David Fincher interview: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Heavy Metal and Benjamin Button

Director David Fincher chats to us about making The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, its title sequence, and his attempts to get R-rated animation made in Hollywood...

David Fincher, to readers of this site, needs little introduction. Robbed of an Oscar earlier this year when The Social Network lost out to The King’s Speech in the Best Director category (and many others), he’s seemingly quickly turned around his next film: a no-holds-barred adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And he’s been telling us about it, too…

I’ve got to start with the extraordinary title sequence to the film. I don’t want to spoil it for people, but it’s some piece of work…

Well, you kind of want to do something appropriate. Let’s put it this way: I felt that I wanted to have a slightly objective view of Salander’s nightmare, a sense of what’s going on in her head, what wakes her up at night. What are the things she feels trapped by?

We have references to the insane asylum, references to drowning. There’s a black liquid that swallows everything up, and in Freudian terms it’s sex and powerlessness. I also wanted to have some allusions to the tattoos. We wanted to have the dragon, and the phoenix. It was a great opportunity, a mélange of nightmarish imagery. So I went to a friend of mine and said, ”you’re an animator, you’ve got eight weeks!”

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I’ve read interviews you’ve done in the past, and you give the impression of someone who likes to control the frame, and that the details are massively important to you…

Not so much…

I’m curious if a full animated film, though, is something you’d tackle?

I’d love to. In fact, the guy who did the title sequence, he and I were going to do Heavy Metal.

I know you were doing part of it.

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Tim [Miller] was going to do one, I was going to do one, Kevin [Eastman] was going to do one. Ridley [Scott], Jim Cameron… we had a lot of really great people. It was just too expensive to do R-rated animation.

I’ll buy my ticket now if it helps?

[Laughs] Alright!

I look at Guillermo del Toro, and he’s utterly insistent that at some point, a full animated film is the way he wants to go, because it’s the only way he can control in full his frame.

He’s doing that now, isn’t it?

He’s doing stuff with DreamWorks now. But there’s a quote you gave that interested me… I’m not deliberately just going to throw lots of quotes at you…

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No, that’s fine! It’s probably not true, though!

Well, you talk about getting about 60 per cent of what you want on a film set.

Yeah. I think that’s probably on a good day.

I would say probably, on a given film, Fight Club is probably closest to what we wanted to do. It’s about 75 per cent of what we wanted.

I think Panic Room, even though it was storyboarded within an inch of its life, was probably 60 per cent. The Social Network, I wasn’t transposing what I had in my head on it, because I was really following the text, and following these kids, so that movie was, y’know, about 70 to 75 per cent of what I thought it was going to be. This movie is probably about that. I think you’re doing pretty good if you can get 70 per cent of what you want.

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Presumably the Swedish weather didn’t always help on this one?

Well, it informed it. You needed to feel it. You know, a lot of the snow and a lot of the weather effects are CG, and I didn’t know if I’d have dared to make it as bold and crazy. I would have thought it was over the top had I not lived through it.

Did you shoot the Swedish material first, before coming back to the studio in the US?

We did both. We shot September to December, then we went back to the States and shot all the interiors. And then we went back to Stockholm and we shot, I’m going to say March through April. We shot probably five or six months, we were probably in Sweden for seven months, and three months in LA.

That presumably contains any potential cultural leakage? That when you take it back to America in the middle of the production, it’s easier to contain the Scandinavian feel.

What do you mean?

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I mean that the film feels distinct, and looks European. There’s not a touch of Hollywood about it.

That was the hope. Look, it cost more. It cost more to make the movie, ironically, in Sweden. But it was worth it, because, you know, a 45-year-old journalist and a 23-year-old hacker who need each other and are leery of each other and have sex with each other and are friends with each other, if that takes place in Portland, Oregon, that’s a whole different story. It’s a different animal.

Again, it was presented to me by Michael Lynton, Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin. They said, “read this book, it’s a Swedish book, it’s a gigantic book. It’s going to be a Swedish story, it’s R-rated, it’s for adults. We’re not sugar-coating it, that’s why we came to you. Go deep.”

I took them at their word.

It’s surprisingly swift in that sense? It took six or seven years for you to get Benjamin Button made…

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Oh God, it took forever. Forever.

And you know, ironically, in 2005 or 2006, Kathy Kennedy bought me this book, the English translation, and said I have this book, I’d like you to read it. It’s 500 pages and we want you to do it.

I said to her, Kathy, I can’t do it tonight. Can you tell me what it’s about? She said it’s about a bi-sexual, motorcycle-riding hacker, who lives in Stockholm, who fights misogyny and Nazis. I said, we just spent six years doing this, why are you doing this to me?!

So I didn’t read it. My bad.

Did it work out better that way for you, though?

What do you mean?

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Well, it must have worked, given the film we’ve got now. But if you had tackled the project immediately after Benjamin Button and before The Social Network, it would surely have been a different film?

Benjamin Button spoiler approaching

I think, without sounding like a lazy, jaded, spoiled brat, we had to push that rock up a hill with Benjamin Button. It’s a very debilitating thing. I can understand why: it’s a $150m movie, and everybody dies! So I understand that that’s a problem. I understand why, economically, people didn’t flock to make that movie.

Benjamin Button spoiler over

But it’s a debilitating process as a filmmaker. It takes a lot out of you to start and stop and start and stop, to get your hopes up, and hopes dashed. It’s an exhausting thing.

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It is a different set of circumstances when Hollywood comes calling and says we want this from you more than you want this from us. It makes it a different proposition, because then you can say this is what it’s going to take.

I’m not a profligate filmmaker, I do things I things, I think, fairly economically. And I spend a lot of time, because I want it to be as good as it can possibly be. But I don’t travel privately in Lear jets, and I don’t have helicopters hanging around in case maybe I want to shoot a shot of a bridge. I come up with a plan, it takes me a long time to come up with the plan, and I execute it. I spend the money on the screen.

This movie costs $100m, it’s an expensive movie. It’s an expensive proposition. Five years ago if it had been me coming to them, when there wasn’t 60 million readers, saying this is a book I’d really like to see made into a movie, it probably would have been, “oh, can you do it for $25m?”

And PG-13?

PG-13, yeah. Then they might be interested.

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Finally, before I’m thrown out of the room, have you worked out what you want to do next?

No. I want to sleep [grins].

David Fincher, thank you very much…