Last weekend, Sony held a big press junket in New York City for director David Fincher‘s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and I got to participate in a great press conference with Fincher, Rooney Mara, and Daniel Craig. Click here if you missed it. As most of you know, Dragon Tattoo is the first in Stieg Larson’s Millennium trilogy and it centers on a disgraced journalist (Craig) who’s hired to investigate the mysterious 40-year-old disappearance of a young woman. Mara plays Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant young hacker who teams up with Craig.
Shortly after the press conference ended, I got to sit down with screenwriter Steven Zaillian for an exclusive interview. As a big fan of his previous work on American Gangster, Moneyball, Searching for Bobby Fischer (which he wrote and directed) and Schindler’s List (full resume here), I was excited to hear about his collaboration with David Fincher and also how he writes screenplays. In addition, we also talked about how he got involved in the project, how quickly it came together, the changes he made to make Dragon Tattoo work as a movie, the status of the sequels and how they might shoot them back to back, and he also revealed that he might be directing the remake of Timecrimes. Hit the jump to read or listen to the interview.
As usual, I’m offering you two ways to get he interview: you can either click here to listen to the audio or the complete transcript is below. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is now playing.
Steven Zaillian: It’s not a very fascinating story. I was sent the book by Sony and Scott Rudin. The book had already come out and had been pretty successful. I didnt know about it and I hadn’t read it on my own. But they sent it to me and said, “We want to do this. We will think of it as one thing for now. It’s possible that it can be two and three, but let’s concentrate on this one.” They also told me that David [Fincher] might be involved with it.
When were you first sent the book?
Zaillian: Soon thereafter.
How long ago did they send you the book?
Zaillian: I’m not good with dates. They started shooting in September of last year and I probably came on in January of that year. So January of last year or December of the prior year. It was fast. It was the fastest that I have ever been involved with something.
I was going to say that that is incredibly fast. It must also be different because, as you know in the business, there are often things you get sent, and you write something, but it never materializes. Did this one always seem to have the heat of “this is really a go project”?
Zaillian: Yeah. I think that they had a release date in mind when they were talking to me about whether I was going to do it. I mean, if I was going to start in January, they knew they had to start shooting by a certain point in order to be ready for right now when the film is coming out. That was great. Like I said, it has never been that fast before. A lot of times what will happen is, if there is no momentum, you get all of these notes. You do a draft and you get more notes. You start to get the feeling that this either isn’t going to happen or it is going to take a really long time to happen, and I never felt that with this. This is a movie that everyone involved wanted to make.
What is your typical writing process and how did it possibly change with this shorter window to get this thing done?
Zaillian: It didn’t change. I generally take about 6 months to do a first draft and I think that is what I did here. It really didn’t change. I knew I had enough to do what I normally do. I didn’t have to jam it. So I don’t think it changed at all.
A lot of writers that I speak with say that they can write in a golden time. Let’s say that they wake up at the morning at 7 and then they are great from 8 to noon or from 8 to 1 and some write at night. What are your typical writing times?
Zaillian: When I was younger I used to write all of the time. I would write at night and sometimes during the day. I didn’t really have a schedule. I would say for the last 15-20 years, since I have had kids, it’s a very normal writing schedule. I get up and go to work at around 9:30. When the kids were in school it was earlier, but now it is around 9:30. I work until 4 or 5 and then go home.
Zaillian: No. I mean, for the first 3 months of that process I don’t write anything. I will just write notes and try to see the movie and, you know, despair. In that part it is not fun. But when I am writing I don’t set a certain number of pages. I do know that the further into a script I get the faster it goes. As soon as you start making decisions you start cutting off all of the other possibilities of things that could happen. So with every decision that you make you are removing a whole bunch of other possibilities of where that story can go or what that character can do. So when I get maybe 2/3’s of the way through I can see very clearly where it is going to go.
Can you talk about adapting such a successful book and making the choices that you did to obviously make a movie with a 2 ½ hour running time? Can you talk about some of the big decisions that you had to make or anything big that you had to omit?
Zaillian: I didn’t omit anything that was painful to omit. It was actually stuff that I would omit no matter how long the book was. I would say that sort of the biggest choice that we made was “When does the movie end?” I mean, how far do we go? We have 3 books and it really is up to us to decide. They don’t have to follow exactly where those 3 books begin or end. So we had a lot of conversations about that. But in terms of actually taking stuff out, I thought everything that I took out needed to come out in order to tell the story.
You mentioned downstairs the second and third books/movies. Are you currently hired on to do the second and third movie or are you just having those discussions?
Zaillian: We are taking it one step at a time. I signed on originally just to do the one and now we are starting to talk about the other two. I am actually working on the second one now. But, you know, it all depends on how this movie does. So we will see.
I heard that it is tracking pretty good. I heard that maybe the 50 or 70 million people who read the book might have some interest.
Zaillian: Okay. Good.
Downstairs David Fincher talked about how if you are going to do the second movie then you are probably going to do the second and third movie and film them together. How does that possibly impact you knowing that they might want to shoot both back-to-back and have you heard that?
Zaillian: I have heard that, but I think it really wouldn’t affect me at all. I know I will be given enough time to do that. So it shouldn’t have any effect on me at all. I’m sure that is a financial kind of decision and maybe a creative one as well, and maybe one that has to do with actor’s schedules and David’s schedule and things like that. But in terms of the writing – I don’t think it will have an effect on me at all.
Is there a date that they have said to you “Hey, we need to sort of have these things done.”?
Fincher has talked about, assuming that the film is successful, maybe shooting again in 12 to 18 months.
Zaillian: 12 to 18 months from now?
Zaillian: That gives me more time than I’ll need. I mean, 12 months would give me more time that I would need. So there is no problem.
I spoke to David (Fincher) downstairs and he said that the original cut was 3 hours and 7 minutes and the theatrical release is about 2 hours and 33 minutes or so. Obviously, there are things that are missing. Have you seen the final film yet?
Was there anything that was cut out that you were sad to see go?
Zaillian: No. I can’t even remember what…it is out of sight and out of mind. I can’t even remember what those things are. I know there are a lot of cuts that were not lifts, but were actually trims. It was scenes coming down in their running time. So I can’t honestly even think about anything that came out or any subplots or characters or anything like that. I don’t think that anything like that came out.
You have worked with some fantastic directors and you have directed yourself. What is the secret of being a good director and what is the secret that you have noticed from other directors that you have worked with?
Zaillian: It is two things. One is that they are all not the same. Obviously, the great ones do have a different approach. Some of them are very meticulous and some of them are more freewheeling I would say and they don’t really agonize over it. I would say that the thing that makes all of these great directors that I have worked with…what they have in common is that they have two things. They actually have a very good story sense, which you don’t always assume that they will. You think of them as visualists or they have a great command of filmmaking. I have found that the really great directors have both. They have the style and the content and they care a great deal about the storytelling. They know that it doesn’t matter how great the thing looks if the story isn’t there. I try to learn from them, but I don’t know if I have really succeeded. They approach every scene with a really clear idea and with a really clear visual idea. It is not just showing up on the set and saying, “Okay. I am going to shoot this and then I am going to shoot this and then we are done.” They come having thought about it a great deal. David is certainly one of these. They approach every scene as if it’s the most important scene in the movie. They give it that kind of time and that kind of thought.
I want to go back to something that you said earlier about how it takes you 6 months for your first draft. Sometimes I speak to some people and they say that their first draft for most people is their 8th draft. How is that for you?
Zaillian: It is about my 8th draft. I number them and it is about 8.
Zaillian: In my mind it is done. Then, of course, I get into the conversations and I realize that it is not done. But if I would have turned in that first draft, it really would have been far away. I try to not invite a whole bunch of comments. I think that the temptation is to turn in the first draft so that you don’t have to think about it anymore and you can start inviting ideas, thoughts, comments, and those sorts of things. For me, it works better if I get it as close as I think it should be before sending out the invitations.
Is there a project that you have ever been offered and you turned down for whatever reason that still haunts you today?
Zaillian: There is one that haunts my wife because she was the one that told me not to do it – Silence of the Lambs. Actually, when this movie came up, which you can say there are certain similarities to it…after Silence of the Lambs and when we were sitting there watching the Academy Awards she said, “I will never tell you anything ever again.” So when this one actually came up I think she said, “You know what? I think you should really do this one.” [laughs]
I want to go back to the second and third books. Obviously, you have read all of them. Do you feel that it is easier to adapt the second and third books or are there more things in them that are integral to the plot?
Zaillian: I’m not sure yet. I’m too early in on the process. I haven’t really committed all of myself, my time, and my work to them. I’m sure that each one will come with their own set of challenges and problems. But it really remains to be seen. Honestly, I don’t really remember the details of the third one at all. I remember the overall story, but I don’t remember any of the details of it. So we will see. I’m really just taking them one step at a time.
You have directed a few films. It has been a few years since you have been behind the camera. Obviously, it sounds like you are going to be busy right now with writing for Mr. Fincher. Are there any plans for you to get behind the camera? Do you have a script that has been sitting in the desk for a little while?
Zaillian: I have an idea that needs to be written that has been sitting in the desk for awhile. So I need the time to write it. That is one thing. I also have been talking about the possibilities of directing this little film called Timecrimes, which is a movie that we are going to transplant to the United States. It was actually written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo in Spain. I don’t know if you have ever heard of this, but it is a fantastic little movie. So I am looking for a way to do that. I think that would be a lot of fun and I would like to do it fast and cheap because I think that it is one of the few movies because of the way it was conceived you can do that and not sacrifice anything. It is four characters, two locations, and it all takes place in real time in about an hour and a half. That would be a lot of fun for me – to try and do something really fast.
Who has the rights to that?
Zaillian: I do.
So it is a question of literally just finding the time?
Zaillian: Finding the time, finding the actors, and finding the money. Just those things.
Nothing important at all.
Zaillian: Yeah. [laughs]
A lot of the screenwriters I talk with have a desk full of five or ten scripts of things that maybe they have written over the years that they are not happy with, but they will cannibalize certain ideas for another project. Are you one of these screenwriters that has a desk full of scripts, or a few things, or none at all?
Zaillian: I have a few things that I have written over the years that haven’t been made, but I sort of feel like there was a good reason why they were not made. So I am not anxious to go back and fix them. I don’t have something in the desk drawer that I think, “The time is right now. If I just do this, it’ll be great.” It is kind of out of sight and out of mind. I am thinking ahead rather than back.
I do have one more question about Timecrimes. I have not seen the film, but everyone I know who has raves about it. Is it one of these ideas that you feel that there needs to be a lot of changes made or is it one of things where it is just a question of getting some American actors, putting your spin on it, maybe a few tweaks, and making it very similar?
Zaillian: I think it will be similar. The brilliance of that story is in the idea. The basic idea is that a guy relives half an hour of his life three times. It is such a big idea and a great idea that I’m not going to change that. The setting will change. I will co-write in a way that…there is actually a guy called Tim Saxon, who wrote a draft of it. It will change, but in terms of the big picture and big idea it is going to be the same.