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Holiday preview: 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig team up with renowned director David Fincher for a dark, disturbing, and already controversial adaptation of the blockbuster crime novel. Step inside the season’s most eagerly (and nervously) awaited thriller

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From the street, David Fincher’s two-story Hollywood office complex hardly looks like the HQ of one of filmmaking’s most acclaimed directors. Its covered-up windows and uninviting facade suggest something sinister and long abandoned, the kind of place where, if it were in a Fincher movie, unspeakable things might be going on while oblivious locals wander by on their way to lunch. As it turns out, that’s exactly what’s happening. Inside, Fincher sits alone in front of a computer in his airy, modern office, making final tweaks to his brutally dark take on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster novel is full of rape and torture and Nazis, and given Fincher’s history of provocative films like Se7enand Fight Club, fans are awaiting his version with excitement and no small amount of dread.”I couldn’t be happier,” he says of that early nervousness. ”We didn’t want to whitewash it. We intend to earn our R. If you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about.”

Certainly the Swedish author’s mystery, which along with its two sequels has sold an astonishing 65 million copies worldwide, is tough stuff. Its heroes — social-misfit enigma Lisbeth Salander (played by Rooney Mara in the film) and moral-crusader journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) — partner to investigate a girl’s disappearance, and the book is full of vividly unpleasant scenes that will no doubt get even more horrifying in Fincher’s onscreen version. ”It’s dark, it’s scary, it’s dramatic, it’s suspenseful,” says Dragon Tattoo screenwriter and exec producer Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) of the movie. ”It’s a David Fincher film. We all know what that is.” Asked about the movie’s Oscar chances, Fincher, who has scored two Best Director nods (for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and 2010’s The Social Network), half-jokingly replies that Academy attention is unlikely because ”there’s too much anal rape.”

When Fincher offered Mara the part of Lisbeth, he laid out the stark reality of what she would be forced to endure. They were sitting across a coffee table in the same room where the director is currently working, Mara clutching a cup of coffee, Fincher trying his hardest to scare the crap out of her. ”I told Rooney, ‘You’re going to be emaciated, you have to be naked, you have to get raped [on screen], get pierced, smoke cigarettes, ride a motorcycle,’ ” Fincher recalls of that morning meeting in the summer of 2010. ” ‘I need you to really concentrate and tell me this is something you want.’ ” The actress didn’t even flinch. ”There were certainly things I was scared to do, but I never thought I wasn’t up for the challenge,” she says. ”The motorcycle was the thing I really didn’t want to do. You know, you’re going to be raped, be naked… But as soon as he was like, ‘You’re going to have to ride a motorcycle,’ I was like, ‘Oh, really?’ ” Fincher told her to think about it for half an hour. She didn’t need to. She was all-in.

Mara had coveted the role from the moment she heard Fincher was involved, but initially he was skeptical. The actress had spent four days working with him on The Social Network, and though her portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg’s put-upon girlfriend was well received, she had what Fincher describes as a ”prettiness and wholesomeness” that couldn’t be further from the boyish Lisbeth’s wounded-animal hostility. ”They said they didn’t want to see me,” says Mara, 26. ”I was like, ‘Okay, that makes sense. I don’t think I’m necessarily right for it either.’ And then I saw the girls who were potentially up for the part all over the Internet and I thought, ‘Well, if these girls are going in, I should get a chance. They’re not necessarily any more right for it than I am.’ ”

At the time there was enormous speculation about who would play Lisbeth, one of the most coveted roles for a young actress in recent memory. Stars such as Kristen Stewart, Keira Knightley, and Carey Mulligan were rumored to be in the running. Fincher talked to dozens of actresses, including Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman. It was Ceén Chaffin, Fincher’s producing partner and longtime significant other, who first suggested Mara (the film is also being overseen by Social Network producer Scott Rudin). ”I just thought she had the range to be cold and removed,” says Chaffin. ”She’s so good in her scenes in Social Network, I thought that she had the ability to be this odd little removed creature that Lisbeth is. [Fincher] was like, ‘Huh.’ ”

Despite his skepticism, Fincher agreed to have her audition, and what he saw intrigued him. As the process dragged on, he kept bringing her back, asking for more and more: readings, screen tests, on-the-fly filming on the L.A. subway. At one point, he actually had Mara get drunk the night before a morning photo shoot. ”It was hell for her,” says Craig, 43. ”She just was put through the mill. A number of people wanted the part, and there was a lot of discussion and debate and arguments and probably shouting. Rooney really nailed it.”

Finally, after months of deliberation, Fincher was convinced: Mara was his Lisbeth Salander. But when he told the studio, they were nervous. ”I think conceptually they were fine with the idea that this was not somebody who has had their name above the title,” says Fincher, 49. ”And yet when they’re actually confronted with it, everybody kind of went, ‘Wait a minute, we’re really going to do this?’ ” Ultimately, Sony execs got it. ”David was much more familiar with Rooney’s capabilities than we were and so was convinced much earlier that she was the right person,” says Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton. ”So obviously there’s going to be a discussion, particularly with a franchise that’s potentially as large as this is. But he was right. He was dead right.”

Less than two weeks after Mara got the part, she found herself in a room at New York City’s Crosby Street Hotel, surrounded by strangers and about to radically transform her appearance. Hairstylist Danilo Dixon pulled Mara’s lovely brown hair back into a braid, asked if she was ready, and squeezed the scissors. He handed her the foot-long twist in a Ziploc bag (she still has it), then dyed and shaped what remained into Salander’s blue-black butch jag. Mara wasn’t too freaked out until he bleached her eyebrows, which was a tough adjustment. ”I needed a moment,” she says. ”I just had to process, okay, this is what you look like now.” She recovered quickly, though, and soon headed to Brooklyn to get her eyebrow and ears pierced (she had a nipple pierced in Sweden). ”It was fine,” says Mara of the experience, although she doesn’t seem keen to elaborate.

Fincher and costume designer Trish Summerville put an enormous amount of thought into how Lisbeth should look. ”It says in the book that she’s punk, so we were talking about ‘What does punk mean?’ ” says the director. ”Joan Jett did her punk thing, but it was like, ‘Look at me!’ I think Lisbeth is the antithesis of that. She looks like one of those dirty homeless kids you see on Hollywood Boulevard. They don’t make a lot of eye contact. They’re kind of…trash. This character is like a porcupine: Don’t touch me, don’t f— with me. At the same time, there’s a subconscious agreement with society that she’s worthless.” It was crucial that Lisbeth not come across as too ”bitchin’,” as Fincher puts it, like some pumped-up superhero on a revenge-stoked rampage where ”you can already hear George Thorogood playing over the f—ing introduction.” The idea, Fincher says, ”was to keep her a little questionable.”

In September 2010, Fincher started filming on location in Sweden, and it quickly proved to be a tough shoot: the fierce Nordic winter, the unusually compressed production schedule, the pressure of working in an unfamiliar country with a mostly Swedish crew. Then, of course, there was the material. ”You know, there are some rape scenes in this movie; there are people doing violence to each other,” says Fincher. ”Nobody wants to be part of that transaction, even if it’s fake. It can get ugly. When you have to be naked in front of 50 other people and chained to a bed and people are doing horrible things to you with objects…yeah, it’s hard. But that was the story.”

Fincher’s exacting vision and penchant for multiple takes only added to the challenge. Mara recalls spending three 10-hour days on one especially demanding fight sequence in a subway station. ”I had been smoking a lot for the movie and then spent three days just running nonstop,” says the actress. ”You never want to have to smoke or eat in a David Fincher movie. You’re doing it take after take. The eating is worse than the smoking. I was eating pizza in one scene, and I literally ate, like, 20 pieces.”

Despite all that, Mara seems thrilled to have worked so closely with Fincher, who she says often treats her like a little sister. ”I can’t imagine having gone through all of that with anyone else,” she says. ”He just knows what he’s doing better than I can imagine anyone knowing what they’re doing. There is no question that he’s not prepared to answer. He just knows everything.” Still, she’s not eager to relive the grueling shoot anytime soon. Fincher has invited her to watch the nearly finished film several times, but so far she hasn’t managed to face it. ”I keep turning him down,” she says. ”I’m just not ready to watch. I don’t think I’m really going to enjoy the experience.”

Taking a break from his computer, Fincher sits in a conference room down the hall from his office, his feet crossed atop the table and a pair of glasses pushed up on his head. He seems surprisingly relaxed given Dragon Tattoo’s looming release date. On the wall next to him hangs an enlarged print of a quote about his controversial 1999 cult film Fight Club, a devastatingly negative assessment in which the late British critic Alexander Walker slammed the movie as ”anti-society” and ”anti-God.” Fincher loves it. ”We’re trying to take all my worst reviews and blow them up as big as possible,” he says. ”This one is the most spectacular.”

The director is obviously comfortable with controversy — even pleased by it. Good thing: When Dragon Tattoo hits theaters, the movie is likely to invite heated debate. Fans of the book and the 2009 Swedish film — which stars Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist and earned a respectable $10.1 million in the U.S. — will be watching closely for any perceived missteps. ”We’ve got something very simple to deliver on,” says Fincher. ”A gigantic f—ing book that people have very rigid preconceived notions of, to the point that they actually take umbrage with a teaser poster.”

Ah, the teaser poster. In June, the Internet erupted over the provocative image of a topless Mara staring blankly into the camera while Craig wraps an arm around her in a pose some found protective. Many commenters thought the image made Lisbeth Salander seem uncharacteristically submissive. ”I don’t buy that she’s being protected,” says Fincher. ”It’s wholly subjective. I don’t think she looks weak. I don’t think she looks like she’s being protected. She may not look like the character that you had in mind or the character you’ve already seen, but she looks very much like the character in our movie.”

Dragon Tattoo devotees are also nervous about the movie’s ending, which according to some early reports has been significantly changed from the book. Zaillian acknowledges making some tweaks to the plot, but he says the biggest alteration actually happens about three-quarters of the way through. ”I don’t know how people get these ideas,” he says. ”It’s not like, ‘Oh, we changed the ending.’ It’s one aspect of it. It’s not even the ending. To me it just made a lot more sense than what was in the book.” Fincher thinks the adjustment is ”a smart move,” and if audiences don’t agree, well, he’s not exactly worried about stirring up trouble. Asked if he’s bracing for fan outcry, he shrugs. ”Do I look like somebody who braces for outcry?” Leaning back in his chair, he grins, then gestures toward that nasty Walker quote. ”It’s all fodder. I’ve got a lot of wall space.”

What’s up with the sequels?

The Girl Who Played With Fire, based on the second novel in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, is definitely happening, according to Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, who hopes for a late-2013 release. Steven Zaillian is almost done with a script, and Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig are signed up for both sequels. What about David Fincher? The director says he’s ”not averse to the idea,” but he’s ”looking about as far into the future as dinner.” Even so, Pascal says, ”My guess is David will be there too.”

Wardrobe Notes

1. To keep Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) looking authentically grungy in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, costume designer Trish Summerville aged the character’s wardrobe — including this custom-made leather motorcycle jacket from designer Agatha Blois — using sandpaper and the juice of lemons and oranges. ”We wanted to give her clothes a soft feel and a level of comfort,” says Summerville.

2. These fingerless wool gloves keep the computer hacker warm and give her easy access to her keyboard. ”It’s definitely realistic,” says Summerville.

3. With functionality in mind, Summerville worked with the L.A.-based firm Cerre to design a leather backpack with multiple snaps and exterior pockets that Lisbeth could use to stow, say, a hidden camera.

4. Inspired by San Francisco street-punk kids who use duct tape to patch up holes in their shoes, Summerville added a strip to Lisbeth’s leather combat boots, which she found at Universal Studios’ costume department in L.A. A similar pair will be available via the film’s companion H&M line — but sans duct tape. ”If you want to add that in,” says Summerville, ”you can do it on your own.” —Nuzhat Naoreen

From the script

INTERIOR SALANDER’S APARTMENT — MORNING

Salander sticks her Taser in her back pocket and comes out to find a table setting more formal than she, or anyone who lives alone, is used to.

BLOMKVIST:Your report on me was quite detailed but for me not very entertaining.

SALANDER: It wasn’t meant to be.

BLOMKVIST: When I write about people, I try to entertain the reader.

SALANDER: Wennerstrom wasn’t entertained much.

Blomkvist lets it go.

BLOMKVIST: Your boss Armansky tells me you only work on things that interest you. I guess I should be flattered. He also says you’re the one he goes to for jobs that are, ”sensitive” is the word he used. I’ll use ”illegal,” since that’s what it was when you hacked into my computer. I’m not going to do anything about that. What I’m going to do is tell you a story. If it entertains you, maybe you’ll decide to help me research it further. If it doesn’t, I’ll wash the dishes and leave.

SALANDER: What kind of research?

BLOMKVIST: Lisbeth — may I call you Lisbeth? I want you to help me catch a killer of women.