Sometime when I do a press day or a junket I get interviews that I know cannot be appreciated until after the movie is out. Occasionally these just never make it on to the site while other times they run before the movie’s release as part of the standard week-before hype up. With Robert Graysmith I decided to do something different. The author of Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked and the person who Jake Gyllenhaal is playing in David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac, Graysmith is a guy who lives and breathes the infamous murder case. His interview was made up mostly of case-specific talk, the kind of stuff that would be meaningless until people saw the film. Judging by the box office, not enough of you have (seriously, it’s so fucking good), but for the people who did see the movie, I present Graysmith.
He walked into the room at the Regency Hotel on Park Place in Manhattan warning the assembled journalists that he had a tendency to talk long and go off on tangents. He wasn’t kidding. I tried to clean up some of what he said for clarity, but much of it I left as Graysmith spoke it, often seeming like stream of consciousness, like these facts are never very far from the top of his thoughts.
Can you talk about Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of you? Did you have to walk him through your mannerisms and personality?
I don’t think you have to walk Jake very many places. I was just talking to Mark Ruffalo in the hallway. One of my best friends is Dave Toschi, and that’s one of the benefits of this, he really calls himself my best friend. We go and have lemon meringue pie and French fries over at the Copper Penny in San Francisco. We talk about the case maybe once a week. Mark Ruffalo came back as Toschi – he had the Toschi hair, he talked like Toschi. Where as Jake, he just watched me, we talked about Jarhead, I looked at his cell phone, which was all beat up. So we make this movie, and I never tell a person on this Earth that when I was living in Japan I was in the Boy Scouts… and by God, he got it! I don’t know how he knew. And he got the deferential thing and the obsessive thing – apparently I was very obsessed with this case. I did not know this until I saw Jake’s performance!
Of course, the other portrayal [was by] Robert Downey Jr. We have the meanest, nastiest bunch of editors at the Chronicle. They are so cynical. They hated Star Wars. That’s George Lucas’ morning paper! Just to be mean to him, I think. Anyway, I thought they’d hate this movie and they said, "We knew Paul Avery for decades and Robert Downey Jr. has nailed it. He is Paul Avery." So I didn’t see that coming because they’re both different physically. So they are the three leads and they all did great jobs.
How long did you spend working with David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt?
Three years. I found them. I wrote seven true crime books and had two movies. At the premiere of my Auto Focus movie, I met [producer] Brad Fischer and James Vanderbilt, who wrote the script. I really liked him. Zodiac Unmasked ended in present time with finding the witness, the boy who was shot in the beginning, and as you saw he finally got to see the suspects and he didn’t hesitate – he pointed right at Arthur Leigh Allen. Right then my phone starts ringing; I had Goldie Hawn, I had CAA, I had a lot of really good people, including I think Michael Mann, who loved James’ script. But since I knew Brad and James, I chose them. They wanted David Fincher, and David Fincher had only one person in mind – that was Jake Gyllenhaal.
I couldn’t have asked for anything more. David Fincher had done Seven and he got it out of his system; this is a newspaper film. He said it would be the serial killer to end them, because he finds them rather pornographic, really. He’s one of the brightest guys I’ve ever met. We went up to Lake Berryessa [location of one of the Zodiac murders] and the original detective who discovered the bodies is with us. He says, this is where they were, here’s where the picnic blanket was and so on. So David Fincher looks at it, he goes back to the road, he gives a yell and listens for an echo. He feels the ground, gets up, goes all the way around, comes back and does the same thing again. He says, ‘The murder site’s over there.’ And [the detective] says ‘You’re absolutely right. My god, I took you to the wrong spot!’ I thought, my god, I’m looking at Sherlock Holmes here.
And he’s gone on. He’s not let up. The movie’s done and he’s still finding out facts. It’ll all be on the DVD they’re doing. After a while I was writing everything down – the fact that it’s three Hollywood detectives, come on, that’s great! And [Fincher] doesn’t like to be photographed, so I have one of those little throwaway cameras and I’m taking pictures. I’ve got tapes. So I wrote another book. I didn’t want to do another book about Zodiac, but this one is about them. It’s called Shooting Zodiac, and I was going to hold it back, but if you guys make the movie a success, I’ll bring it out. Otherwise we’ll wait until it’s a cult film. It ends with ‘We’ve been greenlit!’
You talk about how you still meet and talk about the case. With our favorite suspect long dead, meaning you can never bring him to justice, what is the point for you of still talking about it?
That’s what David Fincher said. He said to me, ‘I see the end of this movie where the cartoonist goes to the Ace Hardware, looks him in the eye and he’s satisfied.’ You know my therapist tells me, you don’t have to corral all the rattlesnakes, you just have to know where they are.’ We got so close to whoever this was, and there was a point where [all the suspects] were being watched, and he could no longer be Zodiac. I think in a way the fact that I’ve made the case vivid enough to see it and that there’s a film, that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want all these nice young people that got wiped… [chokes up] Excuse me. These young people that got wiped away, I try not to think about them. I try to keep it cerebral. But I thought they deserved a certain amount of justice and that it was an important case, and that’s what the film will do.
But some critics don’t buy into your theory about Allen…
Absolutely. It’s not a matter of that but you know, let’s just pretend real quickly: you’re Arthur Leigh Allen. You stand on your porch and you take a quarter and you toss it. Do you know what you hit? You hit [Zodiac victim] Darlene Ferrin’s workplace. He’s watching her. He’s the janitor across the way from the first girl. He’s a suspect in the first two sets of murders.
He not only predicted it two days before the murders, he tells Don Cheney, ‘I’m going to be Zodiac. I’m going to hunt people at night. I’m going to taunt the police and call myself Zodiac.’ He’s just gotten a Zodiac watch on the 18th, the murders start on the 20th of December. This is a guy up at the lake when there are only ten people. You have the two victims, two sets of fathers and sons, one on the lake, you have the two park rangers and three college women. You interview one of the college women and she identifies him. You interview a surviving boy, he identifies him. Allen says that he was at the lake that day and that he left an hour before. He tells his friends, he writes from prison. Zodiac left footprints that are exactly Allen’s size and weight – about 220 pounds or 230. He’s the same height. He wears a very unique shoe size that Allen’s size, a 10 and a half R. That’s a shoe you can only buy at naval stations and you can only buy it if you’re in the Navy or a dependent, and his father is a naval commander. There are a limited number of only 169,000 pairs made total and distributed throughout the United States. He’s a guy who we know has certain skills. He’s a chemist because of the bombs. He has to know cryptology. It’s amazing – we could do three pages. But the one thing Zodiac had to be was a skillful draftsman. If you look at the symbols, the 312 symbols, there are no guidelines. You need a light table, you need a T square. Allen’s father, at the time, was a draftsman in Vallejo, the Vallejo city planner. You go on with the fact that he was involved in the Southland, that he worked near a very similar murder in 1966 up to the Bay Area. This guy is wearing his watch until the end of his days and is giving interviews. He either wants us to think he’s Zodiac or… Dave Toschi sayd, ‘My god, he has to be. He has to be.’
Now, there are two other suspects that are very interesting but you know what? The whole thing was that I had to reach a point where I made the case come alive. I provided all the information I could find and it’s very difficult because I give all my documents away now. But those are very hard fought; you had to feel them out and ask questions. I’m satisfied, Dave Toschi is satisfied… by the way, Captain Dave Clark of Vallejo PD thinks it’s Leigh Allen. Paul Avery thought it was the second suspect. He really believed that and so did Ken Harlow. They had the same suspect.
So, we’ll find out. That’s the nice thing about this; I keep my mind open. I’m not in the game of being right, but I would like to write that last chapter and the fact that people are interested, we’ll have that information I think.
There is some evidence that shows it wasn’t him, though.
A guy named ‘Lee’ was sitting outside Darlene Ferrin’s house and watching her. He was just back from Mexico, our guy [Arthur Leigh Allen] was back from Mexico. But somebody said either he lit a cigarette or the light inside came on, and Allen doesn’t smoke. That bothers me.
America’s Most Wanted just had a handwriting expert who said –
But that’s a graphologist! Right up there with fortune telling. That’s personality.
But there’s DNA evidence on Zodiac letters that seems to exonerate him.
In 1978 all the letters were taken to Sacramento. They’re sat in wonderful style in cardboard boxes in 112 degree heat for 12 years, they’re never refrigerated. They bring them back – OK, that’s great, they’re in custody and I’m thinking maybe we’ll get DNA. But no, they’re outside police custody and in private hands. There’s a chain of evidence that’s gone. But they bring them back, that’s fine. They test the back – and I talked to the guy who hired the people who did this – test the front, test the back of three letters and probably the gummed label. They get one [DNA] print, and it’s a fragment. And if one of those letters is a hoax… But they only get a partial DNA fingerprint, and they can’t even run it through Codus, really. Fine still, it still could be the guy. But Arthur Leigh Allen, from prison, writes a letter with no stamp on the envelope, doesn’t seal it and asks his friends to mail them from outside prison. This is a guy who is thinking of the very primitive ABO test, which will tell you from saliva your race, if you’re male or not, so on. He knew not to lick an envelope.
Why did a political cartoonist like yourself become so fascinated with this case?
Well I just don’t give up. That’s my thing. I’m the long distance walker. I was there [at the Chronicle], we’re sitting at a big conference table and all of a sudden, Carol Fisher comes in and she throws this letter down and it began with that. You got to remember: I was 24, had lots of hair and was really thin. I’m watching Dave Toschi and he comes in with the trenchcoat, big bow tie, he’s handsome and they based Bullit on him and they will base Dirty Harry on him, and there’s Paul Avery and there are cameras around him with his silk shirts and scarves. Believe me, they were really romantic so I did what I did in the film and that was be in the background and listen.
After a while, I watched the lights dim and these guys just got burned out and the leads fade. So I thought, I can’t let this die. So I went in and asked Avery’s permission. But what really attracted me were the visual aspects. The costume, the symbol, the movie madness, the wonderful cryptograms and weird symbols, and the fact that I did political cartoons – I would use symbols to make a change in real life and I thought this guy was using symbols and pictures to cause fear. I was going to put all my information that I was going to use as an editorial cartoon and people would read it and catch him. That’s what happened. That’s why we have all the suspects because people read it and were interested in it and so I’ve achieved my purpose.
Some of those cryptograms haven’t been solved to this day…
Is it possible that there aren’t any solutions to them?
I don’t think so. We call those "nulls". He had 16 symbols in the letter E in the first set [that was solved]. That’s very time consuming. It could be that that was the big thrill he got, which was composing those letters. And he really hated Toschi, really hated the SFPD because they got really close.
But there are all kinds of weird leads in this case. [This next bit is a little confused. Here Graysmith refers to the murder of a cab driver, which was witnessed by some kids in a nearby house] At Washington and Cherry… he stopped at Maple originally, but had the driver go on. By the way, that little girl that saw the shooting, she identified Allen as well. The policeman around the corner – Vallejo didn’t give up, and as late as 1990 they were interviewing witnesses – identified him. So he goes around the corner, and the street around the corner from Maple was very steep, he was going to shoot the driver and run down the block and get into his car, but something makes him go another block. Once he sees the officers he runs into the Presidio and he’s going past Letterman Hospital at a diagonal. Well, one of the [future] Zodiac victims, Donna Lass, is working there that night. A year later, supposedly the Zodiac kills her in another state. You think, that’s impossible, but Darlene Ferrin lived close to [victim] Paul Stine’s house at one time. You look at all these leads and you go… the case offers so many possibilities for an armchair sleuth.