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15 Killer Facts About Zodiac

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“This is the Zodiac speaking …”

So began one of the first cryptic letters from one of history’s most notorious murderers, whose identity remains unknown but whose story was brilliantly immortalized onscreen in David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. The unsung masterpiece about a serial killer in 1960s San Francisco who manages to evade police, all while sending taunting letters to the media to further promote his agenda, just celebrated its 10-year anniversary. We’re no closer to solving the mystery of the Zodiac’s identity, but we can solve the mystery of how Fincher and his collaborators—including stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr.—created one of the greatest procedural thrillers ever made.

Here are 15 facts to help you decode Zodiac.

1. ZODIAC COULD HAVE BEEN A DISNEY MOVIE.

Disney owned the rights to former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist and author Robert Graysmith’s source material and tried to make the film for over a decade before the rights to the books, 1986’s Zodiac and 2002’s Zodiac Unmasked, lapsed back to Graysmith in the mid-2000s. According to This is the Zodiac Speaking, the feature-length documentary found on the Blu-ray release, that gave screenwriter James Vanderbilt and producer Bradley Fischer the opportunity to approach Graysmith themselves to option the books to potentially make a film without the Mouse House.

2. IT WAS A FAX THAT GOT PRODUCTION STARTED.

According to the same Blu-ray documentary, Graysmith informed Vanderbilt and Fischer that he was personally taking pitches from a handful of filmmakers now that he owned the rights to his books again, but only via a fax number through a local Kinko’s. The pair built their pitch—which Vanderbilt described as asking, "What if Garry Trudeau woke up one morning and tried to solve the Son of Sam"?—and eventually won the rights to make the film after they successfully sent the fax.

Vanderbilt explained that, “Getting to know Robert during this process was actually invaluable because the script changed as we became friends; and very rarely in order to make him look better. Robert truly invited us into his life warts and all, and that’s how I think we ended up portraying him onscreen.”

3. DAVID FINCHER AGREED TO DIRECT THE FILM BECAUSE OF ANOTHER UNSOLVED MURDER.

After directing the 2002 thriller Panic Room, starring Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart, Fincher began work on a five-hour, $80 million miniseries adaptation of author James Ellroy’s true crime novel The Black Dahlia. That project, chronicling the infamous unsolved 1947 murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, eventually fell through (it was later made into a 2006 feature film by Brian De Palma). But according to This is the Zodiac Speaking, Fincher’s newly minted freedom led Vanderbilt and Fischer to approach him about directing Zodiac because it dealt with similar, noir-tinged police procedural themes.

4. FINCHER HAD A PERSONAL CONNECTION TO THE ZODIAC STORY.

In addition to having an interest in the Zodiac Killer’s story from a filmmaking perspective, Fincher had a personal connection to the story, too. Though the director was born in Denver in 1962, his family relocated to California when he was two years old—just a few years before the Zodiac committed his first murder. So he grew up fearing the serial killer.

“I grew up in Marin and now I know the geography of where the crimes took place, but when you’re in grade school, children don’t think about that,” Fincher said in the film’s production notes. “They think, ‘He’s going to show up at our school.’”

In an interview with The New York Times, Fincher recalled that what drew him to Zodiac was the same thing that drew him to Se7en: the fear that you never knew what the people around you were capable of. “That’s what Zodiac was for a 7-year-old growing up in San Anselmo,” Fincher said. “He was the ultimate bogeyman.”

5. FINCHER, VANDERBILT, AND FISCHER CONDUCTED THEIR OWN INVESTIGATIONS.

Once Fincher was on board, he, Vanderbilt, and Fischer agreed to develop further drafts of the screenplay to emphasize fact over fiction. They spent months poring over police documents and interviewing witnesses, investigators, and the case’s two surviving victims: Mike Mageau and Bryan Hartnell.

“It was really quite simple,” Fischer said of their approach. “Let’s find everyone we can who was materially involved in the investigation, and let’s sit down across from them, look them in the eye, ask them direct and sometimes difficult questions, and then hear what they have to say ... We did our best to get it right.”

“I said, ‘I won’t use anything in this book that we don’t have a police report for,’” Fincher told The New York Times. “There’s an enormous amount of hearsay in any circumstantial case, and I wanted to look some of these people in the eye and see if I believed them.”

6. THE ONSCREEN KILLER IS HORRIFICALLY EXACT.

Fincher wanted absolute verisimilitude in depicting the Zodiac attacks, so the only time the killer appears onscreen is during incidents where there are on-the-record survivors or witnesses to the real-life events. This includes the opening attack on Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau at Blue Rock Springs, the attack on Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepherd at Lake Berryessa, and the killing of taxi driver Paul Stine at Washington and Cherry Streets in San Francisco.

Survivors Mageau and Hartnell were consultants on the film, as was retired San Francisco Police Department inspector David Toschi (who was played by Mark Ruffalo in the movie).

7. IT WAS JENNIFER ANISTON WHO SUGGESTED JAKE GYLLENHAAL AND MARK RUFFALO FOR THE FILM.

Because of his perfectionism, Fincher had difficulty finding actors to portray Graysmith and Toschi. But Jennifer Aniston, who at the time was married to Brad Pitt—whom Fincher had worked with on Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—suggested two of her former co-stars for the lead roles.

In Fincher’s Blu-ray commentary, he shared how Aniston—who had worked with Gyllenhaal in 2002’s The Good Girl and Mark Ruffalo in 2005’s Rumor Has It—recommended them for Graysmith and Toschi, respectively. Fincher, in turn, loved Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko and Ruffalo in Collateral, and agreed to cast them in the parts.

8. THE CAST LEARNED TO ENDURE FINCHER’S LEGENDARY MULTIPLE TAKES.

Fincher has an infamous habit of demanding many, many takes for particular scenes. His work on Zodiac was no different, which proved to be a challenge for the three main actors, all of whom were Fincher rookies.

“You get your chance to prove what you can do. You get a take, five takes, 10 takes. Some places, 90 takes,” Gyllenhaal told The New York Times. “But there is a stopping point. There’s a point at which you go, ‘That’s what we have to work with.’ But we would reshoot things. So there came a point where I would say, well, what do I do? Where’s the risk?”

The typically sarcastic Robert Downey Jr., who played San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, told the Times, “I just decided, aside from several times I wanted to garrote him, that I was going to give [Fincher] what he wanted. I think I’m a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags.”

Ruffalo, however, seemed a bit more gung-ho—at least in retrospect—telling the Times: “You can put your expectations aside and have an experience that’s new and pushes and changes you, or hold onto what you think it should be and have a stubborn, immovable journey that’s filled with disappointment and anger.”

9. THE ZODIAC KILLER WAS PLAYED BY SEVERAL ACTORS.

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After the Zodiac first demanded that his ciphers be printed in national newspapers, one of his last known letters asked, “I am waiting for a good movie about me. Who will play me?” The answer, at least in Fincher’s movie, is three actors—or, depending on who you think the Zodiac Killer was, maybe four.

As a way to keep the image of the Zodiac a mystery onscreen, he is played by three actors: John Lacy, Richmond Arquette, and Bob Stephenson. If you think Arthur Leigh Allen is the Zodiac, then actor John Carroll Lynch is the fourth individual to play the Zodiac in the movie.

10. ALL OF THE GORE WAS CREATED IN POST-PRODUCTION.

The filmmakers didn’t have to worry about using squibs or fake blood packets for particularly bloody scenes on-set. To recreate murders scenes as accurately and quickly as possible while shooting the movie, all blood and gore was created using CGI in post-production.

This allowed the filmmakers to dial back or go all-out on bloody fingerprints or blood spills as needed, and saved time and budget on costuming that would have been wasted if Fincher wanted to continually shoot multiple takes of these scenes.

But the gruesome imagery took its toll on members of the digital team, like Eric Barba, the visual effects supervisor for Digital Domain, the company responsible for 200-plus effects shots for Zodiac. "I think because we are so desensitized to overly violent cinema that when you actually make violence authentic it's harder hitting," Barba told the Los Angeles Times. "This isn't a film where the body count piles up for fun. The murders have a point. We have feelings for these people."

11. THE COSTUMES ARE SPOT-ON.

Costume designer Casey Storm was granted unprecedented access to police evidence photos for reference in recreating the costumes of the Zodiac’s victims and witnesses.

These included victim Darlene Ferrin’s blue floral jumpsuit and survivor Mike Mageau’s actual July 4th ensemble, which included wearing three pairs of pants, four sweaters, a wool shirt, and a T-shirt all at the same time. The Zodiac’s executioner’s hood was recreated from Lake Berryessa survivor Bryan Hartnell’s personal recollections.

“There’s something a little morbid about it,” Storm explained, “but at the same time, because we are dealing with a true story, it was important to Fincher that we be sensitive to the facts and those involved.”

12. THE MOVIE BROKE NEW GROUND IN DIGITAL MOVIEMAKING.

Zodiac was one of the first feature-length motion pictures to be primarily shot using a digital camera. Certain slow motion scenes—including one during the Blue Rock Springs opening—were shot on film, but the rest was photographed using a Thomson Viper Filmstream camera, which Fincher previously used for shooting commercials.

The decision wasn’t meant to be some sort of revolutionary move to introduce what is now a nearly ubiquitous moviemaking method. Instead, Fincher simply hated how long it took to process daily film footage. “I liked the process of working digitally and I didn’t like waiting until the next day to see what I had shot,” Fincher explained.

Similarly, Zodiac was one of the first feature movies to be edited using the inexpensive consumer software program Final Cut Pro.

13. WHEN FINCHER COULDN’T SHOOT IN SAN FRANCISCO, HE BUILT THE CITY IN A COMPUTER.

Some scenes from the film were shot on location in San Francisco, but the scene where Toschi investigates the Paul Stine murder at the corner of Washington and Cherry Streets couldn’t be used in real life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the area has changed significantly since the incident in 1969—and local residents weren’t anxious to attract attention while the production recreated a killing in their neighborhood. So Fincher shot the entire six-minute sequence on a soundstage using moveable, bluescreen panels.

San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood was then composited in final shots using detailed drawings created by production designer Donald Graham Burt, matte paintings, and a series of high definition photographs of the area. The only details in the shot that aren’t CGI are the actors, the taxicab and cars, and the street curbside.

14. TO GET THE LAKE BERRYESSA SHOT JUST RIGHT, THEY HAD TO FLY IN SOME OAK TREES.

Like the corner of Washington and Cherry, the Lake Berryessa location changed over time and had to be retrofitted to look like it did on the day of the attack, specifically the oak trees the Zodiac used to hide behind before he accosted Bryan Hartnell and Cecilia Shephard. But Fincher didn’t use CGI this time.

“When we got there, there was a little spit of land like a little peninsula that jutted out into the water,” Donald Graham Burt explained. “The oak trees the killer hid behind were gone. We had to helicopter in two huge oak trees. We drilled holes in a piece of the land and hauled in some water so they wouldn’t die. We set them up for three or four days before filming knowing they would only have a few days.” Fischer called the trees “an expensive prop.”

15. FINCHER WANTED TO INCLUDE A TWO-MINUTE MONTAGE SHOWING NOTHING.

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Image

Film is obviously a visual medium, but to show the passage of time at one point in Zodiac, Fincher envisioned a two-minute audio montage over a black screen that included nothing but hit songs and period-appropriate audio clips to move the story from the 1960s into the 1970s. The director had final cut on the film, but agreed to excise the blackout montage due to studio pressure over the runtime of the movie approaching three hours.

Instead, the blacked-out title card in the theatrical cut simply reads, “Four Years Later.” The full audio montage can still be seen (or heard) in the Director’s Cut available on home video.

Additional source: Zodiac Blu-ray special features

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The Terrible Crime at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin 
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright
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Some of the most horrific murders in Wisconsin history involved none other than famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright was in the middle of building a home, which he named Taliesin, for himself and his mistress in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He had recently left his wife and six children for Martha "Mamah" Borthwick, whose husband Edwin Cheney had commissioned Wright to build a house in Oak Park, Illinois. Cheney may have a gained a Frank Lloyd Wright house, but he lost his wife—Mamah and Wright became close, even traveling to Europe together, sans spouses, in 1909. The Cheneys divorced in 1911; Wright’s divorce would take more than another decade to be finalized.

On August 15, 1914, Wright was away attending to the construction of Midway Gardens in Chicago when he got a terrible message. “Taliesin destroyed by fire,” it read, and that was all. For the time being, at least, Wright was spared the details: Their servant, Julian Carlton, had attacked Mamah, her children, and Taliesin workmen, pouring gasoline under the door and setting the home ablaze. When some of the victims broke windows and tried to escape, Carlton hacked at them from outside of the house with a hatchet.

The Ogden Standard, September 5, 1914
A news account of the tragedy, September 5, 1914
Library of Congress // Public Domain

While precise accounts of the crime vary, according to biographer William Drennan, Carlton first killed Mamah and her two children, 8-year-old Martha and 12-year-old John, while they were eating lunch on a porch, bludgeoning them with a hatchet. Once Carlton had taken care of them, he went to a dining room where the workmen were eating, locked them in, and set fire to the place.

In the end, eight people died—seven victims and the murderer himself. The victims included Mamah and her children, draftsman Emil Brodelle, gardener David Lindblom, handyman Tom Brunker, and Ernest Weston, the son of carpenter William Weston.

The murderer didn’t die right away, though. He swallowed hydrochloric acid soon after the attack, and died of starvation about seven weeks later. Despite being questioned, Carlton never did give a motive for his killing spree. There’s some evidence to suggest a series of disputes with the workers, however, and that Carlton had recently been told he was being terminated.

Taliesin
Taliesin as it looks today
edward stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As for the absolutely devastated Frank Lloyd Wright, he rebuilt Taliesin in Mamah’s honor. The land may have been cursed, however, because this second reincarnation of the house was also destroyed by fire. In 1925, a lightning storm apparently ignited the wiring, sparking a conflagration that eventually burned the house down. Not one to be deterred, Wright built Taliesin III on the same spot. Today, the home is open for tours and events.

A version of this story originally ran in 2011.

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8 Animals That Have Been Imprisoned or Arrested
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It might seem like a case of animals just being animals, but when eight donkeys in northern India recently ate nearly $1000 worth of greenery in their small town, they did four days in the big house. (Perhaps part of the problem? They ate expensive saplings that were planted right near the jail. Rookie mistake.) But whether they harmed property or people, were in cahoots with human outlaws, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, these eight other critters are proof that "crime" can sometimes be cuddly.

1. THE PIGEON THAT WAS ARRESTED ON SUSPICION OF ESPIONAGE.

In 2015, officials in India arrested a pigeon they suspected was a spy. The bird’s body was stamped with a message written partly in Urdu—Pakistan’s official language—and what appeared to be a Pakistani phone number. It had landed in a village close to the country’s shared border with Pakistan, near the Kashmir region that’s claimed by both countries and has been the subject of multiple wars between India and Pakistan beginning in 1947. Though there was a ceasefire in 1972 (the current situation is that India controls 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan 35 percent, and China 20 percent), because both countries believe they have rights to the area, it's frequently the site of military clashes and infiltration.

So when a 14-year-old boy found the suspicious-looking pigeon so close to Kashmir, he turned it over to authorities. The officials took it to a veterinary hospital for x-rays, and though they couldn’t find any concrete evidence of foreign fowl play, they kept the bird in custody, recording it as a “suspected spy” in their police diary.

That said, not everyone took the news as seriously as the Indian police did: In the days following the bird’s arrest, Pakistani social media was flooded with memes depicting the feathered detainee as a slick 007 type, and amused internet users coined hashtags like #PigeonVsIndia and #IfIWereAPigeon.

2. THE BEAVER THAT WAS APPREHENDED FOR A DESTRUCTIVE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING SESSION.

In December 2016, a wild beaver must have decided that forest trees weren’t festive enough, because it wandered into a dollar store in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to browse Christmas trees and decorations. Workers noticed the animal knocking items onto the floor, and called the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office.

Captain Yingling of the sheriff's office arrived on scene to prevent the "shopping" beaver from ruining the store. “The suspect attempted to flee the area but was apprehended by Animal Control,” the sheriff's department joked on their Facebook page.

Instead of allowing the beaver to finish up its holiday shopping, the St. Mary's County Sheriff handed the critter over to a wildlife rehab center. As for the police, they said the quirky incident just marked another day on the job: “As a law enforcement officer, you just never know what your next call may be...” they mused on Facebook.

3. THE FOUL-MOUTHED PARROT IN INDIA THAT WAS ARRESTED FOR REPEATEDLY INSULTING HIS OWNER'S STEPMOTHER.

In 2015, police in the Indian state of Maharashtra taught a foul-mouthed parrot named Hariyal a lesson in politeness after they “arrested” it for swearing at an elderly woman named Janabai. According to locals, the pet bird had picked up the rude habit from Janabi’s stepson, Suresh Sakharkar. The two were embroiled in an ugly property dispute, and the latter had reportedly spent the prior two years training Hariyal to spout epithets whenever the estranged relation walked past his house.

The situation escalated, and Janabi, Suresh, and his bird were eventually called to the police station. “Police should investigate and seize the parrot,” the embittered stepmother told Indian news channel Zee News. That said, Hariyal must have known he was in hot water, because he kept his beak shut. “We watched the parrot carefully but it did not utter a word at the police station after being confronted by the complainant,” a police inspector told reporters.

Instead of locking Hariyal up, officials gave the parrot over to Maharashtra’s forestry department, where he can presumably fly—and curse—freely for the remainder of his life.

4. THE SQUIRREL THAT WAS ARRESTED FOR "STALKING" A GERMAN WOMAN.

While walking down the street in the West German city of Bottrop in 2015, a woman realized that she had attracted a furry stalker: a tiny red squirrel. The animal was chasing her and acting aggressively. Frightened and unable to flee the rodent, the woman called the police for help. Authorities captured the squirrel, “arrested” it, and brought it back to the station. There, they discovered that the critter was suffering from exhaustion.

Police helped nurse the squirrel back to health by feeding it honey, and a spokesman said the squirrel would be sent to a rescue center instead of languishing away in a cell for its stalkerish habits.

5. THE BAD MONKEYS IN INDIA THAT WERE IMPRISONED IN "MONKEY JAIL."

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In 2004, a rogue monkey became infamous for terrorizing residents of the city of Patiala, in India’s northern Punjab region. The monkey was guilty of multiple crimes: It stole food from homes, ripped the buttons off people's shirts, threatened kids with bricks, and once even swiped someone’s math textbooks and calculator. To keep the marauding jungle creature off the streets, officials sentenced it to “monkey jail”—a now-defunct detainment center in Patiala that was reserved for ill-behaving primates.

The “monkey jail"—which appears to have operated from 1996 until the mid-2000s—was located in the corner of a local zoo. The 15-foot-wide barred cell was secured with chain-link fencing and wire mesh, and had a sign that read: "These monkeys have been caught from various cities of Punjab. They are notorious. Going near them is dangerous."

Punjab is filled with countless wild Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) monkeys. Some of the animals have moved into cities and towns in search of food, as humans continue to destroy their natural jungle habitat. Others were once used as animal guards, or trained as performing monkeys, and were set loose by their owners once they turned violent. Particularly ill-treated or mischievous primates have been known to destroy property and pester—or even attack—humans. But since Hindus revere Hanuman, the monkey god, killing the creatures is verboten.

Wildlife officers in Punjab took matters into their own hands by opening the monkey jail. They responded to public complaints by capturing the creatures with trapping cages and tranquilizer guns. Once the monkeys were locked up, there was little to no chance of "parole."

As of 2004, there were 13 jailed monkeys, all imprisoned for harassing people or committing petty crimes. Patiala’s primate penitentiary was eventually closed, and authorities announced it was going to be replaced by “reform school" that's intended to train the monkeys to be less aggressive.

6. THE CAT WHO WAS DETAINED FOR HELPING OUT WITH A PRISON BREAK.

On New Year’s Day 2013, a cat took the heat for scheming Brazilian inmates who were likely either planning a jailbreak or attempting to communicate with outlaws on the outside. The white feline was slinking around the main gates of a medium-security prison in Arapiraca—a city in northeast Brazil—when guards noticed that its body was wrapped in tape. They apprehended the kitty, and discovered that it was carrying items including several saws and drills, an earphone, a memory card, batteries, and a phone charger.

Prison officer Luiz de Oliveira Souza told reporters that the cat had been seen entering and exiting the jail before. It had been raised by inmates, and was often in the custody of one of their families. However, officials couldn’t figure out which of the jail’s 263 prisoners had tried to use the feline for their own nefarious purposes: “It’s tough to find out who’s responsible for the action as the cat doesn’t speak,” a prison spokesperson told local newspaper Estado de S.Paulo.

Following the cat’s “arrest” and brief imprisonment, it was taken to a local animal shelter to receive medical treatment.

7. THE TOUGH PRISON PET THAT WAS ACTUALLY A VERY GOOD BOY.

Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Unlike some animals on this list, Pep the dog was a very good boy. But in 1924, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced the dark-haired Labrador to a life sentence without parole. Pep was taken to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, where officials jokingly gave him his own inmate number and mug shot. Reporters nicknamed the canine "Pep The Cat-Murdering Dog," as he was said to have killed the governor’s wife’s cat.

Thanks to all the media hype, Pep had quite the tough reputation. But a few years after the canine’s imprisonment, the governor’s wife, Cornelia Pinchot, set the story straight in an interview with The New York Times. Turns out, Pep had never murdered her pet feline; her family simply bred Labradors, and owned too many dogs. Pep, she said, was a gift to the prisoners to lift their spirits.

Today, researchers say that partisan journalists twisted the facts around, and that Pep was actually a beloved prison pet that freely wandered the hallways and was adored by all. As for the "life sentence without parole" part, the Lab was eventually moved to a newer prison; when he died, he was buried on its grounds.

8. THE FEISTY DONKEY IN MEXICO THAT WAS LOCKED UP TO SETTLE A SCORE.

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In 2008, police in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas arrested a feisty donkey named Blacky after it bit a man in the chest, and kicked a second man trying to rescue him. Police apprehended the burro and locked it in the jail’s drunk tank. “Around here, if someone commits a crime they are jailed, no matter who they are,” said Officer Sinar Gomez.

Police said that the donkey would remain behind bars until its owner, Mauro Gutierrez, paid the injured parties’ medical bills and salary for the days they missed work. The boisterous burro served three days in jail, and Gutierrez settled the score by paying Blacky's victims.

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