Zodiac (2007): The Human Narratives That Emerge From the Data

What starts out as a collection of data fragments in a murder case builds into a fascinating story of human and philosophical dimensions…

Andrew Sidhom
June 22, 2021

Warning: This article discusses many of the ending scenes

In my previous piece, focused on Mank (2020), I wrote about the idea that a story is essentially a lens on truth, as it joins together distinct pieces of information and events into a connected whole, and inevitably does so through the storyteller’s lens (their particular way of joining the pieces). That film, the latest in David Fincher’s filmography, was more specifically about the truth of people, and about how a storyteller gets to their truth without locking it and owning the keys to it.

Thirteen years back in the director’s work, Zodiac dived in not-too-dissimilar waters, but expanded them in many directions of its own. It remains Fincher’s top work to date.

Zodiac is the story of a time and a place in which Fincher spent much of his childhood — the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 60’s and early 70’s — marked by public alertness to a murderer who used to write cryptic letters to the police and to newspapers. From the opening scene, this enigma of a man is slowly drawn.

It’s natural that any story that features at its center a mysterious serial killer who goes uncaught will always have a special aura reserved for that character. But even if Zodiac doesn’t exactly play against that idea, it’s also clear enough that the film is not in the business of drawing the archetypical picture of a God-like criminal mastermind. The titular character, who may or may not be among the ones we see onscreen at different times, can by turns come across as weak, child-like, in need of help and/or largely insignificant. He may be responsible for a small handful of crimes, but the fact is that he repeatedly claims to be much deadlier than he really is, at one point taking responsibility for as many as 37 victims without there being the least bit of evidence for it. He is a case of enigmatic broken humanity that remains beyond grasp.

But the mystery draws people in. In one sense limited by statements such as “Do you know that more people die in the East Bay commute every three months than that idiot ever killed?” and in another sense taking on a life of its own, the Zodiac enigma becomes huge in public consciousness.

Read the full essay

How the Horror Flop ‘The Empty Man’ Became the Great Cult Movie of 2020

Director David Prior’s cosmic thriller got buried in theaters last year, but the film is already on the path to resurrection.

Dan Jackson
March 23, 2021
Thrillist

“We transmit. You receive.” —The Empty Man

When the twist-filled cosmic horror mind-bender The Empty Man was unceremoniously dumped in theaters last October, its writer and director David Prior wasn’t even sent a link to the final version of the film by the studio. More than four years before, he’d pitched the movie to 20th Century Fox, a perhaps unconventional home for such a strange project, and, after the company was acquired by Disney in 2019, Prior’s debut feature slipped through the corporate cracks. In the middle of a global pandemic, The Empty Man was released with one misleading trailer, which marketed the two-hour-plus saga as another urban legend-inspired teen thriller, and minimal promotional fanfare. Unsurprisingly, it bombed, grossing just over $4 million worldwide. Prior transmitted and almost no one received.

Adapted from a Boom! Studios comic by the writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanesa R. Del ReyThe Empty Man was initially sold to Fox in 2016 as a stylish horror mystery infused with thematic ambiguity, existential dread, and a dash of Lovecraftian terror. James Badge Dale plays ex-detective James Lasombra, a grief-stricken widower whose friend Nora (Marin Ireland) enlists him to help find her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) after she disappears. Amanda and her teenage friends may or may not have summoned the Empty Man, a mystical entity with an odd connection to a cult-like organization called the Pontifex Institute, led by a charismatic leader played by Stephen Root of Office Space and Barry. (I’ve been describing it to friends as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Ring.) In his early conversations with executives, Prior compared it to Mulholland Drive rather than something in The Conjuring universe or the Blumhouse arsenal. In the writing stage, executives even encouraged him to expand the film’s lengthy opening, a snowbound tale of hikers in Bhutan’s Ura Valley who stumble upon a sinister cave.

The Empty Man‘s journey to the big screen quickly unraveled. In some ways, the story has all the hallmarks of classic Hollywood fiasco: a shoot plagued by bad weather, disastrous test screenings, fights over runtime, studio meddling, a breakdown in communication, and an ambitious first-time director threading potentially alienating material into familiar genre fare. (Not many horror movies have a prominent shot of a high school named after a famous French philosopher.) In other ways, it’s a uniquely modern tale of mounting corporate neglect, expiring tax rebates, confusing IP mismanagement, and slow-building social media advocacy.

Are audiences hungry for movies like The Empty Man? The movie’s box office performance would suggest a definitive no, but, since becoming available as a digital rental in 2021, the film has taken on a second life online, where podcast hosts and viewers on platforms like Twitter and Letterboxd have sung its praises, turning it into the rare 21st century studio project that earns the over-used descriptor of “cult movie.”

Prior, who began his career working on a DVD of the 1999 horror movie Ravenous and later directed special features for David Fincher films like Zodiac and The Social Network, has a keen awareness of how his movie plays into certain narratives. Over a Google Hangout, he spoke with the combination of weary cynicism and wounded pride that often accompanies someone who has been through an ordeal. “It’s amazing how trenchant Barton Fink is about the way the Hollywood system really works,” he noted early in the conversation.

As the Coen Brothers screenwriter protagonist knows, the “life of the mind” can be painful. While unpacking the jargon-heavy mythology of his debut and the turmoil-packed narrative of its production, Prior repeatedly emphasized how grateful he was that the movie has found an audience and often laughed at the absurdity of its fate. Who can be blamed for what happened to The Empty Man? As one of the movie’s grizzled detectives remarks in the film, “We can’t indict the cosmos.”

Read the full interview

The Pontifex Society

The Hamster Factor Segment

Watch The Empty Man

“Mank” Production Designer Donald Graham Burt. Exclusive Interview

Gary Collinson
March 12, 2021
Flickering Myth

You would be forgiven for thinking production designer Donald Graham Burt works exclusively with David Fincher. His talents are visible in confirmed classics including ZodiacThe Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which he received an Oscar. Beyond that his work can also be appreciated in Donnie Brasco, Christian Bale headliner Hostiles and most recently Outlaw King featuring Chris Pine.

In conversation Donald is self-deprecating, effortlessly engaging and eloquent on his process. Mank appears to be the culmination of a professional relationship spanning more than a decade, which uses Citizen Kane as its backbone to explore broader issues. Adorned in the garb of a Thirties film noir, Mank is masterful at evoking a bygone era. Much of that success comes through the pitch perfect production design, which would have been impossible without Donald Burt.

Following on from his nomination at the British Academy Film Awards, he took time out to talk to Flickering Myth’s Martin Carr about what was required to bring Mank to life, as well as what a collaboration with David Fincher really involves.

Watch the full interview

How David Prior’s ‘The Empty Man’ Survived the Perfect Hollywood Storm

We talk to the filmmaker about the unfortunate fate of his ambitious horror fIlm.

Matthew Monagle
March 2, 2021
Film School Rejects

Last October, a horror movie came and went. It wasn’t the first time a Hollywood studio dumped a horror movie in the middle of Halloween; given the ongoing pandemic, few films with a theatrical release could have moved the needle in 2020. But in the case of David Prior’s The Empty Man, this release was just the tip of the iceberg, the near-final act in a first-time filmmaker’s multi-year struggle to bring his vision to the screen.

In this conversation, Prior explains how he went from being David Fincher’s protégé to the director of 2020’s most ambitious — and most abandoned — horror film. We also explore how a perfect storm of production problems and studio politics nearly killed the film, and how a passionate audience has already started to turn The Empty Man into a future cult classic.

From DVDs to David Fincher

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. If The Empty Man survives its troubled production and halfhearted theatrical release to become a household name for genre fans, then perhaps this story will serve as a fitting beginning to Prior’s career as a feature filmmaker. For years, Prior worked as a production documentarian for filmmakers such as David Fincher and Peter Weir, but one of his big breaks came with Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, itself a studio disaster that took years to find a passionate audience.

In the years before Ravenous’s theatrical release, Prior had built relationships in 20th Century Fox’s home video department thanks to his contributions to the isolated score track on the Alien DVD release. So when Prior stumbled across Ravenous in theaters — despite a trailer that he describes as a “piss-poor representation of the movie” — he saw an opportunity to build on those connections and bring some much-deserved love to Bird’s film.

His gamble worked. According to Prior, the special-edition release of Ravenous sold three times its initial projections, forcing 20th Century Fox to rush extra copies of the film into production. With his credentials established, Prior was given his pick of future home video releases, and his decision resulted in one of the most influential relationships of Prior’s professional career. “I said, ‘I don’t know what Fight Club is, but I really want to meet David Fincher, so I’ll do that one. And that led to a relationship with Fincher that goes on to this day.”

Over the next decade, Prior became a powerhouse in behind-the-scenes documentaries, shooting features for such films as Master and Commander, Zodiac, and The Social Network. It proved to be a successful and stable career, just not the one that Prior had in mind when he went to Hollywood. “I remember at the time thinking, ‘This is gonna be something where if I’m not careful, ten, fifteen years of my life is going to go by doing this instead of what I’d rather be doing,’” the director says. So Prior took another gamble, this time using some of his own money to produce the short film that would eventually land him his role with The Empty Man.

Read the full profile

“The Empty Man” Clip

Watch The Empty Man

Watch AM1200 (2008)

David Fincher:

“In 40 short minutes, David Prior shows why he is one of the most promising directors I’ve ever seen. People always ask me what to do for a ‘calling card’ in Hollywood. Well do something like this, and try to do it half as well.”

Cinematographer Interview: Shooting Darkness for “The Empty Man”

PremiumBeat chats with director of photography Anastas Michos about shooting with the RED Monstro 8K on his latest feature. Dive in.

Jourdan Aldredge
November 13, 2020
The Beat (PremiumBeat by shutterstock)

Because We Love Making Movies: Production Designer Donald Graham Burt

Eren Celeboglu
January 22, 2021
Because We Love Making Movies (Instagram, Facebook)

Because We Love Making Movies is an ongoing conversation with filmmakers who work behind the scenes to make the movies we love. These are the invisible warriors we don’t think of: Production & Costume Designers, Cinematographers, Editors, Producers, and the whole family of artists who make movies with their hands and hearts.

In the very first episode of my podcast, I sit down with Production Designer Donald Graham Burt. We explore the role of the Production Designer, a life in the arts, working with David Fincher, and learn to talk less and listen more.

Recommended Viewing: The Joy Luck Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Gone Girl, The Girl with Dragon Tattoo, and Mank.

Listen to the podcast:

Because We Love Making Movies
Apple Podcasts
Spotify

HPA NET Critical Conversations with Peter Mavromates

Two Decades of Inventing Digital Workflows: Lessons from One of the Masters

Mark Chiolis
December 20, 2020
HPA

The new David Fincher movie, Mank, released on Netflix on December 4th of this year, was originally scheduled to be produced in 1999 but didn’t happen due to a number of factors. In 2007 Fincher released Zodiac which was one of the first major theatrical features to be shot in a digital environment around a completely new file-based workflow that would revolutionize the industry over the next decade.

Peter Mavromates, the post production supervisor on Zodiac and a number of other Fincher projects over the years, including a co-Producer credit on Mank, joins Critical Conversations to discuss how digital workflows have grown and evolved over the last 15 years. Peter will talk about helping to design the early workflows on Zodiac, continuing to build it with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the ongoing developments created for Mank, and what’s next for the future.

Peter Mavromates has worked in post production for more than 35 years.  He saw the future of “film” when he walked into a high-end video facility in New York called Charlex.  Working at Charlex while still in “film” school in the NYU Grad Film Program, he saw the beauty of film (read ACETATE) and the power of electronic (read ANALOG VIDEO transitioning to DIGITAL) and watched as those two processes merged and mutated throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Peter produced his first DI on Panic Room in 2002, and his first DI of a digitally acquired movie on Zodiac in 2007. Most of the last 25 years have been spent working on projects with David Fincher, but he has also worked with Quentin Tarantino, Stephen Gaghan, and George Clooney.

Watch the full conversation

David Fincher: Hollywood’s Most Disturbing Director

With films including Se7en, Zodiac and Fight Club, David Fincher has explored the darkest edges of humanity. Yet there’s more to his unique vision, writes Gregory Wakeman, as the director’s film Mank is released.

Gregory Wakeman
December 3, 2020
BBC Culture

David Fincher fans have had plenty to celebrate over the past few months. September marked the 25th anniversary of Se7en, Fincher’s deeply disturbing psychological thriller that established the then 33-year-old as one of the most iconoclastic young directors in Hollywood. Then, just a couple of weeks later, The Social Network, Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s searing exploration of Mark Zuckerberg and the origins of Facebook, turned 10. Most exciting of all for Fincher aficionados, though, is the fact that, more than six years after the release of his last feature film Gone Girl, Mank will finally arrive on Netflix on 4 December.

Fincher has waited around 20 years to find the perfect home for the film, which was originally written by his father Jack in the late 1990s. But while most major Hollywood studios were put off by the idea of a black and white biopic of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, Netflix gave Fincher carte blanche to fulfil his vision.

The early reviews for Mank have been extremely positive, and Fincher has immediately become one of the main contenders for the best director Oscar. Covid-19’s disruption of the 2020 cinematic calendar means that Fincher’s competition isn’t quite as strong as it could have been. But it’s to the Academy Awards’ great shame that this titan of modern filmmaking has somehow only received best director nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network. Despite this oversight, Fincher’s place in the cinematic pantheon has long been secure. No other modern filmmaker has examined alienation, depression, obsession, and the dark side of intelligence like he has, while keeping a stylish, visceral, and, most importantly of all, entertaining approach. 

But what is it that sets Fincher’s work apart from that of his peers?

La Septième Obsession 31: David Fincher

La Septième Obsession

OBSESSION: David Fincher

1. Mank de David Fincher

Le grand film de Fincher débarque sur Netflix le 4 décembre. L’occasion d’un entretien avec le cinéaste, mais aussi avec ses collaborateurs les plus proches. 16 pages spéciales.

Scénario pour une critique par Nicolas Tellop

Filmopathe entretien avec David Fincher – par Nev Pierce

Collaborer avec Fincher entretiens avec Erik Messerschmidt (chef opérateur) – Donald Graham Burt (chef décorateur) – Trish Summerville (costumière) – Kirk Baxter (monteur)

2. Revisiter Fincher

Plongée exceptionnelle dans l’oeuvre de l’un des plus grands cinéastes contemporains. Filmographie commentée, analyses… 50 pages à lire.

4 nuances de Fincher par Jean-Sébastien Massart et Fabrice Fuentes

David Fincher en 14 titres Propaganda Films (clips) – Alien 3Se7enThe GameFight ClubPanic Room + les plans de Panic RoomZodiacL’Étrange histoire de Benjamin ButtonThe Social Network Millénium + la musique hantée de MilléniumGone Girl Mindhunter

3. Analyses

Démoniaque – la perfection du crime par Nathan Reneaud
Fantômes et paranoïa par Jérôme d’Estais
Solitude & obsession – Fincher Dogma par Alexandre Jourdain
Poétique du suicide par Aurélien Lemant
Le système des objets – design finchérien par Dick Tomasovic

Sommaire complet

Commander

The Implied Horror of David Fincher’s Basements

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social NetworkThe Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

The director rarely lets his films slip into full-on gore, but the possibilities he creates within his viewers’ imaginations are even more disturbing

Miles Surrey
September 24, 2020
The Ringer

If you ever had a basement growing up, the thought of descending down the stairs for a menial task could feel like a perilous journey during which a ghastly creature hiding in the darkness could snatch you at any second. Never mind that every other time you’d gone down to the basement nothing happened—that’s exactly what the monster wanted you to think. A kid’s imagination is potent; and Hollywood has a knack for stoking that specific, universal type of fear and paranoia. It’s the basement, after all, where the Babadook ultimately resides. (At least from what I recall: The Babadook is a good movie and I plan to never watch it again.)

It’s within that space of imagining the worst possible scenario that David Fincher wrings the scariest moment from Zodiac, arguably the great director’s greatest achievement. In Robert Graysmith’s exhaustive search to unmask the Zodiac Killer, he meets a man who supposedly has a tip about the serial killer’s true identity, only to discover that two potential clues he had for the Zodiac—that the killer likely owned a basement, which is rare in California, and that he had a distinctive style of handwriting—are right in front of him. The stranger does own a basement; the handwriting Graysmith thought was the Zodiac’s actually belongs to the person whose home he just entered. That Graysmith is successfully lured into the man’s basement on a dark and stormy night only heightens the feeling that something really bad is going to happen. Obsessive curiosity and the search for truth supplant fear and Graysmith’s own survival instinct.

Read the full article

Not Many People Have Basements in California …

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social NetworkThe Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

Robert Graysmith visiting the home of Bob Vaughn in ‘Zodiac’ is David Fincher’s most purely terrifying scene. Here’s how it came together—and came to stay in the movie.

Jake Kring-Schreifels 
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York.
September 24, 2020
The Ringer

On a wet September night in 1978, Robert Graysmith couldn’t resist his curiosity.

A month earlier, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist had received an anonymous phone call regarding the identity of the Zodiac, the notorious Bay Area serial killer. “He’s a guy named Rick Marshall,” the mysterious voice told him at the start of an hourlong conversation. The killer’s string of murders in 1969 had gone unsolved, but Graysmith suddenly had a new lead. According to the tipster, Marshall—a former projectionist at The Avenue Theater—had hidden evidence from his five victims inside movie canisters, which he’d rigged to explode. Before hanging up, the nameless caller told Graysmith to find Bob Vaughn, a silent film organist who worked with Marshall. The booby-trapped canisters, Graysmith learned, had recently been moved to Vaughn’s home. “Get to Vaughn,” the voice told him. “See if he tells you to stay away from part of his film collection.”

After years spent independently entrenched in the open case, Graysmith dug into Marshall’s history and found several coincidences. His new suspect liked The Red Spectre, an early-century movie referenced in a 1974 Zodiac letter, and had used a teletype machine just like the killer. Outside The Avenue Theater, Marshall’s felt-pen posters even had handwriting similar to the Zodiac’s obscure, cursive strokes. On occasional visits to the upscale movie house, Graysmith observed Vaughn playing the Wurlitzer and noticed the Zodiac’s crosshair symbol plastered to the theater’s ceiling. There were too many overlapping clues. He had to make a trip to Vaughn’s house. “We knew there was some link,” Graysmith tells me. “I was scared to death.”

Almost three decades later, director David Fincher turned Graysmith’s nightmarish visit into one of the creepiest movie scenes of all time. It takes place near the end of Zodiac, after Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) follows Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) to his home through the rain in his conspicuous, bright-orange Volkswagen Rabbit. Once inside, the mood quickly becomes unnerving. After disclosing that he, not Marshall, is responsible for the movie poster handwriting, Vaughn leads a spooked Graysmith down to his dimly lit basement. As the organist sorts through his nitrate film records, the floorboards above Graysmith creak, insinuating another’s presence. After Vaughn assures his guest that he lives alone, Graysmith sprints upstairs to the locked front door, rattling the handle, before Vaughn slowly pulls out his key and opens it from behind. Graysmith bolts into the rain as though he’s just escaped the Zodiac’s clutches.

Ultimately, the third-act encounter is a red herring. Vaughn was never considered a credible suspect. But in a movie filled with rote police work and dead ends, those five minutes of kettle-whistling tension turn a procedural into true horror. The scene is a culmination of Graysmith’s paranoid obsession with the Zodiac’s identity—a window into the life-threatening lengths and depths he’ll go to solve the case—and a brief rejection of the movie’s otherwise objective lens. “It’s actually so different from the rest of the movie,” says James VanderbiltZodiac’s screenwriter. “It does kind of give you that jolt that a lot of the movie is working hard not to [give].”

Most simply, the basement scene is a signature Fincher adrenaline rush—a moment buttressed by years of intensive research, attention to accuracy, and last-minute studio foresight. Thirteen years after the movie’s release, it still sends shivers down Graysmith’s spine.

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