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Killer Script

Killer Script

Articles - Screenwriting

Jake Gyllenhaal
Jake Gyllenhaal in Paramount Pictures’ Zodiac (2007).

In recognition of the five-year anniversary of the events of September 11th, Hollywood Selling a spec script is no easy task. Selling a spec script about a real-life serial killer who was never caught is slightly harder. So how did writer James Vanderbilt manage to do just that? By writing an intelligent, suspenseful and surprisingly humorous screenplay about one of the most fascinating manhunts in U.S history. (It didn’t hurt to have David Fincher attached.)

With several credits to his name, including 2003’s Basic, starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, Vanderbilt was already an industry veteran. Now, with the release of the epic Zodiac earlier this month, Vanderbilt has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand writers.

Vanderbilt sat down with MM to discuss the challenges of bringing Zodiac to the big screen, the positives of perfectionism and the importance of levity and hardware stores.

James Menzies (MM): You wrote Zodiac as a spec script, which is a pretty enormous undertaking. What was your personal interest in the case?

James Vanderbilt (JV): I read Robert Graysmith’s first book when I was about 15 years old and just fell in love with it—I thought it was a really amazing story. When I got to Los Angeles, I inquired about the rights and found that Disney actually owned them and so I sort of forgot about it.

I ended up making a movie called Basic with Mike Medavoy and Brad Fischer. As we were finishing that up Brad asked me, if I could do anything, what would it be? I said, “Well, there’s this book Zodiac.” He found out that the rights were available and he got in touch with Robert Graysmith. We had just finished Basic and it had gotten, in my opinion, a little bit screwed-up narratively—especially the ending. I wanted to make sure that that didn’t happen with Zodiac, so I made them a deal and said: “I’ll write the script if you option the book. And I’ll write the script on spec so that we’ll each sort of have two pieces of the puzzle—and won’t be able to make a move without the other one.”

MM: The Zodiac was active in the ‘60s and ‘70s. What is it about the case that you think people will still relate to today?

JV: I think it’s for the same reason people are still interested in Jack the Ripper. Zodiac was a modern bogeyman in a lot of ways: The fact that he was never caught, the fact that he haunted the press and the police and the fact that he sent codes where he said, “If you figure these codes out, you will learn who I am” (and some of those codes have never been cracked to this day). I think it’s very scary but I also think that, in the modern age, there are very few bona fide unsolved mysteries, and this is one of them. I think it sucks a lot of people in who were involved in it and that’s more what the film’s about.

MM: David Fincher is well-known as one of Hollywood’s true perfectionists and it’s reflected in the preciseness of his films. How does working with someone with such a clear vision inspire you as a writer?

JV: He does get sort of the rap of being a perfectionist and it’s so interesting to see it cast in a negative light sometimes. It’s great that he knows what he wants. That’s what you want out of a director—somebody with a vision and who understands the material and what he wants.

At the same time, what’s so great about working with him is that he really expects everybody to pull their own weight—and that certainly applies to the screenwriter. He doesn’t want you, as the screenwriter, to be a stenographer to take down his ideas and do exactly what he says. He wants you to be the writer of the film. You need to come with good ideas, you need to come with good dialogue, you need to come with good work and you need to hold up your end of the bargain. Once all that works out and he’s on the set, he is really very protective of the text. He makes sure to shoot the script—and that’s fabulous for a writer. To have a director of that caliber who’s that collaborative is a rare thing in this business. And I think as much as he demands of people, he works the hardest of everybody.

MM: Zodiac is an interesting project for several reasons: First, while it’s an adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s book, the book is more a collection of facts and research, not your traditional narrative novel. How did you approach the book as source material? How did you go about outlining the project in the first place?

JV: The first thing I had to do was kind of figure out how the movie was going to end—and that never changed. When I went in and pitched it to Brad and Mike, they asked the logical question, “Well, they never caught the guy, how are you supposed to end the movie?” So I pitched them what in the movie we call the “hardware store scene.” I don’t want to give it away, but I said, ‘That’s how we close it.’ They said, “Oh, okay, we get it.” So, I always knew where I was sort of going.

I also knew it was going to have to be a multiple-character story. It wasn’t just going to follow one person, because the police investigation into the Zodiac is really very interesting—Dave Toschi’s side of it and that story. But I was also fascinated with the concept of this cartoonist who, in many ways, is ludicrously ill-equipped to go after a serial killer. Yet at the same time did so much and actually brought so much to the case with his sort of obsession. That’s why I wanted to follow both the media side of it and the police side of it.

MM: One of the things that stands out about the film is that it is a very clever blend of history and suspense—with frequent bits of comedy. Were these moments of levity written into the script, or did they come about as a result of the casting?

JV: It was all written. I feel like all the great dramas of cinema have hysterically funny moments. If you go back and look at GoodFellas, Joe Pesci is hysterically funny in that movie. You go back and look at The Godfather, you know, it’s, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Moments of levity, especially in dramas, are very, very important. Obviously we had fabulous actors for it, but Robert Graysmith as a character is a funny guy. Paul Avery as a character is a hoot to write. And the other thing is the great lie that film drama usually tells about the cops—and to a lesser extent, reporters—is that they’ll stand at a bloody crime scene and look down at the body and go, “Ughh, such a waste. We’re going to get this bastard!” When in reality, it’s Gallows humor. It’s joking about this, joking about that—stuff they need to do to get through the day and deal with that. But homicide detectives are very darkly funny people, as are reporters. So I thought the comedy was actually fairly accurate in terms of how people deal with death and horror—they usually crack a joke.

MM: The film is a bit reminiscent of All the President’s Men, in that much of the film’s “action” takes place in the process of fact-finding and the collecting of information. How do you keep the suspense going within those parameters?

JV: I think if you go back and look at All the President’s Men—which we talked about a lot—it’s a very different sort of movie. But it’s similar in the sense that, first of all, it’s just a lot of talking. God forbid we make a movie in 2007 in Hollywood that has a lot of people talking as opposed to car chases and stuff blowing up! I think what fuels the suspense for me was the mystery of it—trying to figure this out. In some ways it’s sort of a differently structured film than people are used to. Usually there’s a thriller with a killer and the murder scenes are kind of used as little rewards for the audience. [In Zodiac], these are real people who had horrible things happen to them and we wanted to make sure that we didn’t use their tragedies as little cinematic “treats” for people.

The suspense, for me, is sort of in how these guys get sucked into the case and get sucked down the rabbit hole and what happens to their lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re always in physical danger every second. It’s not Speed. There are no bombs strapped to you (although there is a bus bomb threat).

MM: Speaking of All the President’s Men: You’ve been working on an adaptation of former terrorism czar Richard Clarke’s memoir, Against All Enemies, a highly coveted project. How does this script complement Zodiac? How is it different?

JV: I haven’t talked to as many people, just because a lot of them still work in government and probably aren’t very excited to have a screenwriter poking around in their dirty laundry as much as a retired cop might be. I still tried to speak to some people about it, including Dick and the people who worked with him. I think the similarity is that he was somebody who was very dedicated to his job and lived with it and really emotionally succeeded and failed with it. It’s a great thing to have somebody in government who feels that way about national security. It’s also very different in that it’s more about how we got to where we are, so it’s a much broader. But the approach, at least for me, was the same in the sense that these are real people and this stuff really happened to them and you have to have a great deal of respect for them. The world isn’t white hats and black hats—it’s not just good guys and bad guys. That’s not how real life works and so, what I’m interested in when I tell a true-life story is the grey areas. And in both these stories I think there are a bunch of grey areas that are exciting to explore.

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