Rooney Mara in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"/Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
To say that the marketing campaign for the American remake of the first installment in Stieg Larsson‘s 65 million copy-selling Millennium Trilogy has been precisely executed is like saying its punk pixie hacker Lisbeth Salander has a couple of tattoos. But given the high quality and success of its Niels Arden Oplev-directed predecessor, some have felt compelled to wonder: Could director David Fincher‘s version fail?
The leading man in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Daniel Craig, doesn’t think so. “The source material is good enough and I think that everybody wins in this situation,” the English actor better known as the new Bond says. “We have 65 million readers of the book,” he continues, “and we have lots of people who’ve seen the Swedish version of the movie. And we may get millions of other people to see this movie and everyone is going to go back and read the book and watch the Swedish version, it’s a win-win.”
Could be, but Academy Award-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian is taking more of a wait-and-see approach; he’s only signed on to adapt the first installment. “First of all, it remains to be seen if two and three are going to be made,” he explains, “but I did not commit to two and three. When I agreed to do this one, it was just one film.”
Fincher didn’t even know signing on for the entire franchise was an option. “Classically, movie studios don’t make deals with directors even if there’s hope that there’s going to be three,” he says, “because they want to make sure that you behave.” Still, in his mind, the next production might just knock out the next two books in the series at once. “The second two books are very much one story,” he explains, “and it doesn’t seem prudent to me to go Stockholm for a year, come back for a year, and then go back again. I think that would be crazy.”
But if “crazy” turns out another stellar adaptation of Larsson’s trilogy, it may just be worth it. In the Sweden-set story, Craig takes on the role of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Blomkvist, a man in the midst of a libel case, takes on a job to investigate the disappearance of a woman who’s gone missing from the family tree of one of Sweden’s wealthiest clans. He teams up with leather-clad cyber detective Lisbeth Salander, played by newcomer Rooney Mara.
“Nazis and serial killers and the evil that people do in their basements with power tools is not that interesting to me,” Fincher says of some of the plot twists that emerge about halfway into his film’s 148-minute running time. “First and foremost, I hadn’t seen this kind of partnership before,” he says of Blomkvist and Salander. “I like the thriller aspect, but I’m more interested in them as people.” Finding those characters within the right actors became paramount. “The casting process began with Daniel,” Fincher recounts. “You obviously have to build your universe like you’re building a basketball team. You start with the anchor and we started with Daniel. I knew him socially and I knew him on the screen as a different kind of person … I knew him to be self-effacing, playful and witty,” Fincher continues, “and I knew that I needed that for the main character. I wanted a very kind of masculine center for the film. The androgynous side of the movie would be carried by Rooney; that was her job.”
But the list Fincher provided Mara in the midst of his famously grueling castings was a bit more exhaustive than simply androgyny. “If I were to get the part,” she explains of the list of items Fincher detailed, “I’d have to become a smoker. I’d have to go off and be by myself for a year. I’d have to be butt naked. I’d have to do these horrible rape scenes. And I’d have to ride a motorcycle.” By all accounts, Rooney is a trooper, but with just a few minutes of screen time at the top of Fincher’s last project, “The Social Network,” under her belt, she’d almost have to be. “It was all challenging,” Rooney admits of the shoot, “but the motorcycle was definitely the thing I was least excited about doing. It just seemed very dangerous to me.”
The most dangerous undertaking for the creative team was whittling down Larsson’s 600-page novel into a 150-page script. Zaillian had his work cut out for him, but says that Larsson helped him map it out. “He’s a great storyteller,” Zaillian says. “He’s also a cinematic writer. That’s one of the reasons there have been two movies made and also the success of that book: People can really see it.” Still, in adapting the story, Zaillian did have to use a heavy hand.
Fincher’s touch is just as heavy-handed. As the opening credits roll, Karen O blasts off the soundtrack covering Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” while slicked, black images of Blomkvist and Salander disintegrate and recombine. It’s a jarring opening, and one Fincher is fond of; he thinks of this kind of an opening as a palate cleanser. “They’re an opportunity to set the stage,” he says of his opening credits, “and get people thinking in different terms to whatever it is they understand the movie to be. Movies are marketed, and marketed toward the consensus that will get everyone into the summer pop shows, so oftentimes title sequences can reorient their thinking. And I like the idea of this primordial tar of the subconscious and I like the idea that it was Lisbeth’s nightmare.”
It’s sad and a little surprising to hear an auteur like Fincher talk about marketing. But even when Fincher mentions industry terms as banal as test screenings, it’s clear “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has been put through them. Still, he maintains, “We’re not trying to make something that’s quotable on mugs.”