'Zodiac' Director Fincher Puts on a '70s Show
SCOTT SIMON, host:
"Zodiac" is a new movie based on the real story of a serial killer who haunted the San Francisco bay area in the late 1960s and '70s, murdering innocents and sending letters to newspapers. The film is based on the book by Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist who became obsessed - and that's truly the right word - with the case. It's directed by David Fincher in the style of the times. WEEKEND EDITION's entertainment critic Elvis Mitchell joins us from New York. This movie seems visually, thematically, to owe a lot to '70s films, doesn't it?
ELVIS MITCHELL: I would say maybe three '70s films in particular, Alan Pakula's "All the President's Men" and "Klute." But also a movie that's - a '70s-feeling movie but it actually was released in 1980. And that's William Friedkin's "Cruising," which is also a movie about obsession and a weird movie about basically trying to find a murderer and also sort of the taint in one's self. You know, that sort of feeling that original sin is at the heart of maybe a number of interesting suspense thrillers. There's one of the murders in this movie that is staged just like a murder in "Cruising," where a couple is hogtied and stabbed in the back.
SMITH: It was controversial at the time. The gay community objected to a lot of "Cruising."
MITCHELL: It's certainly a tough movie to watch. But it's a movie about self-hatred. And I think a lot of Fincher's movies are kind of about characters dealing with their own self-hatred. But in the way that "All the President's Men" uses certainly a couple of protagonists, or a couple of detectives played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards here, who bring to mind Woodward and Bernstein. The thing that these three movies I'm talking about all have in common, as with this movie "Zodiac," but with Fincher movies in general, is ferreting out information. All of Fincher's movies - if we look at "Panic Room," if we look at "Seven," if we look even at "The Fight Club" and "The Game," they're all about somebody who has to find something out and is obsessed about getting the details in place and putting everything in its place and trying to discover things, and that kind of sense of dread that is inescapable.
SIMON: To like this film, you have to get the drama in a bunch of guys going through the case files where they're not permitted to write down stuff and running out and writing everything they remember on a napkin.
MITCHELL: Yes, which is very much like "All the President's Men," where the information couldn't be immediately processed. It was about listening, which is also what "Klute" is about, about paying attention. And definitely that's a big part of this movie as well, isn't it. About just sort of that being present in the room, as actors would say. But one of things that's also fascinating about this movie too is it uses really modern technology to bring these kinds of things across. I've never seen a movie that looks like "Zodiac," which is to say a movie with so many light sources in one shot. And it's the way real life is. If you think about it, you look around, there are lights everywhere. Generally in movies you're aware that there are a couple of key lights used to sort of silhouette or highlight the actors in the frame. And that's not the case here.
There are shots and they're outside and you see planes passing over outside and you see streetlights at a distance and you see car lights pulling up and you see the lights of a door open from the inside of a car. And that kind of illumination that really isn't kind of helping anything at all is kind of a fascinating theme that Fincher adds to all of this. And we should say too, the movie - this was not shot on film. It was photographed by the brilliant cinematographer Harris Savides using digital technology. And one of the things you get from the digital frame is such an incredible depth of field that you can see everything from the foreground to far into the background. And Fincher and Savides use that as a way to sort of say that there's information and light everywhere and it's not helping anything at all.
SIMON: In real life, the Zodiac killer has never been established, never been found to the satisfaction of law enforcement authorities. And obviously the film reflects that. The film doesn't tie up and ending together with a pretty, or in this case I suppose since you're talking about murder, ugly series of bows. Let me just share this with you. I know it's real life and I know there was no way of avoiding it, but I found that dramatically unsatisfying, to go through this long movie and not have that at the end.
MITCHELL: It's so funny you say that, Scott, because that's a '70s movie ethic. They said basically we can't say that things are tied up anymore. These aren't John Wayne movies. These aren't Jimmy Stewart movies. These aren't Henry Fonda movies. But the real kind of act of creative bravery in "Zodiac" is to follow with that and to say that, you know, this is what these movies were, these movies that influenced me as a filmmaker, and I'm going to use that here in the case of people really wanting a kind of closure and not give it to them.
SIMON: Elvis Mitchell, our entertainment critic here on WEEKEND EDITION. He also hosts "The Treatment" on KCRW and many other fine public radio stations. Thank you, Elvis.
MITCHELL: Thank you, Scott.