Things We Learned From The Commentary: David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’

ZodiacThings We Learned From the Commentary is a column devoted to directors and their craft. Its singular goal is to put into perspective how and why auteurs shape and mold their films.

The work of David Fincher is often defined by the outpouring of information and data, and the ways in which they invade the physical space of his characters and their worlds. Not only does this information serve as the common narrative drive in films such as Seven, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but it routinely acts as a mirror into our own digital driven world of screens, monitors, names, dates, and codes. The auteur has made nine films since 1992, but few speak to the visceral complexity of his 2007 film Zodiac. The film follows the key investigators and reporters who became obsessed with catching the infamous serial killer, and how their lives were seemingly lost through their endless pursuit.

The director’s cut of the film offers two commentary tracks: one from actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., producer Brad Fischer, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and crime novelist James Ellroy, the other is a stand-alone commentary from director David Fincher. Having been born in 1962, the events in the film still remain close to Fincher as he would have been just a teenager around the time of the Zodiac killings (late 1960s and early 1970s). When it comes to commentaries, there are few who are as relaxed and informative as Fincher. From the start, he describes his oddly personal connection to the material with such inviting warmth. What makes this a vital and necessary commentary is the attention to detail that the viewer obtains through Fincher’s process driven approach to the material, perhaps a mirror into his protagonists’ obsessive manner. He’ll break down the most inconsequential scene and spit out the precise amount of takes that were spent to capture it.

For a film based around a newsroom, much like All the President’s Men, Fincher admits that the hub of the film is the idea of letters passing through the San Francisco Chronicle (the film’s primary setting). The guiding principle surrounding the project would be how simply staged everything needed to be; Fincher offers up the idea that there couldn’t be any artifice or  underlying cinematic motif since it’s a film very much about talking and behavior. It remained crucial that Zodiac did justice to the real people involved with the case, their persona and energy had to be channeled in an astute manner. The casting was set off by Anthony Edwards, who Fincher describes as “a great point guard.” Oddly enough, Jennifer Aniston was the one who suggested Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo for their respective roles, as she worked with the former on The Good Girl in 2002.

The film’s crisp and intoxicating digital design is a major point talking point for Fincher, a look rendered by the late Harris Savides who passed away late last year. The infamous cab shot that speaks to God’s POV and sense of detachment is vintage Fincher. All of the blood in the film was added digitally to save time and money, as well as the many driving scenes which were mostly all bluescreen. Quintessential San Franciscan iconography and mass cultural references were needed to show the passage of time in the film, something Fincher admits he can’t take all the credit for. In speaking to other infamous scenes, the eerie basement sequence which arrives rather late in the proceedings was viewed as both a success and a red herring by test audiences.

One of the more illuminating aspects of Fincher’s commentary is how skeptical he is of possible Zodiac victims. Alleged victim Kathleen Johns is featured in a small but horrific scene as she and her baby are terrorized by a man they pick up on the side of the road who threatens to dispose of the infant. Fincher’s hesitancy to buy into Johns’ story highlights the director’s diligent detective work into weighing the facts of the case and his decisions to include them in the film. There are also plenty of fun and fascinating anecdotes to be uncovered as well: a line added in by Gyllenhaal (“Once, in high school.”) which Fincher thinks is the funniest line in the movie, the countless “Downeyisms” which make his performance so unique, and the influence of Durmot Mulroney’s basement.

Some directors may come across as more fiery or passionate, but the beauty behind Zodiac’s commentary is in its awareness of the collaborative process. Fincher’s selfless capacity to reflect on the many hands that made Zodiac such a stunning work is the ultimate take away here. Upon release, Zodiac wasn’t met with the high praise that it truly deserved. It’s a vital work that speaks to the importance of procedure and belief systems, a method that Fincher embodies in each of his projects for better or worse. By exploring the story’s many facets and suggestive takes on moral legality, we come to understand the makeup of this auteur and his crowning achievement thus far.

— Ty Landis

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