ZODIAC directed by David Fincher, written by James Vanderbilt from the book by Robert Graysmith, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Chloë Sevigny. 153 minutes. A Paramount release. Opens Friday (March 2). For venues and times, see Movies, page 89. See online review March 2 at www.nowtoronto.com/film. Rating: NNNNN
Los Angeles -- It says something about the state of "stardom" these days that shortly before I head for L.A., at a non-film-related business lunch, I find myself trying to help my dining companions identify Mark Ruffalo.
Should be easy. He's got 40 film and TV credits.
I start naming what I think are the most prominent ones You Can Count On Me, Windtalkers, Just Like Heaven, In The Cut and I'm getting blank looks. Then one of the women brings up "that picture with Jennifer Garner," 13 Going On 30.
Okay, by citing the Reese Witherspoon picture, I was obviously referencing the wrong chick flick.
Good thing I didn't bring up his stage career.
Ruffalo had almost 20 screen credits before he got his breakout role and critical acclaim as the wastrel brother in Kenneth Lonergan's 2000 flick You Can Count On Me. Laura Linney got an Oscar nomination for that picture, and Ruffalo, a quiet and not particularly macho actor, developed a reputation as a supportive lead in female-centred films.
This would make him improbably interesting casting as the cop who might be a killer in Jane Campion's 2003 film In The Cut. He's the guy in all those Meg Ryan sex scenes.
In Zodiac, David Fincher's epic study of the pursuit of the Zodiac killer in San Francisco, Ruffalo plays Dave Toschi, the SFPD's lead homicide investigator. The investigation stretched from the late 1960s into the early 80s, sprawling across half a dozen police jurisdictions in the Bay Area.
Zodiac also puts the soft-spoken Ruffalo in the odd position of assaying a character once played by Clint Eastwood, whose Dirty Harry was indirectly inspired by Toschi. Dirty Harry's Scorpio was based on Zodiac, a fact referenced in Fincher's film.
Talking in a suite at the W Hotel in L.A.'s Westwood neighbourhood, Ruffalo occasionally slides into the character. His Toschi is even more soft-spoken than the actor and has an even lighter tenor voice.
"It's easy, really," says Ruffalo. "I had some video that I shot of Toschi that I'd watch all the time, and we spent so much time shooting that he's like a second skin."
We might be expecting something more sensationalistic from the director of Seven and Fight Club than the intensely researched procedural that Fincher's created .
"David told me he wanted to do a film like All The President's Men it's a piece about the acting, not about the camera moves.
"There was an early draft in which Dave Toschi was a very small part. I wanted something more. Fincher told me he was rewriting, and asked me to wait. Most guys don't do that. They say, "Trust me.' If David Fincher asks me to wait, I'll wait.
"David spent four and a half years working on this story, cutting through the mess of media material to focus on the killings that were demonstrably done by Zodiac. It's completely different from anything else he's done. "
Toschi's still not the main character. The film's principal is Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who became obsessed with the case and wrote the book that was the main source for the film, and there's a strong supporting role for Robert Downey Jr. as Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery.
"Making Toschi interesting was a real challenge. There's nothing flashy about him, and that's a real challenge when you're working opposite Robert Downey. He's a genius, and if you watch any movie he's in you can't take your eyes off him. It's daunting.
"For me, it helped to have someone real to play. I would not, on my best day, come up with a fictional character as nuanced as Dave Toschi.
"Toschi has perfect recall. When he starts talking, it's day, date, who was there, what he was wearing. Everything I'm doing in the picture is him. Dave was not afraid of the camera, so there was a lot of material on how he looked and how he sounded."
The movie is very much about the due process of law. Toschi is trapped in that contradiction.
"He told me, "As soon as I walked into the room and saw the guy, I knew he was the guy. But can I prove it?' And he couldn't. And he has to keep investigating and he has to keep looking at guys who aren't Arthur Leigh Allen.
"His failure to catch Zodiac is a wound he'll carry to his grave. It was an enormous part of his life and career. He was being groomed to be chief of police, and to have it go down as ignominiously as it did, it never went away."
(When the Zodiac killer resurfaced after several years, Chronicle social columnist Armistead Maupin accused Toschi of having invented the latest Zodiac letters himself, leading to his removal from the investigation, even though he was cleared of the accusation.)
Having appeared in Collateral, Ruffalo has now worked for the two most exacting perfectionists among American directors, Fincher and Michael Mann.
"In a weird way, Fincher isn't as sadistic as Michael. There were only a couple of scenes that we shot three different times over the shoot.
"On my first day, we wound up doing 68 takes of a long walk-and-talk scene, and I thought, "Oh God, I suck.' At first you're a little freaked, but then you realize that it's not just you involved. David is a full-frame director, and everything in the frame has to be perfect. It's the backgrounds and the weather and the extras and streets, and it all has to be perfect."
Additional Audio Interview Clips
Mark Ruffalo Clip 1
Mark Ruffalo Clip 2
Mark Ruffalo Clip 3
Mark Ruffalo Clip 4
Mark Ruffalo Clip 5
Mark Ruffalo Clip 6
Chloë Sevigny Clip 1
Chloë Sevigny Clip 2