David Fincher had barely heard of Stieg Larsson, Lisbeth Salander or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when he was sent the book. It was 2006, and he was in the middle of making The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the seventh film of his so-far remarkable career. Embroiled in showing the world what it would be like to watch Brad Pitt age backwards, Fincher was too busy to read it but politely enquired what it was about. "Oh, you know, it's one of those lesbian hacker noir movies!" replied his producer, Scott Rudin. "Sounds great," he exclaimed. "But I don't want to push that rock up a hill right now."
He had his reasons. Not only was the special-effects-heavy Benjamin Button sapping his energies, he had also just finished Zodiac, his absorbing true-life account of the unsolved case of America's Zodiac Killer. Put that alongside his seminal 1995 film Se7en, with Kevin Spacey's sadistic slayer punishing sinners with Biblical retribution, and all of a sudden you can see why Fincher initially recoiled at Larsson's detective yarn. A story in which antisocial hacker Salander and investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist join forces to solve a 40-year-old murder within the wealthy Vanger family – at first glance it might just seem like yet another "David Fincher serial-killer movie".
The very thought makes him wince. "I'm not promoting a brand," he says, when we meet in a well-lit boardroom in Stockholm's Hilton hotel. "I'm just making a movie. I look at a story from the standpoint of, 'What haven't I done here?' And I know why they brought me to the material. They're like, 'Let's get the pervert! This is perverted enough for the pervert!'" It's a reputation founded on Fincher's attraction to the difficult, the dark and the disturbing. This is the man, lest we forget, who put Gwyneth Paltrow's severed head in a box in Se7en. The man who stood by and watched as pretty-boy actors pummelled each other's faces in his 1999 ode to nihilism, Fight Club.
Then again, this is also the man who delivered a time-spanning romance in Benjamin Button. "I don't know if anything about David Fincher can be defined and put in a neat little box," argues Rooney Mara, the 26-year-old actress who plays Salander. Indeed, Dragon Tattoo may deal with rape, abuse and revenge, with political and personal corruption, but squirming away inside it is a tender affair between two outsiders. "It wasn't, 'Here's something really pervy we can make into a movie!'" Fincher argues. "It's an adult book. And oddly enough it's become a blockbuster book, and adults are reading it. Teenagers get their blockbuster books. Why shouldn't adults have theirs?"
Chiming with his own sensibilities, Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy is proof that challenging material can melt into the mainstream. The three books have sold more than 65 million copies combined, and it is estimated that 45 millions readers have gorged on Salander's adventures, with the books translated into 37 languages. Stockholm now offers Millennium tours around the streets of Södermalm, where the books are set. And this winter, Swedish fashion chain H&M, in collaboration with Fincher's costume designer Trish Summerville, will launch a Dragon Tattoo clothing line – presumably for the Goth hacker in your life.
Fincher is no stranger to his work becoming a phenomenon. A year ago, his "snarky, political" film The Social Network became the must-see movie of the season. The Machiavellian battles behind the launch of Facebook took $225m worldwide, won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama) and collected Fincher a Globe and a Bafta for Best Director. Only at the Oscars was it bested, losing out to The King's Speech, both in the categories for Best Picture and (in what was the second Academy Award nod of Fincher's career, following Benjamin Button), Best Director.
Did he ever expect The Social Network to win the Oscar? "No," he fires back. "Look – the movie overperformed in almost every way. How often does somebody put a script in your hands where you go, 'I would kill to do this'?" It didn't help, however, that just 25 days after finishing The Social Network, he'd started work on Dragon Tattoo. Despite both pictures being produced by Rudin and financed by Sony, there was conflict, with Fincher urged to return from pre-production in Stockholm to campaign and boost the former's Oscar chances. "I've read that there were people saying, 'You obviously don't want this.' It's like, 'Guys, I've got another movie to make! I'm up to my eyeballs!'"
Already made into three Swedish-language films, starring Noomi Rapace as Salander, Fincher's $90m take on Larsson's first book in the trilogy represents a major gamble. Not least casting the largely unknown Mara as Salander. Though Fincher had deployed her in a small role in The Social Network, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend, he didn't initially consider her for his new lead actress. "In that role, she was this attractive girl-next-door, who is both verbally facile and warm. And that has nothing to do with Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth is none of those things. So we looked and we looked and we looked. But right under our noses, there was the perfect person."
He's not kidding. Looking almost extraterrestrial, with her piercings, bleached eyebrows, tattoos and sartorial armour of leather and denim, Mara's battle-hardened turn as the bisexual, borderline autistic Salander is magnetic. Take the scene where she is robbed on an escalator. Chasing the assailant up the stairs, she rugby-tackles him, retrieves her bag then roars at him like a wounded animal. Which is what she is. Before she hooks up with Blomkvist, and they become unlikely lovers, the story hinges on her brutal rape at the hands of her guardian. But, Fincher urges advisedly, "She's not the sodomy avenger."
If anything, his Salander is a woman who has retreated into her shell, flinching if anyone even brushes past her. "I kept saying to the people who screen-tested, 'She can't cry,'" he says. "She's not a wound. She's a scar. She would never give you the satisfaction of crying in front of you. She's not a superhero. You should relate to her because of her humanity and the things she responds to. She doesn't have to have a cape or tights. I hope that's not a feminist agenda. I hope it's a humanist one. A lot of men read these books, too. I think she's appealing to people; she fights for her own voice. And that's why people find her compelling."
At 49, Fincher is just a year older than Blomkvist (played by a world-weary Daniel Craig) is meant to be. And, like the character, he has a teenage daughter – 17 year-old Phelix Imogen, from his five-year marriage to model Donya Fiorentino, which ended in 1995. But more than that character, what appealed to him about Dragon Tattoo was the Blomkvist-Salander pairing, two damaged souls "helping each other heal" in an uncaring world. "I like them. I like him and her. I love that he's 48 and she's 23. And I love that she's Pippi Longstocking reinvented."
Larsson had visualised Salander as an older version of Pippi, the nine-year-old troublemaker created by children's fiction writer Astrid Lindgren. Yet, from the black-and- white teaser posters (Mara showing a flash of pierced nipple) to the opening titles (scored by Led Zeppelin's abrasive "Immigrant Song"), Fincher doesn't flinch from setting us on edge. Absorbing Larsson's work and making it his own, "There are things in this movie that make people beyond uncomfortable," he says. "They make them downright squeamish. I know that there are people who would have optioned this book, who would've said, 'We love it, we want to make it, take the rapes out.' But there are probably really talented, articulate people who would tell you that you could remake Deliverance without there being any sodomy in it."
Fincher is more than used to fighting such battles. During the making of Fight Club, executives from backers Twentieth Century Fox were more than a little upset at a line of dialogue that went, "I want to have your abortion." Fincher reports that preview viewers didn't take too kindly to it either. "They wanted me to change that, but it was in the script and that had been approved. So I said, 'If I change it, I'm going to shoot something and whatever goes in, has to stay.' So I shot the line that says, 'I haven't fucked like that since grade school.' They begged me to take it out!"
That film received some of the most vitriolic criticism of recent years (the late critic Alexander Walker called it "anti-society, and, indeed, anti-God"), much to Fincher's amusement. "It's fun to be that misunderstood," he says.
Yet, sitting in front of me, he hardly appears like the "malcontent and miscreant" he proclaimed himself. With his voice almost a librarian hush and his goatee greying, his wardrobe is a comfy-casual mix of jeans, jacket and pullover. But appearances, as Salander teaches us, can be deceptive. Fincher may not splice frames of pornography into children's cartoons, as Fight Club's anti-capitalist anarchist Tyler Durden does, but he's still an arch mischief-maker.
There's something about his work that appeals to youthful rebellion – in much the way that Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange did to youngsters in the early 1970s. He thinks Dragon Tattoo will, too. "There are definitely going to be kids in their late teens – I don't want to call them 'kids'; young adults, let's say – who will get something out of this movie. But we didn't make this movie so that 14-year-olds will be sneaking in to see it. I think this is an adult movie." Would the 18-year-old Fincher have gone to see this? "The 16-year-old David Fincher would've gone to see this! It's the kind of stuff that I would've been interested in."
What was the equivalent film for him at that age? "Alien," he replies. "It was 1979. So I was 17." Ridley Scott's sci-fi/ horror classic – a franchise that Fincher would later contribute to, with his 1992 feature debut Alien 3 – wasn't the only film he saw at a young age. "I saw The Godfather when I was 13," he smiles, "and The Exorcist when I was 12." Then again, Fincher was a movie nut from a very young age.
Born in Denver, Colorado, to a mental-health nurse and a bureau chief for Life magazine, his early years were spent growing up in Marin County, California – at one point living just two doors from Star Wars mogul George Lucas.
Directing seemed like a tangible career to Fincher. He began making movies when he was eight, on a portable 8mm camera; in high school, he produced a local television news show. By the time he was 19, he had won a job at the Lucas-affiliated special-effects house Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). Credits included assistant cameraman for the miniature and optical effects team on Return of the Jedi and second-unit work for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. By 1985, aged just 23, he quit to carve out his directing career – his first effort, the concert documentary The Beat of the Live Drum, with Rick Springfield.
Shortly after, he joined Propaganda Films, a burgeoning Hollywood production company that also gave starts to such talents as Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek and Zack Snyder. He calls Propaganda "a conduit for content that was very much an anything-goes thing" – the perfect place, in other words, to cultivate his maverick, "I can do whatever I want" tendencies. Directing commercials for giant brands such as Nike, Pepsi and Sony, he also helmed music videos for artists including Madonna, Paula Abdul, Aerosmith, George Michael and, significantly, Nine Inch Nails (whose creative force Trent Reznor would go on to score both The Social Network and Dragon Tattoo).
If Alien 3 was an inauspicious debut, plagued with script problems and studio clashes, it didn't deter him. Since sophomore feature Se7en his reputation has ballooned as a Kubrick-like obsessive, regularly forcing his cast through dozens of takes of even the tiniest moments. "I think he likes actors," says Stellan Skarsgard, who features as Martin Vanger in Dragon Tattoo. "Not necessarily as people! But he likes actors because of what they can do, what he can find in them. So he lets them try things." One actress on set, reports Skarsgard, thanked him for being tolerant with her. "I'm not tolerant," Fincher replied. "I'm patient."
After making four films in five years, he's looking forward to some downtime now. "I enjoy having gaps. I think you need to recharge. Directing is not a lot of heavy lifting, but it's a lot of thinking. 'If I do this, what are the ripple effects of it? How do I mitigate against making a disaster?' That's the exhausting part of it."
Still, plans are already afoot for his next work, a 26-hour serialised drama to be streamed over the internet. What's more, it's another remake, of the British parliamentary drama House of Cards. "It's politics for the sake of politics," he says. "It's a look at somebody who lives to stir. It's Richard III."
Relocating the action to Congress, and reuniting him with Se7en star Kevin Spacey, Fincher will direct the first hour. But the question remains whether will he come back for the second and third books in the "Millennium" trilogy. "Anything could happen," he shrugs. "People might hate Dragon Tattoo. And if they hate it, we won't be talking about parts two and three. You never know. You never know. I thought people were really going to like Zodiac." One of Fincher's best films, the latter slipped through the cracks in the US, making just $33m domestically, after costing an estimated $65m to make. "I thought it was a good movie, and I thought people were really going to like it. Yet no one did."
Though his films have often recouped their budgets in non-US territories, in America, only Se7en and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have broken the $100m barrier. Yet somehow, time and again, he's peddled his lavish, anti-authoritarian and risk-intensive visions to the studios, flooding them into the mainstream. "You always have to battle," he reasons. "If you're not making something that's there to reassure people, that's not saying, 'You're good enough, you're smart enough,' then you're going to have to fight." True. But at least this time, he's got Lisbeth Salander on his side.
'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' (18) opens nationwide on 26 December