As it should be in Hollywood, people who have their share of negative press usually still have a number of dedicated collaborators who speak well of them. So while “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” director David Fincher has picked up a reputation for being ornery and difficult, it only makes sense that these traits would get spun as positive attributes by others who work with him. The guy doesn’t get $100 million budgets for nothing. The director, writer and cast recently descended on New York City to talk about adapting the film, bringing to the big screen, and yes, Fincher’s pursuit of cinematic perfection.
Christopher Plummer, who plays Henrik Vanger in the film, credits Fincher’s laser-precision focus, even if the number of takes swells. “The endless takes are not endless like some directors who use take after take because they simply don’t know what they want,” Plummer says. “In his case he knows exactly what he wants and changes each take so it’s absolutely different. He always has the camera totally ready so you don’t hang about waiting.”
And it helps that Fincher is actually a loose-limbed guy with a sarcastic sense of humor. “Great directors, and there are very few of them, they’re able to cast right,” he continues. “So half his job is done, and he obviously trusts his cast.” Because of this, “The atmosphere on the job is so easy, so relaxed, so free, that he makes you improvise whatever you want.” Plummer adds with a mischievous grin, “He has an enormous sense of humor, so he can be teased very easily.”
In the case of Stellan Skarsgard, a native of Sweden (you can read our separate interview with him here), he was startled by Fincher’s attention to detail regarding his homeland. “David’s a very thorough man, so he knew more about Sweden it than I did,” Skarsgard remarks. “It’s fantastic to watch, but it’s a little creepy. This is a Hollywood film about us,” he grins, before adding, “and I’m not sure I’m happy about it.”
“Working with David, you get a lot of chances to get it right,” he says. “And he does push you, but it’s not like he says, ‘I want the scene to be played this way.’ But after a couple of takes, he pushes you one way, then he pushes you the other way, and then you push yourself a third way. And hopefully you come up with a lot of different colors in the same scene. Which gives the director a lot of different ways to calibrate the performance.”
Screenwriter Steve Zallian, who adapted the Stieg Larsson source material, was a complete Fincher neophyte when he got the job. “When we started working together on the script I was kind of surprised at what a great collaborator he was,” he raves. “I thought he might be like other directors of his stature who kind of take charge, you know, ‘Do what I want,’ and not talk about it. He was very careful to express himself in terms of what he was looking for but he wasn’t going to try to tell me how to do it. [He wanted] to let me find the solution. I think that the way a director works with a writer is the way the director works with an actor. You know the director doesn’t give an actor a line reading, they describe to the actor what they’re’ looking for and let the actor find it.”
For Zallian, who only signed on for the first film in the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ series, he read the original books, but focused only on the central story. “I think in this case the first book is a stand-alone story,” he says. “The other books do not refer to the family in any way. But it’s true that we didn’t want to get too deep into the back story of Lisbeth. We wanted just enough that you could understand, or get a feeling for her background as opposed to knowing all of the details. And I’m looking at the other two projects now. I’m thinking about more of the second two than the first one because the first one felt to me like a complete story.”
Editing that material down might be a chore, given that Larsson’s prose can be dense, even if the time frame of the second book is roughly a week. “The first hundred pages of the book is all back story on the Wennerstrom case. There’s a huge section in the middle involving Cecilia going to jail; there’s quite a lot in the book that I felt could come out quite easily.” But Zallian did get a feel for the locale, enough that he didn’t even need to visit. “Stieg Larrson described the setting and the feel of Sweden so well that I didn’t feel I had to go there,” says Zallian. “I’m really interested in the characters, the plot … and the emotional content. That’s what I focus on, I don’t really care what the streets look like.” He adds, “But I did have a chance to go, when they were shooting I went for a couple of weeks and I felt that we got it right. I’m glad I didn’t go and say ‘Oh my god why didn’t I go sooner?’ ”
For Fincher (again, you can read our separate Fincher interview here), working in that locale provided an interesting way to create an unspoken criminal underworld, comparing it to Roman Polanski’s classic Oscar-winner. “There are many parallels to ‘Chinatown,’” he says. But in regards to the late Larsson‘s vision, Fincher demurs, saying, “But I don’t think you can say because there’s a big family, and there’s a dungeon, that everybody gets to relax and concentrate on what’s key to the story. I don’t think that Larsson invented anything except Lisbeth and Blomkvist, this odd pairing.”
His attitude was to not be so precious with the source material. “When the writer of the book has a map of the family tree, you really have to do some pruning,” he laughs. “I always felt the Agatha Christie part was what you’d have to prune to get this to two and a half hours. Cecilia has one little moment, Anita has one moment. I think the locked door mystery is the ruse. So that, for me, was what was most comfortably jettisoned. My big concern going in, talking with Steve, [was] asking, what basket are you putting your eggs in? And he said, it has to be about the characters front and center, the characters Blomkvist came in contact with, the characters Lisbeth come in contact with.“
And it’s the characters Fincher, with his wonderfully black heart, couldn’t help but find endearing. “I like the fact that he sells everyone out with a handshake… ‘Nice to see you. All my relatives are fuckwads,’ ” Fincher jokes. “There’s this wonderful moment at the end that Steve Zallian provided for us, which I think is so important, where [Blomkvist] says, ‘You’re on the list too.’ And [Vanger] smiles and says to himself, ‘I’ve got the right detective.’ ”
The dichotomy he wished to explore between Blomkvist and Salander gave him an almost instant way in to the characters. “Dramatizing the difference between Salander and Blomkvist is that she’s much more facile with technology,” he says. “She doesn’t have to write anything down with her photographic memory. But he organizes everyone with photos. I love the fact she just unplugs her laptop and she kind of throws everything into her backpack. And he’s much more fussy, he starts with a post-it note and goes from there.”
What fascinated him deeply was the non-judgmental notions perpetrated by Lisbeth’s worldview. “She oddly prizes herself in not coming to any conclusions,” he says, noting a generational divide. “That’s the key to the first scene, where the character says, ‘I’m an attorney, I’ve been doing this for forty years, and I’m asking for a gut check on this.’ And because she’s this scarred, traumatized teenager, she says, ‘I’ve given you everything you need. Here’s the data cloud that surrounds this guy, pull what you want from it.’ He’s very much of the generation of, ‘I hired a private investigator, what do you feel about this,’ and she says ‘I have no feelings one way or another, I gave you an entire dossier.’ And I think we are talking the difference between Dashiel Hammet [and Larsson].”
Where Fincher seems to thrive the most, however, is in breaking down these think tanks and showcasing just how people work alongside each other; you need to look no further than his tale about Mark Zuckerberg. “The thing about ‘The Social Network’ was, it wasn’t what they were building, I couldn’t care less,” he shrugs. “What I was interested in was the facility in which these sheltered people interfaced with this gigantic world that you only see like a fish tank, and all these abstract representations, and what you’re really seeing is people in a dorm room going YEEAH!”
“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is now playing.