film

Capturing the original serial killer

David Fincher's 'Zodiac' rekindles the cold case of America’s first celebrity psycho

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 12 2007
film

Capturing the original serial killer

David Fincher's 'Zodiac' rekindles the cold case of America’s first celebrity psycho

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 12 2007

Capturing the original serial killer

David Fincher's 'Zodiac' rekindles the cold case of America’s first celebrity psycho

film

BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON • He was America’s first celebrity psycho, the man who pioneered homicide as mass-market entertainment. The term “serial killer” had not yet been coined. But in 1969 a man calling himself the Zodiac began publicizing his murders in letters, and teasing cryptograms, sent to San Francisco newspapers. Manipulating the media and taunting authorities for decades, the Zodiac eventually claimed responsibility for over two dozen victims. The police pinned five deaths on him, but he was never caught. He has, however, left an indelible mark. The Zodiac created the template for the serial killer movie. And Dave Toschi, the San Francisco detective who spent 19 years trying to catch him, became a model for Hollywood cops—Steve McQueen in Bullitt, Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco, and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, which was based on the Zodiac murders.

The Zodiac also made a deep impression on director David Fincher, who was terrified of this bogeyman as a seven-year-old growing up in the Bay area. Those childhood nightmares crept into the fictional horror of Se7en, Fincher’s harrowing serial killer movie. And the director, now 45, brings the legend full circle with Zodiac, a procedural drama that unravels the true story of the case in scrupulous, authentic detail. Focusing on the investigators rather than the monster, Fincher reverses the lurid aesthetic of the psycho killer genre and pulls off an astounding feat: he’s made a gripping, 157-minute thriller that consists mostly of guys comparing notes. “This is something I felt passionately I was right for,” Fincher told Maclean’s. “Having done the serial killer thing, I felt I had the credentials to say, ‘We’re going to do something a little

different here, and trust me, it’s going to be okay.’ It’s not Silence of the Lambs. It’s a newspaper movie, like All the President’s Men.”

Zodiac is a character study of three men who risked their sanity trying to unmask a lunatic—Inspector Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), whose reputation and health were ruined by the case; San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (a deliciously cast Robert Downey Jr.), who succumbs to addiction; and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Chronicle cartoonist and amateur sleuth who outinvestigated the pros, and wrote two books on which the movie is based.

All Fincher movies—Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, The Panic Room—are scenarios of diabolical gamesmanship. But Zodiac’s riddle was created by a real-life killer with a fetish for film (his coded clues pointed to the 1932 movie The Most Dangerous Game). So can he be seen as an artist, Zodiac’s original screenwriter? “He was more marketer than artist,” says Fincher. “He was the beginning of the great scourge of America. What do we make anymore? Nothing. But we sure know how to package it. As a serial killer, Zodiac was an underachiever. The only reason we’re still talking about him is because of the letters.”

Fincher has done his own share of packaging, shooting commercials for Nike and Coke, and videos for Madonna, Michael Jack-

son and the Stones. But while Zodiac is fluidly directed, it’s starkly understated, without his usual flash. “We didn’t want the audience to feel they were being hyped,” says Fincher. “We didn’t want to direct their attention—with a close-up of someone picking up their keys that would be a shorthand for ‘Watch the keys!’ Someone comes into a room and says, ‘Here’s what I think,’ and you either believe them or you don’t and move on to the next scene. The unadorned style of it was: we’ve got the facts, let’s go with that.”

With writer James Vanderbilt, Fincher became another obsessed investigator, delving into police files, and interviewing both cops and victims who survived attacks. The facts add up to an ironic portrait of a naive age. “It’s about liberal San Francisco in 1969,” says Fincher, “and the notion of a serial killer who, two summers after the Summer of Love, is dressed like a postal worker and shooting newly sexualized kids. To this day, San Francisco is a very strange place. In no other city in America would you get [showboat lawyer] Melvin Belli on television to talk to an ostensible murderer and possible future client.”

The same year Belli brokered the Altamont debacle for the Stones, he was on live TV negotiating with a caller claiming to be the Zodiac. Welcome to the age of lethal celebrity, the unending reality show. Now it’s the world we live in. Suicide bombers, schoolyard shooters, torture on the Web—everyone knows that unless it’s famous, it never happened. M