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Robert Graysmith on “SHOOTING ZODIAC” with David Fincher

Monday, November 1, 2021 | Interviews


The men were hunting unseen impressions, of shadows cast by an executioner-hooded killer and his Wing Walker boot imprints. Traversing the northern California enclave where a forgotten town lies in a watery grave below Lake Berryessa, film director David Fincher was being led by Detective Ken Narlow. The seasoned investigator had come to this spot decades earlier to investigate the brutal stabbings of a young man and woman. 

“I think this is the actual murder site,” he tells Fincher. But because time and memory can distort our mental landscape, he quickly corrects himself, exclaiming “I took you to the wrong spot!” Narlow’s momentary mistake didn’t disrupt Fincher’s investigation into the case files of the infamous Zodiac Killer. Instead, as New York Times bestselling true crime author Robert Graysmith writes in Shooting Zodiac, Fincher “began working the puzzle of the open taxi door, the blood that should have been elsewhere, a bloody print that belonged to no one, and the shot nobody heard.” 

Following Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, Graysmith’s latest title completes the cypher-loving, publicity-seeking, serial killer triptych, as he takes readers on a cinematic dark-tour through the making of David Fincher’s film adaption of Zodiac. Graysmith’s on-the-ground reporting from the early 2000s follows Fincher, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and producer Brad Fischer, as they explore murder sites, uncover new evidence, and meet with survivors and detectives. Though Graysmith’s investigation was the compass by which the Hollywood trio followed, the team breathed life into the weathered pages of the old case files. 

Robert Graysmith is no passive observer of the Zodiac saga. He was the editorial cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle during the serial murderer’s killing spree. He went onto investigate the case and his labyrinth-like odyssey, portrayed in his two previous books, was adapted into a screenplay by Vanderbilt. It was through Fincher and Vanderbilt’s cinematic collaboration that I first became acquainted with Graysmith, channeled by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film. In one of those rare lightning strikes of happenstance, I met Graysmith’s son Aaron days after I first saw the movie. We became friends and I learned that the director of Se7en and Fight Club stayed true to his father’s work. I recently got the opportunity to interview Robert Graysmith about his new book and insights into the prolific case.

(Author Robert Graysmith, director David Fincher, producer Brad Fischer, and screenwriter James Vanderbilt)

Graysmith started working at the Chronicle in the late 1960s shortly before the Zodiac slayings. When they began, the cartoonist saw the deadly mementos the serial killer had mailed to the Chronicle; a piece of bloody cloth worn by one of the victims as well as the letters and ciphers Zodiac had penned by hand. The codes stumped the CIA and FBI, but not a high school teacher and his wife who deciphered one of the letters.  It read in part, with obvious spelling mistakes, that “man is the most dangeroue anamal of all,” adding with macabre assuredness that he would be reborn in “paradice” and that his victims “will become my slaves”. But the case went unsolved, cobwebs collecting on stagnated leads, until Graysmith launched his own investigation. 

Speaking to me via phone from his home in San Francisco, Graysmith tells me that in the 1970s a headline in the Chronicle read, ‘Who Cares about the Zodiac?’ Graysmith retorts, “I did!” His work as an artist was the impetus for his attraction to the case. He elucidates, “I’m a political cartoonist and the old artists like Daumier and Goya, they were doing political cartoons of blood and tragedy and war. And they did these things to make a change.” 

Graysmith began research for his two books, providing intricate details and insights into the case. His books gave flesh to the ghosts of unsolved-crimes-past. And, in the beginning of the new millennium, Fincher, Vanderbilt, and Fischer took the author’s lead in a celluloid exploration of the story, leaving no stone unturned. Graysmith says of them, “They were filmmakers, but I think they were detectives. I think they were darn good.” One had been personally affected by the case. 

Fincher, who grew up in Marin County, was in elementary school when Zodiac was terrorizing the Bay Area. In Shooting Zodiac he recalls a time when his school bus was being followed by a Highway Patrol car. When he asked his father about the police presence, his father told the 7-year-old that a man “had threatened to take a high-powered rifle, shoot out the tires of a school bus, and nail the kiddies as they come bouncing out.” Graysmith writes that Fincher “wondered aloud if Zodiac had something to do with the bleak, unrelenting, and saturnine perception of mankind that runs through his films.” But unlike his previous work, Zodiac encapsulates real people and places, replete with misremembering’s and total recalls. 

“Fincher wasn’t going to make the movie until he spoke to those involved,” Graysmith explains.  Good on his word, the director, as well as the screenwriter, and producer interviewed the people whose lives had intersected with the Zodiac’s in differing ways. They spoke to those who had come face to face with the killer as well as the detectives who witnessed the aftermath of the fatal encounters. 

Fincher explored the liminal space that exists between reality and perception. Graysmith writes about a meeting between the director and SFPD Detective Dave Toschi. Toschi, who inspired Clint Eastwood’s character in Dirty Harry, investigated the Zodiac case. “We didn’t call them serial killers then,” he tells Fincher, “For lack of a better word it was just some nut who was killing.” 

At the corner of Washington and Cherry in Presidio Heights, Paul Stine, a 29-year-old cabbie was shot in the head and killed. The killer took pieces of his shirt, a macabre token that he would later mail to the Chronicle and other individuals. Fincher was seeking specific details for a scene he wanted to shoot. Toschi who investigated the slaying, was pressed by Fincher about what the killer did after he shot the cab driver, “Did he cradle the dead man’s head in his lap after he shot and killed him?” Furthermore, was the bloodied shirt “cut” or “torn?” To that, Toschi replied firmly, “Torn”. Though it’s believed that Zodiac killed at least five people, including Stine (however, it’s speculated he killed more) two men survived his attacks. 

A sexual sadist, Zodiac preyed on couples. His killer’s toolbox included a trifecta of deadly instruments utilizing guns, ropes, and knives. He carried out separate attacks at different locations, both by bodies of water. At Lake Berryessa – where Fincher and Narlow began their investigation into the case – he hogtied and stabbed college students Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell. Sadly, Shepard died but Hartnell survived the savage attack. In a previous assault at Blue Rock Springs, teenagers Mike Mageau and Darlene Ferrin were ambushed by gunfire. The fatal gunshots killed Ferrin, but Mageua miraculously pulled through. Graysmith tells me of the survivor, “He never recovered from this. If you read the book [Shooting Zodiac] you find out where they found him.” Mageau was indeed a survivor who provided invaluable insight to Fincher and his team. In an interview with Fischer, he confirmed a long-held belief that Ferrin knew the shooter, stating “when Darlene arrived that night, she knew she was being followed.” 

To this day, the Zodiac slayings remain unsolved. There are multiple suspects, but one is prominently featured in both Fincher’s vision and in Shooting Zodiac. The prime suspect is a moon-faced, Wing Walker wearing, and collector of squirrel guts, known as Arthur Leigh Allen.

In a raid on the convicted pedophile’s home in 1991, police found guns, pipe bombs, and a disturbing audio recording of children screaming. Allen died a year later, and the investigation, based on a mountain of circumstantial evidence, came to a halt. One of the retired detectives saved police files on the suspect and lent them to Fischer and Vanderbilt to comb through. In it, they found a map of one of the murder sites, hand-drawn by Allen himself.  The map is of significance, Graysmith explains, because the Zodiac Killer “uses all the tools a cartoonist would use. He loved anything that was visual. He would send us [SF Chronicle] greeting cards but would redraw the cards.” 

“He’s a sad, pathetic, and incredibly sick person who came within inches of being caught,” Fischer says of Zodiac. He goes onto explain, “The rest was all in the public’s head, ready and waiting for each eager imagination to mold into a powerful demon.” 

This demonic-genius duality is a common trope that has been exploited time and again in the serial killer movie genre. It takes the focus off the victims and simplifies complicated narratives.  Graysmith quotes Fincher, who explains, “in the movies, there is such a rush to get to our vengeance that we never see the difficulty in getting justice”. Upon its release in 2007, Fincher’s film adaptation of Zodiac would be likened to the Woodward and Bernstein of serial killer movies, encapsulating a kaleidoscope of people and places colliding with violence, law enforcement hubris and blunders, and the terror of losing oneself in an obsessive search for the truth. 

Towards the end of our conversation, Graysmith reflects on the importance of the Zodiac case, “I want people to remember it and try to solve it. I don’t think this thing is ever going away”. He adds, “I imagine someday they’ll remake Zodiac. That would be interesting to see twenty years from now what Zodiac would look like.” He ends this thought with a hint of optimism in his voice, “Who knows, they may have the answer to everything.” 

Shooting Zodiac (2021) is available for purchase at Monkey’s Paw Publishing

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