Exclusive: Uncovering The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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There’s been an amazing trend in the past few years where Scandinavian literature is being adapted into some of the finest foreign films being imported into the country, something we saw with John Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire thriller Let the Right One In, which is currently being adapted into an American film by Matt Reeves.

That phenomenon has become even more apparent with the movies based on the late Stieg Larsson’s best-selling series of novels known as “The Millennium Trilogy.” The first of them, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has already grossed $84 million worldwide, as well as becoming the top grossing movie in both Sweden and Denmark. The popularity of the novel in the United States has made the author the second best-selling author in the world after Khaled Hosseini (“The Kite Runner”).

Directed by Denmark’s Niels Arden Oplev, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first of three movies, is a suspense thriller about disgraced magazine editor Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) who is hired by a powerful businessman to find out what happened to his daughter who disappeared from a family gathering forty years earlier. While beginning his investigation, Mikael encounters a computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander, played by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, who has been spying on Blomkvist for those involved with wanting to bring the editor down. Soon, the two of them are working together to find out what happened to the missing girl, only to uncover a far more nefarious series of unsolved murders.

Without giving too much away, it’s an intense thriller that’s captured audience’s interests in a similar way as Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, the material being so strong and rich that director David Fincher and Ellen Page have been strongly rumored to be circling the English language adaptation of the book. If that happens, Page may soon learn what a beloved and heroic character Elisabeth Salander has become both to the men and women who have read Larsson’s novels and seen the films.

A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net sat down with Niels Arden Oplev and actress Noomi Rapace, whose performance as the sexy but tough cyberpunk with a dark past has captured so much attention. We discovered them to be a lively and boisterous duo who would energetically banter back and forth about their experiences making the movie without much prompting.

ComingSoon.net: I’ve never read the book, but so many people love the first book and are anxiously anticipating this movie. Niels, I understand you were hesitant about making the movie and that you hadn’t read the book when you were first approached?
Niels Arden Oplev: No, I didn’t know about the book at all and I was in the middle of doing another film and then the producers came and asked me about going to Sweden and doing a thriller. To tell you the truth, they do a lot of thrillers in Sweden and a lot of them are fine, but they are more kind of like, made for TV movies. I had no interest in doing that because I was doing really well with making movies for cinema in Denmark and the timeframe didn’t fit, so I couldn’t do it. Then, they actually came back three months later and they had moved the production time a half a year. Then in the meantime, I had started hearing about the book. I still hadn’t read it, but I heard that people say it was a really good book and it started to spread to Denmark. So when they came back and asked me one more time then I agreed to read it, you could say. (laughs) Then I read it and I thought it was fantastic and I actually saw that you could make something that was an atypical Swedish thriller, that you could make a really big film which you could not do a lot of times in Scandinavia. When I read the book I thought that you could make it kinda like a Scandinavian “Silence of the Lambs” kind of film that would have those qualities. That material you don’t get in your hands very often, so I got very excited about it when I had read the book.

CS: What was the timeframe? Had Stieg already passed away at that point?
Oplev: Yeah, I never met him. Did you ever meet him?
Noomi Rapace: No, no.

CS: Did you get involved in it fairly soon afterwards?
Oplev: Noomi had read the book quite early, right?
Rapace: Yes, yes, a couple of years before.

CS: Oh, okay, so you already knew the book and the characters?
Rapace: Absolutely, yeah, and I read in the paper that they were going to do a film of it and I was so upset, I was really angry, because I was so sure they wouldn’t phone me or even consider me. (laughs)

CS: Was that your first thought as a fan of the book, were you worried about them making a movie at all?
Rapace: No, no, I thought it was a very good idea to do a film of it because when I read it I saw a very clear picture.
Oplev: You just thought it was gonna be with you. (Laughs)
Rapace: Yeah, I wanted to be in the film, but I thought they were going to judge me for being too girly or too feminine because sometimes they are looking for somebody who actually looks like the character from the beginning, so they’re trying to find somebody like Lisbeth. I knew that I could transform into her or become her and change my body and my look, but I didn’t expect them to see that. I was very surprised actually when they called me. Then when I met Niels, we worked for a couple of hours and we talked, and I said that, “If you want me to do it, I would like to.”
Oplev: At that time I already had made my decision she was gonna play it, but I just wanted to see how much she would…
Rapace: Yes, how far would she go? (Laughs)
Oplev: I would say to the producer’s credit that he had seen Noomi in a theater play where you played with David Dencik, right?
Rapace: Yes, a Sarah Kane play.
Oplev: He was hooked on you from the start. He was talking about you and the Swedish caster was talking about Noomi. So they showed me a picture of Noomi and I just saw a clip from a film that Noomi had done before, a Danish film actually, a very tough one. I could immediately see she was a strong actress. That was the first thing I saw, but I thought she was so goddamn beautiful. I mean, she doesn’t want to hear that, because that was really a concern because maybe it can work, but Lisbeth in the book is not that good looking, and as a director you could be accused of just casting somebody good-looking, which you can do. A lot of times that happens.
Rapace: Of course, yeah.
Oplev: But then when I met Noomi and I worked with her, I could sense that she has such a strong energy as an actress. I would say you have that as your interpretation of Lisbeth’s character, really dark, forceful energy, and that’s very seductive on the screen. I think that when people read a book, they think they have a physical image of how that person looks like, but they don’t. They have a blurry physical image, but then they have an emotional inference. They have an emotion from the character and you have to meet that expectation for the emotion too. We immediately knew that Noomi would meet that emotional expectation more than what was in the book. Now, and this is really important because when you read the book, Lisbeth is a really strong character, so in order for the audience to accept an actress playing Lisbeth, there has to be an enormous strength from her on the screen and that’s what Noomi has. So that was actually the first thing. I thought, “That is going to be really great,” because she has this seductive quality that you keep looking at her all the time, but Noomi is Lisbeth on the screen. You just want to know what she does next. That strength I felt would make the audience accept her.
Rapace: But it felt like a suicide mission. (Laughs) You know, the expectation was so high.

CS: After deciding you wanted the role, when you realized those expectations people had for the character, what was that like? Or did you just try to put that aside and not think about it?
Rapace: Yeah, I just forced away all those thoughts because it felt like, “It’s not possible to satisfy everybody anyway.” So I think we…
Oplev: We talked about it.
Rapace: Yeah, we talked about it and we just went into some kind of bubble and we closed the outside world away from us.
Oplev: We sat at a bakery in Sweden and talked about this. One of those things that was really cool about this was that when Noomi and I talked about how we both saw this film, we were talking in agreement. Like, the books are great. They have a little bit of a cartoonish kinda character. Lisbeth Salander could be a Japanese Manga kinda character like hero in that sense and she’s like so anorexic and thin that you don’t believe she could knock anybody out. We both thought that by twisting the book into a total realistic character, total credibility in the universe and in the characters that the book would benefit from that. You coulda taken this material and taken it the other way and done it more cartoonish, more like, wire pull, people flying. Like, you could’ve easily have done that and made it more wild in that sense.

CS: That could be the American version.
Rapace: Yes, we talked about that, but I didn’t want like a stunt woman to come in and do my stunts. So I exercised and trained a lot of Thai boxing and kickboxing. I think I prepared for seven months or something before the shoot to change my body and to actually to be able to do those fighting scenes and to drive a motorcycle and all those things.
Oplev: But it’s a really interesting question because I think that if we had decided to take Lisbeth Salander in a total different direction we would’ve ruined the character because the emotion of the character for all of the women that are inspired by this character is a very realistic thing. This violence is done upon you and then you stand up and you say, “Enough,” like, you don’t lie down and take the beating and whine about it.
Rapace: I love that about her, that she’s such a fighter and that she never feels sorry for herself.
Oplev: I mean, I wouldn’t have signed on to do this film if it wasn’t for Lisbeth’s character. I think Noomi and I both immediately had a connection to that character.
Rapace: We talked about the Zodiac killer and “Silence of the Lambs” and “Nikita.”
Oplev: Yeah, “La Femme Nikita,” the French film. I needed a deep emotional connection to the material and to the characters in order to do something like that right. I really felt I had that. I also felt that the material… because for me the attraction was that it has a strong dramatic core and strong characters. It’s a character-driven thriller, not only a plot-driven. That quality I felt we could go really far with.

CS: I wanted to ask about the androgyny of the character, not really male or female with elements of both. It’s not something we really see in film characters that often. I was curious how you found that aspect of her, to bring that out?
Rapace: (to Niels) I think that I said to you, “I want to look like a boy. I want to change.”
Oplev: Boyish, yeah.
Rapace: I want to be like a tomboy or something between. I don’t think that Lisbeth defines herself as bisexual actually, what is she? I don’t think that she actually sees herself from the outside. I think she’s very much just in herself and do things that she wants to do. My whole body, I wanted to fill myself up with her in a way because I don’t like to pretend things. So it’s always like, I have to fully understand the person that I’m going to do, and the more become her and use myself and dig for myself and in a way translate it into her. So it was like, I think it slowly grew out of me, how she was and how the body was because it was like, actually, do you remember when we were trying clothes and so on and Cilla, the costume designer, she had brought a lot of boy stuff. So it was like, “Okay, if we think boy, try to think boy.” Also, the makeup artist, because in these subcultures in Sweden we have something called Emo. It’s a big…

CS: Yeah, we have a similar thing in America.
Rapace: (Laughs) Yeah, and the boys and the girls are wearing the same makeup actually and they are looking similar to each other. It was like we wanted to put Lisbeth in some kind of energy where you don’t really… because it was a thin line. We didn’t want her to be like a cliché because it was very easy to fall into that.
Oplev: When you read the book, she is a bit of an Atheist, a punky squatter kind… she’s like Berlin, Copenhagen type of…
Rapace: Also like a dream girl because she’s not really realistic all the time. Stieg also describes her as very ugly sometimes, but she’s very sexy and all the men actually want her. So, it’s pretty hard to get a clear picture of who she really is.

CS: I wanted to talk about the casting of Michael as the lead because I spoke with Henrik Ruben Genz about his Danish movie “Terribly Happy.” We spoke about how in Denmark and Sweden, casting isn’t as much about casting a big star or big name. That said, Michael is a fairly well known actor. Can you talk about the casting of him and trying to decide whether to cast a big name for some of the roles or was it just a matter of finding the right guy?
Oplev: Well, when you talked to Henrik Ruben Genz, was it about being able to cast or whether you go with a known name?

CS: Obviously in America it’s not only about getting the best about for the role, but somebody who will bring people into theaters.
Oplev: Yeah, casting in America is a nightmare.

CS: Yeah, it’s always this terrible battle that filmmakers go through.
Oplev: The cool thing about casting in Scandinavia is that so few films are made, that normally when you want to make a film, you will have a lot of interest from all the actors because it’s for a new film. Of course, when you’ve done as many films as I have then you are a little bit like the king when you come to casting, it’s always nice. (laughs) I’ve had my two cents in starting somebody like Mads Mikkelsen and Anders Bethelsen, really good actors in Denmark. I feel like I could basically talk anybody into playing this, so that’s a good feeling.

CS: What about the financiers or producers and their involvement in casting? You didn’t have to worry about getting somebody who will bring people into theaters?
Rapace: At times, yeah, the producers are pretty involved in Sweden also.
Oplev: Yeah, but funny enough in this film the material was so strong that that was actually not a real issue, that they felt the material was so strong that we just wanted to find who was best for it and not a star. The thing is–and also I really had serenity in that process—I didn’t say yes to this unless they had left all the artistic decisions for me which was really my own protection, but which is my actor’s protection also. The decision is with me and not with 500 compromises about that somebody in television that invested some money wants this and that.
Rapace: There were producers in Germany and Denmark.
Oplev: Yes, there were so many cooks.
Rapace: Co-producers everywhere.

CS: Of course, any movie is like that.
Oplev: But in this case, I just took all the power, and it was my responsibility whether it was fair or not, but I work in a way that–you know we can contradict this–but I could feel I work in a way that I give a lot. If I know I have all the power, then I can listen to everything that people want to say and take it in.
Rapace: Yes, absolutely. I said to the other journalists before that I think you’ve actually created some kind of energy and the concentration with the whole crew so we, the actors actually could work very free. I never felt like you were pushing me against my will or anything like that. I think we worked pretty close, but I know that you can be very powerful and very hard against the producers and people who are actually just concerned about money and about time. But we wanted to create something. In all the factors, you never, ever gave up and compromised before you knew that you had what you wanted to have out of the scene. That’s very hard when you have somebody who’s knocking on the door, “Time is money.”
Oplev: But actors need to know that their director does not say, “Cut, let’s go to the next shot,” before the shot is there because it’s very hard…
Rapace: That’s very rare because most of the time you can feel that, “Okay, he’s really not satisfied, but we have to move on.” Then you as an actor have to say, “Okay, can we take one more please? We’re not really there.”
Oplev: The actors should not have that concern. They should know that when you go on it’s because the damn thing is there. It’s right in the box. I mean, for me, half of my work is to create that environment so that the actors creativity can flow freely and not have all kind of sh*t. Then I’m always very curious about what the actor themselves bring to the table. I’ll come with my vision of where we’re gonna go and they’ll come with theirs. Then, sometimes we’ll battle it out. Sometimes I’ll actually just say, “Okay, fine, show me.” I’ll do three takes and I’ll see that and I’ll say, “Hey, that was kinda cool.” Then I have my own stuff and I’ll say, “But let’s try to twist it and see what happens that way.” Then we’ll do it three takes more. Then we’ll say, “Wait a minute, there’s another possibility.” Then suddenly we’ll do take seven and then we’ll see, “Hey, this is better than all of it.”
Rapace: Yeah, I like the fact that as an actress you can prepare yourself for months before, but when you actually are shooting, then you just have to let go of the control and just not think and just be there.

CS: You need the time to experiment.
Oplev: Well, you need the time to open up for other people’s creativity which is all about being a leader.
Rapace: That’s a great gift for an actor, to work with somebody who actually is interested in working together.
Oplev: I mean, if I knew exactly everything myself all the time, then there would be no room for flexibility. I mean, I know exactly where I want to go, but I always had a door open.
Rapace: Some resistance can be good, right?
Oplev: Yeah, constructive confrontations… because Noomi’s stubborn as hell. (they both laugh) When I cast, I deliberately cast trouble. When I cast Noomi I knew I was casting a headstrong actress that had a lot of opinions. But see, I want to her to have those opinions. I don’t want Noomi to start to think, “Oh my God, this guy’s mad all the time,” so I had to try to alter what you want. I don’t think she would ever do that anyhow. But I want to cast somebody because she has to defend her character. I’m dealing with 50 characters and I’m dealing with a film crew and all kinds of stuff. She has to defend hers all the time. This is really important for an actor.
Rapace: It was sometimes strange to feel because we had some fights and arguments and I felt like I actually was fighting as Lisbeth. I was really, I felt like everybody’s against me…
Oplev: I really felt that too.
Rapace: I was really angry and sometimes I felt because my family and people around me were just, “Hello? What is going on? Where are you?” So sometimes – but I couldn’t see it. I didn’t see it coming and so sometimes when Michael and everybody was having a good time and drinking coffee in the breaks I was sitting in a corner drinking coffee. I didn’t talk to anyone.

CS: One of the things about the movie is there is a lot of dark violence in your character. Can you talk about how far you wanted to take it and how far you felt you could take it? Obviously this is a big movie but you have to keep the stuff from the book that’s very dark. Can you talk about that?
Oplev: As far as the dark scenes, when I read the book I knew immediately I had to do the film and then I was like, “Oh my God, I’m gonna have to go back into those.” Because, my first film “Portland” has a lot of that elements in it. I just felt like I had to go back into the room with demons is what I called it. We talked about that and I think we were totally in line with that. In order to do those scenes successfully, you can’t be scared and do half. You have to do it as close to how horrific it would’ve been to be in that situation for real. When we did a rehearsal with Peter Andersson who plays Bjurman, the legal guardian, I remember saying to him when we finished that rehearsal I said to him, “I want you to play this. I just want to give you a chance to get out,” because and Noomi, we had already spoken about this. I said to him, “We want to take this all the way. We don’t want to stand on the set and then you say you can’t be naked or something like that because we want to do this, we want to take it all the way and if you’re not ready for that then you should walk now.”
Rapace: Also, I think we knew from the beginning, when we were talking about those scenes that we wanted it to be as realistic and credible as possible.

CS: You knew exactly what scenes I was talking about immediately, so you’ve obviously talked about this movie a lot already.
Oplev: Yeah, we discussed those scenes a lot because they’re so vital to the film. Really, it’s a sidestory that has in some ways nothing to do with the main story. I mean, it’s not directly involved into the higher story, but it’s a parallel of abuse against women that then becomes a parallel story to the abuse against Harriet. The audience, they mix it in themselves in their own imagination, and it actually works really well. But the brutality of that story influences the rest of the film.
Rapace: And you also get to know things about Lisbeth…

CS: Right, building her character. (Spoiler Warning: The next section gives away a big plot point in the movie, so if you haven’t read the book or don’t already know about it, you might want to skip ahead.)
Oplev: And had you not known those things, you might not accept how radical Lisbeth is in the very end. It’s really important and very un-Hollywood.
Rapace: You know the scene when she comes back into her apartment after the rape scene, that scene wasn’t in the script, it was improvised. For me and for both of us…
Oplev: I think we threw out a scene that she was sitting in the shower.
Rapace: Yeah, she was sitting in the shower shaking and crying and it was dishonest.
Oplev: I saw a scene like that in another film and I immediately thought, “Oh my God,” I’m so happy we threw it out.
Rapace: So for both of us… because it’s Lisbeth’s way of surviving when she comes home and she checks the camera and she sees the evidence against him and then she goes to war with him instead of letting him win. So she actually doesn’t take in how much harm he has done to her; she can’t really sit because she’s so messed up.
Oplev: She’s physically so hurt.
Rapace: Yes, but her will is so strong and she just takes the decision to win over him.
Oplev: But I love that scene. I mean, that’s probably my favorite scene in the film is when she comes home, because it’s so weird. She has just been brutally raped and the rape scene is brutal for the audience because we decided to make the rape scene… to put it on the preparation of the rape, Bjurman, you know, tying her down, threatening her, pulling her pants off, getting his own clothes off, it’s much more horrific than seeing the actual rape. For the audience, they’re just caught for two and a half minutes together with Lisbeth and they know it’s gonna end up bad. She can’t get away, they can’t get away. So that’s brutal. Then when she comes home and she’s so hurt and she can’t smoke and the audience is like, “What’s happening to her now?” Then suddenly she takes this equipment out and you don’t see the image, but you hear the sounds. She’s listening to herself being raped.
Rapace: Being raped, yeah.
Oplev: That is so far out psychological and yet, it’s so real and the audience is just like, “Did she let this happen to her? Did she plan it? Or, did it go too far? What is she gonna do?” There’s so many questions in the air.
Rapace: I love the fact that she’s such a survivor and she always finds a way to pull herself together and to continue what she just thinks she has to do.
Oplev: It’s a perfect example of Lisbeth because instead of falling down – actually in the book she spends three days in bed or something like that.
Rapace: Yeah, just taking pain killers.
Oplev: I think our version is actually more interesting, because you immediately see that instead of letting herself go into the pain she immediately starts to build a case against him.
Rapace: I think she’s pretty good at forcing away emotions and just think practical instead in a way.

CS: So I wanted to ask that before we wrap up, but how has this character affected you? You’ve already made the two other movies, right?
Rapace: Yeah, everything is done, yeah.

CS: You didn’t want to do those other movies?
Oplev: No.

CS: Can you talk about how being in these movies has affected you? Are you able to walk down the street anymore without being recognized by people?
Rapace: Well, not really, not in Sweden and Denmark. I don’t have to show my ID at the airport because they’re just, “Okay, it’s okay, we know you.”
Oplev: In Denmark? That’s good.
Rapace: Yes, in Denmark, not in Sweden because they are much more strict to the rules. But no, it has changed my life pretty much. I can’t really see any value being famous for being famous. So I love being an actress. It’s amazing how people respond to this film, and I think it’s just fantastic. The other side is that I’m actually pretty famous now in Scandinavia and that can be pretty hard. So I try to stay out of many celebrity sh*t parties and all that because it’s not really my thing. But now I get scripts from other countries sent to me and I have the opportunities and possibilities to work outside Scandinavia.

CS: Do you get a lot of women coming up to you who’ve seen the movie and they want to talk to you because they think they know you from the movie?
Rapace: Yes, and those people are pretty afraid of me. They keep away pretty much. (Laughs)
Oplev: They think they’re going to get whacked. (laughs) Because Noomi walks around with a golf club these days.

CS: Why didn’t you want to do the other movies? Did you have other things you wanted to do?
Oplev: I would say that that was a tough decision to make and I would also say when we finished shooting the first one, it was tough for me to let it go, I will say that, but that’s…
Rapace: Good for me. Do you know that after the last scene of the third movie I began to throw up? You know, everybody – the producers, everybody was standing with champagne, celebrating, but I was in the toilet and for one hour I couldn’t stand up. It was like my body just forced it.
Oplev: It was used to it, coming out.

CS: Did you do them all back to back?
Rapace: Yes, yes, yeah.

CS: When will see the other two movies?
Rapace: They were released in Sweden and in Scandinavia and Germany and France – no, not France.
Oplev: Yeah, France next year.
Rapace: But Italy and…
Oplev: Spain.
Rapace: Spain, yeah. So I don’t know, next year.

CS: So they’ll see how this movie does here and we’ll bring the other two over.
Rapace: Yeah, I think so.
Oplev: But, I mean, the thing was that everything was squeezed into ten months.

CS: Wow, all three movies?
Rapace: Yeah.
Oplev: Because of the production time and (the fact) they weren’t written yet, I looked at that schedule and I thought, “This is impossible. You can’t do the first film and do it right.”
Rapace: That was a good decision.
Oplev: Then having to deal with… I would have had to try to feed the writers at the same time we were on the set for the first film, then I would have to do post-production and be on the set of a second film. It would’ve screwed it up and it would’ve screwed me up and it would’ve screwed my family up. I thought, “This is not gonna benefit anybody.” You have to limit yourself and then do it right. That was a decision and I think it was the right decision.
Rapace: I think so, too.
Oplev: Also, the conditions of the two other films were very tough.
Rapace: I felt a bit psycho when I was done, after working with her for one and a half year. I didn’t really know who I was after that, but you know that I played Medea just one week later.
Oplev: I think that was great.
Rapace: I began to rehearse Medea, so I just jumped into another project.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens in select theaters on Friday, March 19. You can see the full list of playdates for the film on the film’s official site.