In 1995, director David Fincher helped redefine the serial killer genre with Se7en, territory he returned to with 2007’s Zodiac, delving into the true crime story of the killer who plagued San Francisco during the ’70s. After exploring different genres with 2009’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and last year’s Oscar-winning The Social Network, Fincher is back to more familiar territory with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a dark mystery-thriller that stands the best chance at appealing to the fans of his earlier work.
Based on the bestselling novel by Stieg Larsson, it stars Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, the Swedish magazine publisher hired to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy and powerful magnate’s niece 40 years earlier. To help with his investigation, he’s assigned a damaged cyber-hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who has suffered from abuse after spending much of her childhood in an asylum, and together they uncover even darker secrets surrounding the rape and murder of many girls going back even further than 40 years.
This past weekend, ComingSoon.net was given a rare extended sit-down with the enigmatic filmmaker, and even having sat through nearly 80 minutes of press conference with Fincher and members of his cast, which made us think we wouldn’t have more to ask, we still had a lot more ground to cover. (And to those concerned, there are absolutely no spoilers in this interview for the movie in case you haven’t read the book or seen the previous adaptation.)
In fact, we started with what we thought was one of the most obvious questions, which surprisingly wasn’t asked earlier:
ComingSoon.net: I was really shocked no one asked about your intro to Stieg Larsson’s story. Did you read the book first or was there already a screenplay? How did you first find out about this?
David Fincher: No, Steve was working on a screenplay. I was given the book and Sony were committed to making this movie. I was given the galleys of the English language translation in 2005 or 2006 by a producer who I was working on “Benjamin Button” with, and she said, “Here, I really, really love this and I’d really like to do this with you.” I said, “I don’t have time to read a 600-page book. Tell me what it’s about.” She told me what it was about and we had just spent six years trying to get “Benjamin Button” made, so I was like, “Why are you doing this? No one in Hollywood’s going to make this movie.” I was wrong. Five years later, Scott (Rudin) and Amy (Pascal) brought the book to my attention; they had just purchased the rights. The (Scandinavian) movie had not come out yet, or it hadn’t come out in the States. I read the book. I was assured by everyone involved that they wanted to make an R-rated, European movie for adults. So, I said, “You realize it’s a little bit like a red cape in front of a bull, but I’m happy to oblige.” Then, I saw the Danish film.
CS: You did watch the film? That’s the other question I was surprised no one asked during the press conference earlier.
Fincher: Yeah, I saw the Danish film on DVD, and I thought it was great, but it was very different than the film that I saw in my head. Then Steve Zaillian turned in his script and I thought, “Wow, he’s really focused on the stuff that’s of interest to me, this odd pairing of detectives and why resist?”
CS: When I first saw the Swedish movie, I thought, “Boy, ‘Se7en’s’ really had a big influence.” We can’t ask Stieg if that’s the case because he’s not alive, but based on the ritual serial killings, you must have figured it must have had some influence. So I was surprised when you were going to direct this and want to re-explore that territory.
Fincher: Well, again, the path is familiar, but the people on the path was very exciting. (Lisbeth Salander) is exciting and I lived sort of vicariously through him, and I loved the idea of meeting up with her.
CS: She’s a great character. I feel both for people who read the books and saw the original movies, there’s something that appeals about her character to men and women for different reasons. It may be one of the reasons why actresses like Rooney and Noomi are able to pull something out of it. Was the complexity of her character something that struck you on first reading the book or the screenplay?
Fincher: I mean, she’s really compelling, but also, like I say, the way in was Daniel. The first person that we needed to anchor (this) that we needed was Daniel. Once we had Daniel, we could afford to take risks. We could afford to surprise, because it is Blomkvist’s story. It is. That’s the vessel. That’s the ship through uncharted territory, and you have to be with him. It’s one of those roles that’s not unlike in a weird way Morgan’s role in “Se7en” in that he really is the anchor for the thing. He’s sort of the unsung, because he’s the thing around which everything pivots.
CS: Have you read the other books and seen the other movies or were you very much focused on this one?
Fincher: I haven’t seen the movies. I read the second book, I read most of the third book. I haven’t read the whole entire; I just ran out of time because I was prepping.
CS: Do you go into something like this thinking of it as your entry into some sort of tentpole franchise, which is not territory you’ve explored before?
Fincher: Tentpole? No. I mean, when you say “tentpole” to me it’s like, summer blockbuster. No, I think this is a little too curvy for that, but that’s why I was interested in it, but I like the idea of three movies that are made for adults. I like the idea of R-rated franchises. Again, a franchise to me doesn’t have to be a billion dollar title. The first “Austin Powers” movie was extremely narrow cast. I mean, to understand what he was talking about with that character… Yes, he was doing a send-up of James Bond, but he was also doing a send-up of “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Saint.” I mean all that stuff about swinging London. So I think you can start at a more narrow and more specific and a more niche way and breathe life and include more people as you go.
CS: What’s interesting is that the first book is done in one. It is very much a story which has a beginning and end. The other books…
Fincher: Mostly don’t.
CS: Right, which is one of the problems with the second movie is that it’s literally a set-up for the third, and I assume the books are the same, but Lisbeth and Mikael are barely together at all.
Fincher: She’s barely in the second one.
CS: So I’m curious about that, because if this does well and they want you to do another one, would it be hard for you to be interested knowing that?
Fincher: I would assess that at that point, but right now, we had to rush to make this print available for the ill-fated New York Film Critics Circle screening, but that was literally a wet print, you know? We were working nights and weekends to get that ready. I literally finished it two-and-a-half weeks ago, and we’ve been on the press tour since then. So I haven’t had time to really think about the future right now. I mean, the future for me is lunch.
CS: Also, when you were doing press for “The Social Network,” you were already well into this movie, so this is rare for you because you’ve had your next project lined up or in development.
Fincher: Yeah, I haven’t embraced that kind of schedule before. It’s scary. It’s a scary thing. You want to be prepared. You want to be able to answer all the questions, and had I only been on through the book and didn’t have Steve Zaillian, I wouldn’t have even… I’d say, “Get some other sucker.”
CS: One thing I have to ask about is your relationship with Trent Reznor and the amazing music for these last two films. He had just ended one chapter in his life when he decided to stop touring with Nine Inch Nails, and then you gave him the chance to score “The Social Network,” and he won an Oscar for the first major score he’s done. Can you talk about how you guys work? You mentioned earlier he basically just sends you a lot of music.
CS: So he just does a lot of music and you find places for it?
Fincher: Well, he reads the script. We talk about it. We talk about senses of things, but I think “Social Network,” I didn’t prescribe anything, but I said to him, “Here’s what I see. I’m hearing Tangerine Dream. I’m hearing a John Hughes… I’m hearing ‘Risky Business.’ That’s the kind of thing. Bad synthesizers, very ’80s,” and he sort of smiled and said, “You know I can’t do that.” I said, “Of course not. I’m just telling you what I was thinking and now it’s up to you.” I do think electronic music, something that’s specifically electronic is part of the tapestry of this and that’s what he came up with, which was better than I could’ve explained or imagined. By all means, he should’ve won the Academy Award for that. It was amazing.
CS: And this new one is a pretty amazing record in itself. I know you must have heard “Ghosts” at one point.
Fincher: Yes. Well, we temped “Social Network” with “Ghosts.” He made that record in nine days or something; he went ahead and just did it. That’s what I said to him. I said, “Look, you are too important to too many people, and you are too important to me to have you come in and us co-opt you. I don’t want to do that. I want your response. I want you as a technologist and as a communicator and as a voice of a generation of music. I want you to respond to this. You don’t have to drive the whole thing. I’m just going to be a backstop. The movie’s the backstop and you just hit it as hard as you want. It’s going to come back.” Then on this movie, I said to him, “Look, we’d love to have you do ‘Dragon Tattoo.'” He said, “Well, let me give it a round.” “Here’s a script.” Then, a good two or three weeks later there was 45 minutes of music (chuckles) or something and I was like, “Wow.”
CS: You must get frustrated by whenever your name is mentioned as a director, there’s talk of you doing 40 takes or more.
Fincher: And that’s not really true, but…
CS: I know, but it becomes almost like a running joke when people talk about your work. Is that different when you work with Trent, where you don’t have to do that? Where the music is his territory and he just finds his own way until he has something that works for you?
Fincher: Well, there’s a lot of things that he works and reworks and reworks and reworks. The thing about him is he’s such a perfectionist, that there’s a lot of stuff I don’t even know about. By the time I’m hearing it, it’s something he wants to present. I mean, the first version of “Hall of the Mountain King” when “The Social Network” was just a little too Wendy Carlos, and that’s when I went to him. I said, “What would Wendy Carlos do with ‘Hall of the Mountain King?'” Then, of course, he came back with that. I said, “It’s too Wendy Carlos for me.” (Laughs) “That was the brief, Dave,” and I was like, “No, no, I know. I know, and I’m wrong. It needs to be more Trent Reznor in there,” and that’s what we did.
CS: One of the amazing moments in this movie is the use of Enya in a pivotal scene, which reminded me of the use of Huey Lewis in “American Psycho” or your own use of Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” at the end of “Fight Club,” where a song you’re not expecting ends up defining a key moment.
Fincher: Yeah, I gotta give credit where credit’s too. That was Daniel Craig. We were actually in a hotel room that looked a lot like this in SoHo in London. It was run by the same hotel company. We were sitting there and we talked about, “What would Martin’s calming influence be?” Daniel got this big smile across his face and he said, “‘Orinoco Flow.'” None of us knew what he was talking about. “‘Orinoco Flow,’ what does that mean?” He was like, “Come on. Come on. You guys know ‘Orinoco Flow.'” Then he picked up his iPod and he played it. We all just started laughing. Yeah, it’s too great.
CS: You talked about the title sequence a little bit downstairs, and it’s pretty amazing because if you’ve seen the Swedish film, you go in expecting a certain thing and that kicks you right out of that. If I watched it on DVD I’d just be going back and forth and watching it over and over, because it was such a crazy thing. Was “The Immigrant Song” always going to be the basis of that?
Fincher: Yeah, “The Immigrant Song” was always going to be the music for the first movie. I had thoughts about where to go from here, but that and the Bryan Ferry song too, was something that very early on and I was listening to it in the van on the way to shooting and was like, “I want this. I want these two bookends.”
CS: Were the people who did those titles someone you’ve worked with on previous movie titles?
Fincher: No, this is Tim Miller at Blur in Venice and Tim and I had been working for two years, or longer, trying to get two movies – “Heavy Metal” and “The Goon” made. I knew he was busy; they do a lot of game cinematics. I went to him and said, “Will you do the title sequence? Here’s the idea. I want this thing that comes out of blackness and shininess and I want it to be defined by its slippery sheen, but it’s all black.” I walked him through sort of what I was thinking, and then he ran with it. Jeff went through the books and kind of said, “Well, we think this is important. If you’re talking about Salander, these are the things that are important.” So, we took 50 little vignettes and we whittled it down to 25 or something and then I said, “You have eight weeks. It’s two minutes and 25 seconds. Here’s the track. Go.”
CS: How involved in the marketing have you been with these last couple of movies? I feel like Sony’s really stepped up their game, first with “The Social Network” teaser using “Creep,” which is the first trailer I’ve seen that had me in tears.
Fincher: We’ve been involved. I mean, I try to get involved, I want to be involved. I think it’s important to position the way that something gets thought about because I think that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. When I showed (Sony) what’s ostensibly the final cut of “The Social Network” after my 10 weeks, I showed them the teaser, which was the typing, the instant messaging thing. Then, I showed them the trailer that was “Creep,” the Mark Woollen cut, then I showed them the movie and they kind of bought the whole package. Then last Christmas, when we moved back to LA and were shooting on stages at Paramount for all the interiors of “Dragon Tattoo,” we had cut the teaser with “Immigrant Song.” So I presented them with that teaser and they bought into the idea of Red Band, not wholly, but as much as they could. Then, we did a trimmed version. Then, Mark Woollen cut the eight-minute trailer that we turned over to the studio basically to say, “Here’s kinda what we think the movie is, and you can cut a trailer from this.” They cut a trailer that I didn’t really like, so Mark went back and cut a four-minute trailer, and that was the big trailer that went out. Then, eventually the eight-minute got leaked. I was involved in that, but the television spots have been pretty much (Sony).
CS: What about the pirated teaser? I don’t know if you followed it but it caused a bit of a controversy in the online world, because we’ve been inured into not running pirated material since there’s so many issues with piracy, but it ended up being even bigger because of that.
Fincher: Well, obviously we were upset with the notion that it was being seen. I mean, I wanted it to be seen in…
CS: In theaters, right.
Fincher: Yeah, but it didn’t get shipped to many theaters and not many theaters would show it. It’s the kind of thing that you needed to, and this is what I had hoped Sony would do, I hoped that they would go to each of the exhibitors and say, “Look, we have something, and here’s the content of it. Although it’s Red Band and normally that’s too naughty for mass consumption, we’ll show you it. Here’s what you’re going to see.” To me, it was quite tame. There are certain technical things. If you see the side of a woman’s breast, obviously that becomes a red banded trailer, and obviously if Daniel Craig has blood on his face, that becomes a red banded trailer. But I didn’t feel that there was anything that was particularly gratuitous or offensive about it, and certainly for people who knew the book, so I felt like the teaser really did a nice kinda job of saying, “We were faithful to the book.” My hope was that more exhibitors – I mean, I wanted to go to them and say, “Let’s draw people into the theaters by giving them something that they can’t get anywhere else. Come to the altar to see the cross and be part of that experience.” And when it got leaked, obviously at first I was pissed. I don’t want it to be seen as a postage stamp. I want it to be seen as a big… but it was being shown by 20 theaters worldwide, so no one was showing it. So in the end, it ended up being a good thing, but I am of the mind that impressions should be tiered. There should be a specific way that something is… if you’re going to see it as a QuickTime, no matter how big, to me that’s downstream of seeing it in all of its majesty.
CS: As we wrap up, we’ll get a bit more esoteric, but what does David Fincher consider a bad day?
Fincher: I don’t know. It’s a bad day when you don’t get the work done that you need to get done or you don’t get it done to the satisfaction. The whole idea of spending this kind of money is to make people proud.
CS: With that in mind, is there a lot of pressure being David Fincher?
Fincher: There’s always a lot of pressure. I don’t want to sound like a sociopath, but you have to be able to sort of tune it out. I mean, I think I do a fairly effective job of keeping my eye on the ball.
CS: My last question is a little more innocuous. Is there any movie this year that’s impressed or shocked you and any movie next year you’re really looking forward to?
Fincher: I haven’t seen much this year. I was just telling Chris (Plummer), I just saw “Beginners,” which I thought was just beautiful. I’m so happy for Mike (Mills) because I really enjoyed “Thumbsucker” and I thought the accomplishment of that was amazing for a guy who was that into it. Then the leap from that to this is pretty astounding. He’s very gifted.
CS: Yeah, and it’s such a personal story for him, too.
Fincher: Yeah, but you know what? But how incredibly global and humanistic its approach. I mean, I know that he’s seeing the movie through the letterbox, but I felt totally included. There was not a moment in it that I didn’t understand, father to son and son to father and old age and dying and regrets and things you wish you could go back to and things you wish you could say to your mother. I thought all of that stuff was beautifully drawn. I loved that dog.
CS: Since you haven’t seen that much, is there anything you’re looking forward to seeing?
Fincher: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s coming out. I’m looking forward to “MI:4.” (Laughs) I want to see what Brad (Bird) did, you know? He’s one of the greats, and it’ll be interesting to see what he does in live action.
And that was it for our interview but as we left, we wished him luck against all the weekend competition (like “MI:4″) though he said that he told us he didn’t really see the other movies as competition to “Dragon Tattoo” since it lives in such a different domain than the others.
You can read what Fincher said about some of his upcoming projects here and then check back later this week for our interview with screenwriter Steven Zallian. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens on Tuesday night, December 20.