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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Enter the Dragon

My interview with Niels Arden Oplev, director of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, in today's Irish Examiner.

It’s been dubbed a Swedish Zodiac meets The Silence of the Lambs, but The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo needs little introduction to millions of readers across the world. Based on the first book in the late Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millenium’ trilogy – which have sold some 30m copies in 35 countries – Dragon Tattoo arrives on these shores having defied the pre-release grumbles and fears of its many fans to become the most successful movie in Swedish box office history, even sparking talk of an ominous Hollywood remake.

However, the movie’s director Niels Arden Oplev says he didn’t find signing onto the project at all intimidating - for one simple reason. “I’d never heard of the book before,” chuckles the genial 49-year-old Dane over the phone from New York.

“I was in Scandinavia absorbed in the making of a movie about Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then the three producers asked me about doing this thriller up in Sweden. My previous movies had all been dramas, and I wasn’t looking for thriller material, so I said no.

“They then came back with a new production schedule that suited me. I went home that night in Copenhagen, and mentioned it to my neighbour. She ran into another room like something was wrong, and came out with the book, saying she’d just read it and loved it. I took that as a good omen.”

Having started out making police-crime dramas for Danish TV (and winning two International Emmy awards for his efforts), Oplev had some background experience to tackle Larsson’s convoluted tale of disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist) who is hired by the head of an uber-wealthy family to investigate the still-unsolved 40-year mystery of his niece’s disappearance. Along the way, he finds himself teaming up with Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a deliquent, anti-social, punk hacker with her own dark secrets to hide.

By now, Oplev is intimately acquainted with the work of Larsson (who died suddenly in 2004), and is well placed to suggest what it is about the books that has so captured the public imagination. “I think Larsson is a very entertaining writer, but he also has this passion, particularly in highlighting society’s violence against women,” he says.

“What’s more, Dragon Tattoo has an Agatha Christie-type plot so it’s a compelling mystery to boot. But I think the real success of the story is down to the character of Lisbeth.”

Indeed, 30-year-old Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth is electrifying (and in a just world would earn an Oscar nomination next year). It’s a role that has already drawn comparisons to Jodie Foster’s dogged-but-vulnerable agent in Silence of the Lambs, though Rapace infuses Lisbeth with a 21st century kick-ass sensibility.

“I think a better comparison is La Femme Nikita,” says Oplev. “Lisbeth is a female Charles Bronson. She’ll take the law into her own hands if she needs to. She has this remarkable thing in her that no matter how much she’s abused, she never becomes a victim. She always fights back.”

Oplev adds that casting the part was crucial to the success of the movie. “I had seen footage of Noomi and thought she was a strong actress but too goddamn beautiful,” he explains. “That was a worry because Lisbeth is not beautiful in the book, and I didn’t want to do the Hollywood thing of hiring a good-looking actress for such a beloved role.

“But when she came in to read the part, she must have known this would be a problem, because she looked as worn out as possible. Noomi changed her physical appearance totally, re-opening old piercings, adopting a more boyish look, and studying martial arts. In the end, I really fell for her strong, dark energy, and her unpredictability.”

As fans will know, Lisbeth is a character that goes to some very dark places, and the movie doesn’t shy away from the book’s at-times gruesome violence, in particular a harrowing rape scene that has become a major talking point of the movie’s release.

Oplev says that that to show the scene in an uncompromising way would have been “to betray women”. “Those scenes had to be horrific because a crime that serious should never be seen as entertainment,” he continues. “I don’t think it’s exploitative. With that scene it’s the preparation for the attack that takes up the most time, and that makes it scarier. There’s nothing sexual about it - just the pure horror. It’s important in regards to understanding Lisbeth’s character and what she does later in the story, and it also honours Larsson’s reasons for writing the book in the first place.”

Another controversy overshadowing the movie – and the entire Larsson empire – is a long-running and bitter dispute between Larsson’s surviving (unwed) partner and his family over the legal right to his now e22m fortune.

“That whole feud is a tragedy, but I think the media hasn’t helped,” Oplev states. “I mean, my God, the Swedish press has sold so many papers over the last few years on this story. It has a life of its own. Luckily I was able to just go in to make a film that was in the spirit of Larsson and one he’d be proud of that would travel outside Sweden. The rest of the mess I’d certainly prefer to avoid.”

*The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is released in selected cinemas tomorrow.

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