Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’: A Suspenseful and Thrilling Combination of Police Procedural and Newspaper Film That Masterfully Chronicles the Progression of Obsession

Zodiac poster by Barret Chapman

Koraljka Suton
January 24, 2020

If you asked David Fincher about the childhood years he spent in San Anselmo in Marin County during the 1960s, the topic that would undoubtedly pop up would be that of an infamous serial killer who, in the director’s eyes, was “the ultimate boogeyman.” For it was precisely that time and that general area that saw the rise of the Zodiac, a murderer who frequently wrote letters and sent coded messages to local newspapers, gleefully taking credit for the gruesome killing sprees that would inevitably trigger waves of paranoia across the West Coast. As Fincher recalls: “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.’” Fincher’s fascination with the mystery man who wreaked havoc in Northern California during the late 60s and early 70s, claiming to have taken the lives of thirty-seven people (out of which only five were confirmed as being his victims), ultimately resulted in the director gladly accepting to work on Zodiac, a 2007 movie written by James Vanderbilt. The screenwriter had read a 1986 non-fiction book of the same name while he was still in high school, years before pursuing his eventual career. After getting into screenwriting, he had the chance to meet Zodiac author Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist who had been working for one of the newspapers the killer wrote to during the 1960s, and decided to make a screenplay based on the information-packed book. Having creative control over the material was of the utmost importance to Vanderbilt, given the fact that the endings of his previous scripts had been altered. Together with producers from Phoenix Pictures, Vanderbilt bought the rights to both Zodiac and its follow-up, entitled Zodiac Unmasked, after which the Seven director was asked to come on board.

Apart from having a personal attachment to the story of the notorious serial killer who was never brought to justice, what drew Fincher to work on the project was also the fact that the ending of Vanderbilt’s script was left unresolved, thereby staying true to real-life events. But Fincher’s perfectionism and his wish to depict the open case as accurately as possible led to him asking that the screenplay be rewritten, for the wanted to research the original police reports from scratch. He also decided that he, Vanderbilt and producer Bradley J. Fischer should personally interview the people who were involved in the case so that they could discern for themselves whether the testimonies were to be believed or not. The people they spent months interviewing were family members of suspects, the Zodiac killer’s two surviving victims, witnesses, investigators both current and retired, as well as the mayors of Vallejo and San Francisco. As Fincher elaborated: “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.” They also hired a forensic linguistics expert to analyze the killer’s letters, with the expert’s focus being on how the Zodiac spelled words and structured sentences, as opposed to the emphasis that was put on the Zodiac’s handwriting by document examiners in the 1970s.

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Film stills by Merrick Morton (Paramount Pictures)

Other in-depth articles on films by David Fincher on Cinephilia & Beyond:

Alien3: “Take all of the responsibility, because you’re going to get all of the blame”

Se7en: A Rain-Drenched, Somber, Gut-Wrenching Thriller that Restored David Fincher’s Faith in Filmmaking

Downwards Is the Only Way Forwards: Welcome to David Fincher’s The Game

Fight Club’: David Fincher’s Stylish Exploration of Modern-Day Man’s Estrangement and Disillusionment

Fincher’s Zodiac As Easily One Of The Best Thrillers Of The Millennium So Far

From Facebook to ‘Fuck-You Flip-Flops’: How Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher Made ‘The Social Network’ a Fiery Word-Off

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Steven Benedict: Mindhunter

Steven Benedict
September 1st, 2019

Mindhunter is the 4th time David Fincher has examined serial-killers. Far from resorting to tired clichés, with the 2nd season he has again broken new ground.

Listen to the podcast

More David Fincher related podcasts and video essays by Steven Benedict:

Se7en, Credits, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, House of Cards, Gone Girl, Other mentions.

Pressure and Obsession in the Films of David Fincher

Piers McCarthy
February 2012 / November 15, 2018

This dissertation aims to show the recurring themes of pressure and obsession in the work of film director David Fincher. Looking specifically at Seven (David Fincher, New Line Cinema, 1995), Zodiac (David Fincher, Paramount Pictures, 2007) and The Social Network (David Fincher, Columbia Pictures, 2010), I will show the gradual change in style and subject matter while still highlighting the resonance of the two themes under analysis. Furthermore, it will be shown how obsession and pressure link to Fincher’s working method. I will be examining critical, journalistic and academic writings to assess the themes and Fincher’s directorial position. Whereas Seven has had a great deal written about it, Zodiac and The Social Network are more recent films and thus there is less literature on them. For this reason, study on both films should garner more original analysis.

The themes of pressure and obsession differ slightly in all three films, however, there is an overriding sense in each film that the workplace and environment has a pressurizing effect on the characters. What is more, pressure can at times define the notion of obsession. Obsession is mostly shown as a mutation of characters’ personal drive, or an extension of their duties for work. The two themes can at times separate themselves in terms of aesthetic and narrative presentation yet they are mainly one and the same; at times they can even be analyzed in the context of Fincher’s filmmaking practice.

Chapter one gives an overview of contemporary Hollywood, the role of the director, Fincher in relation to both of these, the two themes under analysis and deliberations on auteurist theory – this constitutes the literature review. The second chapter examines the impetus of investigative obsession, along with the presentation of morbidity and tension in Seven. Chapter three looks at the similarity in obsessive personalities along with suspense and drama in Zodiac. Chapter four focuses on The Social Network and obsession effecting status quo. The conclusion will draw on the comparisons and contrasts from chapters two to four. It will also give an overall account of how we may regard Fincher in contemporary Hollywood and in respect to auteur theory.

Read the full dissertation

Fincherphilia & Beyond

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Just a small sample of all the precious filmic resources bestowed by Cinephilia & Beyond:

1993. Alien3 01

Alien3: “Take all of the responsibility, because you’re going to get all of the blame”

1995. Se7en

Se7en: A Rain-Drenched, Somber, Gut-Wrenching Thriller that Restored David Fincher’s Faith in Filmmaking

1995. The Game

Downwards Is the Only Way Forwards: Welcome to David Fincher’s The Game

1999. Fight Club

Fight Club: David Fincher’s Stylish Exploration of Modern-Day Man’s Estrangement and Disillusionment

2007. Zodiac

Fincher’s Zodiac As Easily One Of The Best Thrillers Of The Millennium So Far

1982. David Fincher at ILM

Cinephilia & Beyond, one of the finest websites dedicated to the art and craft of Film, is struggling financially and needs your support: DONATE

Steven Benedict: Zodiac

Steven Benedict
October 28, 2018

When a film breaks with tradition, it is often rejected by audiences. Which may be why Zodiac was not recognised as the groundbreaking masterpiece it is.

Listen to the podcast

More David Fincher related podcasts and video essays by Steven Benedict:

Se7en, Credits, Fight Club, The Social Network, House of Cards, Gone Girl, Other mentions

Harmonica Cinema: Zodiac

Another comprehensive article by Spanish DP, Producer and cinematography scholar Ignacio Aguilar, this time on the cinematography of Zodiac. Time to practice your rusty Spanish or get help from a good web translator.

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Excepcional adaptación cinematográfica del libro de Robert Graysmith, basado en su propia investigación sobre los asesinatos cometidos en la zona de San Francisco a finales de la década de los 60 y comienzos de los 70, por un asesino que además enviaba cartas a los períodicos, anunciando sus planes y próximas víctimas. El film está protagonizado, además de por el propio Graysmith (interpretado por Jake Gyllenhaal), por su compañero en el San Francisco Chronicle, Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) y por el detective de homicidios Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), los cuales uno a uno, se van obsesionando por el caso que les ocupa a medida que profundizan en el mismo y creen encontrarse cerca de resolverlo. Se trata quizá del mejor y más sólido trabajo de David Fincher detrás de las cámaras, quien deja de lado su conocida solvencia técnica y se lanza a narrar minuciosamente todo lo concerniente al caso que inspiró películas como “Dirty Harry” (1971), tomando una estructura y formas muy parecidas a las de una de sus películas de referencia: “All The President’s Men” (Alan J. Pakula, 1976), escrita por William Goldman y protagonizada por Dustin Hoffman y Robert Redford. Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch y Brian Cox, entre otros, completan el reparto de un film absolutamente modélico.

Ignacio Aguilar
1 agosto 2018
Harmonica Cinema

El director de fotografía fue Harris Savides [ASC], un hombre cuya carrera en cine, entre su tardía llegada y su prematuro fallecimiento por un cáncer cerebral a los 55 años de edad en el año 2012, desgraciadamente fue demasiado corta. Procedente de los videoclips y de los anuncios publicitarios, debutó en 1996 con “Heaven’s Prisoners” a las órdenes de Phil Joanou. Ya el año anterior había rodado metraje adicional para David Fincher en “Se7en” (1995), quien le contrató para su siguiente film, “The Game” (1997), la película que puso a Savides en el mapa. Posteriormente destacó mucho con “The Yards” (James Gray, 2000) y con varios trabajos para Gus Van Sant: “Finding Forrester”, “Gerry”, “Elephant”, “The Last Days” y “Milk”, además de por su trabajo para Jonathan Glazer en “Birth”. Además tuvo tiempo para colaborar con Ridley Scott en “American Gangster”, con Woody Allen en “Whatever Works” o con Sofia Coppola en “Somewhere”. Su estilo, muy sencillo y poco recargado, a menudo estaba dominado por la subexposición y la luz cenital, a veces asumiendo grandes riesgos, siguiendo en muchos aspectos la línea de Gordon Willis durante la década de los 70.

Savides por lo tanto era el director de fotografía ideal para Fincher en este proyecto, ya que el citado modelo “All The President’s Men” precisamente fue fotografiado por el autor de “The Godfather”. Ambientada desde finales de los años 60 hasta principios de los 80, “Zodiac” sorprendió mucho porque fue el primer proyecto de David Fincher rodado en formato digital y porque hasta aquél momento, dicha forma de adquisición se había empleado principalmente en películas como “Attack of the Clones” (2002) y “Revenge of the Sith” (2005), “Collateral” (2004) y “Miami Vice” (2006) o incluso “Apocalypto” y “Superman Returns” (2006), sin que ninguna de ellas (dejando de lado del film de Gibson) fueran películas de época. Savides (ante la insistencia de Fincher) recurrió a la cámara Thomson Viper Filmstream, la misma usada por Michael Mann en las dos películas citadas anteriormente, pero a diferencia del director de “The Last of the Mohicans”, en el caso de “Zodiac” los cineastas no lo hicieron para rodar con niveles de luz muy bajos o luz disponible, sino que rodaron en HD iluminándolo de forma muy parecida a como lo hubiesen hecho rodando en 35mm. Por ello, el efecto vídeo de las películas de Mann, tanto por la textura de la imagen como por emplear el obturador abierto, no está presente en absoluto en “Zodiac”, que en muchas ocasiones es mencionada como un hito precisamente porque su estética digital fue la primera que demostró que en este formato podían seguir obteniéndose imágenes de parecida calidad a las que se conseguían con el celuloide. Y aunque la Viper era una cámara limitada (con un sensor pequeño y no tanta latitud como las modernas) lo cierto es que prácticamente nunca se perciben dichas limitaciones.

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Zodiac: The Unofficial Reading List

Hint of Film (YouTube)
May 21, 2018

What better way to pay tribute to a movie about obsession than to obsessively track down every single book in the movie?

Video Credits:

Edited by H. Nelson Tracey
H. Nelson Tracey (Twitter)
Hint of Film (Twitter)
Director of Photography: Tommy Oceanak
Original Music by Bryan Hume
“Graysmith’s Remix” end credits song by Unofficial B

The Complete List:

Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958) by Dr. Seuss
The Code Breakers (1967) by David Kahn
Codes and Ciphers: Secret Writing Through the Ages (1964) by John Laffin
Secret Writing: The Craft of the Cryptographer (1970) by James Raymond Wolfe
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) film directed by Eugene Lourie
Dick Tracy Lunchbox, 1967
Animal Crackers (cookie)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932) film directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Hair, original musical poster, show debut in 1967
They Laughed When I Sat Down: An Informal History of Advertising in Words and Pictures (1959) by Frank Rowsome, Jr.
McElligot’s Pool (1947) by Dr. Seuss
TIME Magazine “Race and Reform on Campus,” Volume 93 No. 16, April 18, 1969
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) film directed by John Huston
The Wrong Man (1956) film directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy, 1931-1951 (Anthology, 1970) by Chester Gould
Fox in Socks (1965) by Dr. Seuss
Curtain and The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1975) by Agatha Christie
An Artist in America (1951) by Thomas Hart Benton
Drawing: Seeing and Observation (1973) by Ian Simpson
Drawing the Female Figure (1975) by Joseph Sheppard
Mainstreams of Modern Art: David to Picasso (1961) by John Canaday
Homicide Investigation (first published 1944) by Lemoyne Snyder
Rescued in the Clouds (1927) by Franklin W. Dixon
LIFE Magazine “Confrontation in Harvard Yard,” Vol. 66 No. 16, April 25, 1969
Slinky Toy Commercial from the 1960s
Slinky Toy
I Died A Thousand Times (1955) film directed by Stuart Heisler
Star Trek, Season 3 Episode 4 “And the Children Shall Lead” (1968) guest starring Melvin Belli, portrayed by Brian Cox in Zodiac
Aquavelva (alcoholic drink)
Reprise: The Code Breakers (1967) by David Kahn
Reprise: Codes and Ciphers (1964) by John Laffin
Richard Nixon Presidential Campaign Button, 1968
“I Am Not Avery” button
6 extremely rare first edition covers of Ian Fleming James Bond Novels: Dr. No (1958), For Your Eyes Only (1960), Moonraker (1955), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), You Only Live Twice (1964), The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
Six Crises (1962) by Richard M. Nixon
San Francisco (first published 1969) edited by Jack McDowell and Dorothy Krell
The Selling of the President, 1968 (1969) by Joe McGinniss
Rubber Life Magazine, Vol. 01, No. 01, (1972)
Dirty Harry (1971) film directed by Don Siegel
Pong (1972) video game by Atari
– I Looked and Listened: Informal Recollections of Radio and TV (1970) by Ben Gross
– The Crime Vaccine: How to End the Crime Epidemic (1996) by Jay B. Marcus
The FBI in Our Open Society (1969) by Harry & Bonaro Overstreet
– Kidnap: The Story of the Lindbergh Case (1961) by George Waller
The Property Man (1914) film directed by Charlie Chaplin
– McCall’s Sewing Book (1968) by McCall Corporation
– Them! (1954) film directed by Gordon Douglas
Illegal (1955) film directed by Lewis Allen
– The World Almanac – Centennial Edition (1968)
– The Rink (1916) film directed by Charlie Chaplin
– Conquest (1937) film directed by Clarence Brown and Gustav Marchaty
Key Largo (1948) film directed by John Huston
– Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Nation’s Most Bizarre Mass Murderer (1986) by Robert Graysmith

Zodiac (2007) Credits:

Directed by David Fincher
Production Design by Donald G. Burt
Art Direction by Keith Cunningham
Set Decoration by Victor J. Zolfo