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Director Niels Arden Oplev (center) prepares a scene with actor Michael Nyqvist (right).

Niels Arden Oplev

Interview with the director of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Mar 26, 2010 Web Exclusive
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Danish director Niels Arden Oplev didn’t seem like an obvious choice to direct The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the screen version of the first book in Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson’s immensely popular Millennium trilogy. Oplev’s previous film, Worlds Apart, was an intimate family drama about a teenage girl confronting the doctrines of her religious denomination, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In Larsson’s crime thriller, a disgraced financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, teams with an enigmatic hacker with a dark past, Lisbeth Salander, to solve the decades-old disappearance of Harriet Vanger, a young girl from a wealthy family. The book, which casts an eye on a sordid underbelly of Swedish culture and history, was published shortly after the author’s death and has sold over eight million copies worldwide. Oplev initially declined producer Sören Staermose’s overtures to direct the much-anticipated film adaptation, but Staermose’s persistence paid off. Prior to its release in the U.S. and UK, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo grossed over $100 million worldwide, easily becoming Sweden’s most successful film.

Under the Radar spoke to Niels Arden Oplev in Los Angeles in February. Currently, he is developing his first English language films but declines to give specifics, partly for legal reasons, partly for artistsic reasons. He says with a smile, “I don’t like to talk about projects before they’re in production, because then you lose the magic of it.”

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo currently is playing in select cities.

What reservations did you have about directing this film? Was it just the genre?

When the producers first asked me to consider this, I didn’t know the book, and I was in the middle of doing another film, which was so far removed from the subject as you could possibly be. It’s a film called Words Apart. It’s about a young girl that grows up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m really proud of that film. Just 10 days ago, I was at the Portland Film Festival screening Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and there were a lot of questions, and there was this girl waiting, and when everybody was finished asking questions, she came up to me and started talking about Worlds Apart, which she had seen at the Portland Film Festival. She had a similar history as the girl in the film, and she was really fond of the film. That film really does touch the lives of people who have been in close contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses. That is interesting and a big responsibility. But the film is inspired by real stories. And my four previous films before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have all been dramas. On the TV side, I’ve started some major TV series in Scandinavia, and some TV series have done really well and won International Emmys, and one of them [Unit 1] launched Mads Mikkelsen’s career. But to take that genre, police crime or crime, into the cinema, I really had not any major interest in doing that. So I said no. [Laughs]

And then the producer came back some months after, I can’t remember how long, but they had moved the production time half a year later, which made it possible, barely possible, for me to do it. In the meantime, I had heard about the book. So, since they came back to me and asked me one more time, I said, “OK, I’ll read the damn book.” [Laughs] And then I read it and I thought that it was an extraordinary book, and that you could make something out of that book that would not be a traditional thriller. I felt I could make something that would be of distinguished cinematic quality. And then I had a lot of conditions. Basically, I had the conditions of them signing over all the artistic rights and decisions to me, or else I wouldn’t do it. This was the first time I was going to adapt a book, and if you do something that a lot of people are very fond of, it’s an enormous risk. I had to be sure that every decision I make is for the best of the film and not for all other compromises.

With that in mind, what was the casting process like for the lead roles? I’m sure you heard a lot of strong opinions.

Yeah, but once you position yourself as the artistic CEO of the film, then the decision is mine. I will, of course, listen to suggestions and all that, but I can do that with an open mind because I know the decision is mine. I was very nervous about the casting, not because there was so much pressure; I think there’s always pressure to cast right. I casted four features and three major TV series in Denmark, and I’m hysterical with casting, because I know if you do it right, then you’re halfway home on your success. If you find the exact right actor to do the right part, then you save yourself a lot of work. A lot of things will come naturally if you do that process correctly. That’s why it’s important. But I honestly thought that casting Lisbeth Salander would be impossible. I didn’t think that it would be possible to find somebody that was so special as the character in that book, until I did a two-hour rehearsal with Noomi. Then I just knew that she was it. So, what I had foreseen to be the most difficult [laughs] went really, really fast. She’s a gift, that’s for sure. Somebody with that dark, strong energy, that dedication and will to transform herself and stay in that character, for a filmmaker to get that, that’s definitely a gift.

Noomi Rapace stars as the heroine Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

What was the strategy you and the screenwriters [Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel] used for condensing such a long book into a feature-length script?

We found the book very inspirational, which is very important. We actually had done a lot more changes than people think about, and I wanted the changes we had done to be invisible, in a sense that, if you read the book and then three months later see the film, I want you to think that what you see in the film, you read that, but you haven’t. Like when Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) and Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) drive around Sweden, on this little on-the-road tour, trying to find the old places of the murders, when you see that in the film, that really feels that you read that in the book, but that does not exist in the book. But it could have. It’s in the spirit of Stieg Larsson. That’s what we tried to do. We changed certain things in the photograph plot. Those things are not exactly like in the book, but they’re really very much like the stuff in the book. I just don’t think that, after you read a book that’s 600 pages, you can remember exactly how that photograph was used in that connection. So when you see a photograph that’s nearly similar in the film, you accept that plot. And we had to simplify that. We simplified certain things. The first hundred pages of the book, as a rule, could only take two minutes. We call that the L.A. Confidential model. The start of L.A. Confidential, it’s really an article in Hush-Hush magazine, and it’s a pre-title sequence. Those two minutes, the stories that he tells, all the gangsters that came to Los Angeles and built themselves up and were brought down by the police, and all that happened, it’s a whole film there. They tell that in two minutes, and then the real film starts. We wanted the case of Wennerström, the bad guy, we wanted that to be the same, that this whole hundred pages could only really take two, three minutes. But we needed it as a frame to understand why Blomkvist gets publicly disgraced and can’t write anymore on all that.

And then, probably the most major element that we decided in the writing room was to make Lisbeth the main character, the real hero. Blomkvist is a hero, but she is the real hero of the story. And one thing that was a cardinal point for me was to keep Lisbeth’s past in the film, even if it meant the film would have to go over two hours. So the whole story between Lisbeth and the legal counselor, that is not directly part of the main plot, that is an indirect part. It’s kind of like a little short story in itself. And, in Hollywood, that would be cut out, most definitely. Because, with that story in, and Blomkvist’s investigation over here, the tracks of the two main characters don’t meet before 74 minutes into the film. And that’s like a nearly normal film for cinema that has passed when they meet. This is unheard about. Nobody comments on that. Nobody think about it, but in Hollywood, any producer would have demanded that they would have to meet within the first 20 minutes of the story. They meet 74 minutes into the story. That is unheard about, totally, and it functions really well. Because we thought Lisbeth was the most interesting character and the most controversial character, those scenes between her and Bjurman just had to be in the story, because they would make the audience understand her and where she comes from, what she’s been through. But also, the darkness of those scenes and the controversy of it, colors the whole next one-and-a-half hours. Those kinds of decisions, you can make when you have the artistic power. You can make them and you don’t have to argue about it.

Was there any concern about a Danish director making a film based on a book that was not only enormously popular but also exposes some dark aspects of Swedish culture?

[Laughs] Well, if there was, I didn’t hear them. I think there were concerns about a Danish director coming up to Stockholm and filming forever while everybody was becoming mad, but that’s a totally different story. [Laughs] Maybe, in the first round, I think the critics and the newspapers, when the film came out in Sweden, were holding the film at arm’s length, whereas the critics in Denmark and Norway were totally on top. And the reviews we got in France, Belgium, and Holland, Spain, Italy, have been great, fantastic reviews. In some places, they’ve written that the film was as good as the book, if not better, which is, of course, unbelievable. When you talk about adaptations, normally [they] never fulfill the expectations of the book readers, which, in this case, it seems to do in large numbers. Which is also my experience with the audience here in the U.S. with the screenings that’s been at the various film festivals. We won the People’s Choice Award out of 189 films at the Palm Springs Film Festival. I think that the Swedes maybe had a little bit of difficulties when it came out, but then, because it’s so enormously successful, it has kind of won them over. So, I don’t think that now there is any problem. There could be a little bit of a problem about the Swedish film industry. The Danish film industry has been kind of well known for the last 10 years, the Dogma films and all that. I think, in Sweden, it’s a little bit less acceptable for a film director to go in and make a big commercial film. It’s more accepted to go in and make a small, strange, European, dark film.

How involved were you with the film’s still photography, which is such an important part of its imagery? For example, the photo of the young Harriet, were you there for that photo or did you take it?

No, I didn’t take it personally, but I was there when we shot it. And I can tell you one thing: Picking that girl [Julia Sporre], and Harriet’s face, I was as hysterical about that as all the other casting. And I think the poor people had to like look at 500 girls before we found one. So, in that sense, you could say that every detail in this film, I’m involved in, but I also have really good key functions. Like, the whole set design, the production design of this film, is fantastic. The production designer and I had done, like the Day of the Child [Children’s Day Parade], which is where they find Harriet, and she starts to turn her head, those images we had done together and discussed immensely over many nights, “How did we see this?” My production designer had seen something similar with these Boy Scouts and girls with small doll wagons, and then all these people in the ‘60s standing on the street and looking, holding Swedish flags, and we thought that would be great, because it’s like a parade, but it still has something eerie to it. There’s a little bit of eeriness to it at the same time. We’d been discussing all these things in order to have this undertone of darkness throughout the film, like nearly in every element of the film. There’s an entertainment value, but underneath there’s this feeling that you’re moving toward something dark, and I think that’s the reason the film is intense, even though it’s not that fast-paced. It’s a slow-burning film, but it kinda grips you and holds you there and leads you through these things.

And even in the photograph of her [pointing to the portrait of Harriet on film’s one-sheet], there’s a strength in that young girl’s face. She’s a beautiful girl, but there’s a strength and intelligence, and there’s a mystery in her face and in the photograph that makes you want to find that girl. So I kept saying to them, “Go out and find a girl that you want to be found.” They can’t just come up with a picture of any girl. This is the most important picture in the whole film. And funny enough, because we found her, and she’s so right, and she also functions really fantastic in those backflashes when she tries to escape out of the hut, and she’s bruised and bloody, the mystery of that in the editing became strengthened because we had shots of Blomkvist looking at that picture, and we kept returning to that picture. When they come to the old barn, and they find the murder place of the first woman that was brutally murdered where the cows were, and they sit in the car, and it rains, and he says, “This can’t be coincidence,” and it’s really gloomy, then we dissolve from that into the picture of Harriet and then into the next scene, where they’re sitting and discussing and eating. Using that picture was something that happened in the editing. That wasn’t planned on beforehand. But that means that Harriet travels with them. The ghost of Harriet became its own force, and that’s something that happened from her face, and the strength of her face. So, this is just a perfect example about, when you make artistic decisions, you have to have all the depths with you. You can’t just say, “OK, that’s good. We’ll use that.” That doesn’t work. That’s television. [Laughs] But when you really know why, when you see that girl’s face, and when we found her, I knew, “OK, she is the one.” When I look at her picture, I want to sit two-and-a-half hours and try to find that girl. And that’s what the audience has to feel. And that’s my job. Taking that seriously, that’s what creates quality, I think. It’s a process.


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Kyle Lemmon
March 28th 2010

This film is fantastic!!!

January 10th 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo was very well-made with superb cinematography. The actors all portray their respective characters perfectly, although Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, Michael Nyqvist as Michael Blomkvist and Sven-Bertil Taube as Hanrik Vanger deserve a special mentioning. They are all very likable and believable. “Rolex Submariner

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July 3rd 2012

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