"A real drama with real characters"
by Fabien Lemercier
27/04/2009 - Having first attracted attention in competition at Berlin in 1996 with his debut feature Portland, Danish director Niels Arden Oplev then alternated between TV and cinema, directing films including Chop Chop, We Shall Overcome [trailer] (Crystal Bear at Berlin 2006) and Worlds Apart [trailer]. Extracts from a press conference in Paris ahead of UGC’s French release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
How did you end up making a film adaptation of the first volume of the Millennium trilogy?
Niels Arden Oplev: When producer Søren Stærmose asked me to adapt a Swedish detective novel, I was in the middle of making another film. I hadn’t read the novel, in fact I’d never even heard of it. Perhaps a little arrogantly, I refused by saying: why make yet another Swedish thriller?
Luckily, Søren came back later to convince me. In the meantime, several people had mentioned the book to me. So I read it and thought it was great. It’s no ordinary detective novel, but a real drama with real characters. I’d never directed a thriller before, but all the necessary dramatic ingredients were there. Of course, I knew the film had to be exciting, with elements of action, but above all I tried to foreground the interesting side of the characters.
What was your first impression of the screenplay?
I read the first script which shortened the film to a 90-minute version, but I felt it had lost all the appeal of the book. So I asked for a two-and-a-half hour version to be worked on. I also asked them to better express the country’s soul and for the focus to be shifted back to the novel.
My aim was to make a film in a Scandinavian atmosphere with a European quality combined with US expertise in thrillers, drawing inspiration from films such as Nikita, The Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac. I also wanted to give greater emphasis to the story between Lisbeth Salander and the lawyer Nils Bjurman, which was completely eclipsed in the first script. For it’s an essential aspect, a real film within a film, which gives colour to everything that happens in the other part of the film.
You filmed the violence in a very raw style.
I was a little apprehensive about the scenes of violence, for they took me back to my debut films, which were very dark. I wanted to shoot them in a very realistic way and avoid clichés, in particular during the rape scene, which certainly isn’t meant to be entertaining. I thus had to unleash the demons of darkness. I knew it would be shocking, but approaching these scenes differently would have been a betrayal of Stieg Larsson’s views on violence against women in Sweden.
How did you direct the actors?
By choosing actors with a strong personality like Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist, I knew this would lead to problems and debates, but that it would improve the film by bringing nuances. They were very sensitive to their characters. We gave the two main protagonists more equal roles than in the book. An entire film (75 minutes) passes by before they meet each other: it’s a very unusual dramatic structure, but all the episodes in these two parallel lives colour their future encounter.
Was the editing phase straightforward?
It was a decisive phase. For example, it was during this stage that the idea emerged for the black images of Harriet, which haunt Blomkvist like a ghost. We presented a 3hr30min version to a group of around 20 trusted acquaintances. Until then, I had practically convinced my producer to make a three-and-a-half film like Doctor Zhivago, with an interval in the middle.
But I found this version a bit slow and the panel of viewers reckoned that although it was a good film as it was, it could be outstanding with a run time of two-and-a-half hours. I thus had to make some hard decisions. I said to the editor: I’m going away for three days, cut the film and I’ll cry when I get back. Then we put the finishing touches to it. The hardest part was abandoning the love story between Blomkvist and Erika Berger: the film thus became tighter and the relationship between Blomkvist and Salander came out more strongly. But I put all the rest back in the TV version.