Culture

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Director Niels Arden Oplev Knows What Women Want (to be): Lisbeth Salander

Every so often, something bubbles up in the pop culture reservoir and seeps into the global groundwater, transcending every cultural, political, religious and geographical divide to saturate the pop consciousness and instantly become iconic. At one end of the spectrum, there’s “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” and, oh, what the heck, Michael Jackson and “American Idol.” At the other end of things that make life worth living, to quote Woody Allen in Manhattan, “there’s Groucho Marx…Louis Armstrong…Willie Mays…Swedish movies, naturally.” Swedish crime fiction has also earned a spot on that list, thanks to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which continues enthrall readers and moviegoers worldwide. The books have sold over 30 million copies and counting. The combined grosses of the Swedish-language adaptations of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl who Played with Fire,” both released stateside earlier this year, amount to $17.5 million, placing them among the top five indie films of the year.

Now that “The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” the third and final Swedish adaptation recently hit theaters here (and filming underway on David Fincher’s adaptation of Dragon Tattoo), we set out to distill what it is that’s so infectiously appealing about this series of detective stories about a socially conscious journalist and his secret weapon — a fierce-gothette-hacker-vigilante named Lisbeth Salander (played by breakout Swedish actress, Noomi Rapace). Since the primary source is unavailable — Larsson died in 2004 — we tracked down Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the original "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," who graciously hunkered down with us for over an hour to dissect all things Stieg.

Signature: So what’s your take on Millennium’s addictive ingredient?

Niels Arden Oplev: The key to the whole Larsson success is Lisbeth Salander. You have a rich family on an isolated island and in comes this classic investigating journalist with a flair for women. If you read crime novels, there’s nothing new about that. But then Lisbeth comes in. That’s his stroke of genius. She’s this punkish squatter who looks like she walked out of Berlin/Copenhagen in the 80’s. At the same time she’s the best hacker in Sweden, which is also certainly a cliché, but she gets away with it because she’s a woman with the worst past you could ever imagine. And instead of making her a victim, he makes her a fighter. She’s the violent dark angel of revenge who draws the line in the sand that says, ‘Whatever man dares to cross this line, I will fuck you up bad.’ Women respond to the fact that she’s not a victim.

Everything bad happens to that girl. She’s raped, violated, and anybody who was ever supposed to take care of her betrays her. But she keeps going back for revenge. She took revenge on her stepfather because he beat the crap out of her mother. She has this guy who seems to have absolute power over her and still she finds a way to get him. She’s a female Charles Bronson that takes the law into her own hands. For women to experience wanting these bad guys to die is both frightening and exciting. It illustrates to women that they too are capable of violence.

SIG: How do you know this is what women responded to most?

NAO: When we screened it for the first time, during the scene where Lisbeth gets raped, you could hear a pin drop in the theater. Then when she goes and rapes him back, I swear to God it was like being in the stadium when Denmark scored in the World Cup. I didn’t know that many women could whistle like that. It was a war cry.

SIG: What was it like shooting those rape scenes?

NAO: It was awful. It was very tough. The actors got hurt and bruised. Noomi had nightmares. The crew was filled with discomfort. I felt like a sadistic warlord making them do this stuff. But I knew I had to drive it home. We decided to shoot it as close to the real thing as possible. You get into a lot of uncomfortable situations, like the part where Noomi was tied down to the bed and he pulls down her pants. I was filming it reassuring her saying, ‘everything between your legs will be in shadow, and you won’t be able to see anything on screen.’ But her fellow colleagues and actors could see everything. You have a lot of uncomfortable situations you have to deal with and solve.

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SIG: Have you been consulted or contacted by anyone involved with David Fincher’s English-language version of the film.

NAO: No. I know he’s seen my film but I don’t know anything besides that. The only thing that’s annoying to me is that the Sony PR machine is trying to make their Lisbeth Salander the lead Lisbeth Salander. That’s highly unfair because Noomi has captured this part and it should always be all her. That’s her legacy in a way I can’t see anyone competing with. I hope she gets nominated for an Oscar. I know a lot of Academy members have seen the film and liked it because every time I go to LA I meet so many people who have seen my version of it. Even in Hollywood there seems to be a kind of anger about the remake, like, ‘Why would they remake something when they can just go see the original?’ Everybody who loves film will go see the original one. It’s like, what do you want to see, the French version of "La Femme Nikita" or the American one? You can hope that Fincher does a better job.

SIG: Have you settled on your next directing gig?

NAO: I have three projects I’m passionate about. One is based on a book called The Exception [a cerebral psychological thriller by Danish author Christian Jungerson]; the screenwriting team who adapted The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is writing it for Random House Films. I’m also attached to direct The Keep [based on Jennifer Egan’s 2006 literary ghost story], which was just set up at CBS Films. I’m also very excited about another project called "The Last Photograph," which will star Christian Bale — it’s kind of like a modern-day "Apocalypse Now." I hope to start shooting one of them by the spring.