San Francisco Police Department Sketch in 1969. Cryptogram sent by Zodiac killer to the Vallejo Police Department in 1969.
(Courtesy Graysmith Archives)
obert Graysmith is a self-confessed Luddite. "I just got an e-mail address for the first time a few days ago," he says. For good measure he explains that he has used an Olympus brand typewriter for much of his life. Graysmith, a former political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle, Northern California's largest newspaper, was in San Francisco last week giving interviews about his deep involvement in the investigation of the infamous Zodiac murders that took place in and around Northern California's Bay Area in 1968 and 1969. [In 1966 a murder in Riverside, Southern California -- the killing of Cheri Jo Bates -- may also have been committed by the killer, who was never caught by police.] Three Northern California jurisdictions, Napa, Vallejo and San Francisco, tried for years and were unsuccessful apprehending the assailant.
Careers were ended, lives were ruined, and victims' families were never again the same.
And now David Fincher's film "Zodiac", based upon Mr. Graysmith's ("please, Robert, that's fine," he would say during our interview) two books Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, upon which James Vanderbilt's screenplay for the new motion picture was based, has caused a re-examination of the terror, trials and tribulations visited on the victims and families, the police and the press, whom the Zodiac killer used as instrumentalities of his own criminally destructive, bloody appetite. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, cartoonist-turned-obsessive investigator, and has a sizable amount of screen time during the film's third and final hour.
On this occasion, the real-life Robert Graysmith is wearing a sharply-tailored black suit, with a crisp alternating black and gray pinstripe shirt, and black shoes. Standing at six feet tall, maybe in his early to mid-sixties, his hair is graying slightly, perhaps from ten years of being immersed and obsessed by the maddening and mysterious Zodiac case and many years of writing subsequent books on other true-life crimes -- some solved, others unsolved -- including a book on Theodore Kaczynski aka the Unabomber, and a book on the still-unsolved 1976 murder in Arizona of American television's "Hogan's Heroes" sitcom star Bob Crane, upon which Paul Schrader's 2002 film "Auto Focus" was based. Greg Kinnear played Crane in that film.
There are a litany of questions to ask Mr. Graysmith (who worked at the Chronicle as a cartoonist from 1968 to 1983) and during this interview he will recall facts with such clinical detail it were as if the events he describes happened moments before.
A fortiori, Graysmith's photographic memory remains strong almost forty years later. He has a total recall that is astounding -- almost eerie -- but always fascinating. It is from his remarkable memory bank of dates, names, faces, quotes, cryptograms, ciphers, murders, streets, rivers, cabs, intersections, victims, police and letters that David Fincher (whom Graysmith calls "the most intelligent director who has ever lived,") borrows for his epic two-hour and thirty-eight minute film, which opened in North America on March 2, finishing the weekend with a $13.1 million gross, good for second place in its first weekend. ("Zodiac" will open in other countries over the next few months.)
Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, in David Fincher's "Zodiac". (Photo: Merrick Morton)
Detail is the name of the film's game and one of the fascinating aspects of "Zodiac."
Told of this, Mr. Graysmith launches into a breathtaking journey of the most picayune aspects of the film's production. He speaks in calm, smooth and measured tones, casting an avuncular persona as he smiles, engaging his questioner and at one point remarking, "that's a good point, I hadn't thought of that", when a scenario about the mysterious murders and prime suspect is posed to him. He is clearly enjoying this discussion but most importantly is thrilled with the renewed attention that Mr. Fincher's film has brought to America's most confounding murder case, a case still open in both Napa and Vallejo. (San Francisco's Police Department closed its files on the case almost three years ago, in April 2004.)
"I would share a newspaper with Dianne Feinstein when she was a supervisor [and former San Francisco mayor -- now U.S. senator] and then the mayor would come in, and the governor, so there's this inner sanctum . . . where all the editors -- the top -- the publisher -- all those people gathered. So when they recreated that newsroom on a block-long set, I was walking around . . . you don't see inside the drawers [in the movie] but inside are Chronicle note pads and the phone directories with the exact correct extensions and the right kind of pencils, and the phones work . . . I guess that's just David Fincher. Even though you don't see it, he just has to know it's real. Jake [Gyllenhaal] drove exactly the car I used to drive, the same license number, wore the same awful clothes I used to wear."
Graysmith was obviously impressed with the verisimilitude of Fincher's sets, down to such minute details as the pens that the cartoonist wrote with back in the sixties. "Take it to bank, that is exact -- that's what it was like."
So just what was it that motivated Robert Graysmith to take on such an agonizingly complex pursuit for all of a decade of his life? Was it fear?
"Well, fear was everywhere.
We were all afraid because we didn't know what -- now today unfortunately you
have a lot of these kinds of guys. But back then we didn't have a frame of
reference. Admittedly, I wish our editorial policy [at the Chronicle]
had been stronger. I thought our editorials were pretty weak."
Graysmith admits that a different emotion gripped him: "I got angry."
Angry it seems, at the employer he worked for, or at least at the employer's
editorial policy. Apparently the Chronicle had been slow to speak
out about the Zodiac killings. "I thought, 'okay, "I'm gonna beat him at
his own game . . . I'm gonna put out a book as a cartoon. It's going to be
an editorial cartoon. People will finish that book. They'll go out.
They will either be obsessed by the case or they will find the clues to put the
nail in the coffin of this monster that had been preying on San Francisco."
Mark Ruffalo as Inspector Dave Toschi and Anthony Edwards as Inspector Bill Armstrong in David Fincher's "Zodiac." The real-life Toschi and Armstrong were beaten down by the case, says Robert Graysmith, who wrote the books upon which the new film is based. (Photos: Merrick Morton/Paramount Pictures)
There was an obsession that grew within Graysmith and as the film depicts, it had taken a toll on his family. The toll however -- he and his then-wife Melanie, played by Chloe Sevigny in the film ended up separated then later divorced -- was not necessarily one of the things that Graysmith wanted to talk much about. Still, he opens up on the subject. "Well, you know what? And to be honest, you don't really know you're obsessed when you do it. Now I've turned that obsession into doing a lot of other books on different subjects. And I'm just as obsessed but I'm a much better person, I think."
Melanie and Robert remain good friends, and the author spoke of a moment recently when they did press tours in Spain and Brazil for the film. He recalled something his ex-wife said at one of those press conferences. "She said, 'you know, when Robert would sit down and we'd all be waiting to go to the movies and we'd all be dressed, and [Graysmith himself] would keep saying, 'just a minute, just a minute.' And then they'd watch the sun go down. Now I had forgotten that. That's the thing about this movie. I learned a lot . . . from seeing this movie."
Seeing that Dave Toschi, Bill Armstrong, and Paul Avery were burned out, and beleaguered by the fruitless, frustrating odyssey to capture the Zodiac killer, (Armstrong quit "after looking at his last dead body",) the cartoonist knew that it was time to spring into action. "I just knew that I had the one thing . . . I had the time -- I thought I did. And I had that kind of stick-to-it-tive-ness where once I began a project, that's it, I never stopped."
And the rest is history. Mr. Graysmith's two books, best-sellers, are a key to reigniting the debate and history of one of America's most notorious killers.
"It's possible that we'll be all surprised that Zodiac will turn out to be somebody who we never expected. But I think personally, the amount of circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony and statements by the suspect himself lead me to believe it was solved."
The actual Halloween card that was sent to Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery. Robert Graysmith showed this card to the interviewer for this story at the conclusion of the interview and pointed out a chilling irony: that the Zodiac himself was a cartoonist, just like Graysmith. Judging from the handiwork above, the conclusion looks sound. (Courtesy Graysmith Archives)
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Related: Click below for a review of the film, now playing in North America.
(Poster: Paramount Pictures)