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This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
From the very start, the clock was ticking, steadily, relentlessly, inexorably. Some movies — actually, most movies — take years to make their way through Hollywood’s labyrinthine development process, then spend many more months before cameras and in postproduction before finally hitting the screen. But David Fincher‘s hard-edge adaptation of Stieg Larsson‘s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was not one of those films.
From the moment, in midsummer 2009, when Sony’s top brass Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal began pursuing the idea of mounting a new film version of the best-selling mystery novel — the first volume in Larsson’s trilogy, published in Sweden in 2005, had already served as the basis for a Swedish film that debuted that year — the project was on an ever-escalating fast track. By December 2009, producer Scott Rudin had managed to secure a deal that brought the rights to make a new-English language version to Sony, and Steven Zaillian, fresh from writing Moneyball with Aaron Sorkin, was entrusted with the screen adaptation. By March 2010, the studio was courting Fincher, who weeks earlier had finished principal photography on The Social Network, to direct.
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Then, with Fincher on board and scouting locations in Sweden even as he was completing postproduction on Network, the focus turned to casting. After an intense 2½-month search to find the right actress to play Lisbeth Salander, the androgynous computer hacker and avenging angel who joins forces with journalist Mikael Blomkvist to solve a string of grisly murders involving one of Sweden’s most powerful families, Rooney Mara was anointed. In mid-August, the studio put its marker on a December 2011 release date, just 16 months away. By September, preproduction had begun on the complex project, which would hopscotch from Sweden to Switzerland to studio interiors in Los Angeles and then on to Norway and the U.K. before returning to Sweden, where principal photography wrapped in June. One of the final movies completed in time for year-end awards consideration — Dragon first screened Nov. 28 for the New York Film Critics Circle — it arrived in theaters, as promised, on Dec. 20, just two years after the elements began to come together.
“I feel like I’ve operated for the last 11 months on less than 100 hours sleep,” Fincher, just beginning to catch his breath, said days after the movie’s opening. “I actually got to sleep in until 7 this morning,” he added with a laugh.
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Although the intervening months might have gone by in a bit of a blur, Fincher, 49, does recall his first reaction when, in March 2010, Sony urgently requested that he and his producing partner, Cean Chaffin, take a weekend to read Larsson’s novel.
“I was sort of shocked by the size of it,” he says. Fincher understood why Rudin and the studio were so keen to mount a new movie version for international audiences. There are more than 62 million copies of the three novels in the so-called Millennium Trilogy series in print, and the three Swedish films have grossed $215 million worldwide. But as Fincher and Chaffin raced through the first book that weekend, they also realized that it takes readers on a lot of side trips — from detailed explanations of surveillance techniques to angry attacks on corrupt Swedish industrialists. Says Fincher of that first encounter: “The ballistic, ripping-yarn thriller aspect of it is kind of a red herring in a weird way. It is the thing that throws Salander and Blomkvist together, but it is their relationship you keep coming back to. I was just wondering what 350 pages Zaillian would get rid of.”
Because Zaillian was already at work on the screenplay, Fincher didn’t want to dictate what he should cut. But the two did have a conversation. “I see this as about a guy and a girl,” says Fincher. When Zaillian agreed, the director says, he knew they were headed in the same direction.
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There was never any question, either, that the film, which the studio was ready to greenlight at a budget of about $90 million, would be anything but an R-rated movie. “They didn’t give it to me saying, ‘We want that warm, fuzzy thing that you do,’ ” says the director, whose dossier includes such bloody fare as Seven and Zodiac.
So even before Zaillian’s first draft was completed May 19, Fincher and Chaffin made a trip to Sweden to begin scouting locations, using the book as their guide. (On the way home, the director stopped off in Henley-on-Thames, England, to shoot five days on the regatta sequence in Network.)
“My first phone call was to get research on Sweden,” says Chaffin of her quick transition between the projects. “I’m not sure which I did next: Go to Weather.com and look at the historical information, or if I went to the charts about when the sun rose and set. But those are probably the first things I did. I knew weather and daylight and darkness had to factor into the schedule in a big way. It was surprisingly complicated.”
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As casting began, the male roles fell into place relatively easily. Daniel Craig, 43, was quickly chosen to play Blomkvist — though it took some time to work out his deal because the shoot had to be scheduled between his commitments to Cowboys & Aliens and Skyfall, the next James Bond movie. By June, Fincher also had met with Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, who was cast as Martin, scion of the movie’s sprawling and dangerous Vanger family.
But it was the role of Lisbeth that attracted all the attention. The media breathlessly tracked the names of those in contention, ranging from Alice in Wonderland‘s Mia Wasikowska to Inception‘s Ellen Page to Sucker Punch‘s Emily Browning. Some reports had Fincher secretly promoting Mara, whom he had just directed in Network‘s opening sequence, where she plays a no-nonsense student who puts Jesse Eisenberg‘s Mark Zuckerberg in his place. In addition to the formal screen, hair and makeup tests, he did quietly shoot Mara riding the Los Angeles subway to convince Sony execs that she could handle the part. But Mara would later tell interviewers that the director at first didn’t see her as Salander at all.
The truth, the director contends, is somewhere in the middle.
“Casting is not just about a person’s height and weight. It’s not just, does the actor fit the picture, but does she bring a force or presence she can build off of? Does the psychological makeup of the character that you’re creating fit with the person whom you’re asking to bring it to life?” explains Fincher. “Actors solve problems for you in certain roles. I had cast Rooney in Network because I needed somebody who was feminine, incredibly verbally facile, somebody who was warm who could offset how cold and reptilian Zuckerberg was at the beginning of the movie. None of those things applied to Salander. So I knew Rooney under other auspices. It was hard to imagine her in this new role and to get everybody else to imagine it. The question was, can she get to be withdrawn, antisocial? So we did it a number of times, and about a month or five weeks into it, I realized, wow, she’s been able to do every single thing we’ve asked of her. I so appreciated the incredibly hard work that went into doing that stuff, even though it must have been intensely discouraging to be continually asked to come back and try again. Finally, it became apparent to me that she was not going away, not giving up. She was going to do what needed to be done, and that was very Salander-ish.”
When Fincher did offer Mara the role — he broke the news by asking her to read a news release on his iPad that the studio was about to send out — he warned her that the part could be life-altering, identifying the young actress with an extreme character who might be hard to escape.
But Mara, 26, had no second thoughts. “After reading all three books, I saw her very clearly and understood most things about her personality and could relate to a lot of things about her,” she says. “It was my job to bring her to life.”
Five days later, she was on a plane to Stockholm, where she embarked on an arduous training program: learning martial arts, skateboarding, motorcycle riding, working with a dialect coach to perfect a Swedish accent. Along with costume designer Trish Summerville, she also refined Lisbeth’s look, submitting to a severe haircut, undergoing (real) piercings and sitting for (fake) tattoos. She didn’t have to worry that a lot of fans of the novel were waiting to see if the transformation would be convincing. “David made it his mission,” she says, “to keep me in a very safe bubble while making the film where I didn’t have to think of anything but the character.”
As the rest of the production collected in Sweden, Fincher worked with a number of his frequent collaborators to give the film his distinctive sense of style, but also one that grew out of the novel’s setting.
“David wanted to pay homage to Swedish filmmaking — Bergman, Sven Nykvist’s photography,” says cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. “And to reinforce the concept of what a Swedish winter entails because the inclement weather is such a big part of the story. So we went for that low winter light and the warm fires. Sven style’s was all based on the actual available light that was in Sweden, so it was really interesting to finally get there, to see how low the light levels were, how low the sun was for such a big part of winter.”
As the shoot progressed, Fincher’s multitasking skills were put to the test to meet looming deadlines. Editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, working from Los Angeles, would assemble each day’s footage as it was shot and transmit it to him for review. Trent Reznor, recruited to compose the score after his success on Network, didn’t wait for a first cut but began writing musical sequences while the movie was filming. “The highlight of my day,” says Fincher, “was putting on my iPhone headphones and playing the latest MP3 from Trent. I would have these little euphoric six-minute interludes.”
One complication, though, added a further level of logistical problems: Just as Dragon was getting under way, Network, which by then had opened, was turning into one of last season’s biggest awards contenders. The scheduling of it all was daunting. After a tight 25 days of prep in Sweden, Fincher found himself flying back across the Atlantic for the New York Film Critics Circle’s awards ceremony, then turning right around and heading back to Stockholm for the first day of filming. Two months later, with the production relocated to soundstages in Los Angeles, the partying after the 83rd Academy Awards, at which Network earned three Oscars, was barely over when the Dragon cast and crew had to report for a 6 a.m. call.
“We had the year-end sweepstakes stuff on top of trying to prepare a movie and give them both their due,” says Fincher. “I was extremely happy with the response people had to Social Network and wanted to see everyone who was decorated get their just deserts. I didn’t want to be sleeping in airports for seven to eight weeks, but that’s what it ended up being.”
Somehow, in the end, all the deadlines were met. Sony even pushed up Dragon‘s release by a day so it opened Dec. 20. The movie has grossed nearly $77 million through its first three weekends of domestic release, and its international rollout is just beginning. Zaillian has been working on an adaptation of the trilogy’s second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and the studio has commitments from Craig and Mara for a follow-up. Fincher hasn’t decided on his next film, but he’s not slacking off. Even as Dragon hit theaters, he was scouting locations for the Netflix series House of Cards. He’s directing the pilot. A new clock is ticking.
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