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Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander
Everywhere you turn these days—the subway, the beach, any airport—you see people reading the late Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium series, otherwise known as the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. These Swedish thrillers have camped out worldwide on bestseller lists for years, ever since the first one was published in Sweden in 2005. (It’s been decades since any book in translation has hit the American bestseller lists with such force.)
Larsson’s characters, primarily the eponymous Lisbeth Salander—a scrappily violent, bisexual genius with formidable hacking skills—and her sometime-mentor/sometime-lover, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, are tailor-made for cinematic adaptation, and no time was wasted in bringing them to the screen in their native tongue. All three films—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—were wildly successful in Scandinavia, and they are making their way to our shores in rapid succession. The first in the series, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, has been quietly setting the year's arthouse box office afire, the next in the series premieres this week, and the third will open this fall.
So how did these two brothers find themselves at the forefront of the zeitgeisty frenzy for all things Swedish? And what makes Lisbeth Salander the IT girl of the summer? Daniel Alfredson explains it all…
Director Daniel Alfredson
Tribeca: I interviewed your brother for Let the Right One In a couple of years ago—what a talented family you are! How did you both get into filmmaking?
Daniel Alfredson: I think it depended on our father [actor/director/writer Hans Alfredson], who worked with film a lot during his career—[our interest] came through him. He took us to the movies, and also to the set when he was shooting films. We got stuck with the bug of making films. That’s part of it anyway.
Tribeca: How did you get involved with the 2nd and 3rd films (but not the first)?
DA: I believe the producers from the start had the intention to have three directors—one for each novel—and I knew Niels said yes to the first one when I got the call from the producers. I said yes to books #2 and #3; I did both of them back to back.
Tribeca: Wait—why did they change their minds about having three directors?
DA: Because we had a discussion. The 2nd and 3rd books are [essentially] the same story: [The Girl Who Played with Fire] ends where [The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest] starts, and there’s just a page in between. So when we discussed it, we decided it made a lot of sense to make it one big film.
Tribeca: It must have been a challenge to decide how to narrow the story down to a cinematic length. How did you manage? [For those who have read the books, Lisbeth’s sister is nowhere to be seen, her trip to the Caribbean is omitted, etc.]
DA: The books are about 600 pages each. It’s a lot more than we have room for. I was into the project while we were writing the scripts, so we talked a lot about it. For example, the Caribbean story is a film in itself—it has a beginning, middle and end—but it stands alone and apart [from the rest of the story]. We tried to focus on Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander and their relationship—although they don’t meet that much [in the second and third books].
Tribeca: I understand you filmed a lot more footage that appeared in a TV version—more like a Millennium miniseries. Were you able to add more threads to the story there?
DA: While we were filming, we worked from two scripts—one for TV and one for the films. We made many more scenes, but there are some scenes that are in the film and not in the TV series, and vice versa, so they are quite different. If you’ve read the books, you know there is a lot more to the police story that is taking place separate from Mikael Blomkvist, so the TV version has a lot more of that. And the characters are more developed.
Tribeca: Can we get the TV series here?
DA: I think so, though I really don’t know if an American TV audience would accept the Swedish? I don’t really know.
Tribeca: Stieg Larsson died before the books were even published. How difficult was it to not be able to talk to Larsson about his stories? Do you feel an obligation to honor his work?
DA: We thought a lot about his work when we did the scripts. We tried to be honest to Stieg Larsson, and tried to [stay true] to his books. Many of the locations in the film are the ones he mentioned in the book. We started scouting locations with the ones he mentioned, but we said, “If we can’t film here, let’s find something as close to his intentions [as possible]. I know the area very well—I can read the books and see all the places in Stockholm in front of me.
Tribeca: Have you noticed the tourists flocking to Sweden for Dragon Tattoo tours? Here in New York, we have Seinfeld and Sex and the City…
DA: Yeah, there are many of them. I have never attended one myself, but I think it’s a 2-hour walk: “Here’s where Mikael Blomkvist lived and here’s his café…"
Tribeca: Had you met Larsson?
DA: I had never met him. I had read his magazine Expo, but I didn’t know him. He was quite anonymous in a way—not a journalist that stood out.
Tribeca: So, not like Mikael Blomkvist?
DA: No, he always tended to be in the background. I met some of his friends, his workmates, his father, his brother, but he’s still sort of a mystery, in a way.
Tribeca: There is a sad and divisive battle going on about the rights to Larsson's work, between his family and his longtime partner Eva Gabrielsson. What do you know?
DA: That’s a tragedy, really. I know that when Larsson went to the publisher, he sold his rights to make a TV series and the film, so he had an idea of them being films from the start. So when he died, that had already been decided. It’s a tragedy, I think—everything afterwards. But I don’t know that truth more than anyone else.
Tribeca: The violence in the film is graphic and intense. How did you decide what lines to cross and where to stop?
DA: We actually tried to be very explicit in the novels, because it’s important that Lisbeth is a very violent type—she’s very tough when she’s supposed to be tough. I also think there’s a sort of explicit lesbian scene that’s a very important part of developing Lisbeth’s character. It makes her credible in a way—it creates an honest picture of Lisbeth [from all facets].
Tribeca: I watched the film with an older audience at the Scandinavia House, and I wondered how they felt about the lesbian sex scene…
DA: Yeah, well. I talked early on about that scene. [In the film], she will be shot and stabbed and dragged around, so we have to see another side of Lisbeth. She has to be a warm character in some scenes, so we decided to keep that scene in the film. For me and for Noomi [Rapace, the actress who plays Lisbeth], it was important to see that side of her. Otherwise, she would be only a tough girl, and that’s not our intention. I think it’s a warm and loving scene—it’s not pornographic; it’s just erotic.
Tribeca: Both Mikael and Lisbeth seem to have an openness and forthrightness about sex. Do you think Swedes are more open (and less moralistic) in this area, and less hung up than Americans?
DA: I think that’s unique to the characters [not to Sweden], but the idea of Lisbeth being bisexual is not really an issue in Sweden. On the other hand, the life that Mikael lived in the novels [sleeping with a married woman]—I think many people in Sweden really don’t approve of that. It’s okay to write in a book, but the question is how to make it into a credible story.
[Laughs] Mikael is a problem, and Lisbeth not so much.
DA: Lisbeth Salander, because she’s a character to get fascinated by. She surprises all the time—she’s supernatural in a way, but still a human being, and I think that’s intriguing. I read a letter from an old lady in northern Sweden: she had a tough life and a terrible husband. And she said, “If Lisbeth Salander can make it, I should try.” I’ve heard a few times from different places that she’s become a role model of a woman who won’t give up. It’s very interesting.
Tribeca: Both you and your brother have had to deal with your movies being remade into English. [David Fincher is casting the English language version of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo now, and the American version of Let the Right One In opens this fall.] Has your brother seen Let Me In yet?
DA: No, I don’t think so.
Tribeca: It’s probably bittersweet: your movies are obviously successful, but then someone wants to redo them—how does that make you feel?
DA: I think that’s okay. I would say, let them make their own—we’ve made ours. You can’t really have a sort of idea about that—it’s how things work. If it’s successful, there will always be more money than a Swedish production. [laughs]. We just don’t have that much money.
Tribeca: I don’t think anyone can improve on Noomi.
DA: It’s a very hard thing—whoever will do that role in the American movie will have a tough time.