Moviegoers who follow David Fincher’s career may be puzzled to see the director adapting a bestseller like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Movie companies tend to be meddlesome when it comes to such “franchise” properties, which have made mountains of money and are expected to make much more, and Fincher doesn’t respond well to meddling. When studio execs manhandled him on his high-stakes first movie (the third installment of the hit “Alien” franchise) the result was a failure both commercially and with critics.
But a defining feature of Fincher’s career, which winds from the icky “Seven” through the sweet “Benjamin Button” to last year’s clinical “The Social Network,” is unpredictability. Even when he returns to a theme (“Tattoo” is the third of his nine films to feature a serial killer) he avoids imitating himself. And there’s something tantalizing for filmmakers about a novel that is both astoundingly popular and — let’s be delicate — not so beautifully written that it’s regarded as an unalterable masterpiece. Middlebrow books are so much easier to work with.
Literary masterpieces, Fincher points out, usually create “a very personal relationship between the author and the reader,” built on internal monologues that are often impossible to turn into action. “If you can’t dramatize it, if you can’t have an actor play it, chances are it’s not going to work as a movie.”
“I don’t think that ‘Jaws’ was lowbrow, but when you have something that can be acted upon — you’re hunting a great white shark — you’ve given actors things to play. That’s always the case with movies that are embraced by large groups of people.” And in “Tattoo,” author Stieg Larsson certainly gave his vengeance-bent, hacker-punk heroine Lisbeth Salander things to do. And things for others to do to her.
Some of those things aren’t fit to be shown in a mainstream film, much less described in a family newspaper. Though “Tattoo,” like Fincher’s “Seven” and “Fight Club,” revolves around violence and sadism, the director takes pride in showing as little on-screen gore as possible. “I’ve always felt, especially when you’re talking about violence against women, or torture, you need your ideas to be felt, but you don’t need everything to be seen. You have to be careful about” — he laughs, perhaps nervously — “how you might titillate a small but dangerous percentage of the audience.”
Fincher, who says he is often offended by “cartoon violence” in movies, finds today’s hyper-explicit gore much less powerful than the menace of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” “It’s the psychic violence, the intention of the thing. It’s the wanton disrespect for other humans, the sociopathic nature of it that makes it so powerful.”
Where he thought Larsson’s book lacked this sensibility, he tinkered with the storyline: Lisbeth Salander is raped by an authority figure multiple times in the novel, but Fincher decided “the first assault needed to be much more about manipulation, coercion, not so much this blitzkrieg of sexual assault. We needed to be true to the misogyny, and misogyny is not always [about] getting jumped.” Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian re-imagined the power play, making it more psychologically insidious and paving the way for Salander’s vengeance.
Fincher’s reference to “A Clockwork Orange” is no surprise, coming from a filmmaker whose perfectionist reputation draws frequent comparisons to Kubrick. Like Kubrick, who embraced the Steadicam in “The Shining” and blazed special-effects trails in “2001,” the 49-year-old Fincher has often been an early adopter of new technologies.
After growing up a couple of doors down from George Lucas in Northern California, Fincher got one of his first jobs at Lucas’s pioneering special-effects company. In his own films, he has used CG to simulate impossible camera moves in “Panic Room” and make Brad Pitt age backward in “Benjamin Button.” He switched from film to digital photography years before most directors accepted the change. Yet he balks at the idea that his work is particularly tied up with the digital revolution.
Asked what sorts of movies he’d be making if he lived in the pre-digital age, he pauses for a long time before laughing and saying, “I would probably be trying to do the same kinds of movies; it would just take a lot longer!”
While he admits he probably would never have attempted “Button” without computers (that film’s effects cost roughly a fifth what they would have 10 years earlier), he argues that, in general, technology barely affects the content of his work.
That’s a notion some would debate, but Fincher prefers to focus on how technology enables “a more malleable way to think in terms of pictures.” For example, the instantaneous nature of digital editing allowed him to radically restructure the first half of “Tattoo” only three days before the film’s deadline, just because a fellow filmmaker suggested he try it.
He also emphasizes how much easier it is now to have intimate collaboration among far-flung members of a production. “Every time there’s a new iPhone app,” he says, “I look at it and go, how can we apply this to what we do every day?” Here in Washington, he notes, associates have been scouting locations for his upcoming TV project “House of Cards” with an app that stitches individual photos into 360-degree panoramas.
He wants the politics-centered “House” to take viewers places they haven’t seen — “the steps behind the private exits, the tunnels that connect different buildings. What do those look like? What does the Mall look like underground? To be able to send people out with their cellphones, and they send you a high dynamic-range photo at eight megapixels, you kind of go, ‘Wow.’ ”
“Those are the things that excite me about digital capability. Not so much ‘What other worlds can we go to?’ ”
What it all boils down to, Fincher says with a laugh, is “how do we collaborate better and faster and more efficiently to make a pervy little Swedish movie?”
DeFore is a freelance writer.