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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Not On Blu-ray?: Fight Club Compared

Blu-rays vs iTunes HD vs D-VHS vs DVD vs Laserdisc

Mac
April 7, 2018
Not On Blu-ray?

Caustic, nihilistic and controversial, Fight Club successfully adapted Chuck Palahniuk’s transgressive fiction novel, it’s a credit to screenwriter Jim Uhl’s excellent adaptation that the voice of the original novel is heard so clearly, and at the same time the film proved to be an enormous success. Though much credit is also due to the excellent sound and editing: so much in this film depends on hitting exactly the right tone.

Based on a reader suggestion, I decided to take a look at the various home video versions of Fight Club that are available.

Filming Fight Club

Fight club was photographed by Jeff Cronenweth, a then hot and upcoming Cinematographer who until that point hadn’t shot a major feature, but did have the advantage of being Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s son. Fincher has worked with both father and son on a number of projects culminating in ‘Alien 3’. Subsequently Jeff did camera work on a number of Fincher’s other features including ‘Se7en’ and ‘The Game’.

An Interview with Cronenweth in American cinematographer records Fincher’s preference for both natural and pre-existing lighting in locations over elaborate lighting setups. This necessitated the choice of higher speed stocks.

The film was shot using the Super35 format, and framed at 2.35:1. Daylight scenes were shot on Kodak EXR 100T and Vision 250D film, while the majority of night scenes were shot on ‘faster’, grainier Vision 500T.

Selected night scenes from the film were 5% flashed at the laboratory, which boosts contrast and enhances detail in the darker parts of the frame. Additionally a handful of release prints were treated with the Technicolor’s ENR silver retention process (bleach bypass) at the 80 IR level.

Shooting in Super35 at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 provides considerable latitude for re-framing during the editing process, which David Fincher may have developed a taste for when working on the various home video editions of Se7en.

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Here the composition is noticeably skewed between the 16:9 and 2.35:1 versions.

Thanks to Joe Frady.

Not On Blu-ray?: The Mysterious Case of Se7en

Mac
June 4, 2013
Not On Blu-ray?

Se7en is a dark crime-horror fantasy, written by Andrew Kevin Walker, directed by David Fincher with cinematography by Darius Khondji. The film was a success both commercially and critically. However due to the complexity of the photographic process, it is difficult to be certain that any of the home-video releases reflect the image seen in first run showings. This article will examine the various video releases of Se7en, and explain the process by which they came about, and attempt to pick the best amongst them.

Se7en Through The Lens

During production careful consideration was put into developing the film’s ‘look’ by both the art department and the Cinematographer.

  • Super 35 cameras were used, which allowed the use of faster and wider ‘spherical’ lenses with shallower depth of field than comparable anamorphic lenses
  • The use of Super 35 also allowed some flexibility in re-framing shots in post production, since the film was intended to be projected in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio
  • On set smoke was used to reduce contrast and provide atmosphere to scenes
  • For some scenes the negative was ‘flashed’ using a Panaflasher to further reduce contrast, and bring out shadow detail
  • The film was pushed one stop (under-exposed and over-developed) to increase density and  saturation
  • A Deluxe ‘Color Contrast Enhancement’ or ‘CCE’ bleach-bypass process was used for first run prints, increasing contrast, effectively crushing blacks
  • The CCE process was deemed too expensive for the majority of first and second-run prints, which were then struck from an inter-positive that had itself been bleach-bypassed, which approximated the effect of the CCE process. This meant that there would be differences between the first-run showings of the film, and subsequent runs

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Thanks to Joe Frady.

Stills of Life: Miles Crist

Billy Moon (Safflare)
November 21, 2019
Stills of Life (Podcast)

Actors, producers, models, and other artists share, encourage, and reveal their professional experiences, failures, accomplishments and authentic selves.

Mindhunter‘ still & behind-the-scenes photographer, Miles Crist, shares his incredible path from knowing the right person at the right time to winning the 8-month job of photographing BTS of ‘Mindhunter‘ for Netflix, jumping from Columbia to Art Center, the demanding surprises of the profession, his passion for films, learning from David Fincher, and working for him again this winter.

Check out his website at milescrist.com!

Listen to the podcast

Ø MINDHUNTER S2
whatswrongwithcomplicated.com

Netflix Helps Drive the Creative Vision with High-Dynamic-Range Content

Jay Holben
December 22, 2019
American Cinematographer

Some might consider high-dynamic-range (HDR) displays a technology of the future, but the reality is it’s here now and very much a contemporary delivery format. At the forefront of this delivery is Netflix, the streaming and production giant, which reports that roughly a quarter of the devices used to access its service monthly — more than 165 million — are configured for HDR. As a result, Netflix is making a concerted effort to provide HDR content and currently has more than 1,000 hours of such programming available.

One of these titles is David Fincher’s gritty, period procedural Mindhunter, which earned Christopher Probst, ASC an ASC Award nomination for its pilot in 2017. The series is photographed by Erik Messerschmidt, who notes that production incorporated HDR into the second season. “With Mindhunter, we try to be very subtle with the photography,” says Messerschmidt. “The story and themes of the show are complex and nuanced, so it’s really important that the photography never draws attention to itself. HDR helps because it enables me to be very subtle in my use of color and contrast, particularly in the toe of the exposure. Everyone likes to talk about the bright whites in HDR, but I think perhaps the added range in the shadows is more interesting and more important than added range in the highlights.

“I think cinematographers have always advocated for a better experience for the audience, whether it’s fast film stocks with tighter grain, better projection technology, or higher quality digital-capture and display technologies,” he continues. “HDR is just another step in that direction. Standard-dynamic-range video distribution can only show a narrow exposure band of the modern digital sensor’s dynamic range. The opportunity to use more of the sensor’s range when we want to is a very exciting development.”

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FilmLight, Colour on Stage: Eric Weidt

Creating the unique look for Mindhunter Seasons 1 and 2.

November 15, 2019
FilmLight, Colour on Stage

Eric Weidt talks about his collaboration with director David Fincher – from defining the workflow to creating the look and feel of Mindhunter. He breaks down scenes and runs through colour grading details of the masterful crime thriller.

Presented at IBC2019 on September 15, 2019.

Eric Weidt spent years in Paris working with fashion photographers transitioning from traditional film to digital capture workflows. He created custom film-emulation ICC profiles, and mastered color work and compositing techniques for print stills and fashion films.

Clients included Mario Testino, David Sims, Patrick Demarchelier, Mert Alas and Markus Piggot, Steven Meisel, Hedi Slimane, Karl Lagerfeld. His motion picture work for David Fincher includes responsibilies as VFX artist (Gone Girl), and Digital Intermediate Colorist (Videosyncracy and Mindhunter).

He holds a BA in Theater Arts from the University of California at Santa Cruz and is both an American and French citizen.

HDR version available for download

Blurred luminance key for a “GLO” effect.

“These are my layers for making a chromatic aberration for David Fincher”.

Find out about the new and upcoming features in Baselight with FilmLight’s Martin Tlaskal

Alien3: In Space, They’re Still Screaming

Ron Magid
Unit Photography by Rolf Konow and Bob Penn, courtesy of 20th Century Fox
July, 1992
American Cinematographer

Alex Thomson, BSC — one of Britain’s premier cinematographers — creates images of dazzling perfection, richness and clarity, images which have graced some of the most exquisite-looking films in recent memory: Legend, Ridley Scott‘s epic fairytale; Eureka, Nicholas Roeg‘s influential retelling of Citizen Kane; and Excalibur, John Boorman‘s visually magnificent approach to the King Arthur legend.

Though Alien3 is ideal subject matter for Thomson’s rich photographic style, he might never have lent his expertise to the project had it not been for one of the greatest triumphs and tragedies of his career. Late in 1990, Thomson had been chosen by one of the world’s undisputed filmic masters to photograph what promised to be his final masterpiece: the director was David Lean; the project was Joseph Conrad‘s Nostromo

Unfortunately, Lean took ill and died, Nostromo shut down and a saddened Alex Thomson returned to London, wondering what he would do next. “I came back from France on a weekend and they called me on Monday to see if I could take over on Alien3,” Thomson recollects. “I started work on Tuesday, which was about a week and a half into production. I was happy to do it; it kept my mind off what might have been.” (There is a certain karmic irony to Thomson’s twist of fate. As fans of the first Alien film will recall, the spaceship in that picture was dubbed the Nostromo.)

Behind the camera, Alex Thomson, BSC watches intently as operator David Worley lines up a shot on Charles Dance as Sigorney Weaver stands by.

The production history of Alien3 is a troubled one. Before Thomson joined the film, its first director, New Zealander Vincent Ward — one of a slew of directors who had been attached to the project during its lengthy pre-production phase — had been replaced by rock video director David Fincher. Thomson was hired when the film’s original cinematographer, Jordan Cronenweth, ASC (Blade Runner) left the production.

Many cinematographers might feel stifled by a production where the original look had already been determined, but not Thomson. “I had no problem with following in Jordan’s footsteps because his approach was so right,” he enthuses. “It was marvelous to be pointed in the right direction by a man of his caliber.” 

First-time feature director Fincher, for his part, is an award-winning rock video director with a background in visual effects storyboarding at ILM. “To take something over like this at 28 must’ve been quite awe-inspiring, but he handled it as if he’d done 20 pictures,” Thomson relates.

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