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INTERVIEW WITH "ZODIAC" AUTHOR ROBERT GRAYSMITH

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?

Well you know, that's a very interesting morale question. I think you've seen the film?

Yes.

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 stuff there.

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 the 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.

Wow.

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 happening.


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 FOCUS

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 reporters.

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.

That's great.

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.

Oh yes...

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.

-Robert Berry
rberry@retrocrush.com

 

 

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