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‘Zodiac’ Turns 15: Behind-the-Scenes Facts You Didn’t Know About the David Fincher Movie

David Fincher's legendary attention to detail on the serial killer film inspired plenty of on-set drama.

ZODIAC, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chloe Sevigny, 2007. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

ZODIAC, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chloe Sevigny, 2007. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

This week marks 15 years since “Zodiac” was released in theaters, and save for the actors looking 15 years younger than they do now, the film still feels like it could be released today. If anything, “Zodiac” feels more like a product of 2022 than 2007. The country is more obsessed with serial killers than ever before, with true crime podcasts and documentaries continuing to draw massive ratings, Zodiac killer memes being used in presidential primaries, and the latest Batman movie taking the form of a serial killer drama.

That makes it a great time to revisit “Zodiac,” as well as a good opportunity to take a deep dive into the making of the film. “Zodiac” attracted as much attention for its painstaking production process as it did for the finished product, as the always detail-oriented David Fincher went above and beyond to make sure everything in his film was historically accurate. Sometimes his methodical process hurt his relationships with the cast, but one thing is for certain: They made a great movie. Keep reading for 15 facts about the making of “Zodiac” that you may not have known.

Screenwriter James Vanderbilt Had Wanted to Adapt the Book “Zodiac” Since He Was 15

The film is based on the book “Zodiac” by former San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who became obsessed with the Zodiac killer and spent 13 years studying the murders. James Vanderbilt read the book when he was 15 years old and made it a mission to adapt it into a movie. Years later, when the rights to the book became available, he sent Graysmith a fax pitching him on his vision. The young screenwriter knew he could not guarantee that he could get the movie made, but said, “I can promise if I do, it will be R-rated, it will take place in the real time period, and the Zodiac won’t get caught in the end.”

David Fincher Joined the Project Because His Elizabeth Short Miniseries Fell Through

David Fincher was going to direct a true serial killer drama one way or another. After the success of “Se7en” Fincher was the first choice to direct “Zodiac.” But when he was first approached, he was unavailable, as he was attached to direct an adaptation of “The Black Dahlia” by James Elroy, a fictionalized account of the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. He was planning to make it as a five-episode miniseries with a budget of $80 million, something that sounds relatively normal by today’s standards but would have been a shocking budget for television at the time. When that miniseries failed to obtain financing, he began work on “Zodiac.”

ZODIAC, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., 2007. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

“Zodiac”

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

David Fincher Was Drawn to “Zodiac” Because He Was “Appalled” by “Dirty Harry”

Fincher grew up in the Bay Area and recalled being afraid of the Zodiac killer as a child, so he had a personal connection to the material. Prior to “Zodiac,” the most significant cinematic take on the saga was “Dirty Harry,” as the murderer that Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan pursued was based on the real-life killer. But Fincher did not like the way the Zodiac killer was reduced to a foil for Clint Eastwood’s character, saying in the “Zodiac” DVD commentary that he was “appalled” by the film’s portrayal of the Zodiac killer when he saw the movie at the age of 12. His desire to make a more historically accurate film launched him into an extensive research process…

Fincher and Vanderbilt Did 18 Months of Research on the Zodiac killer

Once Fincher was attached to the project, he and Vanderbilt treated the film like a journalistic endeavor. They spent 18 months researching the case, reading over 10,000 documents and interviewing as many surviving witnesses, cops, and politicians as they could in order to piece together the most accurate version of the story. The script was continually revised throughout this process, as they let the plot rise naturally from the facts they were uncovering.

Fincher Would Only Include Murders with Surviving Witnesses in the Movie

Fincher’s obsession with historical accuracy was so intense that, when deciding which Zodiac killings to include in the film, he insisted on only using murders that had surviving witnesses he could interview. His thinking was that, with so much misinformation about the Zodiac killer circulating in the world, he did not want to include anything in his film if he could not verify its accuracy from a firsthand witness.

"Zodiac"

“Zodiac”

Paramount

Fincher and Vanderbilt Modeled the Film After “All the President’s Men”

While “Zodiac” is one of the definitive crime thrillers of the 21st century, the creative team approached it as a journalism movie first and foremost. In his production notes for the film, Fincher said he was using “All the President’s Men,” Alan J. Pakula’s film about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal, as a template for “Zodiac.” His reasoning was that the film tells “the story of a reporter determined to get the story at any cost and one who was new to being an investigative reporter. It was all about his obsession to know the truth.”

But There Was One Detail Fincher Was Willing to Get Wrong

In one scene, Robert and Melanie Graysmith go out to dinner and she orders penne vodka with cream sauce, a dish that was not invented until the 1980s. Fincher knew that the dish’s inclusion in his film was an anachronism but said “being a gourmand, I let it slide.”

Jake Gyllenhaal Did Not Like Working with David Fincher

Fincher’s obsessive approach did not end in pre-production. During shooting, Gyllenhaal was sometimes asked to shoot 70 takes of a given shot, frustrating the young actor. He attracted controversy in an interview with the New York Times after the film wrapped, saying that he felt left out of the creative process. He said that Fincher “paints with people” and that “it’s tough to be a color.” But he later realized that Fincher was right, saying, “I wish I could’ve had the maturity to be like: ‘I know what he wants. He wants the best out of me.'”

ZODIAC, Mark Ruffalo, 2007. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

“Zodiac”

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

…and Fincher Felt the Same Way

Fincher recently opened up about the tension between himself and Gyllenhaal, basically confirming that the actor bristled against Fincher’s perfectionism. However, the director tends to blame Gyllenhaal’s representatives and handlers more than the actor himself, saying that “his managers and his silly agents were all coming to his trailer at lunch to talk to him about the cover of GQ and this and that. He was being nibbled to death by ducks, and not particularly smart ducks. They got in his vision, and it was hard for him to hit the fastball.”

Jennifer Aniston Told Fincher to Cast Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo

In his DVD commentary, Fincher stated that when he began casting the film, one of his first conversations was with Jennifer Aniston, who suggested that he cast Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo. She told Fincher she had worked with both actors and enjoyed the experience, prompting him to take a more serious look at them.

The Basement Was Inspired by Dermot Mulroney’s Basement

While many of the film’s sets are exact recreations of the real locations in the film, Fincher and his team were not above creating something new. The set for the infamous basement scene was inspired by Dermot Mulroney’s real-life basement, with the production team recreating it because it “had these concrete foundational pieces built into it with a walkway that made it feel like you were walking through a tunnel.”

All of the Blood Was Added Digitally

Despite Fincher’s obsession with historical accuracy, the director is not married to practical effects. Many aspects of “Zodiac” were created digitally in post-production, with Fincher removing satellite dishes from homes, adding power lines, and even adding hair to Gyllenhaal’s knuckles. But the most significant digital addition was the film’s blood, as Fincher refused to use any practical blood effects on set. His reasoning? Because he shot so many takes, it would delay the film too much to clean up fake blood after each one.

ZODIAC, 2007. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

“Zodiac”

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Fincher Created San Francisco Using CGI

While much of the film was shot on location in the actual spots where the murders took place, Fincher and his team were unable to shoot the scene where Paul Stine is murdered at the corner of Washington and Cherry Streets in San Francisco. Due to changing architecture over the years and logistical issues, the scene was filmed in front of a green screen, with the city being created through a combination of photographs and matte paintings during post-production.

The Production Flew Oak Trees Into Lake Berryessa

When the Zodiac killer murdered Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Shephard at Lake Berryessa, he first hid behind an oak tree while he stalked them. But when Fincher made the trek to Lake Berryessa to shoot that scene in “Zodiac,” there was one problem: the oak trees were gone. Rather than get a detail wrong, the production flew in two massive oak trees via helicopter and drilled massive holes in the ground to set them up in the spots where the original trees grew.

“Zodiac” Was One of the First Hollywood Films Shot Primarily on a Digital Camera

David Fincher used the digital Thompson Viper FilmStream Camera to shoot “Zodiac,” making the film a significant experiment in Hollywood’s flirtation with digital filmmaking. Fincher had previously experimented with the digital camera on several commercials that he directed. It is often referred to as the first film to be shot entirely digitally, but that is not true, as Fincher used film to shoot the slow-motion murder scenes. Shooting digitally had plenty of advantages, including the ability to shoot tense scenes in dark locations without requiring much light.

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