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Feature: Zodiac


Opening pages…

He’s faced apocalypse in Donnie Darko, gone to war in Jarhead and fought prejudice in Brokeback Mountain. Yet Jake Gyllenhaal found taking on America’s most infamous killer, in David Fincher’s Zodiac, his toughest challenge yet

San Francisco in the late 1960s. The residents of the city’s Bay Area live in a permanent state of panic, as a serial killer prowls the streets. For 10 months the murderer – who calls himself the Zodiac – effortlessly manipulates the police force and the media by writing sinister letters featuring bizarre drawings that reveal snippets of his personality, his influences and his obsessions. As the body count stacks up, an atmosphere of fear and fascination sweeps the area.

Although it may sound like the premise for a Hollywood noir, Zodiac is actually one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. There were five known victims between December 1968 and October 1969, with many more thought to have died at his hands. But what makes this story so particularly compelling is that the killer’s identity remains unknown to this day, and this is undoubtedly why the case has inspired many movies over the years, from 1971’s The Zodiac Killer to murderers seen in the likes of Dirty Harry (1971) and The Exorcist III (1990).

The latest director to take the story to the big screen is David Fincher, whose movie Zodiac – based on the book about the case by Robert Graysmith – is already winning critical acclaim. One of its stars is Jake Gyllenhaal, who takes on the role of Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle at the height of Zodiac’s murderous campaign, and the actor is in no doubt as to why the events remain so intriguing three decades later. “The Zodiac was never caught, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction,” he says. “Because he was never caught and because the Zodiac left behind so many mysteries, in terms of the ciphers and the cryptograms, he’s become a myth, a ghost. Look at the BTK Killer [who murdered at least 10 people in Kansas between 1974 and 1991]. He was the same thing, until they caught him and you saw that he looked like your next door neighbour.” Gyllenhaal reveals that it was director Fincher’s own memories of the case that led him to make the film. “David Fincher grew up in the Bay Area, in the early 1970s when the story was happening, and he said that the Zodiac was the ultimate boogeyman. He terrorized San Francisco. He wrote a letter where he said that he was going to attack a school, and so every kid thought that the Zodiac was coming to their school.”

Thanks to his involvement in the case, and his expertise that proved invaluable to the investigation, Graysmith has emerged as one of the leading experts on the Zodiac killer and Gyllenhaal is obviously very proud to have taken on this role. “He’s a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle, and he’s very mild-mannered and shy,” the actor says of Graysmith. “He likes working on puzzles in his spare time. He gets involved with the case when the Zodiac starts mailing ciphers, and Graysmith takes them apart. At the start of the film, he’s not involved with the case at all but then he makes himself a part of the case and it becomes his lifelong obsession.”

by Adrienne Curtis

Read the full exclusive interview and more on Zodiac in
Film Review (May)

Image © Paramount Pictures
Feature © Visual Imagination 2007. Not for reproduction

Taken from
Film Review (May), see below for ordering options
Film Review (May)
#682, May 2007
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