David Fincher, uncompromising director of 'Fight Club’ and 'The Social Network’, has now adapted Stieg Larsson’s 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. He explains how the dark tale ensnared him.
'Maybe I am too insulated,” says David Fincher. “Or too confident, or simply sociopathic, but I can only do what I think is best.” Dressed in dark jeans and a black sweater, Fincher – the 49-year-old American director of Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac and, last year, The Social Network – is pacing around a room in the Dorchester hotel. His heavy steps are hushed by the thick carpet; his persuasive, richly insinuating drawl almost lost to the whisper of the air conditioning.
He is trying to explain why, when invited to direct a $100?million adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s brutal, wildly popular, crime thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – among the most widely read novels of the past decade, and one that had already been made into a successful Swedish film – it didn’t occur to him to feel anxious.
“I begin the process of making a film by asking 'What am I not going to worry about?’,” he says. “To streamline what it is that I do for a living, to make it manageable, I need to not worry about how expensive it is. I need to not worry about how it can be misconstrued.
“You can’t take everything on. That’s why when people ask how does this film fit into my oeuvre,” – he pronounces the word disdainfully as a rhyme for “hoover” – “I say 'I don’t know. I don’t think in those terms’. If I did, I might become incapacitated by fear.”
Finding himself inches from the far wall of the room, Fincher spins nimbly on his heel and swaggers back towards the centre. “How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time. How do you shoot a 150-day movie? You shoot it one day at a time.” Can it really be as easy as he makes it sound, I ask, to operate without doubt? “Sure,” he purrs. “I make 30,000 decisions a day.”
The first decision he made about Dragon Tattoo was, he now concedes, the wrong one. In 2008, as he was putting the final touches to his luxuriant F Scott Fitzgerald adaptation The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film that had required years of struggle to get to the screen, Kathleen Kennedy, one of that film’s producers, told him she had found another book she would like him to look at.
“She said it’s the story of a bisexual motorcycle-riding hacker in Stockholm who helps a disgraced journalist uncover this dark secret about a family in the north of Sweden,” recalls Fincher. “And I said, 'Kat, nobody is going to make this movie. You’re just setting us up to be miserable again’. So I didn’t read it. And I should have. And she was right.”
In the subsequent months, Larsson’s book – the first in his blockbusting Millennium series – sold 65?million copies. Lisbeth Salander, its extraordinary, damaged, tattooed, anti-social biker-hacker heroine, became an unlikely international icon. Her curious relationship with Mikael Blomkvist, the rumpled journalist with whom she attempts to solve a series of sexual murders – and falls into bed – was picked over beside water-coolers in offices around the world.
Fincher, meanwhile, made The Social Network, the story of another young, socially awkward technophile – and the most celebrated film of his career. “As I finished Social Network, [Sony studio boss] Amy Pascal told me they’d just bought the rights to Dragon Tattoo,” says Fincher. “She said, 'We believe that a movie franchise doesn’t necessarily have to be for 11-year-olds, that this material is most certainly not for 11-year-olds and that is why we are bringing it to you’.”
Fincher, who directed his first feature, Alien 3, before he was 30, knows he has a reputation among senior Hollywood executives for being the guy who “makes kind of pervy movies that are sort of dark, who’s a little uncompromising when it comes to how stuff gets presented and who’s really not afraid to offend anybody”. It’s not a reputation that bothers him. “I’m a gadfly, a contrarian,” he says. “I affect or infect the tone of everything that I come into contact with.”
Yet, when he finally read both Larsson’s book and Steve Zaillian’s elegantly boiled-down screenplay, it wasn’t the notorious scenes of sodomy, sexual abuse and torture that most piqued his interest. That isn’t to say that his absorbing film stints on the novel’s darker elements – one almost unwatchably savage rape scene left his young star, Rooney Mara, “pretty badly beat up… black and blue. Even when you’re faking it, that stuff leaves a mark,” he says.
What really fascinated Fincher was not “the pulp thriller side” of the book but the peculiarity of the bond between Salander and Blomkvist. “The way they fit together; the way that he hurts her; the way that she allows him to hurt her – all that stuff.”
As played by the magnetic Mara in Fincher’s film, Salander is the abrasive, marmoreal-skinned computer freak who will hack into people’s email accounts without a second thought, a creature so relentlessly spiky that when she removes her motorcycle helmet her Mohican hairdo springs fiercely upright. Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is her opposite: the old-school hack with a face like an unmade bed and an uneasy way with technology; the kind of man who sticks Post-it notes to his computer screen.
“I felt that Blomkvist was a classic journalist,” says Fincher, shooting a vaguely apologetic look in my direction. “My father was a reporter, so I’ll say this: I felt Blomkvist was a wallflower who passed judgment from a safe distance. He goes through this movie saying 'I’ve seen the reports, I’ve seen the case studies, I know the evil that men do’. Then he looks into the eyes of a girl half his age and she goes, 'Dude, you have no idea’.”
Salander is fuelled by rage, Blomkvist by disappointment. The gulf between the two of them – physical, technological, ideological, generational – gapes so wide that when they are finally brought together, almost half way into Fincher’s bristling, tachycardiac film, the encounter registers with the force of planets colliding. “I like them so much as characters,” he says fondly. “At the end of this movie, I want people to say, 'I can’t wait to see those two again’.”
Does that mean he already has an eye on the sequels – The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest? “Oh god, I don’t know,” Fincher says, flopping back into his chair, his confidence slipping for the first time. “First of all, 35 million people have to see this movie,” he sighs, “and that’s a big number.”
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) is out on St Stephen’s Day.