Friday, May 12, 2017

Awakening the Zodiac Screenwriter Michael Horrigan and Revisiting A Serial Killing Legend: An Interview

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*this interview is a guest post from writer and author Steven G. Farrell.

Awakening the Zodiac, a new feature film thriller directed by Jonathan Wright, is set to be released in American theaters in June. The movie brings the notorious Zodiac Killer out of retirement after an almost five-decade-long hiatus from his murdering spree that accounted for the death of at least five people and the serious wounding of two victims, who survived his bullets and knife stabs.

The Zodiac bestowed upon himself his astrological moniker in his taunting letters to the police and newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times. “This is the Zodiac speaking,” became the serial killer’s infamous catchphrase that served as his eye-catching hook to his grandiose missives that sometimes included codes that promised to reveal his identity. He even boasted to having killed 37 people.

The Zodiac specialty was attacking young lovers in secluded area. His first attack occurred on December 20, 1968 in Vallejo, California. David Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen, high-schoolers on their first date, were shot to death on Lake Herman Road. The madman waited half a year before attacking another couple, Darlene Ferrin and Mike Magneau, on Blue Rock Spring Road, on July 4, 1969, shooting them as they sat inside of a car. Mike survived and described the attacker as being short, stocky, in the age range of 25-35, with short, blond curly hair. Minutes after the assault, the Zodiac had the audacity to report the crime to the police himself. Verbally taking credit for his "hits” became part of this criminal’s mode of operation.

The most nightmarish of the Zodiac’s blood orgies occurred on September 29, 1969. The scene involved two college students, Cecelia Shepard and Bryan Hartnell, sharing a picnic at Berryessa National Park, when they were approached by a man in a black mask and a homemade costume with a personalized crosshair crest across his chest. Most importantly, the man held a gun in his hand. The terror-stricken couple actually engaged the lunatic in conversation before he ordered the young woman to tie up the young man with clothes line rope that he had been carrying on his side. Then the Zodiac tied up the woman before he stabbed the couple repeatedly with what was described by police a hunting knife. Once again, the male in the attack survived, and he described the suspect as being of average height with a heavy-build. Before fleeing the park, the Zodiac scribbled a message on Bryan’s automobile door, tallying up his murder score, as well as listing his tools of destruction.

The fourth canonical attack of the Zodiac occurred in the Presidio Heights neighborhood of San Francisco on October 12, 1969, a mere 13 days after his last slaughter. The final proven act of violence for the Zodiac appears to have been a rather mundane event as he shot an unfortunate taxi cab driver, Paul Stine, in the back of the head. The butchery, however, bore the signature of the Zodiac as he tore off part of the driver’s shirt that so he could mail a piece of it to the police to prove that the deed was his own.

The Zodiac sent letters and cards to various newspapers, including the San Francisco Times-Herald and the San Francisco Examiner, until March 13, 1971. The correspondence dried up and the Zodiac went underground, remaining silent until 1974. For reasons of his own, the Zodiac felt compelled to comment about two movies: The Exorcist and Badlands before slipping back into permanent retirement. Almost 50 years later, the Zodiac’s identity remains a mystery.

There are numerous websites on the internet that are dedicated to all things pertaining to the Zodiac, including lists of Person of Interest by amateur Zodiac hunters. One only has to go to Amazon.com to see that there are a slew of books concerning the Zodiac. In fact, Robert Graysmith’s best-selling book Zodiac Unmasked (Berkley, 2002). Graysmith’s prime suspect. Allen, a former school teacher, seems to have been on the police radar as the man behind the mask as early as 1969, but he was never been charged with the crimes because of the lack of hard evidence. Many of the top Zodiac hunters believe that Allen, who died in 1992, was the wrong man because his fingerprints, DNA and handwriting weren’t a match for what the police had on file for the Zodiac. Allen declared his innocence in a television interview.

Michael Horrigan, a writer from Ottawa Canada, decided to write a fictional account of the Zodiac using the hypothetical question of what would happen if an old “snuff” film made by the Zodiac put three people back on the trail of serial killer, in hopes of earning the $100,000 award still fixed to his head? Shane West and Leslie Bibb play Mick and Zoe Branson, the young couple who join forces with their friend Harry, played by Matt Craven, to find the maker of the film depicting the Zodiac in murderous action. Soon the hunters become the hunted as we hear the famous catchphrase once again: “This is the Zodiac speaking.”

I recently posted a comment on Facebook about how I was looking forward to seeing Awakening the Zodiac. Luckily, Michael Horrigan is a friend of a friend and he commented that he was the scriptwriter for the movie. I rapidly took the opportunity to send him some questions about the project.

(Steven G. Farrell) What sparked your interest in the Zodiac Killer?

(Michael Horrigan) I have always been interested in the Zodiac Killer, most serial killers, actually. I wouldn’t call it an obsession but I have always found them to be fascinating, as well as horrifying. The brutality and brashness of the Zodiac’s murder spree, combined with the clues and ciphers he left behind, it’s all very interesting to me. Add on the fact that he taunted the police throughout and used the press to shine a spotlight on what he was doing, it was pure sensationalism.

(SGF) Would you give us some insight on the research you did in preparation for your screenplay?

(MH) Awakening the Zodiac was highly influenced by my research of Zodiac suspect, Rick Marshall. He worked as a projectionist in San Francisco during the '70s. That got me thinking and I started to imagine what it would be like if Marshall was truly the Zodiac Killer, then I wondered if he would’ve attempted to film some of his murders.

That’s how I came up with the concept for Awakening the Zodiac and that was the hook, what if the Zodiac Killer really did film some of his murders and decades later someone else stumbled across them; just imagine if that someone was you. That really got my juices flowing and I started researching more about the Zodiac Killer’s victims and how to work some of the murders into the movie, through the use of film reels.

(SGF) Did you have the opportunity to visit the various Zodiac murder sites in Vallejo, Napa, Berryessa and San Francisco?

(MH) I have not but I would find that very interesting, especially now.

(SGF) Which of the four canonical Zodiac attacks influenced you the most in the development of your script? Please connect them the possibility that the Zodiac and an accomplice actually filmed the attacks to make their own homemade “snuff films.”

(MH) The Lake Herman Road double murder of Betty Lou Jensen and David Faraday influenced me greatly. I can’t say much about the possibility of the Zodiac and an accomplice, not at this time, but I will say that the thought has crossed my mind.

(SGF) Why was this movie filmed in Ottawa, Canada?

(MH) Ottawa is very close to Toronto and it was easy to get a solid team together to make this movie. Producer Michael Baker (Bunk11 Pictures) really put together a great group of people to make this happen. We also have many different areas in Ottawa that can double for various locations, anything from big city landscapes to beautiful, open rural areas that could be mistaken for Virginia. You get to see a lot of great locations in Awakening the Zodiac and the team really took advantage of what Ottawa has to offer in that regard.

(SGF) Do you think Awakening the Zodiac could illicit a response from the Zodiac?

(MH) I would certainly hope not, at least not a violent one. Now, if he sent a message to the press about the Awakening the Zodiac, that would be chilling. I haven’t really entertained that thought very much.

(SGF) Did you encounter any “creepy” vibes during the development of your concept? Any “weird” occurrences during the actual shoot?

(MH) While developing the concept I dug too deep as I’m sure most writers do, and I couldn’t get some of the images out of my head for quite some time. Not so much crime scene photos, but the thought of someone being bound and stabbed to death, perceived images if you will. It’s not a place you want to linger.

Jonathan Wright, the director of Awakening the Zodiac, also wrote the final screenplay used for the movie. I was fortunate enough to have been on set for most of the shoot and I would love to offer you some creepy story, but I personally don’t have one. The crew was great and things were kept rather light.

(SGF) What’s next for you?

(MH) I recently signed a contract with Zero Gravity Management in Los Angeles and they are currently shopping my next thriller. I can’t say much about it but I can tell you that it’s an original thriller and the opening hook will grab audiences everywhere. Also, I have a thriller entitled Malignant, which is optioned by executive producer John J. Kelly (Deadpool, SPY, 127 Hours, Warriors).

Malignant is about a brilliant surgeon and what she does when she finds her husband dead while his mistress remains handcuffed to their bed, very much alive. We’re hoping Malignant goes into production late 2017.

For more on the film, a review of Awakening the Zodiac is here:

Awakening the Zodiac Review on 28DLA

A trailer for Awakening the Zodiac is here: Awakening the Zodiac Trailer on 28DLA

Please visit the Celtic Badger, to find more of Steven G. Farrell's writings, here:

Farrell at the Celtic Badger


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