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Recreating 1970’s San Francisco: Contrasting Approaches

David Fincher and Gus Van Sant take contrasting approaches to recreating the oddest decade of a unique city.

By Mark Christiansen | February 05, 2008


Every day that I cycle from my home into the Presidio I pass through the intersection of Washington and Cherry streets, site of a murder that is the centerpiece of David Fincher's film Zodiac, a film that fabulously recreated the San Francisco of the 1970's. Last weekend I cruised Castro Street (not what you're thinking when you read that) to witness its own fabulous 1970's makeover for Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk, about San Francisco's most famous murder of that era.

There is great irony here: the corner of Washington and Cherry has the timeless quality that goes with old-money upper class neighborhoods, yet Fincher chose not to shoot there at all, instead painstaking recreating the neighborhood as 3D matte paintings and shooting the taxi driver murder in front of a green screen. These allowed them to add period details that perhaps no non-local filmgoer could notice, such as that the street trees would have been 35 years younger - this for a scene that takes place at night.

Castro Street, meanwhile, is as different from its 1970's self as any vibrant commercial tourist destination would be, and yet for Milk, the filmmakers are going back in time using set decoration: redoing the storefronts that have changed hands (you have to hand it to Rossi's Deli for appearing virtually unchanged in 30 years) and repainting the Castro Theater, the cinema that is the neighborhood's visual centerpiece. Hilariously, they have taken the level of detail right down to the real estate listings (in the window depicted below).

In an era when even a romantic comedy has 2-300 digital visual effects shots, what's up? I'd like to hear your suggestions in the comments, but I think it's mostly a question of taste, or even what you might call comfort zone.

Yes, the director of Se7en and Fight Club can afford have an artist or two spend a year of their lives working on one effects shot, a time-lapse of the TransAmerica Pyramid being constructed, even though it's tangential to the storyline at best, so you could follow the money and simply say that Zodiac was a bigger budget film. But locations aren't cheap, especially in high-end coastal cities.

So this is really a study in contrasts. Fincher makes an investigative drama and can't help but insert almost-unreal effects and even motion graphics into the story (at one point the letters from the Zodiac killer occur as three dimensional projections all around the offices of the Chronicle). Van Sant, on the other hand, is an old-school actor-centered independent filmmaker, just the kind who really hates green screens and handing over key shots to digital artists. I don't doubt there will be effects shots in Milk, but it looks like the heavy lifting is happening in "pre," not post.


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Ben: | March, 11, 2008

Awesome post Mark. It’s rare to see visual effects approached from the content perspective rather than just how did the little girl pet the polar bear.

Zodiac and all of Fincher’s films have a sort of commercial gloss to them and all strike me as not being based in a real firm reality. Many of his stories lend themselves to that, and I definitely enjoy them, but somehow the gloss sometimes makes it impossible to fully be engrossed with the emotions of the characters.

I’ll always be in the get it in camera posse. The classic example for me is Natalie Portman’s quote regarding the new Star Wars films, (I’m paraphrasing) “For me, watching those films is sort of like watching a vacation that I don’t remember going on” She spent months in a green room. I’m not an actor, but it seems impossible to connect with what you are portraying when you spend all day staring at green walls. Rather than being immersed in an environment that is real.

Mark Christiansen: | March, 12, 2008

That’s a great response, Ben. Fincher and Star Wars are one extreme, Van Sant might be the other (there are still areas of town being disrupted by the Milk shoot - just last week I was talking to some cyclists about how all of the bike racks around City Hall have been removed because they’re not authentic 1970’s.

Makes me wonder if they’re going to smash windows and overturn police cruisers to recreate the White Night Riots…

Ben: | March, 12, 2008

I love it! Nothing looks cooler than an overturned cop car. I wish they would take it that far.

It’s funny to see movies like 300 where the visuals are beautiful and could only be created with actors in a green room. Yet the real story is so much more interesting. There are incredible details that are real, based on the history, found in Gates of Fire the book based on the real battle.

For example the Spartans in reality never did those gut battle yells. Their opponents did that and they viewed that as a sign of cowardice, if you have to yell and pound your chest to get yourself pumped to fight you are weak. Of course 300 was based on the comic, yet it makes me wonder if having the ability to create your own reality makes it easier to ignore the real details that make the story unique.

It’s awesome to read visual effects posts that take the content of the film into consideration.

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