Tuesday 12 December 2017

The man who played with fiery bestsellers

The Millennium trilogy is hot stuff, but director Daniel Alfredson is cool enough to handle the pressure, finds Evan Fanning

TOP GUN: Noomi Rapace is superb as Lisbeth Salander in 'The Girl Who Played with Fire'
TOP GUN: Noomi Rapace is superb as Lisbeth Salander in 'The Girl Who Played with Fire'

TAKING on a film adaptation of one of the biggest-selling books of modern times can only be a daunting experience. When the author in question is Stieg Larsson, and every element of the publication of his work -- from the writing to the royalties -- has been shrouded in mystery and controversy, then it requires a special kind of nerve to tackle the project.

It's just as well then that Daniel Alfredson is as mild-mannered a Swede as you're ever likely to find, and that's saying something in a country which flat-packs and bundles out pragmatism as much as it does affordable furniture. It also helps that the 51-year-old is from Swedish film aristocracy, the son of renowned comedian, actor and filmmaker Hasse Alfredson and brother of Tomas, who directed last year's critically acclaimed Let the Right One In.

Growing up in such a family, it may seem like Alfredson's career was all mapped out for him from an early age, but he insists that he stumbled into the business as he never came up with a better alternative profession. It was probably foolish to think he would turn in a different direction, given this heritage. From childhood, he was surrounded by the stars of the Swedish film and television industry.

"If you just have one father and one mother, and you grow up in those conditions, that's the reality," he says. "I never thought of it as a strange upbringing. People have asked me was it strange to grow up with such a well-known father. You couldn't really walk the streets without people pointing at him and asking for autographs, but we were never used to anything else."

His brother has spoken about the difficulties of growing up with a father who was rarely there, and how he would participate in his father's film projects as a means of trying to connect. Daniel, five years his senior, has a similar opinion. "When I look in the mirror now, I can say perhaps it was, but at that time it just seemed so fun. To be part of that storytelling was fascinating, but it was also a way of getting to know your father."

Alfredson has now directed The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second film adaptation in the Stieg Larsson Millennium series, the trilogy of novels discovered after the author's death from a heart attack, which has become the biggest literary phenomenon since Harry Potter, selling more than 27 million copies worldwide. He has also completed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the final instalment, although he believes Larsson left a fourth book 85 per cent finished and even early drafts of a fifth.

At the time Alfredson began work on the project, he was making a film adaptation of an unpublished manuscript from a recently deceased and unknown writer. By the time he was finished, he was working on something completely different. "I never expected it to be so big," he says, as the first of his two films prepares for international release. "When I was editing The Girl Who Played with Fire, we discovered the books had sold so immensely. Suddenly, the interest grew. It was fascinating."

While the books' phenomenal sales moved the goalposts -- Alfredson's movie would now be eagerly anticipated all over the world, rather than just in his intended Swedish and German TV market -- he was pretty much helpless to alter the course he had taken.

"We had done our shoot and we were in the middle of the editing process," he says. "If there was pressure I just thought: 'Don't feel it, just do the work.' Otherwise, I would be very stressed. We tried to keep to our original plan."

That original plan was to shoot the second and third instalments in one go -- a mammoth shoot lasting nearly six months. "It was the biggest thing I've done," he says. "We made the decision to do it that way and that was it. I remember going home at the end of the first day of shooting and I thought: 'I've merely made one per cent of this film. Just 109 days to go.'"

A shoot like that put huge demands on Alfredson, not least on his relationship with his three children, although there were some unexpected benefits. "We had a lot of night filming, so I was at home during the day when my daughter came home from school," he says. "We had good times."

One of the most striking things about Alfredson's film is the performance of Noomi Rapace, who plays the heroine of the trilogy Lisbeth Salander. The 30-year-old actress is put through the mill in scenes of violence, another where she is buried alive and even a steamy and explicit lesbian scene, which may be a Swedish trademark. "Though she is shy and secretive, she is fearless," says Alfredson of his leading lady. He admits, however, the graphic sex scene was one which came up for discussion.

"We talked about that during the script stage, because I thought it was important for the story. Larsson was very explicit in the book and I thought it was important to see another side of Lisbeth, to see a caring and loving side of her. Noomi just said: 'We have to do it.'" Rapace's commitment was such that she took an active part in the casting sessions for Lisbeth's lover. "She was there and we talked to all of these girls who were trying out and we told them: 'We have to do this scene for real, otherwise it won't work.'"

Due to the success of the books and the strong performance of the first film in the trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hollywood is on the remake. Production on the first of the trilogy is already under way, with David Fincher directing Daniel Craig, and no doubt The Girl Who Played with Fire will soon be given its make-over. "I can't do anything about it," Alfredson says. "I can only be happy we made the original and it will still be there. I think they won't find a better Lisbeth. You can be offended, but I don't feel that way. It is what it is."

Like Tomas has, he holds ambitions of making English language films, where he could make a big name for himself outside of Scandinavia. "If it arose and if it was a good story, I would certainly like to do something in the English language, but it would have to be something I can relate to. I'm a bit envious of Tomas now doing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, because John le Carre is one of my heroes."

But, for now, Alfredson will return to Sweden to take a break. Going fishing on his boat in the Stockholm archipelago, and hunting deer and elk will replace press conferences in London and premieres in New York. "That's part of my contribution to my children," he says. "They get very good food."

That's Daniel Alfredson. Just your typical elk-hunting, film-directing, mild-mannered Swede.

'The Girl Who Played with Fire' is showing nationwide

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