Mark Ruffalo Interviewed – ‘Zodiac’

     February 27, 2007

I’ve been trying to stop writing my thoughts on a movie in an interview article but in this case I have to say a few words on Zodiac.

David Fincher has crafted a superb film on the famous Zodiac murders and I don’t think anyone else could’ve done a better job. What I especially thought was brilliant was the way he handled the story through all the years of the case. While most filmmakers might be overwhelmed by trying to tell a captivating story while also giving a history lesson, Zodiac weaves the various characters and places like a fine wine. While the long running time (2hr. 40min) might be a bit of a problem for some, I feel that any less screen time would have hampered the ability to tell the story and it would have resulted in compromising the material.

The other thing that makes the film so brilliant is that it never feels like it’s exploiting the murders or the people involved. While Hollywood sometimes tries to make a buck off subject matter than should be left alone, I thought the film never made any attempt to sensationalize or glamorize the brutal nature of the material. Again all credit needs to be given to Fincher for crafting a brilliant film and one that can be placed next to Seven and Fight Club – films that will be remembered and talked about for years.

Below is the interview (conducted in roundtable form) that I got to do with Mark Ruffalo a few weeks back. If you would rather listen to it click here, otherwise here is the transcript.

I also got to do an interview with Robert Graysmith who is the one who wrote the Zodiac books and was portrayed in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal. I only have the audio of the interview so click here if you would like to listen to it.

Zodiac opens this Friday and I can’t recommend the film enough.

Did you know about the Zodiac? What kinds of research did you do?

Mark: It’s like one of those names that you’ve heard all your life, ‘the Zodiac killer’ but you’re mistaking him for The Hillside Strangler. You don’t, or I didn’t really know where he fell in that whole iconography. Then I read the script. I really didn’t realize who this guy was as far as the serial killers go. Then, the research started and there’s a mind-boggling amount of material around this case. We were given, basically sand-bagged with the entire…I have the entire investigation sitting at home in a murder book and I probably have more information than any one particular police department has because, the one thing we were able to do was to get all of them to cooperate with me for the movie but [laughs] none of them cooperated with catching the guy.

What does that tell you about justice in America?

Mark: Well, nothing that we didn’t already probably know. I think the time period.. they weren’t set up for this in any way. 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 hopped up into the minds of the culture and used the media and all of this to get himself off. I have to assume that is what he was doing with this, make himself important in the world.

Hence the investigation where people go beyond the pale and ruin their lives trying to catch him.

Mark: Yeah. They hadn’t been desensitized to the idea… they began by calling him a ‘mass murderer’. They hadn’t invented ‘serial killer’ yet. They hadn’t desensitized to someone who would just go out for the sake of killing and do these things. So, to them, it was something so much more atrocious. We’re used to serial killers. They weren’t. It really was ‘this is a monster. We have to get this guy’.

So why bother making a movie about him in 2007?

Mark: I don’t know. It was compelling to read it and compelling to work on it. With David Fincher, it just makes for great storytelling and great drama and also, it’s about, there’s the moral question of ‘do you go by the law or do you go by a hunch?’ If we really want to make this a big question, like going out into the world trying to kill terrorists today, there’s the assumption and there’s a lot of emotion going on behind that assumption and then there’s the law and the science. Dave Toschi told me, the second he saw Arthur Leigh Allen walking into the room he said in his heart, ‘That’s our guy’. That’s what he said, but the cop in him said, ‘there’s not a single piece of evidence’. All we really have in the end, is the law. If you don’t follow the law and you go and kill the guy, how do you know that you got the right guy? Even if someone believes so deeply in their heart of hearts that that is the guy, if they don’t follow the law then we live in a world of chaos.

Without catching the guy, where’s the orgasm in the film?

Mark: The orgasm is the mystery. That is the gestalt of the film, the mystery, that is the finale of the film. That’s what people walk away from the film feeling. That’s what their terror is coming from. That’s where their imaginations blossom, in the mystery that is the finale of the film. That’s what they are responding too.

Several actors have played characters based on Toschi (Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Michael Douglas in “Streets of San Francisco”, Steve McQueen in Bullitt). Did you have to block those performances out of your mind or did you not even think about that?

Mark: I’m the type of actor, I want to go and see the real deal. So, first thing I said is ‘how do I get to talk to Dave Toschi? How do I get to go up and meet him? I want to spend time, a few days with him”.

Was he cooperative?

Mark: Totally. The first thing he said to me was [in whispery Toschi voice] ‘Uh, Mark, why are you here? Why do you want to talk to me’. He talks just like that or I hope he talks just like that. And so, I got to spend time with him and, all of a sudden, all of that other stuff just fades away when you’re sitting there with the real McCoy. He did tell me that he was the inspiration for Bullitt, played by Steve McQueen.

Was he kind of proud of that?

Mark: Yeah. He’s got a picture of he and Steve McQueen together.

Here’s a meticulous and long movie. What is the key to making a long movie work?

Mark: Specificity, going to real life and really doing the background work and the specifics of what happened. Real life is infinitely more interesting than we can try to imagine. It’s that old adage, ‘God is in the details’. Fincher just painstakingly went and created that world, that time which we all have touched or know of. We remember it. It has almost a sentimental value to most of us. He really did his work to recreate the time and the feeling. He really was true to the investigation. There’s not one dramatic departure for the sake of dramatization in the movie which is pretty remarkable for something that spans such a long period of time. It was a real act of trust on his part to do that.

Is there one particular thing in your research that you really wanted to get in?

Mark: Dave Toschi’s relationship to his family. He just adored his family his three daughters and that wasn’t really in the script as much and it was something I thought was important just so we feel the other side of this guy. I think it gives him another dimension that wasn’t exactly in there so I was always trying to bring them in. I even added a line at one point, ‘shhhh, my daughters are upstairs’. That wasn’t in there. The guy was a beautiful family man too.

And his family remained intact unlike Graysmith’s marriage?

Mark: Yes. They handled it incredibly gracefully. It still is that one thing that destroys your life. It really did take it’s toll on him. He’s gone on and he’s not bitter but it is something in him that hurts.

Does it help him that he thinks Arthur Leigh Allen did it and Allen is dead now?

Mark: I think it helps that there are no more murders, or that the murders have seemed to stop although Graysmith presupposes that he just morphed into…. he just became quiet about it and that’s what the Zodiac said he was going to do, he was going to start doing it in a way that nobody knew who was doing it. It’s an open wound I think for all of these guys who put so much time and energy into it that they never caught him.

Can you talk about working with David Fincher? Robert Downey Jr. was rolling his eyes about how long the shoot was taking and he was getting a little annoyed at that. Was the process enjoyable?

Mark: David 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 to close-ups. And, when you do that, and you’re working with someone like David Fincher who I call a ‘full frame director’ the actors only have to be in about 30 percent of a frame, and you have five extras, that car going by, how far the lamp’s hanging down, the branch on the tree, he sees all these things and he’s aware of them. Fincher knows this is his stab at eternity and 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 gonna shoot it twenty times. You’ve got to get that extra in the right place at the right time and the camera has…. There’s so many elements at play. That is sort of what he was hanging the look and the feel of the movie on, from very early on. But, I come from the theater, man. You do five hundred performances. So, to me, it’s tough and Dave expects the best from people. He wants you to show up and be ready to work. He wants the best from people. He uses the best people and he expects the best from them. So, it’s tough. It can be nerve-wracking at times but I’m game for that journey. I dug it. It gives you another chance to get it right but it is nerve-wracking.

Did Toschi really walk out of Dirty Harry? Why?

Mark: He couldn’t take it. It was so simplified. He was in the middle of one of the biggest cases in the United States at the time and they were having no movement on it and he knew they had a mountain of evidence and it took them nine months to get a search warrant to toss the guy’s trailer. He was just crawling out of his skin and the guy [Dirty Harry] just walks up and he’s like ‘I don’t care. If you’re going to walk free, I’m gonna blow your brains out’ and the audience just [he starts clapping] ‘yeah! All right!’ We all did it, right? I think that was frustrating for him. He would like to do that.

Has he seen the movie yet?

Mark: He hasn’t seen it yet.

Are you a little antsy about that? Does it mean at lot to you that he likes it?

Mark: Yeah. The first thing I said to him, he was like ‘why are you here’? And I said, ‘I’m here to honor you, man. I here to be as honest as I can about playing you’. That family doesn’t want to reopen this. His wife was adamant that we couldn’t use her name in the movie. They don’t want it. It’s a painful time for them and they have no idea what Hollywood intends to do with it. So, I made sure he got the script before I went to see him and I asked him if there was anything in there that was prickly or that he felt uncomfortable with and he said ‘no’, he felt good about it. Slowly but surely, started to reveal himself to me. I feel like it was a fair portrayal of Dave Toschi in the little time I had to do it in.

Including the animal crackers.

Mark: That’s Dave Toschi. It’s classic Toschi, the Tiparillos, the animal crackers and I hope the way he talks.

The bow tie too?

Mark: Dave Toschi. Call me Dave Toschi.

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The relationship between he and his partner, the two seem so different. Were the real people that different from one another?

Mark: Totally different. Dave Toschi was an anomaly. They were all dressed like G-Men. They had their G-Men jackets and the ties and the G-Men glasses. That was the prototype cop at the time. Then you have this very flamboyant dude who wears bow ties and bright clothes and is very laizzes faire and so they had an interesting relationship. It was contentious at times.

How close is the final film to the script that was originally presented to you?

Mark: It was pretty close. I know there’s a couple of scenes cut out. It was long. It was longer than it is now so there was some stuff that was cut out that probably didn’t serve the movie totally but its pretty close.

What are you doing now?

Mark: I just wrapped a movie called Reservation Road that Terry George directed with Joaquin Phoenix and now I’m just hanging out with my kids.

Who do you play in that?

Mark: It’s about a hit and run, two fathers. I play a guy who hits his son and kills him and runs a light, jaunty, romantic comedy [everybody laughs].

Is that an indie?

Mark: Yeah, it’s Focus Films so it’s a mini-indie.

What’s it like going from a big picture like Zodiac to an indie? Is it totally the opposite?

Mark: Totally, it’s fun. I like that. I get bored so I’ll say ‘let’s try this’.

Did you meet Robert Graysmith?

Mark: Yeah. I spent a lot of time with Robert. Then, I met Narlow (Det. Ken Narlow). People were coming around as we were shooting people who weren’t in the movie were coming around. I met the guy who was stabbed at Lake Berryessa [Bryan Hartnell]. I met him and his kids. There were a lot of people who were attached and part of this time. Fincher and Brad Fischer were doing their best to get all of their stories and really make it an open place for them to come.

Has this experience whetted you appetite for contemporary murder mysteries? Do you look at the paper and say ‘Wow, it happened again’? Do you get immersed in those cases?

Mark: No. I’m too sensitive to it. It’s too scary to me. The astronaut who went across the U.S. in a diaper, it’s hilarious. It’s weird.

Anything about Fincher not in the press notes that you could tell us?

Mark: I haven’t read the press notes but I was scared to work with Fincher kind of. I had heard that he was an intense guy and sometimes, he yelled at people. So, I didn’t know what to expect but I was really surprised by kind of how gentle and easy-going a guy he is. Oddly enough, I was having a conversation with him and said something to me about having faith about where the world is going and everything. It just struck me as odd from him in a weird way because he has such dark leanings. But, he’s really an enormously optimistic and positive guy. He’s obsessive. The film is kind of eating itself because he became obsessed with the case to down to when Arthur Leigh Allen died and they went to his house and gathered all the evidence, there was tape sitting in a cassette player and it was a tape of a child being spanked by Arthur Leigh Allen and it is the most gruesome and you want to kill the guy. 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 kind of. He’s very, very meticulous.

Is that very far from other directors you’ve worked with?

Mark: Michael Mann is a little bit the same way in a weird way. He’s also a full frame director likes to do lots of takes, very much immersed in the world that he’s creating, knows all the minute details, much more than any of the actors knows. He knows more about your character than you do mostly.

Do you find that to be helpful?

Mark: If they can convey it in a way that you can understand, it’s very helpful, yeah. If it’s too much detail you just kind of shut down after a while. Do you know what Fincher’s idea of the perfect press junket is? ‘Everyone give us your questions. Give us all your questions, give us a thousand questions. Wherever they’re doubled, we’ll just ask them once, or tripled, we’ll just ask them once and we’ll sit down in front of a camera with mics and we’ll put together the entire thing and you guys don’t have to come here all day. I think, ultimately, he really believes the proof is in the pudding and all the talking around it only clouds the issue.

Do you feel like that because you represent your movies very well?

Mark: Well, I like to talk [everybody laughs]

Do you think is was Arthur Leigh Allen?

Mark: I keep flopping back and forth. I know they did this genetic test but we don’t know that it was his saliva on the back of the stamp. I have seen this guy. He was a bad, bad dude. He was a sociopath.

He was guilty of something.

Mark: Yes. He also wanted people to believe that he was Zodiac. Is it beyond a shadow of a doubt? That’s where I’m stuck because there are those little things that don’t quite jibe.

But Dave Toschi thinks it’s him.

Mark: Yeah and I want to believe it’s him too. I really do want to think it was him.

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