48 Things We Learned from David Fincher’s 'Zodiac' Commentary

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“This is not a serial killer movie. It’s a newspaper story.”

The BBC recently released a list of the 21st century’s 100 greatest films, and in addition to a handful of movies released in 2000 (ie before the 21st century even began) it features a healthy dose of subjective gibberish. Boyhood as the 5th greatest film of the last fifteen years? Please. The Grand Budapest as the highest-ranking Wes Anderson? Wrong. Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language making the list at all? Just stop. It gets plenty right too of course with films like Inglourious Basterds, Amelie, 25th Hour, and Inside Llewyn Davis making the cut ‐ albeit not as high as they deserve.

David Fincher’s Zodiac falls into that latter group as it made the list but probably deserves a higher position. (Okay fine, #12 is pretty respectable, considering.) My favorite of Fincher’s films remains Seven, but Zodiac is undeniably his best. The director’s cut adds to the already lengthy running time, but the film still flies by even as it pulls viewers deeper into its incredibly detailed world.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Zodiac.

Zodiac [Blu-ray]

Zodiac (2007)

Commentator: David Fincher (director)

1. He says there’s been “some speculation” that he opens the film with the old-school Paramount/Warner Bros. logos to pretend it was made in the ’70s. It was actually just an idea to help set “the analog scene” of the period.

2. The opening tracking shot down the suburban street was attempted a few times with various rigs attached to the car, but they were unable to stabilize the image. When they were locked to the car the world outside the window “shook and jiggled,” and when they were locked to the world via a gyro-stabilizer the car was visibly vibrating. The solution was to lay hundreds of feet of dolly track and then simply push the car down the track.

3. The opening sequence with the couple in the car was originally set to Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “All Is Loneliness,” but the music supervisor brought him more options including the Three Dog Night song, “Easy to Be Hard.” Hearing it “transported” Fincher back into his memory of being a young boy driving through the Vallejo area where some of the killings occurred.

4. The real young man whose shooting is dramatized in the opening recalled suspecting it was the woman’s husband harassing them and even told her “I’m not getting shot for this.” Fincher liked the line, but he chose not to use it knowing that the characters were in fact about to be shot.

5. There’s been conjecture regarding the first killing as to whether the approaching car was a Mustang or a Corvair and whether or not the killer used a silencer. Fincher went with the Mustang because the couple was in a Corvair, and he wanted to avoid a “Charlie Kaufman-esque” visual. He went with the silencer because it made sense the killer would use one, and because Fincher wanted to show a homemade silencer.

6. The opening push-in on San Francisco is one of his favorite shots in the film. “It was very important to me that two things be seen,” he says. One is the Embarcadero freeway that collapsed in the 1989 earthquake, and the other is “one of the most important landmarks for me which is the construction of the Hyatt Regency.” He was brought there as a child after it opened and recalled the feeling of it being a “cosmopolitan oasis.”

7. The opening credits sequence showing the killer’s initial letter arriving at the SF Chronicle was originally written in the script as a detailed following of the letter all the way up to the newsroom without ever leaving its side. Fincher wanted to shoot it, but he knew “it probably would have taken about three and a half weeks.”

8. He says a lot of his childhood heroes were cartoonists including the Chronicle’s own Bob Bastian who went on to commit suicide.

9. Morti’s isn’t the real bar where the newspapermen gathered after work each day, but Fincher couldn’t use the name of the real one because the film depicts cocaine use in the establishment.

10. They had to digitally retouch the insert shots of Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) hands working on the killer’s code as the double’s knuckles were far hairier than the actor’s.

11. They also had to retouch the shot of the cars crossing the bridge in Napa, CA to erase the graffiti. “There was a lot of profanity.”

12. The scene where Bryan and Cecilia are stabbed in Napa features an unintentional bit where the actor playing Brian touches his stomach to stifle a small burp. He had just finished eating before hopping up in the shot, so it’s a real burp, but Fincher liked it because “that seemed so real that somebody would have a moment of indigestion when they see a guy with a black hood and a .45 automatic.”

13. Fincher thinks the reason why the Zodiac still haunts people is due as much to his letters as to anything else. The idea of an ongoing correspondence with someone who was in the process of killing fascinates him.

14. He says the overhead cab ride sequence is memorable for people and describes the intention as “a sense of detachment, God’s POV looking down on something he has no control over.”

15. All of the blood in the film is digital because it saved the production enormous amounts of time by not having to wait for wardrobe changes and cleaning.

16. The power lines seen as the camera pulls back from the murder of the cab driver were added digitally. “I just gotta warn everybody, don’t try this shot with real power lines because if you get a technocrane anywhere near it you’re going to have real problems.”

17. They wanted to film the cab driver killing at the actual intersection of Washington and Cherry where it occurred, but it became an impracticality working with the HOA to secure permission for five nights of shooting. They decided to build a corner elsewhere and put up blue screens.

18. Dermot Mulroney is in great shape, but Fincher was having none of it. “I wanted him to have a waistline like mine so we made up a little fat suit for him.”

19. He hadn’t thought about Anthony Edwards for the film until after he met retired detective Bill Armstrong. The man was incredibly nice and decent, and those traits led Fincher to Edwards.

20. One of his earliest conversations on the film’s casting was with Jennifer Aniston. (I’ll wait while that sinks in.) She was talking about actors she had worked with who she loved, and two of her favorites were Gyllenhaal (The Good Girl) and Mark Ruffalo (Rumor Has It).

21. Fincher was attached to direct Lords of Dogtown.

22. Robert Downey Jr. kept referring to the blue drink as a Blue Dragoon, but Fincher suggested AquaVelva instead as it was the aftershave his father used.

23. Fincher admits they “may have gone too far in painting Melvin [Belli] as a blowhard.” He regrets nothing though as he enjoys Brian Cox’s performance and feels it fits with the stories people told about Belli.

24. He’s not convinced that Kathleen Johns actually crossed paths with the Zodiac, and the main reason for that is the lack of any mention of her by the killer himself.

25. The montage featuring text from the Chronicle and from the Zodiac’s letters over scenes of the detectives returning again and again to the paper was put together by the film’s editor, Angus Wall. “It had little or nothing to do with me.” He loved reading reviews essentially slamming his lack of restraint when it comes to fancy sequences like this.

26. Downey showed Fincher his bar trick with the four straws and asked to include it in the bar scene. “Twenty-six takes later he was beside himself, he was so frustrated, so fed up. So one of those great little moments of inspiration turns into the actor’s albatross.”

27. Yes, he’s been informed that vodka and creme sauce was not invented until the ‘80s, “but being a gourmand I let it slide.”

28. As with the Kathleen Johns tangent above, the events in Riverside feel to Fincher like an unrelated distraction. “It may have derailed this case for all time.”

29. Some of the exterior shots required the digital removal of satellite dishes from rooftops. They checked first to see if they could pay people to temporarily take them down, but the cost would have been north of $40k so they went digital instead.

30. Surprising no one, it was Downey’s idea to have Inspector Toschi (Ruffalo) swat Paul Avery’s (Downey) notepad out of his hand leaving him to retrieve it slowly and showily.

31. The establishing shot of oil refineries in Rodeo, CA is actually a shot of Point Richmond paired with one of the film’s many matte paintings.

32. Like everyone else, Fincher loves John Carroll Lynch who plays suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. They didn’t want a performance that impersonates the real Allen. “He’s created a new thing, and we talked about what that would be.” Fincher asked him to try the interrogation scene “as a guy who’s innocent… and halfway through the conversation you realize that it looks pretty bad. And he did it. He looked way more guilty taking that approach then when he was playing a guy who was trying to hide the truth.” He says it speaks to behavior and the perception of behavior, and it’s a benefit of casting great actors.

33. Fincher had wanted Elias Koteas in one of his films as far back as 1995’s Seven, but the schedules/scripts never worked out until Zodiac.

34. “So a lot’s been written about this shot as some kind of flourish,” he says regarding the time-lapse creation of San Francisco’s TransAmerica building. It uses a series of still photographs taken during the building’s actual construction along with CG enhancements, and he wanted it to show a passage of time.

35. The conversation at the 1:35:01 mark was cut for the theatrical release after a test screening in New Orleans “because people just could not abide a scene of three people talking to a speaker phone.” Fincher finds it to be a funny and necessary scene though and added it back for the director’s cut.

36. Growing up in the Bay Area during the killer’s reign of terror left Fincher feeling that Zodiac was “kind of a personal thing.” When he saw Dirty Harry at the age of twelve he recalled being “appalled” at its reduction to a plot device.

37. The music montage set to a black screen was a way to express a passage of time using “a real mass culture reference.” It’s meant to identify that the movie isn’t over and “that this in some ways the mid-point, which I’m sure elicited groans from test audiences.”

38. Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) makes a cameo at the 1:43:38 mark. “As an extra, he won’t work unless he has a very specific idea of who his character is.”

39. Fincher dreaded shooting the scene between Toschi and Inspector William Armstrong (Edwards) in the car fearing that it would be “mawkish,” but it ended up being “wonderful” thanks to the actors.

40. He refers to background extras during filming as the famous people they look like. The diner meet-up between Toschi and Graysmith saw him giving direction like “Gloria Steinem needs to move left a little bit.”

41. Ken Narlow’s wife wanted him to be played by George Clooney in the film, but they had to settle for Donal Logue.

42. Gyllenhaal wrote the “funniest line in the movie” which is Graysmith’s reply to the question as to whether or not he smoked ‐ “Once. In high school.”

43. Graysmith ate a lot of toast.

44. Bob Vaughn’s (Charles Fleischer) basement in the film is a set based on Mulroney’s basement. “I don’t know why I was in the basement of Dermot Mulroney’s house.”

45. They shot the prison meeting between Graysmith and Linda del Buono with a different actress, but it didn’t work for Fincher so he recast with Clea DuVall and re-shot the scene.

46. Graysmith was shown a copy of the script before shooting, and his only real note was “God, now I see why my wife divorced me.”

47. Different actors portrayed the Zodiac killer during the attacks based on the different eyewitness descriptions.

48. Fincher never once mentions Ted Cruz.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“There are so many things that are sort of oddly personal in this.”

“Jake’s hands are very hairless and pretty.”

“This is Dermot Mulroney, who’s one of my favorite people in the world.”

“I tend to think things through to the point where wooden Indians could show up and I could at least finish the day’s work.”

“I love any time somebody walks over to another character carrying a pesticide sprayer.”

“There’s no reason why that should take 25 takes, but sometimes it does.”

“The people who say there’s no conclusion to the movie aren’t watching the same movie necessarily.”

Zodiac [Blu-ray]

Final Thoughts

Fincher’s commentaries are never less than fun and fascinating, and Zodiac is no exception. His affinity for the case ‐ aided in part by having lived in the area around this period as a child ‐ is clear, and while he has his own opinions he shows great respect for those who were actually a part of the events. This is a great listen, and it’s highly recommended.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

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