Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt
Based on the books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked by Robert Graysmith
What could have begun as an inauspicious start to a career, David Fincher directed Rick Springfield’s music video for the song “Bop ’Til You Drop.” It was the glory years of MTV though, and in five minutes Fincher took a simple pop song and reimagined it through an out of this world, world. With muted grays, a ghoulish overlord, and nascent visual effects, he created a story that left the audience more interested in it than the song itself (a self-professed Rick Springfield fan, I must admit it’s not one of his best). The video is telling in that it foreshadowed Fincher’s gritty style, which would become well known for its ability to capture a mood and to set an undeniable tone for an audience.
After a string of other videos for high caliber stars, Fincher went on to become one of the first and most successful directors to parlay such a career into that of making full length features. Soon, he was known for directing the films Se7en, The Social Network, Fight Club, and Gone Girl, as well as for being an Executive Producer on House of Cards and Mindhunter (Netflix’s series on the beginning of the FBI’s Behavior Analyst Unit). Screenwriter James Vanderbilt, of the famous Vanderbilt family, on the other hand was less established, credited with films mostly panned by critics, including Basic and Darkness Falls. Together though, they created a film that would catapult them into that category of filmmakers that have successfully managed to capture the obsessive nature of hunting a serial killer.
Zodiac is a fairly straightforward, chronological telling of the Zodiac events as told by Robert Graysmith in his books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked. Opening with the attack at Blue Rock Springs that killed Darlene Ferrin and seriously wounded Mike Mageau, it ends twenty years later (and maybe a little too nicely tied up for us) with Mageau naming Arthur Leigh Allen as Darlene’s killer. Fincher does well at creating the late 1960s to early 1970s backdrop, a time where, while peace may have reigned during the Summer of Love, there was an underbelly of turbulence that crossed the country with race riots, anti-war demonstrations, and a drug culture that pervaded the hippie community of Haight-Ashbury. From costume to soundtrack to cinematography, he presents a time and place where the truth wasn’t shiny or glossy, and where serial killers such as Zodiac, Edmund Kemper, and Patrick Kearney all too freely roamed California streets.
Widely credited for its attention to historical detail, the obscured reality is that the film is mostly accurate to Graysmith’s books. So while Graysmith is generally accepted as the original authority on the Zodiac, many of his statements have since come into dispute. Fincher himself even acknowledged accuracy wasn’t his intention, saying the goal was rather “to construct Zodiac from its emotional truth as opposed to its factual truth.” At a time when Hollywood faces a backlash for its notorious use of creative license in historical fiction, does this detract from the film? The short answer is no. Quite obvious is the stellar cast that uniformly delivers captivating performances. That and, to his credit, Fincher manages to temper what appears to be an inclination by Vanderbilt to portray Graysmith as some kind of an unrelenting hero and where reading the script (which clocks in at a staggering 198 pages), is like reading a letter from the Graysmith fan club. Instead, Fincher evokes Graysmith’s awkward, intrusive, and often tactless style. Maybe most important though, Fincher skillfully sets out Graysmith’s painful obsession with the case. By probing into Graysmith’s psyche and depicting how the case affected him, it humanizes Graysmith and the all-consuming passion that took over his life. It’s a characterization that Graysmith does not dispute. After having read the screenplay, he was quoted as saying, “God, now I see why my wife divorced me.”
Although the case against Arthur Leigh Allen was completely circumstantial, Fincher was convinced of his guilt. Having grown up twenty miles from San Francisco, in San Anselmo, the story was a personal one for him and he recounts how his school bus was followed by highway patrol cars after Zodiac threatened to “pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.” Vanderbilt perceived that Fincher wanted to make a film that ended the serial-killer genre. No such luck there, but even though the genre is full of other worthy films about serial killers, Zodiac still ranks as one of the best.
- For a complete review of Robert Graysmith’s books, Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, see my July 9, 2018 blog post.
- David Fincher as found in “The Supplemental Report to the Reader on David Fincher’s Zodiac,” in Graysmith, Robert. Zodiac. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1986, p. 338.
- Gardner, Eric. “Leonardo DiCaprio Attacked in Defamation Lawsuit for Not Doing Enough Character Research.” The Hollywood Reporter. March 6, 2018.
- See David Fincher’s Zodiac DVD audio commentary.
- Graysmith, Zodiac, p. 338.
Butterfield, Michael. “Zodiac: The Movie. Fact v. Fincher.” For a full, in depth analysis of the discrepancies in the movie: http://www.zodiackillerfacts.com/movie.htm
Kahn, David. The Code Breakers: The Story of Secret Writing. Scribner, New York. 1967.
Scharf, Zack. “Zodiac: David Fincher’s Historical Accuracy Is More Specific Than You Can Imagine – Watch.” IndieWire. April 2, 2018. https://www.indiewire.com/2018/04/zodiac-david-fincher-accuracy-true-events-1201948258/
von Tunzelmann, Alex. “Zodiac shows all the vital signs of historical accuracy.” The Guardian. February 23, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/feb/23/zodiac-signs-historical-accuracy
“Zodiac – When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.” Film Radar. March 28, 2018.
“Zodiac Movie v. Zodiac Killer True Story.” Chasing the Frog website. Available at: http://www.chasingthefrog.com/reelfaces/zodiac.php
“This is the Zodiac Speaking” documentary in Zodiac Director’s Cut: https://youtu.be/1t7qpDNU4RM
“Bop ’Til You Drop” (calling any Rick Springfield fans?): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLnu8SzOGfs
Thanks for reading!