INTERVIEW: Mark Ruffalo Talks ‘Zodiac’

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In Zodiac Mark Ruffalo plays homicide inspector David Toschi as a rather ambitious and slightly curious character as he munches on animal crackers and dresses in a not so typical fashion, at least not for a detective of the ’60s. This is the third time in the past four years Ruffalo has played a detective starting with the poorly received In the Cut in 2003 followed by his role as Fanning in Collateral, which served as a perfect jumping off point to move from Michael Mann to David Fincher, two directors Ruffalo himself refers to as “full-frame directors”.

In Fincher’s Zodiac we learn the story of the famed Zodiac Killer that began in the late ’60s and still captivates the attention of people thanks to the books written by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist-turned-“detective”-turned-author Robert Graysmith, on whose books the film is based. Inside that story we meet the aforementioned Dave Toschi played by Ruffalo who admits he had heard of the Zodiac Killer, “but you were always mistaking him for the Hillside Strangler,” he said. “I didn’t know where he fell in that whole iconography. Then I read the script – I didn’t really realize who this guy was as far as serial killers go.”

Who was he? The Zodiac Killer was a serial killer who killed people for supposedly 10 months in Northern California and dubbed himself “Zodiac” through a series of taunting/bragging letters sent to Bay Area newspapers, primarily the San Francisco Chronicle. Containing cryptic messages and threats for further murders his story became the source of a four county man hunt, which ultimately resulted in no arrests but several suspects, 2,500 to be exact.

That is obviously the short of it as Ruffalo talks about his first step into the madness, “The research started and there is a mind-boggling amount of material around this case and, basically, I had the entire investigation at home in a murder book. I probably have more information than any one particular police department has because the one thing we were able to do was get all of them to cooperate with making the movie, but none of them cooperated with catching the guy.”

One of the biggest things explored in the film is how the term serial killer didn’t even exist at that time. “They weren’t set up for this in any way,” Ruffalo said, “the word serial killer hadn’t been invented yet. Certainly there were serial killers but they hadn’t popped up into the culture the way this guy did. He’s the first dude who sort of popped up into the minds of the culture and used the media and all of this to get himself off. I have to assume that’s what he was doing, making himself important to the world.”

To create his portrayal of Toschi, Ruffalo insisted on meeting the man and getting to know him, “I want to spend time with him, I want to spend a few days with him,” he said. Toschi is a man that served as the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s character in Bullitt and reportedly walked out of a special screening of Dirty Harry in 1971 when the Scorpio killer and his antics too closely related to the case. However, chomping on animal crackers and wearing bow ties is, as Ruffalo puts it, “That’s classic Dave Toschi!”

Mark’s only goal was to honor Toschi and respect the family’s wishes. “That family doesn’t want to reopen this, his wife was adamant that we couldn’t use her real name in the movie,” Ruffalo said. “It’s a painful time for them and they have no idea what Hollywood wants to do with it. So I made sure he got the script before I met with him and I asked him if there was anything in there that was prickly or he didn’t feel comfortable with and he said he felt good about it. Then, slowly but surely, he started to reveal himself to me and I feel like it is a fair portrayal of who Dave Toschi was.”

With the character in check, the next step is to work with David Fincher and Mark isn’t afraid to admit, “I was scared to work with Fincher kind of, I had heard he was an intense guy and sometimes he yelled at people and so I didn’t know what to expect.”

Much of the junket weekend consisted of talk of David Fincher since he wasn’t able to attend and much of the talk centered around Fincher’s pursuit of perfection. Even author Robert Graysmith noticed the attention to detail when he said, “A friend of mine got a part, she had one line, they did 53 takes, but that seems to be normal. [Fincher] would be a landscape painter 50 years ago because I think he is a painter more than anything.”

During press for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang Robert Downey Jr. was asked about the Zodiac shoot and rolled his eyes saying it was taking forever, Ruffalo agreed it was a long shoot but had a different reaction.

Ruffalo said, “Well, where David departs on this movie than he does on his other movies is he really wanted to do a character drama where he could take two people or three people and let them speak and do long dialogue scenes without having to cut away or cut in to close ups. When you do that and you are working with somebody like David Fincher, who I call a full frame director, the actors make up only about 30-percent of a frame and you have five extras, that car going by, how far the lamp is hanging down, the branch in the tree and he sees all these things and he’s aware of them and Fincher knows this is a stab at eternity. He wants to go down the best he can, so yes, when you want to do a long dialogue scene and you want to do it in one take you’re going to shoot it 20 times, you got to get that extra in the right place at the right time and there are so many elements at play. That is what he was hanging the look and the feel of the movie on from very early on.”

Despite his early fear Ruffalo said, “I was really surprised about how gentle and easy going of a guy he is and oddly enough I was having a conversation with him and he said something about having faith with where the world was going and everything and it just struck me as odd from him in a weird way because he has such dark leanings. He’s really an enormously kind of optimistic and positive guy.”

SLIGHT SPOILER AHEAD:

The film makes definite assumptions that a man by the name of Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac and Graysmith is certainly convinced it is him. However, during the press junket there were several of the detectives that actually worked some of the Zodiac’s cases and one was positive it wasn’t Allen and Ruffalo is even unsure, “I keep flopping back and forth on it,” he said. “I have seen this guy, he was a bad, bad dude. He was a sociopath. He wanted people to believe he was Zodiac. Is it beyond a shadow of a doubt? That’s where I’m stuck because there are those things that don’t quite jive. I want to believe it was him.”

Apparently, Fincher might not be convinced it is him, but Ruffalo say an obsession in the case growing, “[David] became obsessed with the case too. When Arthur Leigh Allen died and they went to his house and they gathered all the evidence there was a tape in the cassette player and it was the tape of a child being spanked by Arthur Leigh Allen and it is the most gruesome, and you want to kill the guy – I mean you do want to Dirty Harry his ass kind of – but Fincher was so obsessed that he knew about this tape. He heard it, his obsession with the movie became the movie itself. He’s very meticulous.”

Allen was never convicted or accused of being the Zodiac as he died of a heart attack in August 1992.

SPOILER END

With a running time around two and a half hours the film is meticulous in its telling and fact finding presentation and Ruffalo points out it is all Fincher and his search for the truth and telling an accurate story. “Specificity, going to real life and really doing the work. The background work, the specifics of what happened, real life is always more interesting than we can try to imagine and it’s that old adage, ‘God is in the details.’ Fincher painstakingly went and created that world, that time which we all know, we remember it, it almost has a sentimental value to most of us,” Ruffalo said. “He really did his work to recreate the time, the feeling and he really was true to the investigation. There is not one dramatic departure for the sake of dramatization in the movie, which is pretty remarkable for something that spans such a long time. It was a real act of trust on his part to do that.”

You can dive into Zodiac yourself on March 2. For more on the film click here.

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Weekend: Feb. 21, 2019, Feb. 24, 2019

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