Cartoonist was drawn to a killer

SPOTLIGHT ON Robert Graysmith

March 02, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Zodiac, the tale of the search for the Zodiac killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s and early '70s, captures the romance of pre-computerized newsrooms and of reporters who went into the business for the thrill of it.

Based on Robert Graysmith's nonfiction book Zodiac, the movie turns Graysmith into the central character played by Jake Gyllenhaal. He was the editorial cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle when the serial killings began. As he developed an overpowering fascination for the case, he forged unlikely partnerships with crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and San Francisco Police Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).

When the complications of their lives and careers drew them off the case, Graysmith kept going, becoming his own reporter-cum-gumshoe. The movie pays tribute to archive rats and door-knockers like him - and to the whole vivid, tangible world of newspapering that has disappeared into the digital vapors.

Over the phone from California, Graysmith says, "The weird thing is, I love this part of the movie; I can't say enough about it. I'm here sitting in a room full of all these hot-metal plates they used to make, original drawings from newspaper artists going back to the turn of the century."

But it isn't just the paraphernalia that's appealing. "I liked the competition, and I liked the hustle and bustle and the noise. I took [Zodiac director] David Fincher to see the Chronicle now and it's like an insurance company. Very quiet. But he re-created the Chronicle of '68 and '69. ... Even the insides of the drawers were filled with Chronicle notepads."

Graysmith joined the Chronicle in his early 20s and became "probably the youngest person in America who was a political cartoonist" for a major daily. (He began at the paper on Sept. 16, 1968, and left on Sept. 16, 1983.)

It was a lucky spot for an amateur sleuth. When newspapers printed their pages using lines of type and metal plates, "They would make a plate and then they would melt it down again. You probably had four to five hours ... before they would throw the type away and dump it into an old wheelbarrow that we had, and all the metal plates with all the pictures. Well, on Oct. 13 they ran the very first sketch of Zodiac. I still have that actual metal plate, and it's sort of ghostly now where the ink has sort of worked away at it. I can probably date my total involvement to going down and getting this plate in October 1969."

The author praises Fincher's drive for accuracy - and Gyllenhaal's, too. "You don't see yourself from a distance. You don't know how you're viewed." He was startled by the actor's surface accuracy. "He's wearing the same outfits I wore - I still got the same corduroy jacket. He's driving the same car I drove, with the same license number, and he's drawing on my real drawing boards, my pen, my ink, I still have the same ink bottle - just new ink in it." But he was more deeply jolted by Gyllenhaal's capture of his essence as an earnest, recessive soul, the nondrinker that drinkers in bars still tolerate because he's such a "good listener."

Graysmith says, "Watching Jake I saw I must have been a lot more polite than I realized. Of course, until I talked to David Fincher I didn't realize I was obsessed; I figured people just got off work in San Francisco and drove out to Vallejo at 2 in the morning. It was natural to me. I just got swept up into it."

Over the years, Graysmith has grown increasingly respectful of Avery. "I appreciate Avery a lot more than I did. He was a war correspondent. A lot of what I found in the trash were letters from people who'd known Avery, a lot of letters talking about fear he had of Zodiac: `Zodiac is out to get me.' It was constantly preying on his mind." Avery got a gun, and hung sheets of metal in his boathouse to keep from being shot. "At one point we all made up little badges saying `I am not Avery.' "

Graysmith was drawn to Avery's swashbuckling. "He was charming, all right. I have to admit, I was a kid, 24, or somewhere in there, and I'm looking at a guy across the room in a silk shirt and a scarf, and there are cameramen all around him."

And Toschi, too, cut an imposing figure. "`Trenchcoat Dave,' they called him, a `supercop' they called him. You see guys like that you want to be them or part of that story."

But Graysmith watched as the Zodiac case "beat it out of them; they just didn't have that drive any more. And I'm full of energy and drive and always finish what I start and I took it on." He became a conduit for all the information that various police departments never shared with each other or (of course) with the public. "And that was my contribution - that, and just making sure the case would never be forgotten."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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