With a career that began with him editing movies, Steven Zaillian has been involved in movies for many decades. In that time, he’s directed, written, picked up an Oscar (for his Schindler’s List screenplay), and now, he’s penned the screenplay for David Fincher’s take on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
And he’s been telling us how he got on…
Just reading some of the background material on the Millennium Trilogy, we’re told that 65 million copies of the books have been sold to date. And so, when you come to adapt something like this, you’re presumably instantly up against millions of people who think you’re wrong. You shut that out, presumably? How did you write it?
I do shut it out. There’s no good that could come of thinking about it. I don’t know, I think that if I have enough confidence to write something, and I don’t mean that to sound humble, but I look at something and I think, okay, it doesn’t matter if this is good or not, even if it’s good, do I understand it, and can I contribute to it?
Can I do it in a way that will please me and the people who are hiring me, basically?
And if I say yes, I do have the confidence that I can actually do it. If I know who is going to direct it, and in this case I did, that gives me even more confidence. That it’s going to turn out in a way that should be pretty good. And if people don’t like it after that, then there’s nothing I can do about it.
Is the element of control there quite important to you? You’ve directed a few films yourself over the years, and presumably part of that is because you know that’s the only way your words will get across in a way that you’re comfortable with. Although there is the David Fincher factor, here!
I think that the reason I’ll direct something is that I’m actually the person who understands it, and it’s the kind of movie I can direct, better than anyone else that I can think of. This is not one of those. This is the kind of film where I know that there are a lot of people who could direct this a lot better than I could. And David Fincher is one of them.
It is important for me to know, or better for me to know, who is going to direct it before I start. Not that I’m going to write for them, but it gives me a better… I can relax, knowing that it’s going to be in good hands. Finished a script and having them say, ‘okay, who are we going to get to direct this’, that’s not something I want to hear.
I remember watching Searching For Bobby Fischer, which you directed. And since then, you’ve not directed many things. Is it just that it’s rare that something comes along that you really want to direct?
Yeah, it’s that rare that’s something’s going to come along that’ll hold my interest for as long as it’s going to take to write it and direct it. I’m not a fast writer. I take a year to write. It’s going to take me three years from the time I say yes to the movie coming out, and not a lot of subjects will hold my interest that long. So it’s got to be something that really fascinates me in a way that I can stick with it. And also something that I really understand in a way that I want to spend day after day after day shooting it.
Searching For Bobby Fischer is one of those. One of my kids was exactly that age. I knew exactly how he thought and how he felt. And I felt like I was truly the expert on that film! Anyone on that set, they could ask me anything, and I would know!
I was that close to it.
I dug back further into your career, and you have an editing background. We wrote about a film you edited just the other week, Kingdom Of The Spiders. The sheer fright in that film on William Shatner’s face. I’d love to see what made the cutting room floor!
[Laughs] I can’t remember! Probably not very much! They were short shoots.
You were editing first, though, before you had a screenplay made. That’s a useful order, I’d imagine?
I think it was, to a certain degree. The main thing that I learned from editing is that most people, when they’re making a film, they start too early into the story. They will try to set up the characters, they will try to establish things before the plot actually starts. And that was very helpful as a writer. I realised when I was editing films that I could cut off the first reel, and the movie would basically be the same movie. I think you still see a lot of movies like that.
I think that was probably the main lesson I learned from editing movies.
But what was a greater influence to me than that were the films of the early 70s, in my formative years of really becoming interested in film. Movies like The French Connection coming out. Sidney Lumet films. I love those kind of movies.
And when I say those kinds of movies, to me they’re the movies with lots of scenes, as opposed to long scenes of people talking. They’re movies that are very visual, and they have a rhythm, and a movement, and usually very clipped scenes. I find that’s something I keep going back to. That influenced me.
Going back to Dragon Tattoo, then, you have two central characters of equal fascination. With some justification, I think that most of the attention will be focussed on the character of Lisbeth. But the film, and the story, doesn’t work for me if Daniel Craig’s character doesn’t. He’s the lynchpin.
Adapting that, that’s the hard bit to me. Was he tricky to capture?
It wasn’t that he was tricky, it was that he’s important.
I agree with you. He’s really important, he really is the character that we see the story through, even though we’re cutting away from him and seeing what she’s doing.
It almost transfers over the course of the movie from him to her. We start with him, we end with her.
We have no way in if he doesn’t work, though.
Absolutely. And I think that Daniel, it’s a great performance. It’s such an understated performance, in the best possible way. He’s not going for anything broad, he’s just so real. And that was the idea of the character. He’s a serious, down to earth guy, who is not an actual hero.
You’re economic with his dialogue, too.
Yeah. And a lot of what you get from him isn’t even in the dialogue, it’s in his behaviour. Scenes with him and his cat, sitting around in the cottage.
As a writer, appreciating that you’ve tackled some extraordinary and haunting subjects, do you find that fiction makes tough stories and tough subjects more accessible in your view? Can you say more?
You know, I never thought about it, but I think you’re right. And maybe I should do more. But I think there’s something about a story torn from the headlines that a lot of your audience is going to avoid. If they get a sense that it’s a true story, or a modern story based on something going on in the world, it’s not going to be entertaining. It’s almost like a licence to be not entertaining.
And something like this, I think you’re right. Dressing it up in a fictional context will create a bigger audience.
It’s always the argument, isn’t it, that if you want to learn more about history, you read the fiction of the time, rather than the textbooks.
I’m glad you told me this, because it’s something I’ll remember! [Laughs] You’re right.
One final question, then, on something else altogether. You were linked earlier in the year with rewriting the new Jack Ryan project, Moscow. Do you have any involvement with the Jack Ryan movies now?
No, no. They had asked me if I would get involved with the new one, and I just didn’t quite understand it, so I said no. I say no to things that I don’t feel that I’m going to be good at, so I’m not involved in that in any way.
So how many projects are you juggling now?
The books were written in one go, so there was no desire on your part to write all three screenplays at one?
No! One at a time!
Steven Zaillian, thank you very much.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is released in the UK on 26th December. Our review is here.
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