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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is the first of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, has a much blunter title in Swedish: Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women. The late Larsson, who never saw his books published or turned into worldwide bestsellers, was a left-wing journalist and avowed feminist whose fiction stars the unforgettable Lisbeth Salander, a genius hacker and antisocial misfit. Salander, a sort of ward of the state, is a survivor of such abuses, especially at the hands of her current lawyer and caseworker Nils Bjurman, and this theme of violence against women runs throughout the trilogy. Armed with her computer, Salander (Noomi Rapace) is an avenging angel with a photographic memory and the ability to get information on anything or anyone.
In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Salander joins up almost by accident with left-wing journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) from Millennium magazine as they search for Harriet Vanger, the long-missing niece of Vanger family scion Henrik. What they uncover is a legacy of horror.
The entire Millennium trilogy—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest—are already popular movies in Europe, and finally the first is getting a US release, with the others soon to follow. (Only two of the books are available in the US; The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest will be released this May.) There are already plans to remake the movies in English.
TribecaFilm.com sat down with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's director Niels Arden Oplev to discuss this Scandinavian thriller.
Niels Arden Oplev: No. I didn't even know about the books. When they came to Denmark to ask me if I was interested in doing this... I was in the middle of doing this Worlds Apart film, this Jehovah Witness film, and that was very absorbing. You can imagine going into the religion of Jehovah Witnesses is quite an ordeal. And so I hadn't heard about the book, the production time didn't fit, and my four previous films are all dramas. And... I've started up some major TV series [that were police thrillers] in Scandinavia, but I haven't done that genre in cinema, and I wasn't planning to, because thrillers in cinema in Scandinavia, a lot of times they're low budget and they run [for a short time in theaters], and they're [less prestigious] to do in some ways, unless they're done really well. And Sweden does a lot of made-for-TV thrillers that do very little in cinema and then go [to TV], so I wasn't terribly interested. I was actually kind of arrogant. [laughs] So I said no.
And then the producers came back four months later, and in the meantime I had heard about the book, that it was a popular book and stuff, and they had moved the production time and I had finished filming, and they asked me to reconsider, which is quite nice, and then I said, “Okay, yeah, let me read the damn book."
And then I went home that night—we were based in Copenhagen back then—and I came home and the kids were playing in the road and my neighbors were standing out there, and I said, "These Swedish producers, they want me to come up and do this book in Sweden." And then my neighbor's wife just lit up and she ran into her house and came back, and she had the book in her hand. And she said, "This book is fantastic."
So I started reading it the same night, and I just kept reading. And I thought, this is unusual material. This is, out of 20 years, luck to get this material in your hands. This can make a really big Scandinavian kind of Silence of the Lambs movie, really like a cinematic experience for the movie house... I felt like it was nothing like the more factory, made-for-TV films they do in Sweden. I felt like I could take this in a completely different direction and really make it a quality film. So that was the hook.
NAO: There are those moments in this film that are tough, violent and tough, but I've seen about 2,000 Americans [who have] seen this film. I've done 10 screenings—at the AFI screenings in Washington, Portland Film Festival, Palm Spring Film Festival, where we actually won the People's Choice Award out of 189 films, and Hamptons Film Festival—and the audience responds really, really well to the film. They do comment on the violence, but they all see it as necessary in the context of the story.
NAO: I only made the first one.
NAO: It was a very clear decision from my side due to the fact that I looked at the production plan [and] they all had to be shot in 10 months, and the two others were not written yet, and I just didn't feel it was possible. I felt that—I mean, if you could have done like Peter Jackson and you had all three scripts ready and all of it prepared, all locations, all three films, and then had the shooting days, then of course I would have been interested in doing all of it...
When you're doing a film of this magnitude where you set up the camera 1,000 times and the first version of the film was way over three hours, and to bring that down to what you saw and to refine it and refine it and refine it, to test it, refine it, to make it such an experience for the audience that they don't even feel [how long it is] and I know they don't feel because people tell me it doesn't feel like a two-and-a-half hour film... It just flows. I've had people coming up to me [to] ask if they could see more after seeing two and a half hours. In order to reach that, there are so many decisions that have to be made in the editing room, and I just felt like I had to limit myself to do the first one and then do it right.
NAO: I can tell you there will be because I have half an hour of material you haven't seen yet, because when I said yes to do the project, besides from taking over all the artistic control—that was my main condition, that all the artistic decisions had to be mine.
NAO: Lens[ing] of the film, final cut, casting, script, the whole damn thing. I formulated being the artistic CEO, and I wasn't even sure what it meant, but it sounded good. [laughs] But I agreed to making a three-hour version also, which is going to air on Scandinavian television in March, I think... We operated with two scripts—one for the TV version and one for the two-and-a-half hour film.
NAO: I thought Lisbeth Salander would be my casting Waterloo. [laughs] I thought it could not be done. I have cast four films in Denmark with great success, three major TV series casting the ensemble, and I'm hysterical with casting. I'm so hysterical with it... And I thought Lisbeth Salander's going to be so f*cking difficult that it's just not going to work.
I had seen a picture of Noomi in a cut from a film she had done before that was a very tough film, and I really liked her as an actress. I thought she was strong. But I really worried about how good-looking she was. I thought she was too beautiful to be Lisbeth, and that was my main worry. Of course, it was not a worry that was great enough not to call her in. I would always have called her in because she's such a strong actor.
When I worked with her, I thought that she has amazing strong energy, a dark, strong energy, and... I know that when the audience has read this book, they believe themselves, they have a physical picture of Lisbeth Salander, but they only have a clouded image, they don't have a perfect image. They also have an emotional sense of the character that they're not so aware about. And I know when you have a character that's so strong in a book, if you get an actress that has that energy and a seductive quality as strong as Noomi then you're halfway there, even though she might be prettier than you envisioned Lisbeth...
And she told me physically she could change, and of course I [was] really happy that I didn't have to start to pressure her to do that. I wouldn't pressure somebody to go down in weight because I think that can be dangerous. Noomi did that a little bit, but she did that with [a trainer] so she did it the right way, because I actually like that she was training and the muscularity of her and the kind of tomboyish look we worked in, too, which all made Lisbeth Salander more realistic on screen. Because in the book, she's so tiny, nearly anorexic, and you can't be anorexic and weigh 90 pounds and then knock out somebody; you can't do that. But when you see Noomi on screen, she has the strength to take out some big biker or something like that.
TribecaFilm.com: What are your future projects?
NAO: Secret. But I could say I have three really, really, really interesting projects in various states in development here in the US to be my three first English-speaking films, and actually another project that's also looking promising. So because of the success of this film, of course, I feel I have a really good awareness in the American film industry. And that's why I live here right now... It's a very exciting time.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens in limited cities on March 19. You can request it to come to your city on the official website. You can also become a fan of the movie on Facebook and follow distributor Music Box Films on Twitter.