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Byline: Bob Strauss

Film Writer

A lot of movies claim to be fact-based.

"Zodiac" is fact-stuffed.

The latest crime film from "Se7en" and "Fight Club" director David Fincher sticks as close to the real data as a movie about the never-closed Zodiac Killer case conceivably can. And there is a load of information to process.

Claiming responsibility for grisly murders in various Northern California jurisdictions, Zodiac panicked the area with cryptograms he demanded newspapers publish.

Assorted law enforcement agencies pursued separate investigations, and it being an era before the Internet, cell phones and even fax machines, they failed (or refused) to share evidence with one another on a tragic scale.

Amateur and professional detectives have immersed themselves in trying to solve the mystery of Zodiac's identity ever since. One of them is Fincher, who was a child in Marin County during the 1960s and '70s, when police cars escorted his school bus after Zodiac threatened to attack them.

"I think David wanted this movie to be a process of finding out who the Zodiac Killer really was," notes Jake Gyllenhaal ("Brokeback Mountain"), who co-stars with Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Edwards in the film. "He had a private investigator, other people he was working with; we were literally investigating this case while we were making this movie."

The resulting nearly three-hour-long motion picture is hardly the creepy thriller we expect from Fincher. It is, rather, an obsessively accurate procedural-cum-psychological study of people whose own obsessions with the case damaged their lives.

"There's little action and much story in this movie," observes Gyllenhaal, whose real-life character, cartoonist-turned-crime-nonfiction author Robert Graysmith, has come as close as anyone to satisfactorily cracking the case. "The set was like being in the vacuum of this world. It's not a movie that's going to give you a resolution that you're used to in serial-killer movies."

"I have all the murder reports, all the pictures, I have the letters, I have the affidavits ... I have more information than, probably, any real cop has," adds Mark Ruffalo. He plays Dave Toschi, the San Francisco Police Department's star homicide inspector (Steve McQueen's Bullitt and, to a lesser extent, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry were modeled on him), whose career was shredded by Zodiac.

"The style that David wanted to emulate was something like 'All the President's Men,' which is a character-driven dialogue piece, really," Ruffalo continues. "He'd lock off on a two-shot with two characters going through three or four pages of dialogue. You had to know your stuff pretty well when you showed up."

Crammed with facts

And even if you did, Fincher, who was not available to comment for this article, shot dozens of takes of each fact-packed scene.

"All he did was keep rolling and not give me any direction until I was blubbering," Ruffalo recalls of his first day on the meticulously re-created set. "After 68 takes, you're like, 'I hope he's coming over here to fire me.' And then he walks by you and adjusts a leaf or something."

Gyllenhaal has reportedly complained about Fincher's grindingly repetitious shooting style, too, though he didn't sound upset about it when he explained to this reporter "(David) does a lot of takes and obsesses about certain things."

The thing that bugged the rising star most about the "Zodiac" assignment was its early focus on Ruffalo and Edwards' cops and Downey's investigative journalist. It wasn't until those guys burned out that Graysmith put aside his drawing pen and obsessively (that word again) set about gathering all the data together and hunting the killer on his own.

"Before we started shooting, David said to me, 'I want you to know that you're an extra for the first half of the movie,' " Gyllenhaal recalls. "That extra work was the hardest part of the whole thing. It is not my personality to sit in the back of the room and observe."

Doing that gave Gyllenhaal time, however, to think about Graysmith's compulsion to track down Zodiac -- which may have ultimately resulted in a literary career, but cost him his second marriage at the time.

"I wanted a reason," Gyllenhaal admits. "And when I met Robert, I realized that he's maybe one of the only people in the world that would find joy in this search. He's like a little kid."

Graysmith admits that he was in a whole other state of mind at the time.

"It took 10 years," says the author, whose books provided the main source material for James Vanderbilt's "Zodiac" screenplay. "But you're not aware of it, you're just so swept up. Fincher once said to me, 'You saw absolutely nothing odd about sitting in your (VW) Rabbit in front of a house in Vallejo, Calif., until 3 in the morning?' And I didn't, like everybody's doing that. It seemed so natural at the time.

"But those were bad times," Graysmith admits now. "I was actually having seizures at one point and my weight was down to skin and bones. Call it a compulsion or an obsession; whatever it is, it gripped me."

At least Graysmith recovered once he got Zodiac out of his system. Others never did.

"He developed bleeding ulcers," Ruffalo says of Toschi, whom he met several times. "He was being groomed to be chief of police when this all went down, and they kicked him down to pawnshop duty. You just know that it's a wound he sustained that he's carried his whole life and that he will carry to his death."

Sounds dramatic enough. But while "Zodiac" certainly has its moments of high tension, much of the film involves following unexciting clues to dead ends. There are, as we may have mentioned, excessive amounts of dialogue. And even though the film seems to support Graysmith's theory about who the killer really was, the still-open case makes for one big anti-climax after a string of smaller, frustrating ones.

Critics, so far, don't seem bothered by any of that; "Zodiac" has received mostly glowing reviews. But raves don't pay $70 million production bills. The film's fall 2006 release date already has been postponed twice, reportedly to give Fincher enough time to edit the running time to less than three hours.

Oscar potential?

But a film like this also screams Oscar consideration, and studios don't sacrifice that if they have strong faith in its potential popularity.

"Look, we opened 'Silence of the Lambs' in February, and the picture went on to win the Academy Award," says "Zodiac" producer Mike Medavoy, who ran Orion Pictures when the ultimate serial killer hit was released in 1991. "I think that's chatter from people who don't have much else to do."

As for the people who may not want to devote nearly three hours of their lives to police and newspaper shoptalk, Medavoy says that "there's always been some concern about the movie's length. But no one I've seen watching the movie stood up, went to the bathroom, was inattentive. At the end of the movie, they may feel that it's a little long, but at the same time, they like the movie."

Describing the fundamental "problem" of the whole Zodiac story, Gyllenhaal also explains what makes "Zodiac" the movie so uniquely special.

"We all want to know that serial killers are going to get caught," the actor says. "We all want to know that our story is going to be resolved, that we're going to have the perfect ending, with twists that will make us go, 'Thank God!'

"But the psychology of these situations is that things like that don't always happen in reality. What it really is, is a play within ourselves, and David has played with that whole idea."

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670


5 photos


(1 -- 3 -- cover -- color) killer CODE

'Zodiac' digs into the puzzling serial murders that shook the Bay Area

(4) no caption ("The Zodiac")

(5) no caption (letter from the Zodiac)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 2, 2007

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