A-list screenwriter and a film-maker in his own right, Zaillian tells Screen how he adapted Stieg Larsson’s epic novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo into the pacy Sony Pictures movie.

Steven Zaillian had not read Stieg Larsson’s hit crime novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo when producer Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures approached him to write the English-language movie adaptation. David Fincher was not yet signed to direct, though he was close.

“They sent the book to me and I read it,” he recalls. “It had come out in the US and was just getting popular, though it had already been popular elsewhere in the world. The fact it was a popular book wasn’t a positive or a negative to me. It’s nice for the studio obviously and nice for me ultimately if it’s a successful movie but, when I read something for the first time, I am reading it to see if I know what to do with the material.”

Zaillian liked it, seeing it as “a rather old-fashioned mystery, almost like an Agatha Christie locked room — or locked island mystery — with only so many suspects. At the same time, you have two very down-to-earth, modern detectives. And I think that was really the brilliance of Stieg Larsson, which was to conceive of these two interesting, modern people who operate almost as film noir detectives in a classic, old-school type mystery.”

Though he expressed reservations about writing three screenplays should there be three movies, Zaillian could see right away what he could do to turn the first book into an effective screenplay.

“I saw a number of things that I didn’t think needed to be there,” he explains. “There’s a really big middle section in which Mikael has an affair with Cecilia, who is one of the Vanger sisters, which didn’t seem necessary. There was also a lot of set-up at the beginning and at the end.

“Of the 600 pages in the book, there were only really about 300 pages focused on the part of the story that we were going to follow. It’s about the Vangers and it’s about the relationship between Mikael and Lisbeth. Those were the important things to me.”

In fact, those fans of the book, or of the Swedish film by Niels Arden Oplev — which Zaillian chose not to watch — will notice the speed with which the new film goes into the story. Mikael Blomkvist is visiting the Vanger island to talk about the case of the missing Harriet within five minutes.

“Fincher says the same about scenes — get into the scene as late as possible, get out of the scene as soon as possible. So when you have something this long and involved, you have to get on with it. The book starts off with about 100 pages about how Mikael has been set up by Vennerstrom and back story about Lisbeth and we just lifted that out and started with the libel conviction.

“A lot of screenwriters think they need to write more than people need,” he continues. “It’s absolutely fine for a novel to do that. But the screenplay doesn’t have the time, and frankly you get so much out of the behaviour of watching how someone behaves and how they move and sound that you can get more of a sense of who they are than you can by writing a whole bunch of back story for them.”

The big picture

Zaillian started out as an assistant editor and an editor of B-movies — what he calls “really bad, cheap, cheap, lower-budget horror films”. He says that, even then, he was beginning to understand what was necessary in a film structure.

“I noticed that you could generally take off the first reel and throw it away and start with the second reel,” he says. “Ninety per cent of student films start with an alarm clock going off next to a bed and somebody getting up and starting their day. It’s like they have to start at the beginning. You do learn at a certain point that you should never start at the beginning. You should start in the middle, when the plot is starting and then bring in the exposition later. You have a whole movie to bring that in.

“The necessary back story about Lisbeth only comes into our film about three-quarters of the way through, and even then it’s rather thrown away.”

As for Lisbeth, the inscrutable sociopathic computer hacker at the centre of the story, Zaillian says he never tried to evoke for her sympathy from the audience.

“I always feel that if you portray somebody as they are and just watch how they behave in the course of the story, then you will understand who that person is,” he says. “There are clues in this. She obviously has a guardian at the beginning and now she has a new one, so you know something strange has happened in order for that to be the case. How much do you need of her background? I think it’s better to know less.”

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo still clocks in at 158 minutes but, as Zaillian explains, “it’s a lot of story”.

He wrote the first draft with no input from Fincher. “We didn’t talk about it until it was finished,” Zaillian says. “After that, I probably wrote another four or five drafts before they started shooting, and it was during that period that we would sit and talk. The great thing about David in terms of how he works with writers is the way any good director works with an actor, which is not to give them line readings but to describe what it is he is looking for. So he would ask me to make a scene terser or take out some dialogue, or go home and think about something and how to figure it out. He likes using as few words as possible and frankly so do I, so it worked well.”

Zaillian visited Sweden only when the film was in pre-production to make some revisions to the script. “I was on the set for a couple of days, and that’s enough for me,” he says. “I have no job on the set and it’s not fun for me.

“During the writing process, the story is mine for a certain time and I do invest myself emotionally and get possessive; but as soon as I hand it over, it becomes the director’s and the actors’ and the crew’s. I am generally off doing something else by then and prefer it that way.”

An Oscar winner for Schindler’s List and a nominee for both Awakenings and Gangs Of New York, Zaillian smiles when asked whether he enjoys the writing process itself.

“It’s never fun,” he chuckles. “My usual state of mind when I start to write is excitement that I’m getting going. Then I get depressed that I’m not doing a very good job and wonder if it’s going to get any better.

“I think most people imagine that a screenwriter gets out a typewriter and starts with scene one. I spend probably three months making notes, diagrams, outlines; trying to work out little sections, trying to see the whole movie and writing out cards. I go through this process until I get to the point where I just want to kill myself, and then know I’d better start before I do kill myself. Then it goes pretty well, but it’s never fun. There is no pleasure in the prep. There is pleasure in getting to about page 100 and thinking, ‘OK, now I know exactly where it is going to end up.’ And being done is fun.”

Zaillian — whose script for Moneyball on which Aaron Sorkin has a co-writing credit, is also winning plaudits this season — is now working, among other things, on the second film The Girl Who Played With Fire “in anticipation if this one goes well”.
“I still haven’t told them I will do all three books. I told them I would do this one and then see how it goes.”