Director David Fincher: Beyond The Zodiac, By Kurt Loder

Man behind 'Se7en'/ 'Fight Club' talks about new film, Eliot Ness, singing totalitarians.

No one would be likely to confuse the movies of David Fincher with those of any other director. And yet the man behind such vividly distinctive pictures as "Se7en" (1995), "Fight Club" (1999) and "Panic Room" (2002) has surpassed himself on a couple of levels with "Zodiac," his hypnotic and densely-layered new film about the famous serial killer of the late 1960s. We spoke to Fincher last week by phone from New Orleans, where he was wrapping up a new movie called "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which is based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Among other things, we talked about such possible future projects as "Torso," based on the Brian Michael Bendis comic about the latter-day involvement of gang-buster Eliot Ness with a Midwestern miscreant known as the Cleveland Torso Murderer. However, for a man who was a Marin Country grade-school kid when the Zodiac murders were underway, his new movie was still the most meaningful at the moment.

Kurt Loder: When you started working on "Zodiac," were you hoping to actually crack the case after all these years?

David Fincher: No. I don't think there's any hope of that. I don't think it's in the cards. It's one of those things that will go on for years and years, and there will forever be differing theories.

Loder: One of the most interesting things about the movie is that even though the bad guy is never caught, or even conclusively identified, there's a strong narrative satisfaction at the end — we think we know who did it.

Fincher: Well I'm glad you thought that. You may be in the minority. [laughs] There are some people that are a little miffed at the inconclusive nature of it.

Loder: Well, Leigh Allen very strongly seems to be the guy, and that's enough for me.

Fincher: I think a reasonably intelligent cop gets a feeling about some things, you know? And in the Zodiac case, these were all smart guys, and this was what their gut was telling them, that it was Leigh Allen. Also, that was the story we bought in the two Robert Graysmith books that the movie is based on. So we didn't feel the urge to have to tell everything. All the ancillary aspects of the case, we didn't have to get into that.

Loder: Charles Fleischer's character, Bob Vaughn, is kind of ancillary, but I'm glad you left him in.

Fincher: We wondered about that — do we include Bob Vaughn? Because he's such a red herring. Is he necessary? No, but ...

Loder: It's a really scary scene.

Fincher: Well, yeah, it was fun. And I felt that like it kind of talked about the red-herring nature of an investigation that goes on this long.

Loder: Why do you think serial killers have such cultural resonance? The Zodiac; Jack the Ripper; the "Son of Sam" killer, David Berkowitz — each of them killed a relatively small number of people in a relatively brief period of time. And yet ...

Fincher: Well, I think it's the nature of the letters they wrote to the press — the nature of people who taunt others with their ability to hunt freely amongst the citizenry. I don't think if Zodiac hadn't written his letters that we'd be making a movie about him, or talking about him now.

Loder: Where did Robert Downey get his character from? Paul Avery, the reporter he plays, is dead.

Fincher: [laughs] Well, I don't know. When Downey says, "I know what to do with this," you get out of his way.

Loder: You really managed to nail the period the story takes place in — the late '60s and early '70s — without trotting out the usual clichés.

Fincher: That was an important thing to us. I didn't want the movie to look like pastiche. I wanted it to look genuine. I knew San Francisco in those years. I loved that era and that period, and I wanted to do right by it.

Loder: The soundtrack is really smart, too.

Fincher: Yeah, that was the thing. I mean, we originally had this Big Brother & the Holding Company song for the opening. And then somebody played the Three Dog Night song ["Easy To Be Hard"] for me, and I was just like, wow! Because that was it — that was the summer of '69. It's weird how music can be that way. You want it to be all things to all people, but then you find the thing that works for you, and you can't deny how personal it makes that moment.

Loder: What's the feedback on the movie been so far? Has anybody said, "I don't get it"?

Fincher: Well, yeah. But we've had really, really great responses. I mean, look, as with almost everything I've ever done, there are people who really like it, and there are people who think it's cold and manipulative. I have no idea what the consensus is. I've given up trying to understand.

Loder: The movie is like a master class in editing, the way it navigates so much complex material.

Fincher: Editing it was a nightmare. I mean, how do you cut a scene in half that was originally a six-page scene, that had all this richness of detail? But you finally go, "You know what? I don't have time for that right here. I'm wearing the audience out."

Loder: The movie doesn't feel long, though. Is it going to be longer on the DVD?

Fincher: I believe so. It's really a question of ... I mean, right now these DVD windows are so short that we're already talking about the DVD, you know? We were talkin' about the DVD two weeks ago, and I was like, "You gotta be kidding." I mean, can we worry about getting the movie in theatres before we worry about prepping it for the disc?

Loder: Were there any scenes that were particularly heartbreaking for you to cut out?

Fincher: Yeah. There's a scene that I want to put back — although I agreed at the time that it didn't play. It was a great scene before the cops get the search warrant to search Leigh's trailer. Anthony Edwards, who I think is phenomenal, and Mark Ruffalo, who I couldn't be a bigger fan of, and Dermot Mulroney, who's just delicious in this part, go into Dermot's office and just talk to a speakerphone for about five pages. I just loved it. I loved the "Charlie's Angels" thing with the speakerphone. One of the guys would talk, and then we'd actually cut to the speakerphone. It was so much fun. I'll probably put that back, just because I love the idea of police work just being three people in a room talking to a speakerphone.

Loder: I think a lot of people might be expecting a picture from you to be a little more gory than this one is.

Fincher: Well, you know, my movies aren't that gory. I mean, I think "Panic Room" is probably the most violent movie I've ever made. Not in terms of what it talked about, but in terms of what you actually see. I sort of pride myself on not having to ... I mean, I like audiences to feel discomfort, but I don't go out of my way to offend people. This was never intended to be "Se7en." That was a different time and a different place, and it was 15 years ago.

Loder: I know you were concerned with accuracy in this picture, but was there any material you had to adjust a bit just for dramatic reasons?

Fincher: Yeah — the moment where Avery gets the shirt. This little piece of bloodstained shirt came to the "Chronicle," but it didn't really come to Avery. It actually came in another letter the day before. But we needed Avery to open that Halloween card, and for the audience to be able to go, "Uh oh — that's the Zodiac." So we fudged that, yeah.

Loder: One of the creepiest scenes in the movie is when the cops go to search Leigh's trailer, which is filled with guns and fetish magazines — and squirrels. Were there photos of that in the original case files?

Fincher: Leigh's trailer? Yeah. I mean, we don't have photos of the inside, but we have the police reports that talk about the contents of everything that was found in the trailer. He had squirrels and chipmunks as pets, and he performed little operations on them. He was ... how does he characterize himself? "I'm a nasty, nasty man"? It's also interesting that police reports in those days were so much more polite. They reference that he had pornography, but they won't tell you what kind of pornography.

Loder: What conclusion did you come to in the end — was Leigh Allen really the Zodiac?

Fincher: There are things that I think are compelling, certain handwriting characteristics. I know that he was cleared on the handwriting, but we had handwriting experts look at the morphemes, and a lot of other things they didn't really look at back then, and there are definite similarities. But I don't know that we'll ever know.

Loder: You're well-known by now for shooting a lot of takes — something that probably doesn't endear you to some of your actors. What is it that you're looking for when you get up to, say, Take 65? What's eluding you?

Fincher: The most takes we did on this picture was on day one, doing a walk-and-talk scene. Walk-and-talk scenes are really hard. If somebody's delivering five pages of dialogue walking down a hallway, it's got to be just right. We re-shot a couple of scenes because we didn't feel like the information was landing. Because that's all this movie is, it's character and information, and when that stuff isn't working, you have to go back to the drawing board, and find another way in. I understand that some actors can find this frustrating; they like encouragement, and it's not encouraging to say, "Let's do another one." But it's not like I didn't have a reason or didn't have a direction. There was a direction we were going in.

Loder: There's an enormous amount of information in this film — were you worried about whether viewers would be able to take it all in?

Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. No one wants to make something that's boring. No one wants to open in 3000 cinemas and bore people. That's bad. But I love forensic-investigation shows. I love Court TV. And I thought there was a big audience out there for that. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seemed to me that people like getting involved in those kinds of puzzles.

Loder: You obviously have an affinity for the serial-killer genre. I'd imagine you don't want to make a career of it, but you are considering making a film version of "Torso," aren't you?

Fincher: I'm interested in that. I'm not interested in the serial killer thing, I'm interested in Eliot Ness. I'm interested in the de-mythologizing of Eliot Ness. Because, you know, "The Untouchables" was only two or three years of the Eliot Ness story. There's a whole other, much more sinister downside to it. And so that's of interest to me. We want to make it the "Citizen Kane" of cop movies. I also want to make a CG animated movie. And I've been talking about doing a remake of a movie I really liked in the '70s, "The Reincarnation of Peter Proud." Ever see that? And there's a World War II movie that Robert Towne is writing that I really love. All kinds of stuff.

Loder: How did you become involved with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"?

Fincher: I read a script many, many years ago. It's a really beautiful story, but I didn't feel that it was makeable in that incarnation. I told Brad [Pitt] about it years ago, and then it was being offered to him, but they didn't have a director, so they brought it to me, then I worked on it for about four years, and now it's finally at a place where the studio wanted to throw the kind of money that it would take to execute it. So here we are in New Orleans, making it.

Loder: Is there any kind of movie that you've always wanted to do that you haven't done yet? Is there a musical in your future?

Fincher: I'd love to do a musical! I really would. I wanted to do "Evita"! I really did. I thought it was a nasty musical — I liked that about it. It's sort of perverse.

Loder: Singing totalitarians.

Fincher: Exactly. The thing I loved about it is, they understood the corollary between sex and politics, you know? They're almost the same thing.

Check out everything we've got on "Zodiac."

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