It was arguably the best-reviewed film of 2007 and yet, almost from the start, “Zodiac” felt like an underappreciated classic. Chalk it up to unrealistic expectations (a serial-killer flick from the director of “Seven” that didn’t titillate so much as hypnotize) and a strange release date (March, where little Oscar bait traditionally swims), but “Zodiac” never found a huge audience.
Now, thanks to appearing on a bevy of year-end top 10 lists and a new extras-laden DVD, “Zodiac,” the mesmerizing tale of obsessed cops (Mark Ruffalo) and newspaper men (Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.) on the trail of the infamous Bay Area killer, is getting a second shot with audiences.
The movie’s notoriously press-shy director, David Fincher, spoke with MTV News at length about his own obsession with making the film, how “Seven” was about more than decomposing bodies and why he’s sick of his reputation as a director who puts his actors through endless takes.
(Check out the second part of our interview with Fincher on Monday, when he discusses the slew of projects on his plate, including bringing one of his films to Broadway.)
MTV: Perhaps the best compliment I can give you is that I’ve seen “Zodiac” four or five times now, and it’s holding up with every viewing.
David Fincher: Jesus. I don’t wish that on anybody.
MTV: Let’s go back to the genesis of the film. Did your onetime involvement in a “Black Dahlia” film feed into “Zodiac” at all?
Fincher: Yeah. When it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be involved in “Black Dahlia,” I didn’t go, “All right, find me another obsession tale.” I wasn’t looking to make another serial-killer movie. But when I read “Zodiac,” I just thought I’d hate to see this and not have been involved.
MTV: Why the reluctance to do another serial-killer movie?
Fincher: So much of that sh– kind of rains in on your transom after you make a movie that makes some money. So those are the only scripts you get. After having convinced people that I was the right guy for “Seven,” all of a sudden you only see scripts about deranged maniacs.
MTV: And now you’re probably getting a ton of serial-killer scripts again, just as they were petering out.
Fincher: Yeah. Like an idiot. [He laughs.] When I was working on “The Black Dahlia,” I never really felt like it was a serial-killer movie. It was an obsession tale to me. Maybe that’s just the department of rationalizations. When “Zodiac” was sent to me, I said, “All right, I’ll take a look.” Growing up in [the Bay Area's] Marin [County] in this time, there were a lot of questions that had never been answered for me, like, “Yeah, whatever happened to [the Zodiac case]? How did that end up?” It disappeared off the front page, and then it was off page four, and then it was in the metro section, and then it was gone. There was no real sense of, “Did they ever get close?” I opened [the script] going, “Uh-oh, I don’t know.” And then halfway in, I was like, “This is pretty interesting.”
MTV: It’s as talky and information-heavy a film as I can recall in the last year. Did you see that aspect as a challenge?
Fincher: The way characters talk and how fleshed out they are are usually the reasons you say yes to a movie. The action set-pieces are the stuff you kind of feel obligated to do in order to give them something to cut into their trailer. “Seven” for me wasn’t about decomposing bodies and jolts and scares. I liked the world and what they were talking about. I don’t normally choose things by the whiz-bangs. As much as people thought “Panic Room” was a chance to fly a camera around and show off, that was an extension of our philosophy about how the story should be told and not like, “I’d really like to rent this piece of equipment.” When somebody says, “You don’t want to make this movie — it all takes place in one house,” those are fighting words.
MTV: Of course, the interesting thing about “Zodiac,” this serial-killer film, is it defies so many of the clichés that go along with the genre.
Fincher: And that was interesting to me. Not just from the standpoint of luring people into theaters under false pretenses. That’s just icing. [He laughs.] It was a different take on that. It was the geopolitics and the socioeconomic landscape of that place and that time and how it was altered — it was not a huge body count. Five people died. It wasn’t such a big deal, but it was such a big deal, and that was interesting to me. It was the dawn of the serial killer.
MTV: Is the case out of your system?
Fincher: I’m CC’ed on everything. Every time there’s a new suspect of interest, I get the links. I don’t hold out a lot of hope. One of the things the movie is talking about is, what is closure? There was a time that I wanted to do a television show where I wanted to take famous criminal cases and take 16 or 25 episodes to explore it over time and from all these different views. Before “Capote,” one of the aspects of it was to do the “In Cold Blood” case. What did the people in Kansas think of Truman Capote? And that is part of the fabric of that tragedy, that moment. It’s part of the ripple effect. Sharon Tate’s family goes to San Quentin [State Prison] every 10 years for the parole hearings [of the Manson Family killers], and you go, “Wow, this many years afterwards, what is that like?”
MTV: We tend to only dip into these stories at their apex.
Fincher: “Zodiac” was the perfect example. We were interested in it until it got too boring. People were outraged that this guy hadn’t been brought to justice until they drafted Joe Montana and nobody in San Francisco gave a sh– anymore.
MTV: You are infamous for the number of takes you subject your actors to. That reputation must feel a little old.
Fincher: It’s like, who gives a sh–? It’s not like it costs you an extra three bucks to see the movie. I don’t know why anybody cares.
MTV: Do your actors by and large go with it?
Fincher: Most of the time I haven’t had issues with it. The whole crybaby thing of, “Are people working too hard?” I don’t know.
MTV: What annoys you on set?
Fincher: I don’t want to see people making off with the group’s time. My whole thing has always been, if you’re talking about how we can make this thing that we’re doing better, I’m all ears. If you’re talking about how you want to be perceived as a contributor, that’s between you and your parents. I try to give actors a lot of opportunities to contribute. The first three or four takes, do what’s in your gut, and then let’s start honing it in. You can feel when a scene is constructed out of close-ups. And people feel it whether they know what I’m talking about or not. When you see “Animal House” and this f—ing amazing cast moving in these amazing masters with the timing as perfect as it is, it’s just great. Everybody is firing on all cylinders. You shouldn’t have to cut around people based on their ability. Movies should be cut for what the story needs, not because of what the actor needs. Everybody serves the story.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Zodiac.”
Visit Movies on MTV.com for more from Hollywood, including news, reviews, interviews and more.
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.
Want trailers? Visit the Trailer Park for the newest, scariest and funniest coming attractions anywhere.