Zodiac with James Vanderbilt

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This week we’re joined by the excellent James Vanderbilt, screenwriter of the 2007 David Fincher thriller, Zodiac. James has had an impressively eclectic Hollywood career: on top of writing action adventures like White House Down, detective comedies like Murder Mystery, sci-fi sequels like Independence Day 2 and the odd Spider-Man blockbuster or two, he’s also produced horror hits (Slender Man, Ready Or Not) and stepped behind the camera to direct his own gripping historical drama (2015’s Truth). Before all that, though, came this cult smash: a slow-burn dramatisation of the hunt for the most notorious serial killer in American history.
Zodiac was a labour of love. Vanderbilt obsessed over the mysterious murderer’s identity for decades before writing the film, based on the 1986 non-fiction book of the same name by Robert Graysmith. Graysmith was a cartoonist working at the San Francisco Chronicle when a string of gruesome killings across the Bay Area, by one unknown assailant, left the region in a state of panic and paranoia. The killer, known as the Zodiac, wrote cryptic letters to Graysmith’s paper that perplexed police, and sent Graysmith on a personal mission to uncover the killer’s identity. The Zodiac was never caught. Vanderbilt’s film tells the story of Graysmith’s ultimately unsuccessful search for the truth.
If you’re wondering how you write a satisfying thriller in which the killer gets away, don’t worry: James did too. I chatted to James from his home in LA to hear about the conventions he had to break to make this incredible movie, the dizzying amount of research that he and Fincher undertook to make sure they were telling the victims’ stories responsibly, and whether or not he’d ever consider making of sequel of sorts, about the notorious 1970s killer the Son of Sam.
Script Apart is a podcast about the first-draft secrets behind great movies. Each episode, the screenwriter behind a beloved film shares with us their initial screenplay for that movie. We then talk through what changed, what didn’t and why on its journey to the big screen. All proceeds go to Black Minds Matter UK, the NHS Charities Covid-19 Appeal and the Film and TV Charity.
Script Apart is hosted by Al Horner and produced by Kamil Dymek, with music from Stefan Bindley-Taylor. You can follow Script Apart on Twitter and Instagram. You can also email us on thescriptapartpodcast@gmail.com.

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