To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.
On a wet September night in 1978, Robert Graysmith couldn’t resist his curiosity.
A month earlier, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist had received an anonymous phone call regarding the identity of the Zodiac, the notorious Bay Area serial killer. “He’s a guy named Rick Marshall,” the mysterious voice told him at the start of an hourlong conversation. The killer’s string of murders in 1969 had gone unsolved, but Graysmith suddenly had a new lead. According to the tipster, Marshall—a former projectionist at The Avenue Theater—had hidden evidence from his five victims inside movie canisters, which he’d rigged to explode. Before hanging up, the nameless caller told Graysmith to find Bob Vaughn, a silent film organist who worked with Marshall. The booby-trapped canisters, Graysmith learned, had recently been moved to Vaughn’s home. “Get to Vaughn,” the voice told him. “See if he tells you to stay away from part of his film collection.”
After years spent independently entrenched in the open case, Graysmith dug into Marshall’s history and found several coincidences. His new suspect liked The Red Spectre, an early-century movie referenced in a 1974 Zodiac letter, and had used a teletype machine just like the killer. Outside The Avenue Theater, Marshall’s felt-pen posters even had handwriting similar to the Zodiac’s obscure, cursive strokes. On occasional visits to the upscale movie house, Graysmith observed Vaughn playing the Wurlitzer and noticed the Zodiac’s crosshair symbol plastered to the theater’s ceiling. There were too many overlapping clues. He had to make a trip to Vaughn’s house. “We knew there was some link,” Graysmith tells me. “I was scared to death.”
Almost three decades later, director David Fincher turned Graysmith’s nightmarish visit into one of the creepiest movie scenes of all time. It takes place near the end of Zodiac, after Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) follows Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) to his home through the rain in his conspicuous, bright-orange Volkswagen Rabbit. Once inside, the mood quickly becomes unnerving. After disclosing that he, not Marshall, is responsible for the movie poster handwriting, Vaughn leads a spooked Graysmith down to his dimly lit basement. As the organist sorts through his nitrate film records, the floorboards above Graysmith creak, insinuating another’s presence. After Vaughn assures his guest that he lives alone, Graysmith sprints upstairs to the locked front door, rattling the handle, before Vaughn slowly pulls out his key and opens it from behind. Graysmith bolts into the rain as though he’s just escaped the Zodiac’s clutches.
Ultimately, the third-act encounter is a red herring. Vaughn was never considered a credible suspect. But in a movie filled with rote police work and dead ends, those five minutes of kettle-whistling tension turn a procedural into true horror. The scene is a culmination of Graysmith’s paranoid obsession with the Zodiac’s identity—a window into the life-threatening lengths and depths he’ll go to solve the case—and a brief rejection of the movie’s otherwise objective lens. “It’s actually so different from the rest of the movie,” says James Vanderbilt, Zodiac’s screenwriter. “It does kind of give you that jolt that a lot of the movie is working hard not to [give].”
Most simply, the basement scene is a signature Fincher adrenaline rush—a moment buttressed by years of intensive research, attention to accuracy, and last-minute studio foresight. Thirteen years after the movie’s release, it still sends shivers down Graysmith’s spine.
Vanderbilt was 15 years old when he picked up Graysmith’s first book, Zodiac. He couldn’t put it down after that. Written from the cartoonist’s perspective, it unpacks all the firsthand accounts, key evidence, and investigative efforts to unmask the serial killer that terrorized Northern California through the early 1970s. Vanderbilt, an angsty high schooler aspiring to write his own crime stories, became obsessed with the book and the mysteries surrounding the Zodiac’s correspondence. The author’s prose and compulsive pursuit sucked him in, and Vanderbilt descended further down Graysmith’s rabbit hole. “At that age, I wanted to make movies,” he says. “I sort of went, ‘Someday, this would make a great movie.’”
For the majority of the 1990s, the option rights for Graysmith’s source material had been owned by Touchstone Pictures. The studio’s own script had been in development hell, twisted into a modern fiction that tidied up the story’s unresolved ending. When the rights became available in 2002, Vanderbilt pounced at the opportunity to start his dream project. The young writer had a few screenplay credits to his name, and had shared his goal with Phoenix Pictures co-president Bradley J. Fischer, with whom he’d recently collaborated. Vanderbilt wanted to depict the investigation just like it occurred—an interminable slog filled with jurisdictional impasses and zero resolution. In a pitch meeting with Phoenix, he convinced the production company’s head Mike Medavoy to pursue the rights, agreeing to pen a spec script if he received a production credit. He then sent Graysmith a letter professing his love for the book. “I can’t promise you that I can get this movie made,” Vanderbilt wrote to him. “But I can promise if I do, it will be R-rated, it will take place in the real time period and the Zodiac won’t get caught in the end.”
Graysmith liked his vision, and the fact that Vanderbilt and Fischer assured they would adapt Zodiac and its follow-up, Zodiac Unmasked, with the necessary scrupulousness. “We were conscious of the fact that not only was it a true story, but there were a lot of people whose lives were touched in really profound and traumatic ways,” Fischer says. To develop the script, the pair spoke with numerous sources, including lead investigator, Dave Toschi (played by Mark Ruffalo in the movie), who showed them around the murder locations—Blue Rock Springs Park, Lake Berryessa, and the corner of Washington and Cherry Street in San Francisco—for a full geographic audit. Inspired by HBO’s The Wire, Vanderbilt took a “nuts and bolts” approach to the drama, gleaning the minute details of each police report, warrant request, and handwritten note. “I was sort of feeling like no one had really cracked that,” he says.
Upon completion, Fischer sent Vanderbilt’s 157-page screenplay to Fincher’s agent. The acclaimed director had already made his serial killer movie in Se7en, but the story hit close to home for the Marin County native. Fincher had grown up around the Zodiac’s hoopla, and remembered highway patrol officers following his school bus for weeks after the killer had threatened to bomb one. “At that time, you had this childhood fear that you kind of insinuated yourself into it. What if it was our bus? What if he showed up in our neighborhood?” Fincher said upon the film’s release. Intrigued by the script’s investigative approach and ambiguous ending, he conditionally agreed to start the project, expressing the need to use everyone’s real name and present all the facts. “What I’d love to do is put the script in a drawer and make a list of every individual who was involved in this story,” Fincher told them. “Treat this like a journalistic endeavor.”
In the next 18 months, the trio turned into a group of determined sleuths. They interviewed suspects, spoke with ex-officers, and tracked down surviving victims; they sifted through 10,000 pages of documents and evidence; they filled timelines with notes, ciphers, and photos. Every date needed to be correct, and every eyewitness account needed cross-checking. “I was slightly embarrassed about how much [more] research there was to do, but I was totally down for it,” Vanderbilt says. Fischer remembers the director’s conference room wall became so cluttered that their research eventually extended out into the hallways. “We definitely went through the looking glass on it,” he says.
“They understood the case, they understood the mystery,” Graysmith says. “They weren’t going to make this movie unless they were able to be certain about every fact.”
Once the necessary information had been processed through lawyers, Fincher officially came aboard and financing began in earnest. Although the script had undergone a variety of extensive changes, the only scene that remained mostly untouched was Graysmith’s visit with Vaughn. Because of its first-person perspective, Vanderbilt didn’t need to stray far from the book’s descriptive play-by-play, which the author had also recorded on tape. “I remember reading the scene and getting completely freaked out,” editor Angus Wall says. “I was reading it at night. I peered out through [my kitchen’s] French doors to just make sure nobody was there.”
To enhance the paranoia on the page, Fincher cast Gyllenhaal as Graysmith, thanks in part to a recommendation from Jennifer Aniston, who had worked with the actor on The Good Girl. His bug-eyed features matched the quiet and calculating rhythms of Fleischer, who nailed his audition for Vaughn. The comic actor, famous for voicing Roger Rabbit, was an easy choice for Fincher, who “was as gleeful as any of us for the cinematic baggage of Charles Fleischer in that role,” Vanderbilt remembers. That Gyllenhaal had attended the same high school as the veteran actor’s children was just a bonus. “I’d been to his house on Halloween,” Fleischer says. “It was nice to have that synchronicity there.”
The movie eventually received split backing from Paramount and Warner Brothers, allowing Fincher to start his six-month shoot in September 2005. Like the scene’s placement in the movie, Graysmith and Vaughn’s encounter would occur late into production. And even after filming multiple murders, Fincher knew the scene would be the drama’s most nerve-wracking moment, a blind-alley climax filled with the horror tropes Fincher had omitted to that point. “The basement scene is creaky floorboard, bare lightbulb, scary music,” Vanderbilt says. “We got really excited about the idea.”
By the third act of Zodiac, Graysmith’s fear and restlessness has grown to dangerous levels. The self-anointed gumshoe learns from handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill that The Avenue’s movie posters share nearly identical lettering with the Zodiac; he later discovers the killer had been inspired by The Most Dangerous Game, a 1932 horror film that the theater likely projected. In the weeks following his anonymous tip, Graysmith becomes haunted by hang-up phone calls, and his home—soon void of his wife and children—turns into a cluttered mess of police reports and boxes of notes. “It was nothing like it really was,” Graysmith says of Fincher’s somehow modest depiction. “If he’d shown my actual apartment, you would have not believed it.” By the time he greets Vaughn and follows him home, Graysmith is fully convinced he’ll find his smoking gun.
Fincher wanted the interiors of Vaughn’s home to have movable walls and flexible furniture, allowing cinematographer Harris Savides to capture the angles he needed. So, after a brief outdoor establishing shot on location in Silver Lake in Los Angeles, production moved to a darkened Hollywood soundstage. “It’s very hard to find locations that have the perfect [dimensions],” production designer Donald Graham Burt says. ”Especially with David, he’s so precise about wanting to walk this direction this amount of distance.” Taking measurements from the house’s exterior, Burt and his construction team matched the door’s hardware, building a 4-foot elevated entryway, hall, and kitchen. “We [even] had some rain on stage,” he adds.
Burt didn’t want to fill Vaughn’s old home with only period-specific appliances, an ideal that mimicked Fincher’s obsessive need for accuracy. “In the ’50s, they had things from the ’20s in houses. In the ’70s, they had things from the ’30s in houses,” he says. It helped that Fincher had mapped how the scene would move and which pieces of furniture and colors would accentuate his sickly aesthetic. “It’s great because he knows what he wants,” Burt says of his longtime collaborator. “He and I both have an aversion to bright color … To get even tonality you usually fall into gray versions of color because that’s an anchor that hooks everything together.”
As the scene unfolds in the kitchen, Vaughn makes tea and stands behind his counter while Graysmith sits down to discuss his host’s connection with Marshall. Throughout their conversation, Fincher positions his camera at his protagonist’s eye level—establishing a noticeable power dynamic—before Vaughn opens up. He admits knowledge of his colleague’s film canisters and then drops the bomb about his handwriting. Mouth agape, Gyllenhaal pauses and blinks, slowly looking back at the poster. “I was a little spooked,” Graysmith admits, thinking back 42 years. “It’s a kind of zone where everything is just still, you’re not upset, and it’s just like moving in slow motion.”
Then, in a chilling shot, Fincher zooms into Gyllenhaal’s face, framing a blurred Fleischer just above his shoulder. With panic now palpable, Vaughn asks Graysmith to follow him downstairs to examine his film records, a request punctuated with an inspired callback.
In one of his early letters, the Zodiac had mentioned having a basement, a small detail that Vanderbilt had inserted into a previous conversation to set up this specific interaction. “We have to hang a light on that earlier so that when we get to this moment, it’s like an ‘Oh, fuck!’ moment,” Vanderbilt says. “You want to deploy that right before he goes down.”
“Not many people have basements in California,” Graysmith notes.
Luring his guest from the table, Vaughn reponds: “I do.”
When Fincher began scouting basements, he found inspiration inside Dermot Mulroney’s home. The actor, who plays Captain Marty Lee, had a basement that “had these concrete foundational pieces built into it with a walkway that made it feel like you were walking through a tunnel,” Burt remembers. Like the upstairs set, Burt recreated the look of the basement on the same soundstage, starting on the floor and building a staircase to connect the two halves of the scene. “The basement had its own vibe,” says Wall.
Indeed, the setting feels like a scary movie cliché—the space is dark and grimy, floorboards drip and creak, and just a couple of 60-watt lightbulbs brighten spiderwebs and the dusty shelves of film canisters. “It was a maze,” Graysmith remembers of the actual basement. Because Zodiac was the first movie shot and produced entirely in digital, the production’s innovative Viper cameras allowed Savides to shoot comfortably with minimal light. The tapeless filming method also gave Wall the unique opportunity to organize and line up Fincher’s multiple takes on the same screen through his editing bay—helpful for a quiet scene more concerned with sound effects, lighting, and facial expressions than obscure angles and dialogue. “He shoots take after take in a very similar way,” Wall says. “Sometimes you’ll have three different takes of a particular moment and you can basically look at all three against each other and assess the different strengths and weaknesses of those choices.”
At the boiling point of the pair’s encounter, Fleischer is “in complete control of the scene,” Wall says. As he sorts though the film log, his eyes fall into dark shadow, and his posture, leaning into a wooden beam, makes it appear that he’s become part of his surroundings. As Fleischer returns the book to its shelf, Fincher hides his entire body behind the spare overhead light, and for a moment, just his voice hovers in the dark. “I don’t think that really scary, creepy people think they’re scary or creepy,” Fleischer says of his deliberate mannerisms and unsettling tone. “If you’re playing scary-creepy, it comes off [false] that way.” Unlike Gyllenhaal, who had grown used to Fincher’s multiple takes, Fleischer initially thought the director’s repetition was an indictment of his acting. “Once I realized that’s how he worked, it was an exciting opportunity to explore,” he says. While watching Fleischer recite his lines over and over, Fischer recalled quivering in the actor’s presence. “He was as scary and uncomfortable to be around on that set as he is when you’re watching it all unfold on screen,” he says.
Soon, the floorboard creaking returns. Graysmith asks Vaughn if anyone is upstairs, but never receives a clear answer. “There was somebody in that house and you can hear the creaking on the tape recorder,” Graysmith says. “I thought Rick Marshall was upstairs. I wanted to leave.” On cue, Gyllenhaal backs away and races through the kitchen to the exit—the scene’s long takes give away to quick pans and rapid cuts as Gyllenhaal rushes up the basement steps. “The whole point of that is to build the tension until you can’t stand it,” Wall says. “Then, basically, it explodes when he bails out of there.”
As a final, petrifying flourish, Graysmith remains trapped at the front door. He waits for Vaughn—captured at first through an expertly placed mirror—to unlock it, and sprints back to his car. “You’re like, ‘Fuck, is he going to get knived?’” Wall says. “What’s going to happen here?” Watching his guest leave, Vaughn peers through the doorway. “Good night, Mr. Graysmith,” he says in a sinister and sly tone of voice, ending the scene. Knowing his guest’s motive, “there was a bit of a smirk,” Fleischer admits. “I was kind of witnessing how scared he was, how frightened he became, and that amused my character, no doubt.”
“Whether he’s the killer or not, he’s like, ‘I totally fucked with you,’” Vanderbilt says of Fleischer’s performance. “[And] Jake is so wonderfully guileless that you can completely believe him bumbling into this situation.”
Still, he and Fincher couldn’t ever understand why the real Graysmith did what he did that night. “We were always like, ‘Robert, why would you go to the basement?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know,’” Vanderbilt laughs. “Robert is unfailingly polite. He didn’t want to offend this guy who might be a serial killer.”
Despite its crackling presence in the movie, the basement scene almost got scrapped. Near the end of editing, Paramount asked Fincher if he could trim anything from his final cut, which ran close to two hours and 40 minutes. The director relayed the request to Vanderbilt, and the writer, appeasing the studio, scanned the screenplay at its most structural level.
“You can take out the basement scene,” Vanderbilt suggested.
From a character perspective, Vanderbilt knew the scene crystallized Graysmith’s complete descent into the case—how he was willing to throw his life away to get closer to the truth. “This is a guy who’s got two kids, who’s a political cartoonist, who’s driving a bright orange Volkswagen Rabbit trying to solve crime, and he ends up in this really sketchy dude’s basement where he could have been hacked to death,” Vanderbilt says. The scene also adds another narrative layer of hopelessness surrounding the search for Zodiac’s identity. “The whole idea of the movie is making the viewer feel the frustration,” he says. “We were always interested in how much that accrues over time, so by the end of the movie you’re literally going, ‘Please walk away from this.’”
Ultimately, though, he resolved that chopping the scene wouldn’t harm the bones of the plot. But in a rare moment of administrative care, when he and Fincher took the idea to Paramount, the studio gave them a reality check. “They were like, ‘Are you insane? That’s the best scene of the movie. We’re not taking out the basement scene.’” Vanderbilt recalls. “After that they stopped asking us to make the movie shorter.” At later audience screenings, Vanderbilt understood why the studio had been so adamant. “I like to sit in the back and watch people’s heads, because if their heads don’t move, you have them,” Vanderbilt says. “You can feel it in the room when you get to that scene. You can feel sphincters tightening.”
Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Zodiac hit theaters on March 2, 2007, and made $33 million at the domestic box office. Though the majority of critics praised the movie for its grim mood, character acting, and atmospheric detail, audiences had trouble connecting with its inconclusive ending and long runtime. Like many Fincher titles, the narrative surrounding the movie shifted considerably after its release. Now considered one of Fincher’s best works, Zodiac has earned an estimated $21 million in DVD sales and has turned up on “best of the century” lists.
The basement scene, on the other hand, never needed reheating—its masterful qualities have been heralded from the jump. The tension of a “trip to a basement,” Roger Ebert wrote in his original review of the movie, “is, in its way, one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen along those lines.” Today, the scene is still debated on Reddit message boards and broken down on YouTube, satisfying both Zodiac truthers and horror fans. As a stand-alone piece, it “sort of satisfies the desire to have the shit scared out of you,” Wall says. In context, however, it pounds home the movie’s recurring fits and starts, and “lets you in on the joke that nobody knows who the Zodiac actually was.”
For those involved in its creation, the scene stands as yet another example of Fincher’s genius. As Vanderbilt notes, nothing actually happens that night—Graysmith enters a stranger’s home, has a conversation, walks up and down a flight of stairs, and leaves. “The conclusion to the scene is our hero fucked up and was wrong and did something dumb,” he says. And yet, the director’s talent transforms it into a white-knuckling experience, one built on small, authentic details and intuitive filmmaking. “He put that scene in that gear for a specific reason,” Vanderbilt says. “When he wants to turn on … [he] can fucking scare you.”
Graysmith, better than any, can attest to the scene’s impact. There’s a reason he’s watched the movie only one time in his life.
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com and The New York Times.