Director David Fincher would do well to bring crime writer James Ellroy along to all of his interviews, as he did just days before the opening of his film "Zodiac." Tall, beanpole thin, the 58-year-old author riffs like a jazz musician on violence, masculinity, the toll of obsession.
Ellroy is a charter member of the high-functioning, trying-to-be-happy walking wounded. When he was 10, his mother was killed and her body was dumped near a high school -- that's the defining prism of his life and his art in such books as "The Black Dahlia" and "L.A. Confidential" and his autobiography, "My Dark Places." He's been haunted by the fact that her killer was never found.
Fincher has made a movie about a cadre of men haunted by the serial killer Zodiac and whose lives are punctured, contorted and shaped by that hunt. Zodiac was a killer who terrorized the San Francisco area in 1968 and 1969, mowing down lovers in secluded lovers' lanes and getting high off taunting the media and the police with bizarre cryptograms that he sent to the newspapers. He then disappeared -- and was never caught -- although the film details the investigation by two cops, Bill Armstrong and Dave Toschi (Anthony Edwards and Mark Ruffalo, respectively); a boozing, self-destructive journalist, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.); and a shy cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who comes closest to solving the deaths.
For all of his interest in crime and the wounds it leaves, the 44-year-old Fincher, who also made "Se7en," and "Panic Room," insists he's not the haunted type. Though gray flecks his hair, he appears the buoyant young techie. He speaks with his hands -- as if they could magically render the scenes unspooling in his head and keep their roiling emotions at a safe distance.
He grew up in the San Francisco area during Zodiac's reign, when the killer threatened to mow down schoolchildren as they got off their yellow school buses -- and Fincher's own father, a journalist, nonetheless made him take the bus.
Zodiac was Fincher's original boogeyman -- a figure who mesmerized a city, much the way a film director mesmerizes an audience. "You are 7 years old and you know people have been bound and stabbed at Lake Berryessa. You go, 'I've been at picnics at Lake Berryessa.' Do second-graders talk about murder? Oh, yeah. Especially when you were in Marin County, which was, is such an idyllic place."
Other serial killers were caught, but not Zodiac -- which as a kid Fincher resented. "When you finally saw David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam"), you got to erase it, because you were, 'Look at you. You are a schlub.' What is the line the Good Witch says in 'Wizard of Oz'? 'Oh, rubbish, you have no power here. Leave before somebody drops a house on you.' "
Fincher remembers when his family left the Bay Area when he was 8. As he watched the hills recede from the back of his family's Audi, he said, he thought about the Zodiac killer and wondered: Are they going to catch that guy?
"It didn't keep me up at nights, but it was one of those things on Halloween when you are 8 or 9 years old and you curb your egging of houses and toilet-papering and go home at 11 because the Zodiac is out there," he says.
"Artists always harken back to that, which aroused the moral and erotic imagination," says Ellroy. "With me it's my mother in conjunction with 'The Black Dahlia.' Sex, justice, morality, the details of police work and forensic detection, lives in enormous duress -- that's what gets us inchoate. Years later we become dramatists. We want to get back. We want to know how we got to where we are today. We want to honor the gift that we were given imaginatively."
Fincher and Ellroy know each other slightly, because at one point Fincher was going to direct the screen adaptation of Ellroy's "Dahlia" book. He wanted to make a five-hour, $80-million miniseries with movie stars -- and when that fell through, he turned to Zodiac, which dealt with similar themes. They met up recently at Fincher's Modernist Hollywood office -- Ellroy came along primarily because he is such a fan of Fincher's movie, which lands in theaters Friday. The conversation turns and returns to what binds the two -- a mutual interest in obsession and the destruction it leaves behind. Still, given the nature of their temperaments, the author offers a distinctly more visceral take and the director a more analytical one.
For Ellroy, who has grown to hate the helter-skelter pace of so many testosterone movies, the film vividly re-creates what he experienced when he teamed with retired Sheriff's Deputy Bill Stoner to reinvestigate his mother's death. "It was read files, talk, engage in interviews that went nowhere. The entire year fueled by what is the great dramatic tension of this motion picture; which was two hours and 38 minutes long; it is almost entirely conversation, discussion, rediscussion, reassertion, and it's a wholly tense, kinetic filmgoing experience. I've never seen a film that so gloriously and intelligently captures their lives and what homicide work is."
"When you talk about obsession, you have to talk about the toll," says Fincher. "Toll is not something you can explain. It's something you have to feel. Can you make a movie -- will you ever set out to make a movie where people's necks hurt? I will, I like that."
The film delineates clearly between the two cops -- who at the end of the day knew they were doing a job and could go home to their lives -- and the civilians: the journalist and the cartoonist whose lives slowly deconstruct as they willfully throw themselves into the pursuit of a killer, which Graysmith believes he's found, although he can never bring the suspect to justice.
"This movie is a whole metaphor for men and how we all go assertively into the world and how we countermand our own personal chaos by trying to impose order on external events," says Ellroy.
His assessment at first sounds a little high-brow to Fincher, who goes on to explain, "I was interested in this whole notion of justice. At what point do you achieve justice? A therapist friend of mine had a great quote: 'You don't have to kill all the rattlesnakes in the world, but you have to know where they are and avoid them.' At the end, Graysmith has identified the rattlesnake and knows where he lives. He's able to go, 'I can't take you to court. I can't get a grand jury convened, but I know it's you.'
"When you look at obsessive characters -- my father was a little bit like that -- there is going to be something that fuels that. I look back on my 20s and go, 'Thank God there was no PlayStation, because I would never be what I am today.' I would have lost years off my life because it is dangerously fascinating to me."
Indeed, as Ellroy points out, obsessives just need to find an arena to exercise their personality. "A guy like that -- and I am obsessive on two marked fronts -- I'll find it. Wherever I am, whether I'm in Moosefart, Mont., ... or Los Angeles, Calif. This is Avery and Graysmith -- they were looking to take a fall, and they found it."
They're not trying to simply self-destruct, says Fincher. "You're talking of people who are looking for something to feed this part of the makeup. They have to get to the bottom even if it means swimming to it. Got to get to the bottom of the case. Get to the bottom of the bottle. You get to the bottom. That's what they did."
Ellroy knows this impulse and uses it in his work. "I lie in the dark, night after night after night, brooding. And I am either thinking about the work that I do or about women.... That's it! It's a little about 58 years and I am as bad as I was when I was 23. I suspect it's going to keep me alive for a very long time. It turns on me, but I indulge emotion, and I give back generally to the work, to the narrative point."
Two men, different lives
As the crime masters swap notes, it's clear that Ellroy not only talks the talk but was forced to walk the walk, although his devastating firsthand experience with violence provides the well of his art. That doesn't seem to be true for Fincher. One is, in a sense, a method actor; the other opts for the British school -- simply using one's imagination.
The director shrugs. "I'm a kibitzer. It's just what interests you." He sighs, suddenly frustrated, slightly defensive. "I'm tired of this moniker of being dark, dark, dark." He says he's not personally, and "for the fact of the matter, I don't even think my work is."
But he goes on: "I'm not interested in making a movie where somebody goes out of their way to kiss their wife to show you that they are a good person," he says, mockingly. "I am not here to placate."
When Fincher leaves the room briefly, this reporter asks Ellroy if he believes that one needs firsthand knowledge to truly understand and re-create the horror of crime.
He holds no one to this standard. Slouching down in his seat, his longs arms outstretched and his head resting on the table, Ellroy sighs like a wise master. "The imagination is unfathomable and endless."