Inside the world of Dragon Tattoo director David Fincher
How about this for a light, cheery conversation of a chilly winter's morning? "To me, your life is ending at one minute at a time." Too grim, perhaps? Let's go with something else. "I've been told it's the most tasteful rape scene imaginable." Oh dear.
Welcome to the dark world of David Fincher, who is now, thanks largely to the success of his zeitgeist-nailing hit The Social Network earlier this year, arguably the busiest and buzziest film director working in Hollywood today.
When Day & Night meets Fincher on a drab Monday morning in the Hilton hotel in the heart of the Swedish capital of Stockholm, the 49-year-old, who looks not unlike a young Dennis Hopper, is still putting the finishing touches to his ninth feature film as director, the US adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
The opening instalment in the late author Stieg Larsson's 50 million-selling Millenium Trilogy has already been made into a well-received movie in Larsson's native Sweden, and made an international star of its phenomenal leading lady, Noomi Rapace.
However, Fincher's version -- we hesitate to say 'remake' -- has gone back to the bleak, exceedingly violent source material to fashion its own take on the tale, resulting in what an early teaser trailer heralded as "the feel-bad movie of Christmas 2011".
There's also an American actress, the relatively unknown Rooney Mara, playing the central role of the ass-kicking, bisexual-goth-hacker Lisbeth Salander alongside Daniel Craig's investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist.
"All right, let's go, because my answers are not sound-bites, they're sound-meals," Fincher announces as he enters the hotel suite.
Frankly, it's a surprise to find him in such good form. Not only has he spent the best part of a gruelling year filming this movie, anecdotally Fincher has something of a reputation for being gruff, abrasive, and difficult to work with.
"I think I've had a pretty honest working relationship with anyone I've worked with," Fincher says of his reputation. "If I have any issues, I'd probably tend to be a little more honest than reassuring."
With The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Fincher says he wanted to create "a truly adult franchise". "In selling a movie, the best example of material that seduces millions of people into a movie theatre doesn't often include the word 'sodomy'," he says.
"The way you get people into theatres is by assuring them that everything is going to be okay, not by making them uncomfortable. But it's an adult book. It seemed to me that if teenagers get their blockbuster books adapted, why not adults?"
Anyone familiar with said books, or the Swedish movie adaptation, will know that sexual violence is one of the key talking points about the material, in particular a gruesome rape scene that has ensured Fincher's movie received the once-dreaded 'R' rating in the US.
"In adapting the book, it wasn't like, 'Oh here's something really pervy we can make'," Fincher states. "It's not so much what you see and what you talk about, it's how you talk about it, or what you show.
"I showed the rape scene to someone who said, 'It's the most tasteful rape scene imaginable'. But still, it's effective. You don't see anything, and you don't see anything gynecologically, but you're not left lacking for information either."
Considering the physical and emotional demands of the role, the casting of Lisbeth Salander was crucial. By all accounts, every twentysomething actress in Hollywood auditioned or was at one point considered for the part, including, but not limited to, Carey Mulligan, Scarlett Johansson, and Mia Wasikowska.
In the end, Fincher settled on 26-year-old Mara, hitherto best known for her role as the girl who dumps Mark Zuckerberg in the opening bar scene of The Social Network. This is a career-making -- if not defining -- role, and, it must be said, Mara already seems over-awed by the attention the part has brought her, if her over-cautious, borderline monosyllabic demeanour on the Stockholm press day was any indicator.
"When casting, I always try to find the person to whom I can turn the character over, and where, if you're to pre-imagine a movie, you can see them in it," Fincher says.
"By the same token, you want to collaborate with them to see what they're thinking about the character. In the case of Salander, we looked and we looked and we looked, and right under our noses was the perfect person."
After two-and-a-half months of screen tests and unofficial auditions (one of which required the actress to get drunk one night and come into the office hungover), Mara was hired.
It's a measure of Fincher's standing in the industry that he was able to make a $100m-plus budget movie -- the first of a potential and potentially lucrative trilogy -- with an unknown in the female lead.
Born in Colorado in 1962, Fincher started out in the business in George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), working on the likes of Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
He left the company in the mid-80s to helm high-profile TV commercials, which led on to an extremely prolific period as the in-demand director of music videos for, among others, Madonna ( Vogue is one of Fincher's credits), Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Nine Inch Nails, and Michael Jackson.
Fincher's first movie as director was the commercially disappointing and artistically frustrating sequel Alien 3 in 1992, but he really made his mark with the dark serial killer thriller Seven (1995), starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman.
He reunited with Pitt in 1999 (after 1997's under-appreciated The Game) for what is still the most controversial movie of his career so far, Fight Club, which was attacked by various American campaigning groups for all manner of perceived indiscretions, including the insensitivity of its release just months after the Columbine high-school massacre, and even for allegedly encouraging copycat acts of violence and domestic terrorism.
Any flack that comes his way upon Dragon Tattoo's release should be a breeze in comparison, but is there a part of Fincher that enjoys stirring trouble, requiring him to defend his output?
"I don't defend anything. Maybe I stupidly don't feel the need to," he replies. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but to say that I actively felt that the stir about Fight Club was absurd ... " He pauses to smile, before continuing: "The movie itself is absurd, and it's meant to be taken that way."
Fincher can't seem to get his thoughts in order on this one. "We were making a coming-of-age, absurdist ... " Pause. "To me, your life is ending at one minute at a time." Pause. "The line from Fight Club, 'You're not your fucking khakis', is right up there with, 'Plastics, Benjamin' [from The Graduate].
"It's not a call to arms. It wasn't supposed to be and I don't think it was. But there are so many people who are looking to be offended by things. If you're not willing to engage with something on all of its levels, there is a reductive kneejerk reaction that can be had to just about anything.
"I've gotten into fistfights with people over Seven. This woman once said to me, 'There's no reason to show Gwyneth Paltrow's head in the box at the end'. I was like, 'I've seen the movie a lot of times, and I don't know what the hell you're talking about. You thought you saw something'."
Fincher's subsequent movies -- Panic Room, Zodiac, and the technically impressive but oddly incurious The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- consolidated Fincher's position as a stylish directorial whizz. The Social Network, however, was the game-changer, winning three Oscars though not one for Fincher, despite being the heavy favourite going in (he lost to Tom Hooper for The King's Speech).
"I'm not disappointed by those things," he says. "I wish I could enjoy sitting in a room being sweetly eulogised, but the waiting ... there's nothing worse than that. I'm very happy when it's all over."
As our time comes to an end, Fincher offers his last words on Dragon Tattoo. "This movie is for parents, not their kids. It's not a date movie," he says, before there's another characteristic pause, and the hint of a smile returns. "I guess it could be."
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is released on December 26
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