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Fincher Kills at Special Zodiac Screening

By Vadim Rizov

A sold-out Walter Reade Theater audience greeted Monday night's screening of the director's cut of Zodiac -- seven minutes longer, with an eager, adulatory crowd for once. The film's commercial failure (it grossed "more than $75 million worldwide," the press release noted with inadvertent self-parody) doesn't seem to have dampened the well-deserved ardor for David Fincher's magnum opus; for my money, it's one of the finest films of the decade. Host and chief interrogator Kent Jones wasn't the only one confessing to having seen the movie five times or more; one man prefaced his question with such ecstatic praise that Fincher interrupted him before he could even get to the question: "Thank God for you, sir."

(L-R) Kent Jones and director David Fincher at Monday's special screening of Zodiac at the Walter Reade Theater (Photo: C.J. Contino)

Then again, if everyone in America had cottoned to Zodiac this much, it wouldn't be the same stubborn, obsessive film -- a long, minutely-detailed chronicle of the years-long hunt for the Zodiac Killer, from its opening murder to the investigations, concurrent and overlapping, of San Francisco Chronicle crime journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), homicide detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and final true believer Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose diligent investigation blossomed into two separate books accusing Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) of being the never-caught serial murderer. Graysmith's obsessiveness, conveniently for film writers, mirrors Fincher's own; this is one staggeringly detailed work, from every minute piece of evidence sifted to the note-perfect 1970s period drama.

For Fincher, the parallel fascination dates to childhood. He recalled growing up in San Francisco during the killings, when Zodiac threatened to kill schoolbuses full of children. He was, he said, "the kid on the bus, my dad going 'See you later.' And I was going, 'You work from home, couldn't you give us a ride?' People think of San Francisco as being the Summer of Love and hippies and flowers, and, you know -- that was the Haight. That was part of San Francisco, but the majority of San Francisco was cosmopolitan but pretty conservative. It was such a big deal for so long -- it was almost two years that the guy was in the paper every day, and then all of a sudden it just disappeared, and I remember thinking 'What happened with that?' When I got the script, I kind of thought I didn't want to make a movie about it; I didn't want to make a movie that exploited him. I wanted to make the movie about it that turned over every rock. The Chronicle was in a neck-and-neck tie with the Examiner and catapulted to the forefront because Zodiac chose to communicate through the Chronicle. So a lot of the landscape of San Francisco changed because of Zodiac."

Writing the screenplay for the nearly three-hour work was, predictably, a problem: "[James Vanderbilt]'s first draft I was sent was structurally different," Fincher said. "It wasn't as long -- you have me to blame -- and it was more of a movie. It was more of a straight line, there weren't as many digressions. It wasn't quite as -- one critic said it was like being locked in a filing cabinet. We had two books to cull from: 'We want this to be in the movie, we want this to be in the movie, we want this.' And then it was just a year-and-a-half of trying to figure it out how to get it all in under five hours."

The cut's additions are barely visible to the casual viewer, if such a creature was in attendance. One sound montage and a scene of Toschi and his colleagues presenting the case for an arrest warrant were the major additions highlighted by Fincher. "When we got the version we were happy with, we did one more screening," he explained. "We hijacked people from malls and gave them the power of life and death, and made them Siskel and Ebert." Those two scenes were the most contentious in testing; for DVD, Fincher wanted to restore the film's shape to that of "the final screening before we lopped the ears off."

The soft-spoken Fincher bore little resemblance to the terror whispered about in the press -- where was the man who instills fear in actors and crew members alike? Only once all night did his voice rise above a murmur. A question about how he navigated the transition from music videos to films brought him to actors, who, he says, "give you an enormous gift and an enormous responsibility." He paused, and his voice went up a notch. "Do you know the best way to get an actor to stop fucking around? Stop giving them direction. Say 'Just do another one.' Three takes of that, they're done. 'What do you want me to do?' 'I want you to come through the elevator and turn and say the line like this." Suddenly you could see the perfectionist's killer instinct that led many smart-ass critics to say Zodiac feels like a movie not just about a serial killer, but that feels like it was made by one as well.

Posted at November 20, 2007 7:51 AM

Comments (2)

Nice piece, Vadim. I'm looking forward to seeing this cut.

So far, the best damn movie of 2007.

Which means the Academy will Snub it.

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