Interview: Dragon Tattoo Screenwriter Steven Zaillian


In Hollywood, screenwriter Steven Zaillian is considered a writer’s writer, having won an Oscar in 1994 for his screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and having two other nominations under his belt. He’s also worked with some of the world’s greatest directors including Martin Scorsese for Gangs of New York and with Ridley Scott twice, first for Hannibalu and then American Gangster.

2011 has already been a great year for Zaillian as he follows up his adaptation of the bestselling Moneyball, co-written by Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), with an adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling crime thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara and Christopher Plummer. spoke to Zaillian at the New York junket for the film earlier this week, already knowing that he has deliberately stayed away from watching the Swedish film based on Larsson’s novel. Between the press conferences and my own interview, I’ve listened to David Fincher talk for the past two hours about the script and the movie. He said he read the book and saw the original movie, but it was mostly your script and what you’d done with the adaptation that got him interested in directing this. How many times did you actually read a book before you jump into writing and figure out what part you’re going to focus on?
Steve Zaillian:
It depends on what the book or the source material is. For me, the first read is the most important one. I get a sense of reading it the first time whether I think it’s going to work for me and whether I’m going to work for it, and then in terms of how many times I read it after that. I might read it two or three times after that and then I set it aside and get to work.

CS: One of the things I liked about the movie which Fincher mentioned as well, was the way the Vangers are treated. In the movie you haven’t seen, the Swedish movie, the set-up is fairly grueling to get through and this movie is fun. What did you see in the Vangers that allowed you to have more fun with them and make them more interesting as characters?
I remember there was a point where I was reading the book and I actually had to go back and look at the family tree at the beginning (laughs) and say, “Well, we can’t do that in the movie. We can’t make it so complicated,” so when Henrik is sort of explaining who’s who the first time, when he’s showing photographs, if you look at it, he’s really only telling us about the people we need to know about. There’s probably another twenty of them that are discussed in the book that we’re not even going to know their names, so I know it doesn’t really sink in, but you get to know Gottfried and Martin and Harriet and Harald and Cecelia and that’s it. That’s all you need to know. It was fun actually, the scene where Henrik, to remind us, the audience, who’s who, he takes Mikael outside and he says, “She lives over here and he lives over there” and Mikael says, “I can’t follow who’s who.” That really is for the audience to say, “You know what? We don’t expect you to follow it. You’ll get it before this movie’s over.”

CS: As David mentioned at the press conference, Mikael then says to him, “And you live here.” I haven’t seen the Swedish movie in a while but I’m fascinated by how one book has so many layers that it can create two completely different visions that focus on such different aspects. How important was it to get away from the book as much as possible and develop
I wasn’t trying to get away from the book. I was just trying to make the book work for us, in terms of what we wanted to do, and it did. It offered all of that. Again, the movie, I don’t know what the Swedish movie did. I hear it’s very good, but I really don’t have any clue what they chose to focus on, as opposed to what we did.

CS: When you finish writing all the scripts are you going to go back one night and just see what the other movies look like?
I don’t think I can allow myself to see it until all three of them are done, if we actually do the other ones. Yeah, I’ll have a little film festival. I’ll watch all three of them.

CS: What’s interesting is that when you hear someone is remaking this movie or re-adapting the book I should say, you assume they’re going to move it to Seattle or Maine or somewhere in the States and make it American. It was a very specific decision to keep it in Sweden, so can you talk about why a story like this has to take place in Sweden?
I think all of us had a different reason. None of us–and when I say none of us, I mean the studio, the producers, David, me–none of us said, “Hey, should we consider doing it in America.” It was always going to stay in Sweden. I thought the best reason to keep it in Sweden, even though the story could take place somewhere else. You could make the changes to make it work was that it was a setting we’re not that familiar with. It was a great place to set a film noir story. In Sweden, of all places. It’s fantastic and that was what I liked about it.

CS: What about the character of Lisbeth who is really evocative in the book and a character who is a big draw. Men like her for one reason, women like her for another, and obviously, the actresses who’ve played her really have pulled out all the stops. How do you write a character like this, knowing that someone is going to have to find someone to play her?
Yeah, I mean, I approached all the characters with equal enthusiasm and work. One thing I felt while reading the book was that she talked too much. She kind of expressed herself too much, and I thought that this character would not really try to communicate too much, and so what I liked about what ended up happening is that she doesn’t explain herself really at all. She behaves in a certain way, she reacts in a certain way. You get to know her through her behavior as opposed to her explaining things to you, and I just think that’s just a more interesting character to watch, it’s a more interesting character to write. And what Rooney did that’s so great is that she can take these tiny little moments that are showing something about what’s going on inside her head and make them work. I’m thinking of little… you know, when Mikael comes over to her house the first time, I don’t know, it’s like her whole face changes. She becomes a different person in his presence. Most characters will smile a hundred times in a movie – and if she smiles once, it just says so much.

CS: How important was it to keep any of Stiegg Larsson’s dialogue? Was there anything in the book that you felt was an important line to keep or something important to the story or what readers expect?
No, if it was something that I was like, “I can’t say this any better” than absolutely, but there wasn’t anything in it that I felt that it had to stay in simply because it was in the book. At no time did I feel that.

CS: You said you read the other two books, but this one is interesting because it’s a done-in-one complete story, but the other books get more into the characters but it also separates the two characters people like seeing together. You haven’t seen the movies but the second two movies just weren’t as fulfilling as the first one.
Do you think that’s why?

CS: I think partially and I was wondering while you were reading those other books if you think you’ll have to deviate even further than the first book in order to keep it consistent?
I don’t know. I haven’t read the third book in a long time. I remember it was a very long court case basically, but I don’t really remember it in detail. Second book I read not too long ago, so I do remember it. But I agree with you. I think this idea of them being separated for so long is not necessarily the best way.

CS: So do you think that’s something that might be different from the books once you adapt them?
I don’t know. It’s something I’ll have to put… right now at this point, I’m just working up the nerve to approach it (laughs). I haven’t solved anything, so I’m really just gearing up for it.

CS: Is it one of those things where you’re literally going to wait until the Monday before it opens when someone says “Start” and then you have to start?
No, I’ve been working on it, but more like just trying to get ideas down on paper, but as far as whether it will get made or not, absolutely. (laughs) That’s going to be the decision making thing, not what I think.

CS: One thing you mentioned earlier was the fact you don’t go on the sets of movies you write. I remember the scene in “Adaptation” where Nicolas Cage is wandering around on set and didn’t know what to do and no one knew who he was, but especially a movie like this where it’s just one writer which is so rare, you’d think the collaboration would continue onto set. So how does that work? Once you give the script to Fincher and he has actors, that’s it?
Yeah, yeah, and David is a very disciplined director. He’s not somebody out there reinventing scenes in terms of dialogue and stuff like that. The script means something to him, so I felt very confident that I didn’t need to be there. I didn’t be there to lord over him or look over his shoulder; he’s perfectly capable of doing it himself.

CS: But even working with Ridley Scott, you spent a lot of time getting the script exactly where it needs to be.
Right, right, and we’ll spend time in a room and we’ll go over it until they’re happy and then in the case of David and Ridley Scott, then they go and direct the movie. They’re not working on the script anymore. Script’s done at that point.

CS: You had another great adaptation this year with the work you did adapting “Moneyball” with Aaron Sorkin. I haven’t read the whole book but I read enough of it to know it could never have worked as a movie, so it’s amazing that it does work and it’s quite good. Can you talk about writing that? I know you were working with Soderbergh originally.
Yeah, yeah, I’ll talk about it a little bit, but Aaron, because we were working on it, we sort of agreed that we should do all the “Moneyball” stuff together.

CS: But you worked on that separately.
Yeah, but now we’ll work together, but yeah, I was working on it… I can’t really say “with Soderbergh,” because we were kind of working at cross-purposes at a certain point, but I feel better talking about it with Aaron, if maybe you can get an interview with both of us.

CS: Fair enough. If you’ll both be in New York doing interviews, I’ll try to do something. What about some of these other things you’ve been developing like “A Thousand Splendid Suns”? Is that still going to happen?
Yeah, yeah, we’re still talking about it. The way I want to do it is make basically a foreign film. I want this thing to be done by a Middle Eastern director with Middle Eastern actors, maybe even in Farsi, and approach it in the exact opposite way that they did “Kite Runner” and make it a really indigenous film to the area, and that’s a tough approach to get the money for, so that’s what we’re trying to do.

CS: “The Kite Runner” is interesting because I liked the movie a lot.
I haven’t seen it actually.

CS: I was shocked that the people who loved the bestselling book did not go see the movie, so you never even saw the movie?
No, I read the book. I haven’t seen the movie, but unlike “Dragon Tattoo,” I had no qualms about setting it in Sweden and the people would be speaking English, I thought that was the right way to go, but with “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” I think it would really be more distinctive if it was made indigenously.

CS: Which means you won’t get as much money to make it.
No, it will be very cheap.

CS: You’ve done so many great adaptations but do you have any original ideas or screenplays that you’ve been developing?
Yeah, well “American Gangster” really was. “American Gangster” was something, there was an article, but it really grew out of my interviews with these two guys. I came to New York and spent about a week with Frank Lucas and then Ritchie Roberts came out to Los Angeles and I spent some time with him, and that is what made me want to do it, these two really interesting guys.

CS: Do you have the urge to direct again after “All the King’s Men,” maybe something you’ve been writing?
Oh, yeah, but I don’t have anything in my hands right now that I feel passionate enough about to do. I’m not a director director, so guys like David (Fincher) and Ridley Scott and Spielberg, I get the feeling that they’re not happy unless they’re directing and they direct a lot. Every year they’re doing something. I’m not that way. I feel like it takes a lot out of me, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, so it has to be something that I really feel I know this story and I can do a good job with this, better than somebody else can do, so I just don’t have that project right now. When I do, yeah, I’ll be happy to direct again.

You can read about one of the movies Zaillian has been thinking of directing here.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is now playing nationwide. You can check out our interview with director David Fincher here.

(Photo Credit: HRC/