In 2006 the acclaimed novelist Megan Abbott (Die a Little, The Song Is You, Queenpin) asked her colleague Eddie Muller to contribute to a collection of short noir fiction that she was editing, titled A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir. Although he was flattered to be one of the few male contributors, Muller struggled with his story for so long that he almost missed the deadline. It wasn't until he switched the gender of the male protagonist, using an idea that he'd carried around for almost two years -- "The Man Who Walked In Dead Men's Shoes" -- that the tale suddenly came to life.
A couple of years earlier, two of Muller's friends, the Bay Area booksellers Heather Mahan and James Silva, invited him into the back room of their store to examine a box of recently acquired books. After perusing the eclectic and crazily notated texts for 15 head-spinning minutes, the eager proprietors asked him for his assessment.
"I think these may have belonged to the Zodiac Killer," Muller said.
"Exactly what we thought!"
Silva was so convinced that he contacted both the San Francisco and Vallejo police departments, in whose jurisdictions the legendary killer is known to have committed murders. Neither agency chose to follow up, citing the "evidence" as too circumstantial.
THE SHORT STORY
Although no official investigation of a new Zodiac suspect ever got off the ground, it pointed to an intriguing and previously unexplored idea: What if the Zodiac Killer was married? After changing his protagonist into a young woman, Muller sent her off with a bag of books slung over her chipped shoulder. She had a dark childhood secret eating at her, and she didn't care if the cops thought she was crazy. She'd prove them wrong. And the only way to do it was to ring the doorbell of Mrs. Hazel Reedy -- who may or may not be the widow of the most legendary unapprehended serial killer of our time.
THE FILM VERSION
Almost as soon as Muller finished writing The Grand Inquisitor in April 2007, the story was being discussed as a possible film project. Abbott, its first reader, was thrilled by its cinematic potential. Jonathan Marlow, Muller's San Francisco film colleague, read the story and said: "When do we start shooting?" Because the entire piece involves only two characters in one location, it seemed eminently economically feasible. Leah Dashe, a 24-year-old actress who had appeared in a local play Muller had written, was the writer's first and only choice for the role of the intrepid young investigator.
It was Marlow's inspired idea to send the story to the venerable 90-year-old Hollywood actress Marsha Hunt. Just two months earlier Hunt had been Muller's guest of honor at his annual NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco, where she had amazed a full opening night audience at the Castro Theater with her ageless charm, wit, and beauty.
The character of Hazel Reedy, however, called for none of those qualities. If anything, Muller was afraid that the story's inexorable slide into the macabre and its strange, shocking conclusion might scare Hunt off.
"Eddie, I have some reservations about it," the actress said via telephone after reading the story. Muller was afraid she'd never speak to him again.
"I have to smoke an awful lot in this story. Any way we can get around that? I'd appreciate it," said Hunt. "Other than that, I love this character. When are we going to start?"
The Grand Inquisitor was filmed in six days in Alameda, California, in late July 2007. One of the most daunting preproduction challenges was finding a house that conformed exactly to the floor plan in Muller's story. As he was preparing to scout locations all over the Bay Area based on neighborhood demographics and architectural styles, his wife, Kathleen Milne, looked out their second-story window into the gathering dusk.
"What about Kaye's house?" she said. "Isn't she in Utah?"
Finding the ideal location only two doors away from their own home is just one of the reasons that Milne is the executive producer of The Grand Inquisitor.
Special arrangements were made with the Screen Actors Guild to allow Marsha Hunt to work for less than scale, since the film qualified for SAG's low-budget production exemption. Hunt flew in by herself from Southern California and Dashe from New York, where she had moved just one month before. The two actresses constituted a story in themselves, and a study in generational contrasts: Hunt, a Hollywood-trained charter member of SAG since 1937, and Dashe (UC Berkeley class of 2005), a neophyte making her film debut and hoping to score a SAG card for her efforts.
"There was so much to learn from watching Marsha perform," Dashe said. "Sometimes I just wanted to stand back and watch, just soak it all in. Then I'd snap out of it and remember I was acting with her. It was a challenge, and I feel I responded. I'm incredibly fortunate to have gotten a crash course in film acting with this remarkable woman."
Hunt ended up describing the filming, compressed shooting schedule and all, as "one of the most satisfying experiences of my career."
"Despite her having to smoke an entire carton of Pall Malls," Muller quickly adds.