Se7en.”

Scripted by James Vanderbilt, “Zodiac” is based on Robert Graysmith’s two published books about the case: the 1986 “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked.” With more than 400 million copies worldwide, “Zodiac” is now in its 39th printing; “Zodiac Unmasked” is in its seventh edition.

Haunting down the hunter becomes the obsession of four men, each engaged in the case with his own personal and professional resources and his idiosyncratic personality. In due time, this obsession turns the quartet into ghost of their former selves. Their lives are built and destroyed by the killer’s endless murders and endless trail of clues.

Four Characters in Search of Solution

Robert Graysmith

In “Zodiac,” the San Francisco’s cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who played an instrumental role in the investigation, is cast with Jake Gyllenhaal (Oscar-nominated last year for “Brokeback Mountain”). Graysmith is the wild card and most idealistic of the bunch. A shy editorial cartoonist, initially (but also initially) Graysmith did not have the cache and expertise of his seasoned and cynical colleague at the San Francisco’s Chronicle, Paul Avery. Avery (played with bravura by Robert Downy Jr.) is the Chronicle’s star crime reporter. Downey Jr. is the only actor who plays someone that is no longer alive, but Fincher says: “Robert has such enthusiasm, and because he is someone who could really grasp Paul’s inner demons, he was perfect for the role.”

Graysmith lacked Avery’s connection with San Francisco Police Department’s ambitious Inspector Dave Tosci (Mark Ruffalo) and his low-key, meticulous partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). What Graysmith did have was commitment to the cause, boundless energy–and a crucial insight that no one else anticipated, one that appeared August 1, 1969. (Remember the date when you see the movie).

Childhood Nightmares

For Fincher, the Zodiac could be described as the ultimate Bogey Man, particularly as seen from the point of view of a boy, as Fincher was when the main events took place. In this respect, “Zodiac” is a personal film that goes back to his nightmares as a second-grader. He says: “If you grew up in the Bay Area, you had this childhood fear that you kind of insinuated yourself into it. What if the school bus is our bus What if the killer showed up in our neighborhood You create even more drama about it when you’re a kid, because that is what kids do. I grew up in Marin and Now I know the geography of where the crime took place, but when you’re in grade school, children don’t think about that. They think, ‘He’s going to show up at our school.'”

Like many children who grew up in the Bay Area in the early 1970s, Fincher, then 7, was spellbound by the invisible monster known only as the Zodiac. “I remember as kids we talked bout the killer calling in on the Dunbar Show. In 1974, we moved away and I remember realizing that other places, other people knew about the Zodiac killer.

Personal Obsession

Fincher observes: “Never in my widest dreams did I imagine that three decades later, I would be asked to envision a film that would prompt me to retrace the killer’s steps with several of the officers who tracked the most notorious killer of his youth. They combed through 10,000 pages of documents and evidence; interview the victims who survived, the loved ones of those who didn’t and the relatives of a prime suspect. At that time, that prime suspect was a former teacher turned pedophile, fired and imprisoned for fondling grade school teachers.” Fincher says he, too, “succumbed to the need to know, a need that fueled a young San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist’s obsession to unravel the mystery of a murderer.”

Fincher on Graysmith

Robert Graysmith channeled his obsession into two books, the bestseller Zodiac and the follow-up, Zodiac unmasked, recounting in both in minute detail every fact and tormented nuance of the unproven for those closest to the investigations in four jurisdictions, his derisive yet engaging colleague Paul Avery and himself. Robert Graysmith knew he was a guy on the sidelines of this story. He wanted to be a part of it and he made himself a part of it. He was doing it on his own time, because he wasn’t a reporter. It was Robert who went after it, after everybody else had pretty much walked away. Everything that we include in the movie, we used from what Robert gave us. But we also had police reports, so we backed everything up with documentation, our own interviews and evidence.

Doing Our Own research

Notes Fincher: “Even when we did our own interviews, we would talk to two people. One would confirm some aspects of it and another would deny it. Plus, so much time had passed, memories are affected, and the different telling of the stories change perception. So when there was any doubt, we always went with the police reports.”

Telling the Story through Robert’s Eyes

The one thing about the Zodiac story is that there are so many people out there who are convinced that Robert is wrong about some things, and that their version or interpretation is right. There are so many myths that sprang up, that you have to keep all of that in minds when you are dealing with the story of Zodiac. That is why we chose to tell the story the way we did, through Robert’s eyes. My Goal was to capture the truth of those books.

Glorious Cast

Fincher says, “I feel very fortunate to have this cast. I found the people I wanted to work with. And I was very fortunate to have many of the real people from that time around. I think we tried to give people their due respect. But it was never about duplicating them exactly, like their hair, etc.


Since the killer said in the cryptogram that he would not give his name, the Hardens thought the anagram was “Robert Emmet the Hippie.” It was not until August 1992, 23 years after the Hardens deciphered the name that police learned key suspect Arthur Leigh Allen was a jealous swim team rival of his high school classmate, Robert Emmett Rodifer, who became a hippie in college and later moved to Germany.

Says Fincher: “Even the people don’t agree on. Even after 35 years, and all the experts, there is no absolute truth. There are some disputes about the decryption of the codes, including Robert Emmett the Hippie, which Robert Graysmith is convinced was accurate. Graysmith does believe that Emmett was the tip, a link to the killer’s identity.”

Film’s Sound and Music

Fincher and sound designer Ken Klyce realized that they had to take the emotional part of the film to another level. Recalls Fincher: “It was not until we pulled together the temp track, using pieces from Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’ and Alan Pakula’s ‘All the President’s Men,’ that we knew what was needed. Klyce and I have been friends since we were 18, and he had composed, edited and served as sound designer on every one of my films, but score had not been budgeted for “Zodiac.” I knew the 70-year-old Shire was a talented composer. Shire trusted Klyce’s certainty, but at first, I was not sure I wanted a score, and I knew I didn’t want a dirge, I didn’t want to ape anything done before.”

Using New Technology

For “Zodiac,” Fincher used the Thomson Viper Filmstream Camera, a high-definition (HD) video camera that marks its debut as his camera of choice for a studio feature. Previously the Viper had been used in commercials and on smaller films, mainly foreign. Explains Fincher: “Basically it’s non-compressed video that uses ambient light more effectively. I chose Viper because I wanted to see if it was properly nurtured what if could do. I had shot commercials with it, but never a feature. I felt it was time to try it. I liked the process of working digitally and I didn’t like waiting until the next day to see what I had shot.”