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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Art of the Shot: Jeff Cronenweth, ASC on Tales from the Loop & How Story Drives the Visuals

Derek Stettler
April 27, 2020
Art of the Shot

Welcome to the Art of the Shot podcast! Join writer and filmmaker Derek Stettler for conversations with the artists behind the camera on strikingly-shot films, series, music videos and commercials. Discover how they made their careers happen, hear about their creative process, and learn how they make the shots that make us say: wait, how did they do that?

For the third episode, Derek speaks with none other than Jeff Cronenweth, ASC!

Jeff is the two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer behind many of David Fincher’s films, including The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and their first film together–and Jeff’s first feature film–Fight Club.

(And if you’re worried, no, they don’t talk about Fight Club… much.)

Jeff has also shot numerous commercials and music videos for some of the biggest artists, including Madonna, David Bowie, Shakira, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry.

And this month marked the release of Jeff’s first foray into television, with the pilot to the Amazon Prime original series, Tales from the Loop: a sci-fi anthology adapted from the paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag.

What you may not know is that Jeff Cronenweth is the son of legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, the eye behind the era-defining look of Blade Runner. Enjoy this in-depth conversation about everything from how Jeff forged his own path while following in his father’s footsteps, and his approach to lighting based on story, to working with David Fincher, his work on Tales from the Loop (including how he achieved a never-before-seen lighting effect), and his trick for making sure eye lights look more natural.

Note, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this conversation was recorded remotely, but all efforts were made to ensure quality audio.

The Art of the Shot podcast is brought to you by Evidence Cameras, an outstanding rental house in Echo Park specializing in high-end digital cinema camera packages, lenses, support, and accessories.

If you like what you hear, please subscribe to be notified of future episodes, and share this podcast with others to help grow the show!

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Tales from the Loop trailer audio copyright Amazon.com, Inc. Used with permission courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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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

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.

Harmonica Cinema - Logo

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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Harris Savides, ASC and director David Fincher plumb the depths of human obsession

Flashback: Zodiac.

David E. Williams
Unit photography by Merrick Morton, SMPSP
April 2007
American Cinematographer

Most people remember the San Francisco Bay Area of the late 1960s for “flower power” and the Summer of Love. But as the decade came to a close, a grim nightmare unfolded in the counterculture mecca. On the night of December 20, 1968, two teens in the San Francisco-adjacent town of Benicia were brutally slain by a lone gunman. At midnight on July 4, 1969, another young couple was attacked in nearby Vallejo. On July 31, cryptic letters arrived at three Bay Area newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle; each contained part of a complex cipher. The writer warned that unless his coded messages were printed on the front page of each publication, “I will go on a kill rampage.” A followup letter soon arrived at the newspaper. Opening with the sentence “This is the Zodiac speaking,” the missive detailed the particulars of both crimes. The killer had given himself a name and stated his purpose: to taunt and terrify. The three-part cipher was soon solved, revealing a hate-filled manifesto. In all, he would communicate with such letters and codes on more than 20 occasions.

One front-line observer to the unfolding story was Chronicle editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who began investigating the case after it became clear that harried law-enforcement officials — hampered by jurisdictional regulations, misleading evidence, and the emergence of more than 2,500 suspects — were powerless to unmask the killer. In 1986, Graysmith published his true-crime book Zodiac, which connected disparate clues for the first time and presented theories on the killer’s identity. This book formed the basis of the recently released film, photographed by Harris Savides, ASC for director David Fincher.

In the film, Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), SFPD inspectors Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, respectively), and Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) are sucked into the Zodiac’s vortex. All four try to manage their growing obsession with the case, but soon find their lives inextricably intertwined with that of a madman. The case remains unsolved to this day.

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Zodiac

Exclusive: DP Claudio Miranda on ‘Only the Brave’, Shooting Fire, and David Fincher Stories

By Adam Chitwood
October 12, 2017
Collider

Claudio Miranda has had an interesting career thus far. After working as a gaffer on films like Se7en and Fight Club, filmmaker David Fincher (with whom he’d worked on a few commercials and music videos as a cinematographer) asked him to serve as the cinematographer for the wildly ambitious 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That VFX-intensive effort scored Miranda an Oscar nomination and led to him then shooting visually breathtaking movies like Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, and of course Life of Pi, for which he won the Best Cinematography Oscar.

Miranda’s latest film reteams him with director Joseph Kosinski for the third time and also marks something of a departure—the true story drama Only the Brave. The film revolves around one unit of local firefighters who battled the Yarnell Hill wildfire in 2013 to tragic results. Josh Brolin leads a cast that includes Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, and Jennifer Connelly.

With Only the Brave hitting theaters on October 20th, I recently got the chance to have an extended conversation with Miranda about his work on the film. He talked about his working relationship with Kosinski, the challenges of capturing real fire onscreen, shooting on location, and his approach to shooting realistic visual effects.

But I’m also a big fan of Miranda’s work in general, so the conversation veered off into his early days working as a gaffer for Fincher, and we discussed his “trial by fire” experience shooting Benjamin Button as well as what it’s like to work with Fincher and how his gaffer work with other cinematographers like Harris Savides and Dariusz Wolski has shaped his approach. Finally, with Kosinski next set to direct the Top Gun sequel Top Gun: Maverick, I asked Miranda what the prep has been like on that movie so far.

It’s a wide-ranging and refreshingly candid conversation that hopefully admirers of Miranda’s work, or just those curious about cinematography in general, will find illuminating. I certainly had a great time chatting with the talented DP.

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Fear Itself: David Fincher’s THE GAME At 20

Twenty years later, Jacob revisits the master filmmaker’s technically accomplished dissertation on anxiety and desire.

By Jacob Knight
Sep. 12, 2017
Birth. Movies. Death.

When David Fincher was pitching his adaptation of Spider-Man during the ’90s, the key element that ruled out his take with studio execs was the refusal to execute another feature length origin tale. In Fincher’s version, our friendly neighborhood web-head was going to have his backstory explained via an opening mini-operetta, which would get his superhero coming of age out of the way so the fastidious Hollywood technician could tell the story he wanted to tell. This idiosyncratic approach rubbed suits the wrong way, but was repurposed for The Game (’97), Fincher’s Hitchcockian follow-up to the smash bit of serial killer morbidity, Seven (’95).

We’re introduced to Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) via a series of home movies. It’s Nicholas’ birthday party at his family’s lavish estate, and the kid is all half-assed smirks, the sparks of candles placed on an unseen cake illuminating his face like fireworks. Yet whenever his father is around, Nicholas tenses; the patriarch’s distant gazes and unsubtle grimaces casting a long shadow over what should’ve been a festive day. This is all foreshadowing; letting us know exactly what type of man Nicholas is going to turn out to be. There’s no radioactive spider, or magical transformation. Genes are all that’s required to transmute Mr. Van Orton into a shadow of his soon to be suicidal father – an ultimate, and probably unavoidable, fate.

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

(May 27, 2017)
Cinephilia & Beyond

Slightly more than 22 years ago, David Fincher, a talented filmmaker who made music videos and commercials and was left by his directorial stint on his first feature Alien 3 so disillusioned and bitter he felt “he’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie,” stumbled upon a script that would renew his faith in the filmmaking business. This particular piece was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, and was deemed too dark and bleak to succeed. The story was largely shaped by Walker’s experience of living in New York City for a couple of years, where he felt alienated, lonely and unhappy. Desperately trying to get his story made, Walker agreed to rewrite the screenplay on the demand of director Jeremiah Chechik (Christmas Vacation), and it was this altered version that should have ended up in Fincher’s hands. But the studio made a mistake, delivering Walker’s original piece to Fincher, who was immediately intrigued and, even when the mistake was explained, chose to insist on the utter darkness Walker envisioned. By mere happenstance, therefore, Se7en found its director and made the first, crucial step on its way to cinematic immortality. […]

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