Dialogue: David Fincher on the Cold, Dark, Perverse World of 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

Dialogue: David Fincher on the Cold, Dark, Perverse World of 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

Dec 20, 2011

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David Fincher isn't afraid to take long pauses during a conversation while he thinks of the right thing to say because David Fincher is in the business of getting it right. He's meticulous in the way he constructs his films, known for making his actors suffer through upwards of 90 takes for one scene because, as he'll tell you, that's just his "process," and he refuses to change it no matter how difficult the scene in question may be to pull off.

In person he's the kind of guy who likes to answer your question before you've finished asking it, but that doesn't mean he's not easy to talk to -- it just means he's difficult to figure out. David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven, The Social Network) is a man who doesn't stop working; his time doing press for The Social Network was cut short because he was already busy getting ready to shoot The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- and right from that film's press junket in New York, he was getting ready to travel down to Baltimore to prepare for a TV series he'll be directing called House of Cards. From there -- who knows (he certainly doesn't). Will he direct adaptations of the other two books in the Millennium series? Will he direct a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea adaptation? Cleopatra? Nothing is set in stone, which is ironic considering Fincher appears to be a man who likes his ducks all in a row, preferably dressed in black, pierced and chain-smoking cigarettes. Just how he likes his movies.

And why is that? Why is David Fincher drawn to these cold, dark environments full of brilliant but emotionless characters who are so obsessed with the task at hand they barely have time to acknowledge those around them? Is it because that's who David Fincher really is -- a cold, emotionless man obsessed with the film he's currently working on? Or is he just into some weird sh*t? We tried to figure that out as we sat down with the filmmaker to talk about adapting the monster that is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which hits theaters today.

Movies.com: Your last few films have been adaptations. Do you like working off source material more? Do you find it more challenging when there’s already this expectation from those familiar with the original work?

David Fincher: I’m not in the adaptation business; I’m in the script business. I didn’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald, and say, ‘God damn we gotta make a movie out of Benjamin Button!’ I was given a script that I liked. Same thing with Zodiac – I wouldn’t have touched it as a book; it was only James Vanderbilt’s script. I still to this day haven’t read The Accidental Billionaires because I had a script by Aaron Sorkin that was the reason to make the movie. And with [Dragon Tattoo], I almost said no on the basis of the book because I just didn’t know how you could get to two-and-a-half hours, even, with this subject, with this source material. I couldn’t get to two-and-a-half hours in cinematic terms because I couldn’t see what the movie necessarily was. And so I was in the Steve Zaillian business.

Movies.com: Had you read the book?

DF: I read the book. I was given the book, and I was making my way through it kinda going, ‘How many Vangers are there?’ [laughs] How do I tell the story of Hedeby Island without a map? I was sort of amazed that [Stieg] Larsson got away with a family tree and a map in the first two pages of this thriller, but to his credit there was something here that was holding everyone’s attention, and I felt it was those two people front and center.

Movies.com: How involved were you in the writing process?

DF: Yeah, well we did some rehearsals, and I would talk about some stuff that I just thought we could cut or spend less time on, but that was only two-to-three weeks worth of work. And then I was on a plane, and then we were shooting. Part of the task of this was Sony/Columbia Pictures saying ‘We want this for next Christmas.’ Ya know, who knows if the phenomenon will continue. At this point in time I think it was 25 million books that had sold, and it’s sixty-something now. There was no reason to believe that the book would just keep selling.

Movies.com: Did you go near the Swedish films?

DF: Yeah, I saw [the first one] on DVD before it hit the states. I thought it was good. I thought it was a different movie than I would’ve made, and so I made a different movie.

Movies.com: Is it difficult to watch an adaptation of a film that you’re about to work on?

DF: It was weird, yeah. It was definitely weird. I wouldn’t have wanted to do the $15 million version after Niels [Arden Oplev] had done the $100 million version of the movie. Know what I mean? That’s a different animal.

Movies.com: You changed a few things from the original book for your movie, but I’m surprised you didn’t change more. Did anyone at some point request your version to take place in the United States instead of Sweden?

DF: Yes, but remember also that you have a sexual relationship between a guy in his mid-40s and a girl in her early twenties, and that is a very different thing in the United States than it is elsewhere in the world. The taboo nature of that just doesn’t exist in Sweden, which is why we stuck with the location.

Movies.com: Looking back at your films, many of your main characters have similar traits in that they’re cold, calculated and emotionless, in part because they’re so obsessed with the task at hand. What draws you to characters like that?

DF: Don’t know.

Movies.com: Do you relate to them in some way? Do you see them as extensions of yourself?

DF: I relate to Mark Zuckerberg, but I relate equally to Eduardo Savarin. Almost all of the characters are a subdivision of things that I relate to and know. When I look at Fight Club, I don’t know Tyler Durden, but I love Tyler Durden. I know The Narrator and I find him to be a pain in the ass, but I know him as me – and I know how small, petty, weird, bitter and twisted and lost he is. And I know Marlow Singer, and there are parts of me that are Marla Singer. So, yeah, I probably personally relate more to Mikael Blomkvist than I do to Lisbeth Salander. I don’t know how it is to be betrayed to the extent that she has been personally, so I’m making that up or identifying with it conceptually.

Look: The Ultimate 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' Image Gallery

Movies.com: The rape scenes and the subsequent revenge scene are a few of the more intense moments I’ve seen from any of your films. Were they challenging to shoot, especially with an up-and-coming actress like Rooney Mara who hadn’t done anything like that before?

DF: I don’t know that you know that’s true …

Movies.com: You’re totally right. Hey, I don’t know what kind of stuff Rooney Mara is into behind closed doors –

DF: She’s a freak!

[laughs]

DF: I don’t think Lisbeth’s done anything like that before, so I think she’s perfectly qualified to do it. And Rooney should be as shocked or alternatively dispassionate as we would be in that situation. I mean we talked about a lot of stuff – we just tried to think about what would happen if you were in this situation. What would you do; where would you go?

Movies.com: You’re a man who likes to do a lot of takes. Did you do a lot of takes for those scenes?

DF: Yes. I don’t change my process for the temperature or humidity, or number of people involved. I’m responsible for half the movie – the picture side. And on the day in the moment I’m responsible for the behavior and the performance and the framing – whether the boom mic’s in or out – and I have to juggle all that stuff and make sure I have the pieces to tell the story. The degree to which they’re longer or shorter than they’re intended has to do with once you live with the material, and once you see it juxtaposed with other material in it. You gotta make changes based on that. But I don’t really change my process. I’m not saying my process is “the way” – I’m about to do a television show [House of Cards], and I know I don’t have more than five or six takes. So it’s going to be a different beast; a different way of doing it. But I didn’t change up anything. Just because it was going to be twenty-below outside, I didn’t say, okay, we’re only gonna do six takes.

Movies.com: The opening title sequence is definitely one of the more memorable of the year. Where did those ideas come from, and how involved were you in putting that together?

DF: I had the idea of wanting to sort of get Lisbeth’s point of view into the title sequence; I wanted it to be there before she walks in. I wanted to set the stage. I liked the idea of this sort of homage to Maurice Binder, and I liked the idea of dark recesses – the primordial tar-pit of her subconscious. I went to a friend of mine, Tim Miller, who runs Blur Studios -- he and his wife do titles and graphic packages. And I went to both of them and said, ‘I want to do a title sequence. I see it being black and shiny, and I see this fluid simulation thing so it’s sort of black lacquer splattered with black lacquer, but I don’t know what the specific things are – can you do this?’ And we had worked for two-to-three years trying to get Heavy Metal and The Goon off the ground, but I said I can give you eight weeks. And he and Jennifer went through the books and sort of picked specific scenes to put on these index cards – the drowning of Gottfried, emergence of the Phoenix – ya know, her connection to technology, or the blooming of Henrik’s flowers. So we had this whole list of things we wanted to see and I said just make it as weird, perverse and black as you can make it. And they did.

NoteWatch parts of the opening title sequence in the below music video

Movies.com: Obsession is a theme present in many of your films. What were you obsessed with growing up?

DF: Making movies.

Movies.com: What kind of movies?

DF: These kinds of movies.

Movies.com: Dark, cold thrillers?

DF: Yeah, I mean, look, I enjoyed making Benjamin Button. I like those kind of stretches. I also like Social Network – I like making chatty, snarky stuff. Yeah, making any kind of movie, really. Making good movies.

Movies.com: Is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea your next movie?

DF: There is no next for me. What’s next is House of Cards, the TV show. I have to go to Baltimore and then Washington this weekend.

Movies.com: Are you a franchise man --

DF: What does that mean, am I a franchise man? Do I just do Bond movies?

Movies.com: I mean in that there are two other books in this series – do you see yourself as the sort of filmmaker who’d really like to own a franchise; to live inside a world for the span of, say, three films?

DF: I don’t know. It’s all gotta be based on scripts; it’s all gotta be based on stories. I think the next two books in this trilogy are tough – tough to make cinematic. I feel like they’re sort of one story that feels semi-arbitrarily bifurcated, and that would be something that’d need to be narrowed down.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is in theaters now.

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