Amazing Actress with Beautiful Heart

David Fincher Gets The Girl

The darkly obsessive director of Fight Club and The Social Network takes on the biggest franchise since Harry Potter­—The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. An exclusive first look from the set of the year’s most anticipated film.

By Lynn Hirchberg

On a dark, icy afternoon in late November, director David Fincher was in a photo studio in Stockholm adjusting blood. The blood, which was of course fake, covered the hands of a young actress named Rooney Mara, but to Fincher’s mind, which is prone to reimagining reality in cinematic terms, the bloody hands belonged to Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Salander—an androgynous, bisexual computer hacker with multiple piercings and a distinctive tattoo on her back—is the complicated star of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series, a trio of novels that have sold more than 50 million (and counting) copies worldwide. Larsson described Salander in opposites: slender but tough, “spidery” but elegant. Fincher, who is directing the American movie version of the first book in the series, has taken that gamine, biker-chick, downtown-girl template and tweaked it. Now she’s his.

The transformation began with the hair. Mara’s long brown mane was dyed black and cut in a series of jagged points that looked as if she had chopped it herself with a dull razor. The bangs were cropped very short and uneven, and the rest of the hair was layered into an extended shag. The final result was a mash-up of brazen Seventies punk and spooky Eighties goth with a dash of S&M temptress. That look, which could also describe Salander’s nature, was echoed in her wardrobe—a collection of ripped stockings, low garter belts, skintight leather, and heavy-soled boots. In all the angry, attractive darkness, Mara, who is 25, lithe, and petite, radiated an intriguing mix of menace and vulnerability. Fincher’s Lisbeth Salander, as channeled by Mara, is unique—a brilliant but childlike avenging angel with an understanding and an appreciation of violence. In essence, she’s a lot like her creator, David Fincher.

“I think we need more blood,” Fincher said as he stared at Mara’s outstretched hands. Fincher, who is tall and looks like an outdoorsy grad student, was dressed in jeans and winter hiking fleece to combat the chill. Like all great directors, he has a God complex, a need to create people and worlds. Those fully realized realms (which masquerade as movies) are intricate, built to exacting standards, and replete with highly developed personalities that particularly intrigue Fincher. In such films as Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac, Fincher masterminded parallel universes filled with violence, decay, and obsession. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which he characterizes as “a grand romance about death,” he invented a land where a man aged backward. And more recently, in The Social Network, Fincher took a “true” story about Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook and transformed it into a multilayered microcosm of great ambition and lost friendship—a parable, like most of Fincher’s films, about America and the times in which we live.

In Fincher’s version of the world, the heroes often fuse with the villains, creating an intentional ambiguity. In Se7en, a serial killer (played by Kevin Spacey) becomes surprisingly understandable until his psychotic nature defies empathy. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) is a seductive purveyor of liberation through destruction. Fincher clearly relates: Lisbeth Salander is in the same vein—a relative of the other Fincher-ites. Her actions are at once rebellious, self-protective, and, of course, true to her own moral code. For The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher has imagined more than the obvious—a compelling thriller about a crusading journalist and his mysterious partner, Lisbeth Salander. Instead, he wants Salander to be both subversive and a new kind of role model.

Which is why he has analyzed every detail, from her earrings to her essence. Nothing with Fincher is accidental, and although he delights in being subversive and contradictory, he is deeply committed to his characters, his movies. “Look at this,” Fincher said as he returned to the carefully placed spots of blood on Mara’s palms and wrists. The bursts of maroon were like stigmata—turning Salander into a martyr rather than a complex force. “That’s just not right,” he said flatly. “Lisbeth Salander is not about suffering! She is not Jesus! She is about vengeance!” Fincher smiled. An assistant squeezed rivulets of blood onto Mara’s hands so that it ran over her fingers. “That’s better,” Fincher said, clearly pleased. “You have to get it right. Or there’s no point at all.”

Fincher’s fascination with all things Salander provided him with an excellent reason to be away from America at the precise moment he was winning nearly unanimous accolades and numerous awards for The Social Network. In September, days after the movie’s release, Fincher and his longtime girlfriend, Ceán Chaffin, who produces his films, decamped from their home in Los Angeles for Stockholm and began work on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Fincher, who is contrary by nature, is allergic to garlands. While critics were heralding The Social Network as, hands down, the best movie of the year, a meditation on the inability to emotionally connect in today’s increasingly mechanized society, Fincher was scouting locations in Sweden.

“The timing was lucky,” Fincher said as he sat down at a candlelit table in a room next to the photo studio. In November there are only a few hours of daylight in Stockholm, and although it was 3 p.m., it was like the middle of the night. The constant darkness and deep freeze were difficult for Fincher. “But nothing is truly hard after Benjamin Button,” he said. “I put Brad Pitt’s head on somebody else’s body. That was hard.” Fincher poured a glass of red wine. “I hate the awards part of the moviemaking process,” he continued. “And besides, on Social Network, I didn’t really agree with the critics’ praise. It interested me that Social Network was about friendships that dissolved through this thing that promised friendships, but I didn’t think we were ripping the lid off anything. The movie is true to a time and a kind of person, but I was never trying to turn a mirror on a generation.”

It was hard to know whether Fincher was saying this to be, as is his way, intentionally provocative, or if he was sincere. “Probably both,” Scott Rudin, the producer of The Social Network, explained to me later. Rudin, who sent the script for The Social Network to Fincher and who is also producing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, finds Fincher to be intrinsically, rigorously contrary. “He has a giant brain,” Rudin said. “And he can have 19 conversations simultaneously in his brain and he doesn’t miss anything. He’s capable of taking any point of view and dismantling it until he comes to the conclusion that, for him, makes perfect sense. I thought of David for Social Network because, fundamentally, Social Network is a portrait of an anarchist, and I think David is an anarchist. Besides being brilliant, David has the same fuck-off arrogance as Mark Zuckerberg. David is hardwired to question authority and existing structures. And he likes nothing better than to blow them up.”

Fincher divides his work between “movies” and “films”—by his definition, a movie is overtly commercial, engineered for the sole pleasure of the audience. A film is conceived for the public and filmmakers: It is more audacious, more daring. By his reckoning, Fight Club and, especially, Zodiac (neither of which were box office successes) are films, while The Social Network (which is a box office smash—close to $100 million in America alone) is simply a movie.

“It’s a little glib to be a film,” Fincher maintained. “Let’s hope we strove to get at something interesting, but Social Network is not earth-shattering. Zodiac was about murders that changed America. After the Zodiac killings in California, the Summer of Love was over. Suddenly, there was no more weed or pussy. People were hog-tied and died. No one died during the creation of Facebook. By my estimation, the person who made out the worst in the creation of Facebook still made more than 30 million dollars. And no one was killed.”

Although a movie’s (or a film’s) worth should not be determined by its body count, Fincher will not be dissuaded. Zodiac may have special significance for him, as it harks back to Fincher’s youth. He is 48 and grew up in San Anselmo, a wealthy suburb outside San Francisco. The Zodiac killer had publicly threatened to hijack a school bus and murder children. “I remember coming home from school and asking my dad, who was a freelance magazine writer and worked at home, why highway patrolmen were following our bus. He pushed his glasses down on his nose and looked at me and said, very calmly, ‘It seems that there’s a serial killer with a high-power rifle who has said he plans to kill children.’ I was terrified. My father thought it was rubbish, that nothing would happen. That is, very clearly, when things changed for me: I became aware of evil. And death. And it also changed California, and then the country.”

Zodiac was an audacious movie. Fincher staged every murder according to the varying accounts that witnesses gave to the police. That meant that the killer appeared to be a different size and shape in each scenario. The identity of the Zodiac killer has never been verified—there was no trial, no closure. It was an ideal scenario for Fincher: a mystery without resolution, an existential inquiry into what frightened him most. “At an early screening of Zodiac,” Fincher said, “an executive told me, ‘It’s an intellectual exercise. It’s about the unknowable.’ And I said, ‘Yes—that’s the point.’ But I have no misconceptions; I know what the game is. They wanted me to do Zodiac because Se7en was successful and both are about serial killers. Now they offer me Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. They think, No one does perv quite like this guy.”

For all of his categorizing and put-downs (real or otherwise), Fincher was immediately captivated by Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network. He read it in one gulp, and said yes the same day. “Aaron had written his version of The Great Gatsby through Mark Zuckerberg,” Rudin told me. “David saw the film differently. He related to Zuckerberg’s wish to build something. David was making beta-cam movies in his garage when he was a teenager, and building something like Zuckerberg did was very romantic and personal to him.”

Before Fincher signed on, Sorkin had wanted to direct his own script. “There was a ticking clock,” Fincher recalled. “I read it on a Sunday night, and e-mailed Sorkin: You’ll have to put your directorial debut on hold.” Fincher wanted to begin instantly and started casting. Jesse Eisenberg sent a homemade tape of himself playing Zuckerberg, and got the part without auditioning in person. Andrew Garfield, who is English, also tried out for Zuckerberg, but Fincher felt he was openly emotional, and therefore intrinsically better suited to play Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s former best friend and business partner. “When you cast actors,” Fincher said, “you try to find the quality you couldn’t beat out of them with a tire iron. That’s where you find the character.”

For the role of Zuckerberg’s erstwhile girlfriend, Erica, who has to be the Helen of Troy of Facebook and hold her own opposite Zuckerberg in the crucial opening scene of the film, Fincher knew he had to cast somebody unique, a woman who was, as he put it, “Katharine Ross from The Graduate—the girl who got away. We read everybody in the world for the part of Erica. It’s only one scene, but it sets the tone for the rest of the movie. When Rooney walked in, I said, ‘There’s the girl!’”

For the nine-page scene, which is a beautifully written duet of warring dialogue and clashing emotions, Fincher took two days and 99 takes. As always, it wasn’t just technical—he concentrated on the emotional details: Had the two had sex yet? Had she been to his dorm room, or was it more likely that she had brought him home? How much did Erica actually like him? “Rooney and I decided that Zuckerberg had not sealed the deal,” Fincher explained. “And I needed to have that information for the scene to work.” He demanded dozens of takes to “knock the acting out of them.” The final result is thrilling: The scene is like a gunshot at the start of a race.

When Rudin sent Fincher the script for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he was resistant. The trilogy, which Rudin had bought the rights to, is similar in tone to other Fincher projects. The first book introduces the story of Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist who is also irresistible to women (that he’s being played by Daniel Craig, aka James Bond, seems appropriate). Blomkvist has made an error in his probe of a powerful industrialist and has been convicted of libel. While he awaits jail, a scion of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families asks him to solve the disappearance of his grandniece, who vanished more than 40 years ago. The investigation leads Blomkvist to a partnership (and romance) with Lisbeth Salander and the realization that there has been a string of unsolved murders. Together they uncover the murderer.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a remarkably unlikely runaway best-seller. It is very dark and often sexually deviant—filled with scenes of sadomasochism, anal rape, and torture. The book is permeated by a seeping sense of menace and loss. Larsson, who allegedly observed the rape of a 15-year-old girl when he was young and did not report it, had to live with the guilt, and begins each section with a statistic regarding crimes against women in Sweden. The script, which captures the novel’s bleak tone (its original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women), was written by Academy Award winner Steven Zaillian, who wrote Schindler’s List, and it departs rather dramatically from the book. Blomkvist is less promiscuous, Salander is more aggressive, and, most notably, the ending—the resolution of the drama—has been completely changed. This may be sacrilege to some, but Zaillian has improved on Larsson—the script’s ending is more interesting.

This is shocking material for a major studio like Sony. In one of the pivotal scenes, taken directly from Larsson, Salander punishes the man who raped her by raping him with a large prosthetic penis, and then tattooing his torso with the words i am a rapist pig. Not exactly mainstream fare. “Sony and Scott Rudin told me they wanted to be in the adult-film-franchise business,” Fincher said. “And they said, ‘We want you to kick the A in adult.’ They already had a release date—December 2011—but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do another movie about a serial killer. Then I read the script, and I called Scott and said, ‘I can’t imagine why you thought of me.’”

Aside from the visceral and cinematic nature of the material, Fincher was also intrigued by the villains in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. They were not politicians or dictators—instead, the top bad guys are big businessmen. “Fascism has worked its way out of politics,” Fincher said, “and gone into high finance. Today Woodward and Bernstein would be investigating corruption in the financial arena. I was interested in that. And, of course, the girl.”

“Before I read the book, I didn’t think I could do it,” Mara said. She was calling me from Zurich, where the production moved in early December. “I locked myself in a room for a week and read all three books, and decided I really wanted to be Lisbeth. But I thought I had no shot at it.”

The offspring of two football dynasties—the Rooneys (who own the Pittsburgh Steelers) and the Maras (who own the New York Giants)—Mara has an innate refinement, and there was some concern that she would not jibe with the character of Lisbeth Salander. “I wanted her from the beginning,” Fincher stated. “Rooney may be a trust-fund baby from football royalty, but she’s levelheaded and hardworking. It’s so odd how who people are comes out in auditions. We didn’t make it easy for Rooney, and there was no way to dissuade her.”

Fincher saw much more famous actresses: Natalie Portman had just finished three movies back-to-back and was exhausted; Scarlett Jo­han­sson was too sexy (“Marilyn on a bike,” Fincher said); and others, like Jennifer Lawrence, were too tall. “The studio pressures you to pick a name,” Fincher said. “All walks of life want the path of least resistance.” Rudin disagreed. “The studio never wanted a star,” he told me. “But it was David’s idea to build a Lisbeth Salander vessel for your fantasies.” Toward that end Fincher considered unorthodox choices: Yo-Landi Vi$$er, the lead singer of South African punk band Die Antwoord; Sophie Lowe, an unknown from Australia; Katie Jarvis, who was discovered at a train station in the UK and caused a sensation in the movie Fish Tank. “It was hard,” Fincher recalled. “We had five or six girls audition with the rape scene. The girls had to kick a dildo up his ass. That’s Salander’s big scene, and we had to see if they could do it.”

Mara didn’t blink. “David added the rape scene at the last minute, and I said, ‘Ohmigod! They must be really serious.’ They did one test, then another a week later. They shot me in the subway in L.A. in full hair and makeup with a motorcycle. Every day they had a new request. On a Monday morning, David called me in, and I said, ‘What do you want me to do to my hair now?’ I was at the end of my rope. He told me I had the part. I hadn’t even read the script yet.”

Five days later Mara moved to Stockholm. She began training—learning to ride a motorcycle and kickboxing. The (temporary) dragon tattoo proved to be tricky: Fincher did not want it to look Asian or like it came out of a comic book. He finally settled on a dragon that could have been drawn by Escher—more like an engraving and quite beautiful. In one “very intense” day, Mara’s eyebrows were bleached, her hair chopped, and her lip, brow, nose, and nipple pierced. “I didn’t even have pierced ears,” Mara said, still sounding a little shocked. “They put four holes in each ear, and, weirdly, that hurt the most. It was all very organized. With David, everything is measured and carefully considered. He wants what he sees in his head.”

Back in Stockholm, Fincher opened his laptop and clicked on some images of Mara that had been taken to test different hair and makeup ideas for the character. An embedded element of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is that Salander is a modern update of Pippi Longstocking, the independent scamp who is a Scandinavian icon. “Lisbeth is the goth Pippi,” Fincher said as he showed me a picture of Mara reincarnated as a kind of ghostly clown. Her face was powdered white and there were stitches in her lips. “We started there,” he explained, “and then we honed in.” He clicked on an image of Mara with exaggerated Pippi pigtails and dark, dripping eye makeup. “We ended up there.”

Fincher looked happy. “When you see David on set, you see him at his best,” Rudin told me later. “He’s like a happy child, exactly where he’s supposed to be.” From the age of eight, when he asked his parents if he could have an 8mm camera or a BB gun for his birthday, Fincher has known what he wanted to do. “I knew they’d never give me the gun,” he said, “and I started making movies. By 13 or 14, I had a pretty good plan for my future. I would work at [George Lucas’s] Industrial Light & Magic, make commercials, and then do the sequel to Star Wars or Alien.”

Which is exactly what happened: Fincher began working for the nearby Industrial Light & Magic on Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when he was still in high school. The Bay Area in the early Seventies was full of creativity: Coppola was shooting The Godfather; Lucas was directing American Graffiti and living two doors down from Fincher’s family. “I didn’t have the grades to get into UCLA or USC, and, frankly, I thought, why would I raise $10,000 to make a film at USC when USC will own the copyright.” In the early Eighties, Fincher directed his first commercial. Warning of the hazards of smoking during pregnancy, the ad showed a fetus carefully taking a puff in the womb.

It was shocking, which became one of the director’s trademarks. He used his gift for arresting visuals mixed with quick narratives to create music videos, most notably for Madonna (“Vogue”) and the Rolling Stones (“Love Is Strong,” which won a Grammy). When he was 27, Fincher was asked to direct Alien 3. It proved to be a disaster. At the time, the $60 million budget was the biggest ever given to a first-time director. There was no script, only a murky storyline about an alien baby, and it was a mess. When considering The Social Network, Fincher drew on the Alien 3 experience: “I know what it’s like to be in a room full of people who just think it’s so cute that you’re young and have an idea about how things should be done. But they’re not about to give you control. I understand that anger.”

Alien 3 taught Fincher to micromanage, to fight for his point of view, his work. Interestingly, he did not become disenchanted, as many directors have, with the major studios. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has never pursued the independent route. Fincher’s done something almost subversive: He has made challenging, idiosyncratic movies within the increasingly homogenized and limited studios. While most studios are pushing superheroes and animation, Fincher is directing The Social Network. “I do have an idea for an R-rated 3-D animated film,” Fincher said. “A heavy-metal comic book brought to life, like Avatar. In Avatar there are topless blue women. That’s heavy metal.”

After the success of Se7en, which was Brad Pitt’s first starring role and made $327 million, Fincher never again doubted himself. “Actually, I didn’t really doubt myself after Alien 3,” he said as he closed his computer. “I have 380,000 things on my mind. It’s an air traffic control tower in there. I can’t really imagine anything else gripping me the way directing does.” He smiled. “This is all I can do.”