David E. Williams
Unit photography by Merrick Morton, SMPSP
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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By Adam Chitwood
October 12, 2017
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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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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(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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