When it was announced that David Fincher would be making an English version of Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, it came as a shock to many cinephiles. After all, the books had already been made into a hugely successful Swedish film franchise, and since 2007’s Zodiac, the director had moved aay from thrillers and serial killers with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and last year’s Facebook drama, The Social Network. I was granted a rare interview with the 49-year-old auteur to find out what provoked him to put his own spin on the trials and tribulations of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, and why, after all this time, he felt inclined to revisit the dark side of mankind.
Dazed & Confused: Do you think Hollywood found it hard to pluck up the courage to invest in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo without seeing the success of the books and original film trilogy?
David Fincher: I was given this book right in the middle of Benjamin Button, which had taken 6 years to get off the ground. I said to the producer, “I’ve got be honest with you, I can’t push a rock up a hill. I think you’ve got to shoot it in a foreign location, it’s going to be expensive, I don’t see anybody spending the kind of money it’s going to take us to make this together and I’m too exhausted.” Then, of course, it came back around about 5 years later as a gigantic hit book and a hit movie and at that point the rock was already up the hill, so I just had to push it over. That’s partly my fault for not having wherewithal to imagine that this could be something a big studio would ultimately go for.
Is this one of the biggest challenges to your career so far, because the stories have already been so widely seen and read?
Doing it differently doesn’t seem to be an issue, improving it is a wholly subjective thing. You give 5 directors the same script and you get 5 different movies. That’s just the reality. You take a camera out of the case and you set it up and you have a different cast, you have a different vibe, people stage things differently. Things are amped up that are more important to one person than they would be to another; I don’t think it’s possible to make something the same.
Did you have to compromise over anything? What about the brutal rape scene?
No. The idea is not to actually film somebody being raped. The idea is to put the audience in a position where they will understand what that means to that character. There is nothing real about movies, they’re designed to feel real, but they’re also designed to give you the emotional protection of not having to witness something that’s real. I’m interested in the drama of Lisbeth. It’s the whole chronology of events and how it hooks you and how it makes you feel. We’re not just recording depravity. The Exorcist is not a film about a 12-year-old girl masturbating with a crucifix, that’s what happens in it, but that’s not what the movie’s about. It’s about faith and it’s about mothers and daughters and the loss of control. It can be a parable about drug abuse, when you lose someone to addiction or a force that’s bigger than the whole relationship. It’s a bigger context than just ‘we’ve got to do this, we’re going to order up some sex toys and he’s going to have a smoking jacket.’ It’s not dotting the I’s and crossing the t’s. It’s about the engagement.
Do you think cinema is still as powerful a medium as it was when you first started?
Less and less so. I think we’re most responsive to movies in our teens and preteens. When we’re sort of figuring out what the language of that is, and you haven’t seen 5000 versions of the same eight stories. You’re much more susceptible to a story taking you to this place or that place, and as you get older and as you’ve seen more iterations of the same kind of plot machination you become more jaded. I also think that cinema has become more hyperbolic and I think that a lot of movies bludgeon you with, if not simplistic, but simple ideas.
Why did you think that is?
Part of not having money to make movies is you don’t have as a big of a consensus to how it’s being spent. When you’re making a movie like Taxi Driver for $3 million, that’s a much purer form of communication because it didn’t require an entire boardroom to agree that that was a good expenditure. Everybody sort of went: ‘Who wants to make this? What’s his name? Who’s going to be in it? He’s going to shave his head? Alright, fuck it’. I’m sure more thought went into it than that, but, when you’re making something that costs $80-100 million there’s a bigger risk and so there’s a lot more anxiety.
How did filming in Sweden affect your style of directing?
On location it was 20 below. I’ve never worked in that kind of cold. It was unbelievable. At night, when there’s sleet, it’s like being frozen sandblasted, it’s truly exhausting. It’s one of those things that you can’t prepare yourself for. Being in Sweden changes the way you feel about those books. When I read those books I saw them in a completely different context to when I was in southern California. When you go to Sweden you see a whole different take on it. It’s not just the cold, it’s not just snow, it’s that for 6 months out of the year the world is a completely different place. The sun doesn’t come out until 9 in the morning and it’s gone after lunch.
Apart from the books, how did Swedish folklore influence your creative process?
When we started to look for tag-lines for the posters we found these very, very bizarre but interesting Swedish proverbs, like, ‘What’s hidden in snow comes forth from afar’ or ‘He who challenges evil shall expel’. It’s like when somebody actually explains to you what ‘Ashes to ashes, we all fall down’ means you’re like, ‘Really? How did this become a nursery rhyme? I would think you want to protect children from this’. But, if you’re talking about the Bubonic plague and – I don’t think anyone ever wanted to make the bubonic plague palatable – but if you’re trying to make it something other than this horrible thing that children have no control over, then you might come up with something like Ashes to Ashes.
Have you always been fascinated by dark tales since you were a child?
I don’t know. I had a pretty good upbringing. I remember being 10 or 11 years old and seeing Rear Window and the moment when Lars Thorwald brings that suitcase down in the middle of the night and there’s the look on Jimmy Stuart’s face and I remember thinking ‘Ah, he cut her up and he put her in the suitcase.’ I don’t know where that idea came from. It was not something that happened in our neighbourhood; I think I’ve always been interested in what’s going on in the house next door.
Once a film is wrapped and printed, do you find it easy to let go? Or do you always yearn to improve it?
I don’t watch my movies. I see them so much that by the time it gets to a theatre I’ve seen it 300 times. You probably watch it once in the theatre with an audience and then go home and throw up repeatedly. I would never want to revisit something. I’ve done sort of high definition reclamations and new transfers and things like that. But I’m not the kind of person who wants to go back. I think movies are a by-product of the time they were made and I think if you go back and revisit them, and re-do the visual effects and whatever you may be missing the point. I think movies are a document of where you were in a certain time, where technology was in a certain time, where acting was at a certain time.
Which film taught you the most about your strengths and weaknesses as a director?
Every experience teaches. It’s just another lap. Managing expectation is a huge part of what you do as a director. You have to do it in every department. From having been put through the wringer on Alien 3, what I learnt and what I brought to Seven was ‘I’m going to make my own mistakes, and I’m going to take the fall. Any mistakes that I make are going to be mine.’
When was the last time you had to make a huge, artistic compromise?
You make artistic compromises everyday. Some of them are human, some of them are based on wishing I could get a performance to be a little bit more of what I had in my mind, but I can see that the actors are bruised and battered and exhausted. I’ve hurt people before, I know what that’s like to ask for one more and people come up to you with a dislocated finger or a broken rib or a hyper-extended knee. You just go ‘is it worth it?’ No. You can call that an artistic compromise because you really wanted that shot, but you have to manage the assets, it’s also really important that these people realise that I’m not squeezing them like tubes of toothpaste. That I’m not wringing them out and bringing in another one. We’re in this together.
Who stops you from burning out?
Nobody really. I’m in charge of that. On The Social Network we probably shot more days than any of the cast had ever shot before, and it was half as much as we shot on Dragon Tattoo.
Have you always been a natural leader or have you had to fake it to make it?
There are definitely times when you’re faking it.
Which film of yours comes closest to what you envisioned in your head?
Zodiac was a movie where I knew what that place smelt like. I knew that park at the beginning where those kids got shot. I knew that stuff, I knew 1969 in San Francisco. Fight Club was a feeling about disenfranchisement and I felt particularly susceptible to Chuck Palahniuk’s manifesto; I felt like I could be easily swept away by it.
Why, because of the age you were when you read it?
Yeah, it was like, ‘I’ve said this shit to myself before, I’ve had this dialogue and been too afraid to ever act on it and I know exactly what this guy is going through.’ There were definitely aspects of Mark Zuckerberg as he was imagined by Aaron Sorkin where I was like, ‘I know what it’s like to be in a room with a bunch of adults going ‘oh, your little start up, that’s so cute.’ I know what it’s like to go ‘oh man, what smug bastards’.
Do you think that any of your films haven’t aged as well as you’d hoped they would?
None of them age as well as you hope they will. I don’t know, I really couldn’t comment.
Are you worried about what the cast and crew of the Swedish films are going to think about your version?
I want Noomi Rapace to like it. I’m very curious to see what Stieg Larsson’s estate thinks. I’m very curious to see what the people who made the original think, and I do consider it the original. But they’re very different movies because of the amount of money spent on them. I’m sure that if I had killed myself to make a movie for $15 million and then Niels Arden Oplev got to do a $90 million version of the same thing in Sweden 2 years later, it would make me uncomfortable. By the same token, I hope he likes what we did. I don’t think what we’re doing is in any way denigrating to what came before it. I think it can only add. There was a time and place when these books became very, very successful and not completely in spite of the success of the Swedish movies, though I’m sure it had something to do with it. And now we’re picking up where they left off. And we’re doing it in English and hopefully people will like our version, which is a very different version. I’m thinking of it in terms that I think of every movie. I desperately want to take it in, and I’m happy for there to be discussion about it. I don’t like all this ‘that one will never be as good’ nor do I like ‘well, look how much money they’re spending, it’s going to be better’. All this message board nonsense to me is counter to what I think filmmakers think. We’re all in the circus.
Do you, for want of a better phrase, feel trapped in the serial killers box?
(Laughs) I never loved being pigeon holed. But I didn’t do this movie because there was a serial killer in it, I did it because I loved the relationship between this younger woman and older man and what they eventually mean to one another. I love the two characters. We couldn’t even pretend to do the Agatha Christie walk-through mystery. Once you pair that back you ultimately get to what is compelling about the story, which is both those two people, and how human and frail and strong and interesting they are. What interested me was them.
You’ve been linked to Disney’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea project. Is that happening?
We’re trying to get a script that we all believe in. Verne was an interesting guy, there’s some interesting stuff in there that needs to be looked at. I love the idea of a big 3D extravaganza, and I love the idea of doing it dry from wet water stuff. And I like the idea of science fiction after the Civil War; what does that world look like? We’re talking about a guy that’s 200 years ahead of his time. It could be interesting, but by the same token it’s an expensive proposition, and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of ideas about what’s comfortable family entertainment.
Do you ever resent having to justify your creative decisions to the financiers?
It’s a difficult environment, but we’re not talking about fucking watercolours, man. We’re talking about $100 million, we’re talking about GNP for a small country. If you spend $100 million you’d better make $2-300 million because, otherwise, it’s not going to happen again. The fact of the matter is no one’s forcing me to play on this kind of wire from these kinds of heights. If you want to make a movie for $400,000 I’m sure that I could go out and raise $400,000 to make a movie. But, I don’t have any $400,000 movies in me right now.
What still fascinates you about making films?
I think that movies are unbelievably powerful and I love the immersive nature of them as a storytelling form, and as an art form, and as an alternate reality form. I’m not bored by movies yet. I think that they’re a very young form of communication and there’s still a lot left to do. I desperately enjoy watching an audience watch a movie. One of the greatest things we got to do was turn an infrared camera on the audience as they watched this movie. It' date movie, and as Lisbeth is going into this house, the women are going, ‘What is she doing there?’ And the guys are going, ‘I thought this was a chick movie? There’s certainly a lot of sodomy.’ It was fun. And that’s what you’re doing it for. There’s a part of being a director that’s a little bit of the trained dog. You want, when you do a back flip, for everybody to give you a clap. But that’s not the only reason you do it.
After the trilogy, are you going to give the serial killers a rest?
I don’t believe in making specific plans, because something will change and I’ll embarrass myself. I don’t want to do that.
Follow Tim Noakes on Twitter here @TimNoakes