Andy Burns talks to Awakening The Zodiac director Jonathan Wright
Opening in Toronto for a limited engagement this Friday before its arrival on VOD Tuesday, June 13th, Awakening the Zodiac tells the story of Mick (West) and Zoe (Bibb), a young destitute couple hoping to change their fortune when they partner with paranoid, gun-toting, Gulf War veteran, Harvey (Craven) on a deserted storage locker. The locker’s contents appear to be worthless until Harvey makes a discovery deep inside a piece of furniture: an old 8mm film reel. Curious, they load it into a projector and watch something that will change their lives forever. The forty-year-old footage depicts two gruesome murders taken by the killer himself. Harvey has a strange feeling and realizes two things: Those were murders of the savage Zodiac Killer, the most elusive serial killer in history, and there is a reward of $100,000 for any information leading to his capture. Zodiac is out there, and he’s still killing. Determined to uncover the secrets of the films, Mick, Zoe and Harvey begin their search for the Zodiac.
I had the chance to talk to director Jonathan Wright about Awakening The Zodiac, and the enduring legacy of one of thr 20th centuries most notorious serial killers.
Andy Burns: Jonathan, congrats on Awakening the Zodiac – I really enjoyed the film. What inspired your interest in the Zodiac and making this film?
Jonathan Wright: The thriller is my favourite genre of films. The idea of a person going around murdering random people and taunting the police is absolutely terrifying. The fact that the Zodiac was never caught, and could still be out there sends chills down my spine.
AB: Could you give us a little insight into your creative process – how did you come up with the story, what sort of research went into crafting the screenplay?
JW: When Michael Baker came to me asking to direct this movie, I literally jumped at the chance. We wanted to craft characters and a scenario that we’ve never seen before. The film is procedural, but we didn’t want to make a detective movie. Early research revealed that the San Francisco Police Department still have a $100,000 reward for evidence leading to the arrest of the Zodiac killer. I spent countless hours going through FBI documents and witness accounts which spawned numerous theories about who the killer was and how he operated. I also delved deep into code breaking. The infamous cipher known as the 314 cipher has never been broken and supposedly includes the Zodiac’s true identity.
AB: What was it about Shane West and Leslie Bibb that made them the right choices for Mick and Zoe, respectively?
JW: I truly believe that filmmaking is a collaborative process, and when Shane and Leslie came on board, the first thing we did was incorporate some of their ideas into the characters adding subtext and depth. We spent a lot of time together bonding which I believe creates a free atmosphere on the set allowing artists to be at their best.
AB: Matt Craven’s character of Harvey speaks the language of codebreaking so fluidly – was he familiar with the concept, or was it just great acting?
JW: Matt was incredible. When we first met he showed me his script that was marked up with codes. He studied code breaking and had worked on all of the Zodiac’s ciphers. Matt is also an incredible actor who had to pull off the most exposition in this movie and he pulled it off amazingly.
AB: You have a trio of outstanding Canadian actors in the film – Stephen McHattie, Nicholas Campbell and Kenneth Welsh – how was the experience working with these gentlemen?
JW: All of these characters held so much weight in the story and we wanted to put the best actors possible in those roles. It made my job so much easier just being able to sit back and watch these masterful performances. They were true artists who brought so much to the table and they elevated the film with their nuances. We couldn’t have been any luckier.
AB: Why the choice to film in Ottawa, Ontario?
JW: The locations were all in the country and Ottawa has country mere minutes outside of the city. It was a perfect double for Virginia. They also have amazing crews, including one of the worlds best production designers, Lisa Soper.
AB: I feel it’s worthwhile asking your thoughts on David Fincher’s Zodiac, which is one of my favourite films and one I regard as a new classic. What’s your opinion on the film, and how much, if any time did you spend considering it when creating Awakening the Zodiac?
JW: David Fincher is one of the best directors of all time. I didn’t go back to Fincher’s Zodiac, as our film is fictional and takes place in the present while Fincher’s Zodiac was rooted in facts and took place during the 60’s and 70’s when the actual murders occurred, however, Se7en, another one of Fincher’s masterpieces was very much an inspiration for me in this process.
AB: Having now written and directed a film about Zodiac, I’m wondering what your personal thoughts are on the true story – do you think he could still be out there? Do you have a theory as to who it really was?
JW: I believe it was Arthur Leigh Allen, that helps me sleep at night seeing as he is dead, but there are many theories out there. Some people think that there was three men working together, some think it was two completely separate killers taking credit for all of the murders. There are theories out there of men who are still alive that have never been mentioned in any interviews or research that people think are the Zodiac. Sometimes that keeps me up at night.
AB: What are you working on next?
JW: I’m in the casting stage of a super fun heist movie entitled Reliance.