Robert Graysmith Discusses ‘Zodiac’

Once you see Zodiac you will probably look at Robert Graysmith as if he is nuts. The film is based on his two books, “Zodiac” published in 1986 and “Zodiac Unmasked” published in 2002. The books follow Graysmith’s obsession with capturing one of, if not the, most elusive serial killers in American history, the Zodiac.

Graysmith began as a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and his life changed as he soon became obsessed with the man who named himself Zodiac in a series of letters and ciphers sent to the Chronicle. After leads seemed to have dried up and the four counties involved in the murders weren’t working together Graysmith took it upon himself to dig deeper. His story is told through the eyes of Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac, but I had a chance to sit down with the original and here is how it went down.

*NOTE: This interview does have a few possible film spoilers so be careful if you are completely unaware of the story.

Dave Toschi still believes to this day Zodiac was Arthur Leigh Allen…

RG: Toschi lives about ten blocks from me and we talk every day. We go to this place called the Copper Penny and he has Dirty Harry lemon meringue pie and I have fries and we still talk about all the suspects, we had 2,500 of them.

It’s funny, I am not one of these guys that has really deep friendships and he calls me and he says I’m his best friend and it is like “Wow.” It’s such an honor. He is just a really loveable, honest kind of guy.

Do you believe it’s him or someone else?

Robert Graysmith (RG): We had 2,500 suspects so one June day I drop by headquarters and I talk to Toschi and I say, ‘Dave, I was talking to Dr. Lunby at Stanford and he says that whoever this killer is he will have offered to catch himself. Did you ever get a letter like this?’

‘I only got one, I just got it!’ He takes it out and it’s from Arthur Leigh Allen from prison and it says, “Sorry I wasn’t your man, blah, blah, blah…” So we got it down to like three people. We knew this much about Zodiac, at the lake he left compression marks, so we got a guy who’s 230 pounds, ten-and-a-half size shoe, so it goes way down and it’s a specific kind of shoe that’s only sold at naval bases, it’s very rare, you have to be a member of the armed forces. It’s wing walkers, they walk on the wing of the plane and Allen has a pair and that’s his shoe size as well. He is in such close proximity to all these people, he was a suspect in the first murder, a suspect in the second… there are a couple things that don’t match. There was one sighting of Zodiac, who they thought was Zodiac, smoking and Allen doesn’t smoke, that one bothered me a bit.

Generally you have to have a man that knows criminology, cryptography, meteorology. He was a chemist, he knows how to build bombs… When they went into Allen’s cellar he had pipe bombs. Dr. Lunby said he would have a collection of Zodiac clippings, he had them all, he had my book. It’s just after a while there just isn’t anyone else; no one had all the qualities that this man had.

What did you think when you first heard there would be a movie?

RG: Well, I sort of heard about it first because I act as my own book agent and my own movie agent and I sold two books and two movies, which is pretty good, they paid me. I am sitting at home and all these people suddenly want to make a movie out of “Zodiac” and so I actually got to choose, I had six people, and I knew Mike Medavoy and I knew his work and I had also met Jamie Vanderbilt and Brad Fischer at the premiere of Auto Focus (based on Graysmith’s book “The Murder of Bob Crane”) and I liked them. So in a way I call them up and I say, ‘I want you guys.’ They didn’t offer as much as the others but I knew they would get the film made.

Are you happy with what you see?

RG: Are you kidding? Yes, I watched it, I got to see it over a three year period. In San Francisco I took them to the sights. There is such an attention to detail and my favorite is the recreation of the San Francisco Chronicle. It was an old time newspaper with dust and grease and copy boys. I loved it. So what he did, it was an insurance company. Fincher invites me to his office and he has the blueprints and through computer matching the Chronicle is alive again. Then when I went to the set, it’s a block long, you open the drawer and there are Chronicle pencils and notepads, the phone works, you look up at the ceiling and the old antiquated lighting system, nobody’s going to look up there. I had never seen anything like it. A friend of mine got a part, she had one line, they did 53 takes, but that seems to be normal. [Fincher] would be a landscape painter 50 years ago because I think he is a painter more than anything.

You did a lot of crazy things?

RG: I did a lot of crazy things and one of the things, I am just now realizing how stupid it was, I’m following around in an orange VW Rabbit and I park outside of Ace Hardware and obviously he’s seen me from the big window and so I’m parked and he pulls alongside me so I can’t get my door open and he gives me this look like you wouldn’t believe. I shrugged it off and then years later I’m talking to a guy that worked with him, he’s a body-builder, wrestler and he said Leigh said, ‘I want to show you something,’ and then next thing he said Leigh is across the room, this guy is powerful. One policeman said he once took out five guys on the street, he would keep chains in his trunk and go around looking for fights.

I am surprised as is everybody that I got involved in this, it’s just so out of my character. But I thought I could make a difference. My political cartoons were supposed to make a difference and I thought maybe a book that had all the facts that nobody was forthcoming with that somebody out there was going to solve this thing.

What about Jake’s performance?

RG: Oh he’s wonderful, I spent a couple of days with him. Poor guy comes back from filming Jarhead, it’s pitted from all the sand storms and stuff and he’s going to have a real meal and he calls up for chicken and broccoli and it’s like an hour wait and the broccoli is swimming in water and it’s this awful over dried chicken. I felt so bad for him, here’s this chance to meet with someone I had never met and it’s just this ghastly, worst meal I ever had.

Can you talk about your obsession with Zodiac and how it affected your life? And do you have any regrets?

RG: Well, oddly enough, it affected my life in one bad way because I got divorced but on the other hand I have the greatest kids. They don’t smoke, they don’t drink, they don’t take drugs, one son is the accountant for the San Francisco Giants and the other son works for DreamWorks and Sony on animated films, he’s one of the five directors there. My daughter works at Fox on “The Simpsons” she does the packaging of “The Family Guy.” They are such a constant joy, I did something right. I mean we were always close and whatever I am doing they supported me. So instead of fairy tales it was Edgar Allen Poe at night. As far as the personal relationship, that was not good. Zodiac was number one, that just took over.

There are two books, what is the difference?

RG: “Zodiac” the original book came out in February 1986 and never stopped selling, it’s 39 printings, it just never stopped and same with “Zodiac Unmasked,” it came out five-six years ago. It’s just unusual people assumed they reissued it with the movie, but it never went off the stands.

The first book was when we really had these guys alive. Out of 2,500 suspects we had three that were screaming hot, the police of different counties believe absolutely this was the guy. The first book is better written and reads really fast except I had to change the names. Now one of the things I was interested in was when Arthur Leigh Allen had conversations with his mother and his psychiatrist and his parole officer – was he going to say anything? – and he never did. We took a chance, it was more of a test. After Allen’s death, and I never use the names of the other two suspects, I don’t mention the child witnesses, but we realized now we could use a lot of this material that was not available like letters from prison.

Zodiac eye-witness Mike Mageau is homeless now?

RG: Mike Mageau became a street person who fled from his hospital bed with pins in his legs, dyed his hair red, he’s got green eyes, he’s really a striking guy. He vanishes into the street people and for years I would get letters from nurses and health practitioners saying, ‘Oh, Mike passed through here.’ So when they did the film, David Fincher and his team, wanted to find him and that was one of the hardest things. Finally, Brad Fischer tracks him down in Las Vegas and he’s in jail again.

Was there any evidence that he did these crimes in different counties so they couldn’t coordinate?

RG: I think he did, but Fincher does not agree with me, I think he would strike exactly on an unincorporated area and on a county line. I think there is some thought that goes into it, there were just too many departments involved.

Other than the fact that it is unsolved, what is the most surprising thing about the Zodiac that you’ve found?

RG: That it obsesses everybody that comes in contact with it. Not Toschi so much, although he was pretty much damaged by the case.

NOTE: Graysmith has numerous unpublished books in the works, including “Shooting Zodiac” about the passing of the obsession torch as the filmmakers became enthralled in the investigative of the story themselves during the making of the movie.

Putting this crime in today’s terms does this get solved in a second?

RG: Done, if it was today we would have a joint task force, it would be over. It took Toschi to get a year and two months to get a search warrant for another county. They fought like tigers and when it came to search Allen’s basement they let his brother do it. There were mistakes made in this case that you just can’t explain. It was just such a new type of man, we had the Boston Strangler, Son of Sam and Jack the Ripper and that was about it. We didn’t have anything to compare it against. Toschi actually went back to New York and he was a consultant on the Son of Sam thing because it was so similar.


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