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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Fight Club. How (Not) To Become A Space Monkey

Tom van der Linden
Like Stories of Old (YouTube)

Movies have always had a strong impact on me, they affect the way I look at the world and help make me a better person. With this channel I want to explore this boundary between film analysis and life lessons, because I believe that movies, just like the stories of old, contain valuable lessons and insights, and to better understand them is to better understand life.

In this video essay on Fight Club, I examine how charismatic leaders like Tyler Durden turn men into Space Monkeys.

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Ernest Becker – The Denial of Death
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Featuring:
‘Where Is My Mind’ cover by Alex Voulgaris. Follow Alex on Instagram.
‘Where Is My Mind’ cover by Gattobus
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When Only the "Right" Kind of Microphone Will Do

This ‘Mindhunter’ promo needed something very, very specific. Territory studio delivered.

Ian Failes
December 3, 2019
Befores & Afters

If you’ve watched David Fincher’s Mindhunter series about the development of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit from the late 1970’s through to 1980s, then you’ll already know there’s a certain kind of meticulousness to the Netflix show in each episode.

Well, that same kind of detail was added even to this promo for season 2 of series that got shown on social media. And it all revolved around…a microphone.

Tasked with creating a mic in between agents Ford and Tench in a police interrogation cell was Territory Studio, which also handled a few other clean-ups in the push-in shot.

Here’s the story, step-by-step, of how Territory – led by VFX Supervisor Simon Carr and VFX Producer Robin D’Arcy – researched the prop itself (even taking a used version apart), modeled it in CG and finished the shot.

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Mindhunter Season 2 VFX Breakdown by Territory Studio

November 1, 2019
Territory Studio

Charting the development of the FBI’s behavioural science unit in late 1970’s USA, and based on the true-crime book ‘Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit‘, Netflix‘s TV series required an effortless recreation of time and place.

We worked with the production team behind Netflix’s second season of Mindhunter, initially to produce a promo shot which was published across their social media channels, and then to create some stand-alone VFX shots. The scene shots ranged from creating CG backdrops, torches and microphones, to recreating authentic vehicles and helicopters for search scenes. This fascinating series allowed us to become part of legendary Director, David Fincher’s world.

From promo shots…

With microphones providing a pivotal accessory throughout both seasons, we were asked to create a teaser recreating their iconic first microphone, which also features in the opening credits, in CG. The teaser was used across their official Facebook, Twitter and Instagram channels before the launch of season 2, garnering hundreds of thousands of views.

… to final scene shots…

Providing final shots in 6K meant working in the finest of detail, at the highest quality. Working closely with Fincher, and the producer, Peter Mavromates, feedback was precise and invaluable, making for a smooth and speedy process. From researching types of trees for the woodland car scene, to playing with atmospheric lighting and weather conditions, we enjoyed this project from start to finish.

Watch the VFX Breakdown reel videos

Thanks to Vincent Frei and The Art of VFX.

Deep Dive. Show, Don’t Tell: MINDHUNTER

Jackson (Twitter)
September 30, 2019
Skip Intro (YouTube) (Patreon)

“Show don’t tell” is common writing advice, but in a show with no action, how does that work?.

Stream Theory – The First One: Disney+ Pricing, CBS + Viacom Merger, Mindhunter S2

Skip Intro & Thomas Flight
September 12, 2019
Stream Theory

A guide to Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu as they compete in the ongoing streaming wars and what it means for the stuff you actually watch.

Listen to the podcast: Apple Podcasts, Spotify

What Makes Mindhunter So Compelling? An Analysis

Thomas Flight
August 16, 2019
Netflix UK & Ireland (YouTube)

Mindhunter is not like other crime shows. In this video essay, Thomas Flight explores some of the inventive techniques creators Joe Penhall and David Fincher employ to inject drama and conflict into the show.

This is a detailed analysis of the ways in which Mindhunter pulls the audience into the lives of its characters as they explore the minds of some of the worst criminals on earth.

Mindhunter’s Brilliant Editing. A Breakdown

Thomas Flight
September 25, 2019
Thomas Flight (YouTube)