Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"Zodiac" (2007) Gets San Francisco Right

I avoided seeing "Zodiac" for a couple of years, not wanting to follow the frustrating true story of the elusive Bay Are serial killer who would never be caught. I wondered why David Fincher wanted to film this story, which doesn't have the typical Hollywood triumph of the "man behind bars" scene to wrap everything in a nice bow. Fincher actually wanted to film a story of obsession. His characters, a newspaper writer, a cartoonist, and a detective (who would become the basis of Dirty Harry), track this bogey man throughout the years, getting close, but never snagging their prey. Is he prey? Didn't he prey on others? I think Fincher wanted to explore these questions. Who's hunting who? The theme of "hunter" comes up quite a few times throughout the film.

But I don't want to get into the Zodiac killer. That guy was famous not only for his crimes but because he worked on his fame, sending letters and gruesome souvenirs to the media and freaking everyone out for years on end. I'm not going to give him any more fame (however minuscule) here. I watched the film because I was thinking lately about how lacking the film world is when it comes to portraying my home city, San Francisco.

I'm not an expert in 70s-era San francisco. I was living in the suburbs by that time and wouldn't return to the city until the early 80s, but I have friends and family who grew up in the city during that time so I was always about, checking out the weirdness. I wanted to move back there so badly throughout my entire adolescence and finally did as soon as I turned 18. Not too many films really capture the essence of San Francisco, even though many are shot there. Alfred Hitchock's "Vertigo" with its lovely scenery and chilly (and creepy) emotional obsessions is a good pick. "Bullitt" gets the spectacular car-chase geography wrong but the emotional disconnect is so right. There's been some low-budget films that reflect quite well on the SF scene. "Living on Tokyo Time" comes to mind but it's never been released on DVD. That's another post.

I thought David Fincher, who's lived and worked a lot in the Bay Area, would probably be a good bet for atmospheric and emotional San-Francisconess and he doesn't disappoint. Here, we present an entirely San Francisco-focused edition of "Zodiac." What makes a film "San Francisco" in scope? I'll try and figure that as I type. And now:

The opening shot of the Ferry Building bodes well. Why? Because the now long-gone and long-hated Embarcadero Freeway is visible. It was finally torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, causing sighs of relief in aesthetic urbanites everywhere. That thing was dark, loud and stupid, right next to the Bay. Now it's quite pleasant to walk along there and the views are marvelous. This is a thoughtful choice by Fincher: focusing on the beauty and really bad City planning in one shot.

Note: this fantastic shot (which is a big zooming pan into the city) was created by my friends at Matte World Digital. They feature their amazing work on their Web site. Personal aside: my parents first met while working in the Ferry Building!

THIS guy is really San Francisco. How can I tell? Because he's wearing a funny jacket, yet he's grumpy and unfriendly, yet funny at the same time. Classic San Francisco traits.

Robert Downey Jr. plays dissipated Chronicle reporter Paul Avery. He deserved an Oscar nomination for this role. You could argue: hey, he's just playing his own self-destructive self! But no: he's shooting all his guns, portraying an intelligent, diligent and funny man who's burying it all within his addictions. Effortless yet artful: very San Francisco.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Robert Graysmith, cartoonist and obsessive. The movie is based on his book and he may have tracked down the real killer (as far as I've read). Gyllenhaal's big staring eyes work well in this role.

Another Matte World shot (I thought it was real). A lot of the tension of this film is in the already knowing what happens next. So a taxi driving through the City is not scenic or transitional, but quite frightening.

Look closely. What do you notice? Typewriters! The world ran on typewriters then (and did so throughout the 80s as well). If you could afford a self-correcting model: good for you. Otherwise White Out correction fluid was in your immediate future.

A lot of San Francisco interiors still look like this (minus the pay phone). It's old and despite attempts at modern architecture of late, it'll stay old.

Brian Cox as Melvin Belli. Masterful casting for one of the City's most famous narcissists.

Belli's baroque office. I used to pass by his digs near the Transamerica Pyramid while temping downtown. I always peeked in (he wanted people to do that). It was even more over-the-top and Victorian than in this shot. But I give points for even planning this shot in the first place: VERY San Francisco!

San Francisco isn't always about the pretty. Like every city, it's got plenty of ugly too. Division Street under the freeway looks the same today.

Driving on the freeway to Richmond, you'd see these Easter-egg colored tankers for years—finally painted in Earth-tones now, I always wondered who's idea it was to paint them in pastels in the first place. Whimsical-industrial anyone?

Another incredible Matte World Digital shot: time-lapse of the building of the Transamerica Pyramid. Not just to wow us, but to actually give an accurate portrayal of time passing during the investigation.

The Bay Bridge always gets short shrift in Hollywood films. But it's got the best view driving into the city, as Fincher shows us (darkly) here. How my heart would soar as we neared our San Francisco destinations. I NEVER got tired of this view and its hopeful promise of exciting urban life.

The Sausalito/Larkspur houseboat scene, back when on-the-skids drug addicts could still afford to live there.

No San Francisco film project gets the green light until there's a Golden Gate Bridge shot scripted in, whether the story calls for it or not. Fincher parlays with an awesome view from the tower. Another Matte World Digital dream shot.

Fog, cars, boats, walkers and bikes--SO San Francisco!

That's City Hall in the background, so you know this phone booth smells like piss.

And let's finish up with a Daly City neighborhood, where scads of commuters moved in the 60s to avoid the urban ills of "the City." Yards, plenty of (little) bedrooms and lots of fog. Fincher knows his San Francisco and his San Franciscans, even his ex-San Franciscans, and chose his scenes wisely: A+.

- Memories of Murder: VFX for "Zodiac" - Recreating 1970s San Francisco for Director David Fincher


Ellen Catalina, LCSW said...

I'm pretty sure that that building in the back round of the first clip you posted is the middle school located at Arguello and Geary. i worked around the block from there for a few months.

I was actually thinking about "Zodiak" a yesterday. I really enjoyed the film. My dad loved it too, and he is a NJ resident, only an occasional visitor to SF.

Have you seen "Milk" yet?

Miss Lisa said...

I couldn't place that building in my mind while writing this but I know I've seen it a million times. The locations on this film are really, really good.

I was also impressed that some of the most intense moments were scenes of men talking to each other in non-descript rooms, like the lunchroom of a factory. Can you film guys talking, cutting back and forth between their faces, with nothing else going on and create a completely creepy, tense moment? Then congratulations--you are a master filmmaker!

I haven't seen "Milk" yet because I am a loser. And I have to be in the mood to cry. When I get in that mood, I'll definitely see it. I've seen "The Times of Harvey Milk" many, many times, so I know the story well.

Ellen Catalina, LCSW said...

Oh yeah, unless you are made of stone many, many tears will fall during a viewing of "Milk". And I know you're not made of stone.....

I think that "ugly" scene in Zodiak may be on Division St.

I agree that the ability to create creepiness and tension with mere scenes on men talking to once another was masterful. Good film, you make me want to rent it again. Maybe they'll show it at the Castro someday? That would be the perfect place to see it.

Tuckers said...

We used to call those oil tanks in Richmond "Sweet Tarts on the hill" cause they looked so much like the candy.