Mark Ruffalo Tries to Catch the Zodiac Killer

Mark Ruffalo Playing the real life detective in the David Fincher drama

The Zodiac killer made a lot of headlines in the 1960's and 70's in the San Francisco area. And now, 35 years later, he's back in the new film, Zodiac. Based on real facts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo star in the David Fincher drama, which depicts the search for who this mad man really was.

Ruffalo plays Inspector David Toschi, the lead police detective on the case - and only one of the many people who became completely obsessed with the case. That job came down to Jake, who plays Robert Graysmith - a former cartoonist with the San Francisco Chronicle; he became so obsessed with the Zodiac case, he lost his marriage over it. Downey Jr. is the crime reporter at the Chronicle, who takes Graysmith under his wings to bring him closer to the case.

Mark sat down with Movieweb.com to talk about the research that went into creating a real person on screen, a person who's been portrayed by Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and Steve McQueen's Bullitt. Here's what he had to say:

Did you know about the Zodiac before getting this role, and what kinds of research did you do after?

Mark Ruffalo: It's one of those names you've heard all your life - 'The Zodiac Killer' but you're mistaking him for The Hillside Strangler; you don't, or I didn't really know where he fell in that whole iconography. Then I read the script; I really didn't realize who this guy was as far as the serial killers go. Then, the research started and there's a mind-boggling amount of material around this case; we were given, basically sand-bagged with the entire - I have the entire investigation sitting at home in a murder book. I probably have more information than any one particular police department has because, the one thing we were able to do was to get all of them to cooperate with me for the movie but none of them cooperated with catching the guy.

Why don't you think they caught him?

Mark Ruffalo: I think the time period; they weren't set up for this in any way. The word 'serial killer' hadn't been invented yet; certainly there were serial killers but they hadn't popped up into the culture the way this guy did. He's the first dude who sort of hopped up into the minds of the culture and used the media and all of this to get himself off. I have to assume that is what he was doing with this, make himself important in the world.

So what was it like making a movie based on this case?

Mark Ruffalo: It was compelling to read it and compelling to work on it; with David Fincher, it just makes for great storytelling and great drama. There's the moral question of 'do you go by the law or do you go by a hunch?' If we really want to make this a big question, like going out into the world trying to kill terrorists today, there's the assumption and there's a lot of emotion going on behind that assumption and then there's the law and the science.

What did the real Dave Toschi tell you?

Mark Ruffalo: The second he saw Arthur Leigh Allen walking into the room he said in his heart, 'That's our guy.' That's what he said, but the cop in him said, 'There's not a single piece of evidence.' All we really have in the end, is the law; if you don't follow the law and you go and kill the guy, how do you know that you got the right guy? Even if someone believes so deeply in their heart of hearts that that is the guy, if they don't follow the law then we live in a world of chaos. That is the gestalt of the film, the mystery, that is the finale of the film - that's what people walk away from the film feeling, that's what their terror is coming from. That's where their imaginations blossom, in the mystery that is the finale of the film, that's what they are responding too.

Was he cooperative?

Mark Ruffalo: Totally, the first thing he said to me was, 'Uh, Mark, why are you here? Why do you want to talk to me.' I got to spend time with him and, all of a sudden, all of that other stuff just fades away when you're sitting there with the real McCoy. He did tell me he was the inspiration for Bullitt, played by Steve McQueen.

Was he kind of proud of that?

Mark Ruffalo: Yeah. He's got a picture of he and Steve McQueen together.

What is the key to making a long movie work?

Mark Ruffalo: Specificity; going to real life and really doing the background work and the specifics of what happened. Real life is infinitely more interesting than we can try to imagine; it's that old adage, 'G-d is in the details.' Fincher just painstakingly went and created that world, that time which we all have touched or know of, we remember it; it has almost a sentimental value to most of us. He really did his work to recreate the time and the feeling, he really was true to the investigation; there's not one dramatic departure for the sake of dramatization in the movie which is pretty remarkable for something that spans such a long period of time. It was a real act of trust on his part to do that.

Is there one particular thing in your research that you really wanted to get in?

Mark Ruffalo: Dave Toschi's relationship to his family - he just adored his family, his three daughters. That wasn't really in the script as much and it was something I thought was important just so we feel the other side of this guy; I think it gives him another dimension that wasn't exactly in there so I was always trying to bring them in. I even added a line at one point, 'Shhhh, my daughters are upstairs.' That wasn't in there; the guy was a beautiful family man, too. They handled it incredibly gracefully; it still is that one thing that destroys your life.

Does it help him that he thinks Arthur Leigh Allen did it and Allen is dead now?

Mark Ruffalo: I think it helps that there are no more murders, or that the murders have seemed to stop although Graysmith presupposes that he just morphed into - he just became quiet about it and that's what the Zodiac said he was going to do, he was going to start doing it in a way that nobody knew who was doing it. It's an open wound I think for all of these guys who put so much time and energy into it that they never caught him.

What was it like working with David Fincher? Was the process enjoyable?

Mark Ruffalo: David really wanted to do a character drama where he could take two people or three people and let them speak and do long dialogue scenes without having to cut away or cut to close-ups. When you do that, and you're working with someone like David Fincher who I call a 'full frame director,' the actors only have to be in about 30 percent of a frame. You have five extras, that car going by, how far the lamp's hanging down, the branch on the tree, he sees all these things and he's aware of them - Fincher knows this is his stab at eternity and he wants to go down the best he can. So, yes, when you want to do a long dialogue scene and you want to do it in one take, you're gonna shoot it twenty times; you've got to get that extra in the right place at the right time and the camera has, there's so many elements at play. That is sort of what he was hanging the look and the feel of the movie on, from very early on. I come from the theater; you do five hundred performances. To me, it's tough and Dave expects the best from people; he wants you to show up and be ready to work - he wants the best from people. He uses the best people and he expects the best from them; it can be nerve-wracking at times but I'm game for that journey, I dug it. It gives you another chance to get it right but it is nerve-wracking.

Were you surprised by anything about him?

Mark Ruffalo: I was scared to work with Fincher, kind of; I had heard that he was an intense guy and sometimes, he yelled at people. I didn't know what to expect but I was really surprised by kind of how gentle and easy-going a guy he is. Oddly enough, I was having a conversation with him and said something to me about having faith about where the world is going and everything. It just struck me as odd from him in a weird way because he has such dark leanings; he's really an enormously optimistic and positive guy. He's obsessive, the film is kind of eating itself because he became obsessed with the case to down to when Arthur Leigh Allen died and they went to his house and gathered all the evidence. There was tape sitting in a cassette player and it was a tape of a child being spanked by Arthur Leigh Allen and it is the most gruesome and you want to kill the guy. Fincher was so obsessed that he knew about this tape, he heard it; his obsession with the movie became the movie itself kind of - he's very, very meticulous.

What are you doing now?

Mark Ruffalo: I just wrapped a movie called Reservation Road that Terry George directed with Joaquin Phoenix; it's about a hit and run, two fathers. I play a guy who hits his son and kills him and runs - a light, jaunty, romantic comedy.

Did you meet Robert Graysmith?

Mark Ruffalo: Yeah, I spent a lot of time with Robert; then, I met Narlow (Det. Ken Narlow). People were coming around as we were shooting, people who weren't in the movie were coming around; I met the guy who was stabbed at Lake Berryessa, I met him and his kids. There were a lot of people who were attached and part of this time. Fincher and (producer) Brad Fischer were doing their best to get all of their stories and really make it an open place for them to come.

Do you think is was Arthur Leigh Allen?

Mark Ruffalo: I keep flopping back and forth; I know they did this genetic test but we don't know that it was his saliva on the back of the stamp. I have seen this guy; he was a bad, bad dude - he was a sociopath. He also wanted people to believe that he was Zodiac. Is it beyond a shadow of a doubt? That's where I'm stuck because there are those little things that don't quite jibe.

Maybe Mark Ruffalo can't really figure it out, but you can decide if it was Arthur Leigh Allen when Zodiac hits the big screen March 2nd; it's rated R.