Burning with life-consuming obsession, painstaking detail and surgical precision, what we have here is a gripping true-life procedural bursting with dizzying detail.
This two-disc Director’s Cut DVD slams home the point: Zodiac is as much about David Fincher’s hunt for the eponymous killer as it is the story of the men who burned up two decades of their lives looking for him. “I think the reason why the Zodiac still haunts us is the letters,” says Fincher on his intelligent, considered commentary.
“The crimes themselves are, by today’s serial-killer standards, not that grotesque. But the letters are the key for me. This ongoing correspondence with someone who is ‘in process’, the evolution of his thinking.”
Fincher may as well be talking about himself, as the director once again goes about meticulously, methodically recording his own filmmaking process through another crammed DVD package.
In Fincher’s hands, the tale of cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) and detective David Toschi’s (Mark Ruffalo) self-destructive search for the San Francisco serial killer brilliantly fuses crime thriller, newspaper potboiler and period time-capsule.
But Graysmith’s life-eating obsession is really Fincher’s – piling up more and more facts, burrowing deeper into the labyrinthine mystery, chasing the truth until nothing else matters.
The devil is in the detail. Fincher talks through his decision to ditch the style pyrotechnics of Fight Club and Panic Room and shows his superhuman attention to the little things.
He also forces Gyllenhaal to continue shooting when he was sick with a 102-degree temperature (“I think it focused him – he’s truly great in that scene”). Surprisingly, Fincher’s Director’s Cut adds only four minutes of extra footage. More dialogue. More of the process.
“People just could not abide a scene when three guys are talking into a speakerphone,” says Fincher, of one sequence where the cops bring their boss up to speed on the case.
“This scene cracks me up. Anytime you can cut to a speakerphone, it’s like Charlie. I just love the idea of these guys laying it all out for Charlie!” Great banter and, yes, more process arises in a second commentary by Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr, producer Brad Fischer, screenwriter James Vanderbilt and particularly James Ellroy.
Beginning by introducing himself as “James Ellroy, king of American crime fiction, acknowledging this as one of the half-dozen great American crime films”, he proceeds to throw out nuggets like, “You know there are systemic inequities in the death-penalty system, but motherfuckers like this have to die.”
Split into The Film and The Facts, disc two unloads hours of featurettes on everything you could possibly want to know about the history of the Zodiac and the making of Fincher’s film.
And probably some you didn’t. Case in point? Nearly three hours of interviews re-telling the story of the Zodiac case and prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen.
It’s gasp-snatching stuff. Not only do we have vivid, deeply personal first-hand accounts from the policemen who worked the files, but also survivors talking through their horrific encounters with the killer in staggering detail.
Brian Hartnell was stabbed six times and watched his girlfriend murdered. He coolly explains what he and the Zodiac said to each other, what he was feeling and what happened when the knifing started and what he thinks of the scene in the film.
Then comes the eye-popping Making Of footage: Fincher pulling the strings on set and building his world, great and small (helicopters winch in giant trees, while a team of production designers grovel in the mud planting individual weeds).
Copious FX featurettes also reveal the invisible magic behind Zodiac’s apparently ultra-realist drama. Ruffalo seems to have spent much of his time wandering around a blue-screen set, while technical whizzes fill in blood, knife blades, people walking their dogs on sidewalks and whole cityscapes.
Best of all in this fascinating insight into Fincher’s process. The director’s description of directing: “Imagine painting, but you’re 200 yards away from the canvas. And 80 people are holding the brush.
And you’re on a walkie-talkie, going, ‘We need a little blue there. No, no, no, darker blue. DARKER BLUE!’”
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