Director David Fincher would do well to bring crime writer James Ellroy along to all of his interviews, as he did just days before the opening of his film "Zodiac." Tall, beanpole thin, the 58-year-old author riffs like a jazz musician on violence, masculinity, the toll of obsession.
Ellroy is a charter member of the high-functioning, trying-to-be-happy walking wounded. When he was 10, his mother was killed and her body was dumped near a high school -- that's the defining prism of his life and his art in such books as "The Black Dahlia" and "L.A. Confidential" and his autobiography, "My Dark Places." He's been haunted by the fact that her killer was never found.
Fincher has made a movie about a cadre of men haunted by the serial killer Zodiac and whose lives are punctured, contorted and shaped by that hunt. Zodiac was a killer who terrorized the San Francisco area in 1968 and 1969, mowing down lovers in secluded lovers' lanes and getting high off taunting the media and the police with bizarre cryptograms that he sent to the newspapers. He then disappeared -- and was never caught -- although the film details the investigation by two cops, Bill Armstrong and Dave Toschi (Anthony Edwards and Mark Ruffalo, respectively); a boozing, self-destructive journalist, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.); and a shy cartoonist, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who comes closest to solving the deaths.
For all of his interest in crime and the wounds it leaves, the 44-year-old Fincher, who also made "Se7en," and "Panic Room," insists he's not the haunted type. Though gray flecks his hair, he appears the buoyant young techie. He speaks with his hands -- as if they could magically render the scenes unspooling in his head and keep their roiling emotions at a safe distance.
He grew up in the San Francisco area during Zodiac's reign, when the killer threatened to mow down schoolchildren as they got off their yellow school buses -- and Fincher's own father, a journalist, nonetheless made him take the bus.
Zodiac was Fincher's original boogeyman -- a figure who mesmerized a city, much the way a film director mesmerizes an audience. "You are 7 years old and you know people have been bound and stabbed at Lake Berryessa. You go, 'I've been at picnics at Lake Berryessa.' Do second-graders talk about murder? Oh, yeah. Especially when you were in Marin County, which was, is such an idyllic place."
Other serial killers were caught, but not Zodiac -- which as a kid Fincher resented. "When you finally saw David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam"), you got to erase it, because you were, 'Look at you. You are a schlub.' What is the line the Good Witch says in 'Wizard of Oz'? 'Oh, rubbish, you have no power here. Leave before somebody drops a house on you.' "
Fincher remembers when his family left the Bay Area when he was 8. As he watched the hills recede from the back of his family's Audi, he said, he thought about the Zodiac killer and wondered: Are they going to catch that guy?
"It didn't keep me up at nights, but it was one of those things on Halloween when you are 8 or 9 years old and you curb your egging of houses and toilet-papering and go home at 11 because the Zodiac is out there," he says.
"Artists always harken back to that, which aroused the moral and erotic imagination," says Ellroy. "With me it's my mother in conjunction with 'The Black Dahlia.' Sex, justice, morality, the details of police work and forensic detection, lives in enormous duress -- that's what gets us inchoate. Years later we become dramatists. We want to get back. We want to know how we got to where we are today. We want to honor the gift that we were given imaginatively."
Fincher and Ellroy know each other slightly, because at one point Fincher was going to direct the screen adaptation of Ellroy's "Dahlia" book. He wanted to make a five-hour, $80-million miniseries with movie stars -- and when that fell through, he turned to Zodiac, which dealt with similar themes. They met up recently at Fincher's Modernist Hollywood office -- Ellroy came along primarily because he is such a fan of Fincher's movie, which lands in theaters Friday. The conversation turns and returns to what binds the two -- a mutual interest in obsession and the destruction it leaves behind. Still, given the nature of their temperaments, the author offers a distinctly more visceral take and the director a more analytical one.