INTERVIEW WITH "ZODIAC" AUTHOR
I picked up Robert Graysmith's
Zodiac when it first came out in 1986. I was a high school senior
in the Bay Area of California, right in the heart of where the actual
crimes took place, and his book was a thrilling read about a series
of murders by a man who taunted the police with coded letters,
threats, and even pieces of a victim's clothing. It was the type of
grandstanding you'd expect from a Batman villain. Only in this
instance, the bad guy was never caught. Graysmith's novel has
remained in print ever since and is the basis for a great new feature
film of the same name by David Fincher. What a thrill I got when
presented with the opportunity to interview the author as a result.
I've read the book twice and still find it to be one of the premier
examples of true crime prose. Books about horrible murderers are a
dime a dozen, but with the exception of Truman Capote's In Cold
Blood, none have been as good of a read as Zodiac.
Graysmith was a cartoonist and
illustrator for the San Francisco Chronicle while they were smack dab
in the middle of the Zodiac hysteria in the early '70s. His
friendships with staff crime writer Paul Avery and legendary SF
Detective Dave Toschi combined with his own obsessive Hardy Boysesque
drive to find out who this mysterious serial killer really was, gave
him the unique perspective of both observer and investigator. His
illustration of The Zodiac Killer's wild costume (shown above)
remains the definitive image of the man.
I only had 15 minutes to perform this
telephone interview, but fortunately we both talk fast. I was curious
if Graysmith would be weary to talk about Zodaic stuff, considering
he's been eating, breathing, and sleeping the case for decades. But
his enthusiasm and energy about the subject matter was surprisingly
zestful and it ended up being one of the more fun interviews I've had
the pleasure of conducting in quite some time.
I'll just get right to the point since we have kind
of a short time here. How different do you think the Zodiac case
would have been if the press refused to publish his ciphers and
letters at the time?
you know, that's a very interesting morale question. I think you've
seen the film?
Whenever they'd have a discussion like that they'd
always say, "Graysmith, don't you have a cartoon to
do?" But I later heard a lot of it from Avery, you
know? It's pretty much like The Unabomber, remember when he tried to
force The Washington Post, The New York Times, even The San Francisco
Chronicle, and eventually they ran it, simply because of the threat.
And I think that's what happened with The Chronicle. They sent 3
ciphers, one to each newspaper. There was one to The Vallejo Times,
The Chronicle, and The Examiner just across the hall from us. And the
other two had run theirs and I think the strategy was that he had
threatened to kill people, and we might set him off. But the real
reason I think they ran it was because here was the other third of
the cipher, and they were hoping that someone out there would be able
to solve it. And sure enough that was exactly the case.
There was this young couple in Salinas (who cracked
the cipher), and it gave us the killer's motivation and probably the
strongest clues in the case up to that point.
Yeah, it was really interesting in the movie, and I
remember reading the book as well, it's fascinating, certainly one of
my favorite true crime books I've read, but two of those 3 ciphers,
to this day, still never been solved, right?
You're absolutely right, I tried to tell the movie
people that, I think they should linger on those. America may have a
lot of problems, but we are a terrific problem solving nation.
I always thought that there's nothing we can't lick, and if you put
those out there to enough people, they're gonna give you those
ciphers, they're gonna break them. I always thought that was a great
promotional tool to get people to go see the movie. You're right, I'm
really surprised they don't make more of that. There's some good
There's a good point about the technology now,
versus the time it was set in the story, for example they're
lamenting that they can't fax a document over across the city. How
much was the lack of better communications in the early '70s a factor
in slowing down the Zodiac process. Could somebody really duplicate
that style of crime in today's world?
I don't think Zodiac would last 10 minutes in modern
times. First of all we're up to our neck in these monsters, and he
was very unusual, he had the element of surprise. But really what had
happened with this, all of these jurisdictions simply were not
sharing with each other, even officers were not sharing with each
other because this was the biggest profile case. I think it's one of
the biggest cases of all time. Whoever solved it, I think the words
that they said, would be "The Ace of Detectives." So my job,
certainly not as an educated writer, basically as a person schooled
in the visual arts, I was able to go as a private citizen and
literally, they'd sit me down without a pencil and without paper, and
I would sort of ask the right questions and memorize the stuff. I
remember I would have 3 hour sessions with the police where I would
go to Church's Chicken and eat, right across the street, and write
down with a pencil all of the information I had heard.
But you know, even a simple cell phone would have
(helped). George Bauer told me recently, the last detective that had
the case while it was alive, just before Arthur Leigh Allen was found
dead, that we would have a task force, we would have DNA, with all of
our technology, that guy would last 10 minutes, and we'd have Zodiac.
He wouldn't make it at all. It really worked in his favor.
MUGSHOT OF POPULAR ZODIAC SUSPECT, ARTHUR LEIGH ALLEN
So with Arthur Leigh Allen being named the suspect
at the film's ending and you've got the unfortunate series of
circumstances that really keep him from being pursued further...he
dies right before the search warrant
Right...well there was actually 3 search warrants
served on Arthur Leigh Allen, the only one in the case. You know, all
the work I did didn't show up in the book that you read, it didn't
show up in the movie. Because I'm not kidding, there were 2500
suspects and I would...in those days you could get into (The
Department of) Motor Vehicles with your requestor code and I would do
10 suspects, and I would be looking for people who were less than 230
pounds, less than 6 feet tall, it was just a winnowing process. I
also went through insurance claims to find out people, to locate
people that had accidents in the area. I had access to all that. So
just getting it down to 10 people, and in my book
original draft there was 6 very hot suspects, I got it down to 3.
Arthur Leigh Allen was literally the choice of my best friend
Inspector Toschi, who's shown in the film, Sherwood Morell not so
much. Ken Narlow thought it was a guy named "Rick". I'd say I know
maybe 5 Vallejo detectives, including George Bawart who're absolutely
convinced that it was him.
I mean you have to realize that they have found
eyewitnesses. When they went into that (Allen's) basement, he
(Zodiac) said, "In my basement I have bombs." Well he had live pipe
bombs. He had every kind of weapon, clippings on the case. All the
kinds of things you'd expect to find. Including a catalog that
advertised a bomb disposal outfit that had a square black hood just
like the type that The Zodiac wore.
If you take in to fact that Allen predicted that he
was going to be The Zodiac Killer before there was one. That from two
days before the murder and until his death he wore a Zodiac watch.
And that's the only place (the ad for Zodiac watches) you find the
symbol and the name "Zodiac" together. I found more eyewitnesses that
said it was him. He said he was at the lake that day, and that he
left an hour before the stabbings. And there were only 10 people at
the lake on September 27th, 1969. So after a while, you've got to say
to yourself, "I think that's the guy" from an intuitive basis. I
looked at him in the eye and felt to myself, "I'm satisfied, I can
stop. I can work on other things now. I can get my life back. I think
it's this guy." Now it could be that we're all gonna be surprised,
and you know what? That's why they make last chapters. As long as
this case is alive and people are interested, and as long as they can
find this guy, and put an end to this case...maybe we can't stop all
the monsters out there now, but by God, we go this one. He's a symbol
for all the rest. That's great. I'm not in the business of being
right. I'm in the business of keeping alive what I think is a
fascinating case and getting some justice for those young people.
What do you think about these rumors that The
Chronicle has a previously undiscovered Zodiac letter?
They tested it, and it's not. That would have been
such a great find, though. That's exactly what you look for. The
Vallejo Police Department has now submitted 3 letters that had been
in the SFPD's hands that are now, as we speak this moment, in
Sacramento being tested. They also think that it's Arthur Leigh
Allen, but maybe it'll bring us something new. That's what you want,
you want to build a fire under people. You want to get things
JAKE GYLLENHAAL AS ROBERT GRAYSMITH (LEFT) and MARK
RUFFALO AS DAVE TOSCHI
Now I read in another interview that you had not
seen the film yet, you wanted to wait and see it with Toschi, did you
have a chance to see it with him yet?
I did. I saw it at The Metreon Theater (in San
Francisco). All the lawmen in the area were there. Bryan
Hartnell...Golly, you name it everybody involved with the case.
Bawart, you name it, especially Narlow. Narlow is a wonderful
character, the investigator at the Berryessa crime scene. The people
have kept this case alive. Even though they have different
suspects...But I sat down next to inspector Toschi and we watched the
film. Literally there were entire moments, stretches where they were
speaking exactly as we had remembered speaking. Everything in that
film, from the clothes to the cars, the documents, the newsroom, I
mean it's like a time machine.
That's gotta be so interesting for Dave (Toschi) to
have a film going as far back as Dirty Harry which was based on him,
to see something like this (come full circle).
I call him "Dusty Harry" now. He's gotten up there in
his years, his late seventies, I think. We still meet at The Copper
Penny in San Francisco, it's a little restaurant. And he still wears
his Cobra special holster with the special quick draw release. The
same one that Bullitt wore in the movie. He has Clint Eastwood Lemon
Meringue Pie and I have what I call "Toschi Fries" because I have
half of them, and at night time when I'm typing I bomb out and reheat
them. So I have a really good friend. He says I'm his best friend,
and I can't even believe I know him, much less be a friend. So that's
a nice offshoot.
And I've taken all of that obsession and I've used it
to write other books. I've had another movie.
WILLEM DEFOE AND GREG KINNEAR IN GRAYSMITH'S AUTO
That's right, Auto Focus.
And I have another book coming out, so it's a much
better time, and I think I came out of the other end of the case much
better...it was very debilitating for the investigators and the
What's the new book you've got coming out?
"The Laughing Gorilla", it's about police corruption
in San Francisco of 1935. It's a great little story and maybe as good
as "Zodiac". I love writing. I love doing these things and finding
out things. I do it chronologically so really don't know until the
same time the reader will know. So I like that. I have an ending in
"The Laughing Gorilla" where if I took out the last 3 words, you
wouldn't know the ending of the book.
It's tight. It's a very tight book.
Was there any trepidation, I mean there's certainly
been some lower end Zodiac films in the past, not necessarily based
on your work, but for somebody so stylistic like David Fincher who's
known for films like Seven and Fight Club to take this subject matter
and actually make it so down to earth and accurate. Was there any
growing pains with that?
Oh sure. We had it at Touchstone for a while. I mean
Yaphet Kotto, the great American actor was about to play me. There
really is no ending to the Zodiac story. When I wrote "Zodiac
Unmasked" and it ends with Mike Mageau (the surviving victim from
Blue Rock Springs) he tells George Bawart, "That's him, that's the
man who shot me in Blue Rock Springs". Even thought it's
circumstantial, you know, eyewitness testimony is shaky. But that was
enough for me that I solved what I wanted to solve. I didn't worry
about any other movies, but the reason I was in a position...I don't
know if you're a writer yourself.
I was sitting in this little room that was filled with
documents to the ceiling. And I had published "Zodiac Unmasked" and
suddenly my phone begins to ring, and studios are bidding to get the
option. Well I wanted Mike Medavoy's Phoenix Pictures because they
wanted David Fincher and my reasoning was that he had done Seven,
he's gotten it out of his system. He's not doing some creepy serial
killer movie. He's gone and done a newspaper film. Which is what I
think it really is. And the toil it takes on the pursuers. And the
odd thing was that Fincher wanted Jake Gyllenhaal and since I was
very thin in those days with a lot of hair, he was the perfect guy. I
just can't imagine anyone else, so it was the best of both possible
worlds. The fact that it got made after all of those growing pains, I
think it's perfect. I look at it, and I can't believe that I have two
film noirs to my credit. I just can't imagine how this came about,
it's perfect in every respect.
ROGER AVERY DISCOVERS BLUE DRINKS AREN'T ALL THAT BAD
Hey one thing before you go, I gotta ask, do you
still like drinking Aqua Velvas?
That was mean of him. I only...I don't drink...I
didn't know that's what it was called to be honest with you. I admit
it. I'm not a two fisted drinker. I don't smoke and I don't take
drugs. I don't party. I like working. I never told Jake I was a Boy
Scout, now you tell me how that man was able to look in to me and
(see that). I was a Boy Scout...back in the '50s. And to have that in
the film, I was blown away to see that because they nailed it. I
don't know how they did the research but Jake's wearing the clothes I
was wearing in those days. It's that kind of film. That's the same
car I drove. It's just bizarre to see it. My apartment was recreated.
Yeah, the level of detail, I mean from the
news vans to a mail truck coming by from the '70s.
That's David Fincher. I think he's just the smartest
guy I've ever met. I've watched him ask moral questions, just as
you've asked, about the ethics of publishing (Zodiac letters). He's
just something else. He's working on a new film now, and I doubt I'll
ever do anything with him again, but he's an artist, that's what he
is. He's a 19th century landscape painter. He looks at the whole
screen. He's a full frame director. He simply works his guys to
death. A friend of mine Penny Wallace who's a San Francisco stage
actor, and she did 37 takes of "You have a call on line 6, Jack".
It's just amazing. It got cut from the film, but that was 2 days of
work. He's astonishing. Anyway, it's a fine film and I'm thrilled to
be associated with it in any way.
Yeah, it sure was great to watch. And thanks again
for writing the book. When it first came out I picked it up. And I
really enjoyed that it went beyond the lurid details and it was a
very good read. I read it twice through the years.
Well thank you. It took 10 years to write. I didn't
rush to publish it. The murders were in '69 and waited until '86 to
publish mine...and the other one, I waited another 10 years to
publish it. So I'm very careful.
Well thanks again for taking the time to talk with
us, Robert, and best of luck to you on your book.
Thank you, I enjoyed it immensely.