After winning an Oscar for "Schindler's List," he has worked almost exclusively on the type of movies your parents claim they don't make anymore, including "Searching for Bobby Fischer," "Gangs of New York," "Hannibal" and "A Civil Action." This year he double-dipped with two potential Oscar contenders in "Moneyball" and 'Dragon Tattoo.' We spoke to the prolific multi-hyphenate about what it's like making a living making the kinds of movies that, in this climate, seem the riskiest, what drew him to 'Dragon Tattoo,' and what his plans are for the rest of the trilogy.
Our conversation began with The Playlist complimenting Zaillian on his Film Rites production shingle that has a lot of interesting projects in development by folks like Michel Gondry, Errol Morris, David Cronenberg, Jason Segel, Nacho Vigalondo and more, to which he responded, “Thanks, but it’s hard getting a movie made these days,” which became the launching point of our talk.
Did you read that Leonardo DiCaprio/WB anecdote that’s probably emblematic of what’s going on in the industry? [WB allegedly shut down one of his company's pitches because it was a drama.] Regardless of whether that’s true, is that sentiment playing through the industry a little bit?
I think so, yeah. David [Fincher] was going on about that the other night with his theory on the whole thing and exactly when it started. I think what most people feel is that you can take it back to the mid-seventies, late seventies with movies like "Jaws," "Rocky." The event movies that became sequel movies and it changed everything.
Right but it’s not like drama went extinct after that.
No, but I think it’s been a gradual process of attrition. I don’t have a theory for why this is because I think every once in a while somebody will come around with something that does really well and makes a lot of money and then you think "okay, that’s going to change now."
But something’s changed hasn’t it? Because there was a time when "Schindler’s List" was green lit and if that movie were made today…
I don’t think it would have been made then if it wasn’t for who was involved. I don’t know for a fact obviously but I think Steven Spielberg can do that and can continue to do that to this day. I think he enjoys that too. I don’t think he wants to do one at the expense of the other, he’s always going back and forth to do bigger things and then more personal things.
In melodramatic terms does this shift make you a little bit of an endangered species? Your bread and butter is drama, that’s why you were asked to adapt an adult novel like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."
I’m sure that you could do the math. Okay, 1974 there were a hundred dramas being made and in 2012 there’s 10. I’m sure the math would check out like that. I’m sure it’s affected a lot of people, but luckily it hasn’t affected me too much. But I will say, talking about Film Rites and talking about just things in general, other films, it is hard to get those made. I mean apart from the studio system. And I really thought that was going to change. I thought the Independent film movement, you know when “Little Miss Sunshine” and those movies were being made, and with the video cameras basically put in the hands of anyone who wanted one, I thought it was all going to change.
I think it’s cyclical. I think everything’s going to get really, really bad. Just like pop music does.
I’m sure something will come out and everybody will get all excited about it, and try to copy it and do it again. But I just thought it was going to change forever. I thought we were dinosaurs to the studio system and all of those films were going to be dinosaurs, if anyone can make a film. The only thing I can think of as a reason why that hasn’t happened – I think it’s a big reason, not probably the reason – is that when all is said and done, it doesn’t matter how cheap something is, it still has to be good. It still has to be a good story. Maybe that’s the problem; there are just not enough people working on good stories to begin with.
David’s spoke about his draw to the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ material but I think maybe yours is slightly different.
When I read it I saw it as one of those crossover ideas. It could be really good, it could be really commercial and work on both a thriller level and kind of an emotional level. And those were the keys for me and it seemed to have all of those things going for it and I know that David talks about an adult film and trilogy and all of that, I think of it more on a story level as opposed to an adult or not adult level.
I like the idea though of an adult trilogy, because there aren’t any.
Is there not?
An R Rated trilogy? Was “Aliens” the last one? It feels like there hasn’t been one in a while. Regardless, as you get into the second ‘Dragon Tattoo’ book, are you learning new things about Lisbeth? What are you examining in this?
Well I’m not reinventing the wheel, you have the book, that’s quite well done. But to me it’s always been the story about both of them. They’re both in it and it’s about both of them. I think the third one, I can’t even remember the third one too much to be honest with you in terms of the details of the story, but I would guess that that’s got to continue into the third one too. I really think that the Mikael character is super important and it’s overshadowed by Lisbeth because of what kind of character she is, but I actually feel the film wouldn’t work without him. I think you need that figure there.
I agree. When you do adaptation, do you look at what can be excised first? Or what feels integral?
No, I think that the very first thing is when I’m reading it I’m trying to see it as a movie and that’s the main thing and not worrying about how does it become a movie? If I can see a narrative within the 600 pages, I don’t need to know exactly what has to come out and what has to stay in, I just get a sense of it, I also get a sense going through it that I’m turning pages a little faster and other ones I’m looking at more carefully. So you start to get a sense of what’s extraneous during that process too. In this case it was right at the beginning. I almost didn’t read the book because it was 100 pages of exposition…
Are you going to direct again? And how did [debut] "Searching for Bobby Fischer" compare to “All the King's Men”?
‘Bobby Fischer’ was special because of where I was in my life and it was really personal and everyone that was working on it – a lot of the department heads, who I still am friends with – that was really more a labor of love. It remains a special one in my mind. But I did enjoy the process of making "All the King's Men." I’ll tell you one thing I didn’t enjoy, and it’s why I’m gravitating towards something like "Time Crimes," which is something I want to make for no money, is the more money you spend the more anxiety there is by the people who are financing it, the more control they want. It stops being about the story and what you’re trying to do and it’s all about how you’re going to sell it. So I want to go the other way, I want to go back to the scale of something like ‘Bobby Fischer.’
Right, scalability, accountability.
Yeah, if you’re going to spend 15 million dollars on something they basically leave you alone. If it doesn’t work they’re not going to go out of business. When they’re spending 70 million dollars on something or 60 million dollars, everyone’s going to be paying more attention and not in a good way all the time.
That kind of happened with "Moneyball," right? That was an expensive picture wasn’t it, all the costs spent against before it even shot?
Well "Moneyball" really got made because [Sony chief] Amy Pascal who by the way doesn’t know much about baseball, loved the story and she did crazy things. She stopped it, she started it, it was insanity. You know people thought she was crazy.
It really did and after the whole back and forth it looked like it was going to be a huge turkey but it’s a terrific little film.
Well it’s really because she didn’t let it go.
Were you involved throughout the entire process of that one?
Yeah, I mean we sort of went back and forth and it started with Stan Chervin, he wrote some parts, I came on after that and Aaron [Sorkin] came on, I came back and we kind of went back and forth for a while.
So an advantage of Film Rites, being able to rewrite what you like?
No, one of the bad things about it is that some people assume that I’m going to do that, and that is not my purpose. That’s not my desire. In the case of "Time Crimes" I went to Timothy [J. Sexton] and I said, "Listen, I want your permission to do this," because I really don’t want to be in the business of developing things and re-writing them. It’s a really special case but no, I do like working with other writers but it’s time consuming. It’s a lot more work.
So you just knock on wood that you find financing?
Yeah, I think in most cases…in the case of the [David] Cronenberg one we do have financing standing but with Michel [Gondry]’s we have some but we need more. We’ll see what happens.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is in theaters now.