It feels like only yesterday we were talking about the back-and-forths on casting, but at long last, David Fincher's take on best-selling Swedish crime novel "The GIrl With The Dragon Tattoo," the first of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, is in theaters. Following investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and bisexual, semi-autistic computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), as they team up to investigate a decades-old disappearance of a girl, and a serial killer linked to the case, it's been an unlikely choice of Christmas blockbuster, but signs are it's going to do just fine at the box office, even given its lengthy running time and hard R-rating.
Below are some highlights from the film's press conference (our own interview with Fincher is here), which took place this past weekend with the director, Zaillian and stars Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, in which they go into detail about their approach to the source material, characters and the task of adapting the popular novel for the big screen.
As the helmer of "A Civil Action" and "Searching For Bobby Fischer," among others, Zaillian has plenty of directing experience himself, but he says he doesn't find it too hard to cede control to someone like Fincher or his "Moneyball" director Bennett Miller. "I approach writing a script the same way whether I'm going to direct it or not," the screenwriter said. "I can’t help but see the movie in my head while I’m writing, I can’t write about it if I don’t, so in a way I’ve already directed it myself. But when I find out somebody like David is going to do it, I think, okay, I can relax. It’s not going to change the writing, but I know it’s going to turn out well. I like working with strong directors and directors that have a strong point of view. He’s also a director that…he doesn’t go in and improvise scenes. He shoots it in his own very precise and stylish way...I prefer to hand the script over and go the other way. At that point it becomes the actors' and the director's and the crew's project. I hand it over and emotionally I go off to something else."
Zaillian might have adapted a novel here, but actually prefers working on non-fiction, which gives him more of an opportunity to shape the narrative.
Zaillian's become best-known for his adaptation work over the years, from "Schindler's List" to blockbusters by Tom Clancy and Thomas Harris. But in fact, his creative juices really get fired up by the trickier work of turning a non-fiction story, like "Moneyball," into a screenplay: "Most of the books that I’ve adapted are, they’re not as cinematic as this one is, or the narrative isn’t as clear in it. I like a lot of non-fiction, for example 'Searching For Bobby Fischer' was a collection of essays, 'Awakenings' was really case studies and a philosophy of something, and I like that. I like being able to create the narrative in the subject of something that’s been written about. This is a slightly different animal because there was a very clear narrative to it."
Most had assumed that, when a Hollywood version was announced so close to the relatively widely seen Swedish take, that Fincher and co. would move the film to the States, but in fact, neither the studio nor the director ever suggested it. "It was never presented to me to try to figure out a way to transfer this to the United States," says Fincher, who believed that there was something intrinsic to the Scandinavian setting. "They were extremely supportive of shooting in Sweden. I mean if you have a 40-something reporter and his 20-something girlfriend you can’t transport that to upstate Connecticut, it’s a difficult thing, it ends up being a different story. So it seemed to me that it was in Sweden. It felt very much…when you’re in Stockholm and drive out of this cosmopolitan city, un-pockmarked by the Second World War, you are 15 minutes out of downtown and you’re suddenly in these rolling farmlands. It’s an interesting terrain. So it never occurred to me to change that. Although there were talks about shooting in Canada, but they were short."
Both Craig and Mara brought something key, and vital, to their characters.
While there were rumors of Brad Pitt being involved early on, Craig was the first actor on board, and for Fincher, he represented a certain kind of masculinity that made him the only choice. "The casting process began with Daniel and you build your universe like a basketball team. I knew him socially, I knew him to be self-effacing and to be playful and witty and I knew that I needed that for Mikael, and I wanted a very masculine kind of center to the film. I was looking for sort of a Robert Mitchum center."
As for Lisbeth, the casting process was well-documented and public at the time, but Fincher eventually settled on someone he'd just worked with, "The Social Network" star Rooney Mara, in part because her dedication in chasing the role mirrored the doggedness of her character. "Rooney was right under our noses," the director said. "You’re looking for an innate quality that they have. Rooney was somebody that we brought back time and time again, not because we didn’t see what we were looking for, but because initially, the problems that she was solving for me in the beginning of 'Social Network' was she was intensely feminine, she was very mature, she was warm, she was verbal, she was trying to build a bridge desperately to Jessie in that five and a half minutes that she’s on screen and none of those qualities apply to Lisbeth, in fact they’re the antithesis. So every time she would come in and we would work together, I would say 'Okay, now here’s a new hurdle.' And finally in the end, it took two and a half months but the quality that was undeniable and the thing that seemed to be most Lisbethian was she just wasn’t giving up. She would say 'what do you need from me this time, what’s the new wrinkle?,' and I would give it to her, and she would come in and do that. So all of those things, you know, it’s not a sushi menu. When we put her on the plane for five weeks to learn how to ride a motorcycle, we knew we had the right one."
With 60 million copies sold, and the Swedish films a big international hit, plenty of people already have a pretty clear picture of Lisbeth Salander in their heads. But Mara and Fincher agreed swiftly on their take, and didn't have much concern for the viewpoint of others."To be honest, I didn't think that much about what other people imagined it to be," Mara said. "I just, I used what I imagined it to be. I read all three books and I had a really clear picture of who this girl was. Luckily David’s idea was pretty similar. I didn’t think that much about what other people thought of her." Her director agreed, adding "The less you think about what other people think about in this industry, the more original you can be. You can’t go into a project thinking how will these people like it, or how will those people like it? You’ve got to find what you like about it, you can’t please everybody."
The team were keen to show the character's sexuality, and specifically her bisexuality, as a rare source of happiness for Lisbeth.
Playing a bisexual character, especially one with as many sex sequences, both consensual and not, as Lisbeth Salander, might have fazed many young actresses, but not Mara, who said "Growing up in New York and LA it doesn’t seem that crazy to have a bisexual character. She’s incredibly comfortable with her sexuality and I went into it the same." Indeed, Fincher was careful not to sensationalize or titillate with this side of Lisbeth; like everything else, it simply served to shed light, and texture, on the character. "One of the most important things was not to weed out the moments when she gets to be happy. One of the things we were very, very particular about was when she meets Miriam in the bar, we wanted that to be a moment of happiness. There’s two times you see her smile in the entire movie, and that's one of them. I thought that was important. I also think her sexuality is less of an ambidextrous thing than something that she has to act on, and I think the tragedy of it is that it’s not about friction, it’s not a problem for her, intimacy is a problem for her, and I thought that was an important thing to show."
From "Se7en" to "Fight Club," from "Panic Room" to "The Social Network," Fincher has always used his title sequences as a way of setting the mood for the rest of the film, and that's no different here. The director explains that it's, in part, an attempt to correct wrong impressions people might have gotten from the marketing of his films. "I think title sequences are opportunities to set the stage or to get people thinking in different terms than whatever it is that they understand the movie to be," the director said. "You know, oftentimes the movies are marketed poorly, with an idea of what is the consensus that everyone has that will get people to the 7:00 show? So oftentimes title sequencing can help sort of reorient the thinking. And I liked the idea of this sort of primordial sort of tar or ooze, and I liked the idea that it was her nightmare."
Unusually, Fincher was able to listen to some of Trent Reznor's score while still shooting the film.
Ordinarily, a film's composer is one of the last pieces of the puzzle, sometimes adding their score only weeks before a film's release. But for the first time, Fincher had his 'Social Network' collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on from the very start, and was able to listen to early versions while still shooting scenes. "Trent and I had discussed it pretty extensively,'" Fincher said, "and he had the script and he was bored and said he would send me something on the way to location. So he gave me MP3’s in my email and it would be 18 minutes of stuff, so I did have a lot of music that I was sort of listening to. but we didn’t shoot the scenes to that. It was edited the way you normally would, although I did have access to it, which was different, I had never done that before."
Daniel Craig ended up passing out during one key sequence.
Actors always seem to come away with bruises of one kind or another in David Fincher's shoots, but in *spoiler* a key scene where Blomkvist is nearly hung to death, Craig had a particularly close call. "The first night that we got to hoisting him," Fincher related, "the stunt coordinator came in and said Daniel has to hold this in his hands so that if he does lose consciousness, because he’s going to be acting like he’s suffocating which is not very different from actually suffocating. So he would have this little metal thing in his hand and hoist it up. We were rolling and watching the monitor and as we’re watching the monitor we hear ting, ting, ting and we rush in and he had passed out. We wrapped then and we said we let Daniel go 15 minutes early due to unconsciousness."
"The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is in theaters now.