6 Sep 2007

Zodiac (film)

Zodiac, a Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. joint production, is a 2007 suspense film directed by David Fincher and based on Robert Graysmith's non-fiction books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. A notorious serial killer known as "Zodiac" haunted the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s, leaving several victims in his wake and taunting police with his letters and ciphers mailed to newspapers. Zodiac tells the story of the men and women who were involved in the hunt for the notorious killer, a case which remains today as one of San Francisco's most famous unsolved crimes.

Fincher, screenwriter James Vanderbilt and producer Brad Fischer spent 18 months conducting their own investigation and research into the Zodiac murders. During filming, Fincher employed the digital Thomson Viper Filmstream camera to shoot the film. This was the first time this camera has been used to shoot an entire Hollywood feature film. Reviews for the film have been highly positive, and though it has not performed strongly at the North American box office, it has performed slightly better in other parts of the world with a box office total of $80,280,083 worldwide, slightly above its $75-million budget.

The film begins on July 4, 1969 with the Zodiac killer’s second attack, when he shot Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau at a lover’s lane in Vallejo. Mike survived while Darlene died from her injuries. A letter written by the Zodiac arrived at the San Francisco Chronicle on August 1, 1969. Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) is the top crime beat reporter covering the Zodiac murders for the San Francisco Chronicle. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a political cartoonist for the same newspaper who receives encrypted letters that the killer sends to the police and several newspapers, taunting them.

The Zodiac killer stabs Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard at Lake Berryessa in Napa County. Shepard dies as a result of the attack. Soon afterwards, cab driver Paul Stine is shot and killed by the killer in Presidio Heights. San Francisco police detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to the case, liaising with detectives Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) in Vallejo, Ken Narlow (Donal Logue) in Napa and others. The killer, or someone posing as him, continues to toy with authorities by speaking on the phone with celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) when he makes an appearance on a television talk show.

In 1971, Toschi, Armstrong and Mulanax question Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), a potential suspect in the case. However, a handwriting expert says that Allen did not write the Zodiac letters. Avery leaves the Chronicle. Over the course of the decade, Armstrong quits the homicide division, Toschi is demoted for supposedly forging a Zodiac letter and Graysmith continues his own in-depth investigation, interviewing witnesses and police detectives involved in the case. Due to his obsession for the case he loses his job, and his wife leaves him, taking their children with her.

In 1983, Graysmith finds Allen at a Vallejo hardware store but does not confront him. In 1991, Mageau identifies Allen from a police mugshot. The film offers much circumstantial evidence which could support that conclusion, while offering possible reasons to doubt the evidence (fingerprints, handwriting, DNA) which legally exonerated Allen. An end title credit states that Allen died in 1992 without ever being charged


James Vanderbilt had read Robert Graysmith's book Zodiac in 1986 while in high school. Years later, he became a screenwriter, met Graysmith and became fascinated by the mythology surrounding the Zodiac killer and attempted to translate that into his script. Vanderbilt had endured bad experiences with the endings of his scripts being changed and wanted more control over his material. He pitched his adaptation of Zodiac to Mike Medavoy and Bradley J. Fischer from Phoenix Pictures, by agreeing to write it on spec if he could have more creative control over it. Graysmith first met Fischer and Vanderbilt at the premiere of Paul Schrader's film, Auto Focus which was based on Graysmith's 1991 book about the life of actor Bob Crane. A deal was made and they optioned the rights to Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked when they became available after languishing at Disney for nearly a decade. David Fincher was their first choice to direct based on his work on Se7en. Originally, he was going to direct an adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia (later filmed by Brian De Palma), and envisioned a five-hour, $80 million mini-series with movie stars. When the studio backing it did not agree, the director left the project and moved on to Zodiac. He was given Vanderbilt’s 158-page screenplay in late 2003.

Fincher was drawn to this story because he spent much of his childhood in San Anselmo in Marin County during the initial Zodiac murders. "I remember coming home and saying the highway patrol had been following our school buses for a couple weeks now. And my dad, who worked from home, and who was very dry, not one to soft-pedal things, turned slowly in his chair and said: ‘Oh yeah. There’s a serial killer who has killed four or five people, who calls himself Zodiac, who’s threatened to take a high-powered rifle and shoot out the tires of a school bus, and then shoot the children as they come off the bus. For Fincher as a young boy, the killer "was the ultimate bogeyman. The director was also drawn to the unresolved ending of Vanderbilt's screenplay. "I liked the idea that there was not a neat ending, but I also find the ending satisfying, because it's real, it feels true. Some things just don't get wrapped up neatly.

Fischer realized that his job was to dispell the mythic stature the case had taken on over the years by clearly defining what was fact and what was fiction. Fincher told Vanderbilt that he wanted the screenplay re-written but with additional research done from the original police reports. To this end, Fincher, Fischer and Vanderbilt spent months interviewing witnesses, family members of suspects, retired and current investigators, the only two surviving victims, and the mayors of San Francisco and Vallejo. Fincher said, “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 would change perception. So when there was any doubt we always went with the police reports. During the course of their research, Fincher and Fischer hired Gerald McMenamin, an internationally known forensic linguistics expert and professor of linguistics at California State University, to analyze the Zodiac’s letters. Unlike document examiners in the 1970s, he focused on the language of the Zodiac and how he formed his sentences in terms of word structure and spelling. Fincher said in an interview, "There’s an enormous amount of hearsay in any circumstantial case, and I wanted to look some of these people in the eye and see if I believed them. It was an extremely difficult thing to make a movie that posthumously convicts somebody.
Fincher and Fischer approached Sony Pictures Entertainment to finance the film but talks with them fell through because the studio wanted the running time fixed at two hours and fifteen minutes. They then approached other studios with Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures agreeing to share the costs and were willing to be more flexible about the running time. The film was a tough sell to the studio and they were concerned about the heavy amount of dialogue and the lack of action scenes, as well as the inconclusive nature of the story arc.

When Dave Toschi met Fincher, Fischer and Vanderbilt, the director told him that he was not going to make another Dirty Harry. Toschi was impressed with their knowledge of the case and afterwards, he “realized that I had learned so much from them. In addition, the Zodiac’s two surviving victims, Mike Mageau and Bryan Hartnell were consultants on the film.

Alan J. Pakula’s film, All the President's Men was the template for Zodiac as Fincher felt that it was “certainly much more high-minded journalism. But, it is the story of a reporter determined to get the story at any cost and one who was new to being an investigative reporter. It was all about his obsession to know the truth. And like in that film, he “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.

Vanderbilt was drawn to the notion that Graysmith went from a cartoonist to one of the most significant investigators of the case. He pitched the story as, “what if Garry Trudeau woke up one morning and tried to solve the Son of Sam. As he worked on the script, he became friends with Graysmith and consulted him often. The filmmakers were able to get the cooperation of the Vallejo Police Department (one of the key investigators at the time) because they hoped that the movie would inspire someone to come forward with a crucial bit of information that might help solve the case.

Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo were attracted to this project based on their enthusiasm for the script and how their respective characters were portrayed. While researching the film, Fincher considered Gyllenhaal to play Graysmith. According to the director, “I really liked him in Donnie Darko and I thought, ‘He’s an interesting double-sided coin. He can do that naive thing but he can also do possessed.’ To prepare for his role, Gyllenhaal met Graysmith and videotaped him in order to study his mannerisms and behavior. Initially, Ruffalo was not interested in the project but Fincher wanted him to play Toschi. He met with the actor and told him that he was rewriting the screenplay. “I loved what he was saying and loved where he was going with it,” the actor remembers. For research, he read every report on the case and read all the books on the subject. Ruffalo met Toschi and found out that he had “perfect recall of the details and what happened when, where, who was there, what he was wearing. He always knew what he was wearing. I think it is seared into who he is and it was a big deal for him.

When casting the role of Detective William Armstrong, Fincher thought of Anthony Edwards because "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.

Originally, Gary Oldman was to play Melvin Belli, the high-profile lawyer who talked to the Zodiac on television but "he went to a lot of trouble, they had appliances, but just physically it wasn't going to work, he just didn't have the girth," Graysmith remembers. Brian Cox was cast in the role instead.

A number of key cast members are not credited, including Ione Skye, who plays Kathleen Johns, the woman with the baby. The names of actors who play the Salinas couple who solve the first cypher, and the child actors who play Graysmith's children, are also not billed.

Principal photography
Fincher decided to use the digital Thomson Viper Filmstream camera to shoot the film. Fincher had previously used the Thomson Viper over the last three years on commercials for Nike, Hewlett Packard, Heineken and Lexus which allowed him to get used to and experiment with the equipment. Working with digital cameras allowed him to watch what he had just shot in full resolution, experience less equipment failure than with film (eliminating things like film negative damage) and reduce costs in post-production because he was able to use inexpensive desktop software like Final Cut Pro to edit Zodiac. Fincher remarked in an interview, "Dailies almost always end up being disappointing, like the veil is pierced and you look at it for the first time and think, 'Oh my god, this is what I really have to work with.' But when you can see what you have as it's gathered, it can be a much less neurotic process.

This was the first time the camera has been used to shoot an entire Hollywood feature film. Michael Mann's Miami Vice, as well as his previous effort, Collateral (a co-production of Paramount and its current sister studio DreamWorks, and which also starred Mark Ruffalo), were also shot with the camera but mixed in other formats.

Once shot on the Viper camera, the files were converted to DVCPro HD 1080i and edited in Final Cut Pro. This was for editorial decisions only. During the later stages of editing the original uncompressed 1080p 4:4:4 RAW digital source footage was assembled automatically to maintain an uptodate digital "negative" of the movie. Zodiac is the first major Hollywood movie that was created without the use of either film or video tape. Other digital productions like Superman Returns or Apocalypto recorded to the HDCAM tape format.

Fincher had previously worked with director of photography Harris Savides on Se7en (he shot the opening credits) and The Game. Savides loved the script but realized, “there was so much exposition, just people talking on the phone or having conversations. It was difficult to imagine how it could be done in a visual way. Fincher and Savides did not want to repeat the look of Se7en. The director said in an interview, “Part of the approach on Zodiac was to make it look mundane enough for people to accept that what they’re watching is the truth. They also did not want to glamorize the killer or tell the story through his eyes. “That would have turned the story into a first-person-shooter video game. We didn’t want to make the sort of movie that serial killers would want to own,” Fincher said.

Savides' first experience with the Viper Filmstream camera was shooting a Motorola commercial with Fincher. From there, he used it on Zodiac. Savides remembers, “He [Fincher] wanted the camera to be more film-production friendly so the studio would be more comfortable about using the system on a project with this kind of budget. To familiarize himself with the camera, he “did as many things ‘wrong’ as I possibly could. I went against everything I was supposed to do with the camera. Savides felt comfortable with the camera after discovering the camera's limitations.

Fincher and Savides used the photographs of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston for the look of the film. Savides said, “We specifically referenced Shore’s work from the early Seventies, which was more naturally lit. We also worked from a lot of photos in the actual Zodiac police files. The two men worked hard to capture the look and feel of the period as Fincher admitted, “I suppose there could have been more VW bugs but I think what we show is a pretty good representation of the time. It is not technically perfect. There are some flaws but some are intended. The San Francisco Chronicle was built in the old post office in the Terminal Annex Building in downtown Los Angeles. A building on Sprint Street subbed for the Hall of Justice and the San Francisco Police Department.

Production began on September 12, 2005. They shot for five weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area and the rest of the time in L.A. bringing the film in under budget, wrapping in February 2006. The film took 115 days to shoot.

Not all of the cast was happy with Fincher’s exacting ways and perfectionism (some scenes required upwards of 70 takes) as Gyllenhaal was frustrated by the director’s methods: “You get a take, 5 takes, 10 takes. Some places, 90 takes. But there is a stopping point. There’s a point at which you go, ‘That’s what we have to work with.’ But we would reshoot things. So there came a point where I would say, well, what do I do? Where’s the risk? Downey Jr. said, “I just decided, aside from several times I wanted to garrote him, that I was going to give him what he wanted. I think I’m a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags.

Fincher responded, “If an actor is going to let the role come to them, they can’t resent the fact that I’m willing to wait as long as that takes. You know, the first day of production in San Francisco we shot 56 takes of Mark and Jake – and it’s the 56th take that’s in the movie. Ruffalo also backed up his director’s methods when he said, “The way I see it is, you enter into someone else’s world as an actor. You can put your expectations aside and have an experience that’s new and pushes and changes you, or hold onto what you think it should be and have a stubborn, immovable journey that’s filled with disappointment and anger.


Zodiac (2007 soundtrack)

Originally, Fincher envisioned the film’s soundtrack to be composed of 40 cues of vintage music spanning the nearly three decades of the Zodiac story. With music supervisor George Drakoulias, the director searched for the right pop songs that reflected the era, including Three Dog Night’s cover of “Easy to Be Hard” because “it’s so ingrained in my psyche as being what the summer of ’69 sounded like in northern California. Initially, he did not envision an original score for the film, “he wanted it to be a tapestry of sound design, vintage songs of the period, sound bites and ethereal clips of [AM radio giant] KFRC and ‘Mathews Top of the Hill Daly City’ [home of a prominent hi-fi dealership of the time],” remembers the film’s sound designer and longtime collaborator Ren Klyce. The director told the studio that he didn’t need a composer and would buy various songs instead. They agreed, “but as the film developed and hit its stride, I felt there were holes in some scenes that could benefit from music,” Klyce said. So, he inserted music from one of his favorite soundtracks, David Shire’s score for The Conversation and All the President’s Men. Fincher was eager to work with Shire as All the President’s Men was one of his favorite films and one the primary cinematic influences on Zodiac. He reminded Klyce of the deal that he had made with the studio.

Klyce got in touch with sound and film editor Walter Murch who worked on The Conversation and he got Klyce in touch with Shire. Fincher sent the composer a copy of the script and flew him in for a meeting and a screening in L.A. At first, Fincher only wanted 15-20 minutes of score and for it to be all solo piano based but as Shire worked on it and incorporated textures of a Charles Ives piece called “The Unanswered Question” and some Conversation based cues, he found that he had 37 minutes of original music. The orchestra Shire assembled consisted of musicians from the San Francisco Opera and S.F. ballet. Shire said, “There are 12 signs of the Zodiac and there is a way of using atonal and tonal music. So we used 12 tones, never repeating any of them but manipulating them. He used specific instruments to represent the characters: “the trumpet was Toschi, the solo piano was Graysmith and the dissonant strings were the serial killer Zodiac.”


An early version of Zodiac ran three hours and eight minutes. It was supposed to be released in time for Academy Award consideration but Paramount felt that the film ran too long and asked Fincher to make changes. Contractually, he had final cut and once he reached a length he felt was right, the director refused to make any further cuts, “but we also made promises to people that we were going to tell their story and they would not to be turned into plot devices. To trim down the film to two hours and forty minutes, he had to cut a two-minute blackout montage of “hit songs signaling the passage of time from Joni Mitchell to Donna Summer.” It was replaced with a title card that reads, “Four years later. Another cut scene that test screening audiences did not like involved “three guys talking into a speakerphone” to get a search warrant as Toschi and Armstrong talk to SFPD Capt. Marty Lee (Dermot Mulroney) about their case against suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Fincher said, “I’ll probably put that back [on the DVD] just because I love the idea of police work just being three people in a room talking to a speakerphone.

Visual effects
Digital Domain handled the bulk of the movie's 200+ effects shots including pools of blood and bloody fingerprints found at crime scenes. For the murder of a woman that took place at Lake Berryessa blood seepage and clothing stains were also visual effects added in post-production. Visual effects supervisor Eric Barba said, "David didn't want to shoot the blood with practical effects because he planned to do a number of takes. But he didn't want to reset and wipe everything down for every take, so all the murder sequences are done with CG blood. CG was also used to recreate the San Francisco neighborhood at Washington and Cherry where cab driver Paul Stine was killed. The area had changed significantly over the years and so Fincher shot the six-minute sequence on a bluescreen stage. Production designer Donald Burt gave the visual effects team detailed drawings of the intersection as it was in 1969 and photographs of every possible angle of the area with a high-resolution digital camera which allowed the effects artists to build computer-based geometric models of homes and textured them with period facades. Then, 3-D vintage police motorcycles, squad cars, a firetruck and streets lights were added.


Opening in 2,362 theaters on March 2, 2007, the film grossed $13.3 million in its opening weekend, placing second and posting a decent per-theater average of $5,671. The film was easily outgrossed by fellow opener Wild Hogs and saw a decline of over 50% in its second weekend, losing out to the record-breaking 300.It grossed $33,080,083 in North America and $47,200,000 in the rest of the world, bringing its current total to $80,280,083 through July 22, 2007, slightly above its estimated $75 million production budget. In an interview with Sight & Sound magazine, Fincher addressed the film's failure at the North American box office: "Even with the box office being what it is, I still think there's an audience out there for this movie. Everyone has a different idea about marketing, but my philosophy is that if you market a movie to 16-year-old boys and don't deliver Saw or Se7en, they're going to be the most vociferous ones coming out of the screening saying 'This movie sucks.' And you're saying goodbye to the audience who would get it because they're going to look at the ads and say, 'I don't want to see some slasher movie.


Reviews have been highly positive. As of August 15, 2007, it was given a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes (78% for their "Cream of the Crop" designation), and a 77 metascore at Metacritic.

Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman awarded the film an "A" grade, hailing the film as a "procedural thriller for the information age" that "spins your head in a new way, luring you into a vortex and then deeper still. Nathan Lee in his review for the Village Voice wrote, "Yet it's his very lack of pretense, coupled with a determination to get the facts down with maximum economy and objectivity, that gives Zodiac its hard, bright integrity. As a crime saga, newspaper drama, and period piece, it works just fine. As an allegory of life in the information age, it blew my mind. Todd McCarthy's review in Variety praised the film's "almost unerringly accurate evocation of the workaday San Francisco of 35-40 years ago. Forget the distorted emphasis on hippies and flower-power that many such films indulge in; this is the city as it was experienced by most people who lived and worked there. David Ansen in his review for Newsweek magazine wrote, "Zodiac is meticulously crafted — Harris Savides's state-of-the-art digital cinematography has a richness indistinguishable from film — and it runs almost two hours and 40 minutes. Still, the movie holds you in its grip from start to finish. Fincher boldly (and some may think perversely) withholds the emotional and forensic payoff we're conditioned to expect from a big studio movie.

Some critics, however, were displeased with the film's long running time and lack of action scenes. "The film gets mired in the inevitable red tape of police investigations," wrote Bob Longino of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who also felt that the film "stumbles to a rather unfulfilling conclusion" and "seems to last as long as the Oscars. Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer felt that "Mr. Fincher’s flair for casting is the major asset of his curiously attenuated return to the serial-killer genre. I keep saying 'curiously' with regard to Mr. Fincher, because I can’t really figure out what he is up to in Zodiac — with its two-hour-and-37-minute running time for what struck me as a shaggy-dog narrative. Christy Lemire wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that "Jake Gyllenhaal is both the central figure and the weakest link...But he's never fleshed out sufficiently to make you believe that he'd sacrifice his safety and that of his family to find the truth. We are told repeatedly that the former Eagle Scout is just a genuinely good guy, but that's not enough.

In the United Kingdom, Time Out magazine wrote, "Zodiac isn’t a puzzle film in quite that way; instead its subject is the compulsion to solve puzzles, and its coup is the creeping recognition, quite contrary to the flow of crime cinema, of how fruitless that compulsion can be. In his review for Empire magazine, Kim Newman gave the film four out of five stars and wrote, "You’ll need patience with the film’s approach, which follows its main characters by poring over details, and be prepared to put up with a couple of rote family arguments and weary cop conversations, but this gripping character study becomes more agonisingly suspenseful as it gets closer to an answer that can’t be confirmed. Graham Fuller in Sight and Sound magazine wrote, "the tone is pleasingly flat and mundane, evoking the demoralising grind of police work in a pre-feminist, pre-technological era. As such, Zodiac is considerably more adult than both Se7en, which salivates over the macabre cat-and-mouse game it plays with the audience, and the macho brinkmanship of Fight Club. Not all U.K. critics liked the film. David Thomson in the Guardian felt that in relation to the rest of Fincher's career, Zodiac was "the worst yet, a terrible disappointment in which an ingenious and deserving all-American serial killer nearly gets lost in the meandering treatment of cops and journalists obsessed with the case.

In France, Le Monde newspaper praised Fincher for having "obtained a maturity that impresses by his mastery of form," while Libération described the film as "a thriller of elegance magnificently photographed by the great Harry Savides. However, Le Figaro wrote, "No audacity, no invention, nothing but a plot which intrigues without captivating, disturbs without terrifying, interests without exciting.

Zodiac was screened in competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2007 with Fincher and Gyllenhaal participating in a press conference afterwards.

The DVD for Zodiac was released on July 24, 2007 and is available widescreen or fullscreen, presented in anamorphic widescreen, and an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track. There are no extra materials included. However, there is a trailer for a director's cut to be released in 2008. Extras will include, "footage not seen in theaters including commentary by David Fincher, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., James Vanderbilt, Brad Fischer and special guest James Ellroy. An in-depth examination of the Zodiac’s actual crimes including all-new interviews with the original investigators, survivors and informants and extensive behind-the-scenes supplements covering nearly every aspect of David Fincher’s landmark film. According to the David Prior, producer of the upcoming special edition, the bare bones edition "was only reluctantly agreed to by Fincher because I needed more time on the bonus material. The studio was locked into their release date (and bound and determined to release a single-disc, which nobody except them wanted), so Fincher allowed that to be released first. It had nothing to do with Fincher 'double dipping his own movie before it even makes it to stores' and everything to do with buying more time for the special edition. He stated that the theatrical cut will only be available on the single disc edition. Prior elaborated further: "Nobody wants fans feeling like they're being taken advantage of, and I know that double-dipping creates that impression. That's why it was so important to me that consumers be told there was another version coming. In this case it really was a rock-and-a-hard place situation, and delaying the second release was done strictly for the benefit of the final product...But this is a very ambitious project, easily the most far-reaching I've ever worked on, and owing largely to studio snafus that I can't really elaborate on, I didn't have enough time to do it properly. Thus Fincher bought me the extra time by agreeing to a staggered release, which I'm very grateful for."

Rentals for the DVD have been particularly strong. In its first week, it earned $6.7 million.

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