David Fincher doesn't recall all the gory details he was only 7 at the time but there's one thing about his first encounter with a serial killer he's never forgotten. ''I remember the police car escorting my bus to school every morning,'' says the director, 44, rubbing his temples as if physically squeezing out the memory. ''But I don't remember being scared by it or anything. I was just a kid. I probably thought it was cool.''
Now that he's older and wiser, Fincher knows how terrified he should have been. And on March 2 he'll be reminding the rest of us with the opening of Zodiac, his fact-based drama meticulously retracing every wrong turn and dead end of the still-unresolved investigation into the grisly slayings that terrorized the Northern California coastline where he grew up during the late 1960s and early 1970s. All the gruesome highlights are up on the screen: how a Bay Area killer calling himself the Zodiac shot and stabbed unsuspecting victims as they necked in a parked car or innocently picnicked at a lakeside; how he taunted police with cryptic clues and twisted threats mailed to local newspapers (''School children make nice targets,'' he jotted in one letter); how he haunted the lives of the cops who pursued him (like the ones played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards); and how he so obsessed San Francisco newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) that the artist launched his own personal investigation and ended up writing two books, which Fincher used as source material.
''It's not that I was looking to do another serial-killer movie,'' the filmmaker says, propping his feet up on his massive desk in his stylishly austere Hollywood office. ''But it's not like I was looking to avoid doing another serial-killer movie, either. I didn't really think about it in those terms. This just seemed to me like a whole different sort of thing. It didn't even seem like a serial-killer movie to me.''
Whatever he wants to call it, the $70 million Paramount/Warner Bros. co-production is sure to draw comparisons to a certain other Fincher flick the one that put Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box. But fans expecting Seven: The Return may be disappointed. Unlike that envelope-pushing 1995 serial-killer thriller and unlike pretty much every other movie he's made since, including 1999's Fight Club and 2002's Panic Room this one relies on none of the edgy camera work that helped earn Fincher's reputation as a film-geek god. Instead, Zodiac is filled with something much trickier: talking. One draft of the script swelled to nearly 200 pages of wall-to-wall dialogue, a veritable filibuster in Hollywood. ''There are no car chases in it,'' says Fincher. ''People talk a lot in it. It's about a cartoonist and a murderer who never got caught. So, yeah, the studio is nervous. But every studio is nervous about every movie they release. They were nervous about Norbit.''
Fincher, along with some of his cast, also had doubts during the film's five-month shoot in and around San Francisco (including at two of the actual murder sites) specifically about how to tell a true story that stretches over decades in a movie that doesn't stretch the audience's patience. ''It was terrifying,'' admits Ruffalo. ''It's all exactly what happened. There's no thematic leaps in it. There's no dramatization. We would have drinks and Fincher would say, 'I'm in new territory. I have never done this. I'm way outside my comfort zone.'''
Even inside his comfort zone, Fincher isn't regarded as being a barrel of monkeys. He's been known to drive actors batty with a shooting pace so grinding it would have had Stanley Kubrick tapping his wristwatch impatiently. Even the simplest sequence can require 50 or more takes (Jodie Foster endured 107 for one scene in Panic Room). ''You've got to do what you've got to do,'' he says with a shrug. ''If an actor is going to let the role come to them, they can't resent the fact that I'm willing to wait as long as that takes. You know, the first day of production in San Francisco we shot 56 takes of Mark and Jake and it's the 56th take that's in the movie.''
When shooting finally wrapped, Fincher found himself sifting through the digital equivalent of 1.3 million feet of film, enough footage to fill two features. After months of slicing and dicing, he emerged from the editing room with a cut of Zodiac that ran a tick over three hours. Even he knew it was too long, so the movie's original fall 2006 release was pushed to January, then March, to give him time to make more trims. It wasn't easy Fincher had to do some of the cutting while in New Orleans gearing up for his next picture, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring his old pal Brad Pitt as a middle-age man who suddenly starts growing younger but he managed to carve the running time down to about two and a half hours. ''We had to lose a lot of connective tissue and a lot of little character moments,'' he says with a sigh. Among the victims: Robert Downey Jr., as a boozy San Francisco reporter, lost three scenes, including ''a great one of him sleeping in his car,'' according to Fincher. Watch for it on DVD.
One thing that didn't need any cutting was the violence. As in most Fincher movies, the worst bits take place off screen the killer himself always remains a shadowy, unrecognizable figure but prove all the more horrific as a result. (Remember, you never actually saw Paltrow lose her head.) Even so, it may be a tough sell, a film about a serial killer who may still be at large. It's possible that he could be sitting next to you in the theater. After all, he made it clear how much he looked forward to attending the cinema. ''This is the Zodiac speaking,'' read one of the last letters attributed to the killer. ''I am waiting for a good movie about me. Who will play me?''