Niels Arden Oplev could talk for Denmark. Thankfully, the Danish director has plenty of interesting things to say. He's man who has turned Swedish author Stieg Larsson's bestselling thriller 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' into the biggest film in Scandinavian movie history, with $100m taken across Europe - so far. If you're one of the 10 people who haven't read it, 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is the story of an investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and a security expert, Lisabeth Salander, who team up to solve a decades-old mystery involving a wealthy family. Harry Guerin talked to the director about the challenge of bringing the book to the screen.
Harry Guerin: You've had fantastic success with 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' but when you were first asked to direct it you refused.
Niels Arden Oplev: [Laughs] Normally when these films are done in Scandinavia they are done as much more traditional thrillers and are much more made-for-TV kind of stuff. So when the producers came and asked me the first time I thought that was the kind of project they had in mind and had the time and budget for.
HG: So you refused.
NAO: I was in the middle of doing another film. My four previous films have been dramas and I wasn't really looking for thriller material for Scandinavia because a lot of times thrillers are seen as less prestigious - it's quite different in America but in Scandinavia the good drama is what's seen as the most prestigious thing to do. And also, for me, it's what interests me the most because I'm a character-driven director. I'm interested in the human more than I'm interested in building suspense.
HG: So what changed your mind about directing?
NAO: The producers came back and asked me to reconsider several months later and they had moved the production times so it would be tight but I could finish my film. So then I said to them, 'Ok, I'll read the damn book!' And that certainly changed my perspective because I thought it was an excellent book and that it could become a big, widescreen Scandinavian film that could combine what you normally associate with American entertainment values and still have a Scandinavian, edgy, artsy kind of soul.
HG: All the characters - from Blomkvist and Salander down to the minor ones - are perfectly cast. Did you always want Mikael Nyqvist for the role of Blomkvist?
NAV: Actually, yes. I looked at all the Swedish actors in his age group and category but he is the one for me that has the high credibility as [playing] an investigative reporter - a bleeding leftist with a golden heart and a flair for women! When he sits down and writes you really believe he can bring down a really big company and the financial world of Sweden will shake in its pants.
There is something in Blomkvist that's like a Swedish bear - women can sleep in his arms and feel safe. I think that Blomkvist has to have that because some of the other men in the film have this aggression or male dominance and he's not like that. He's not very committal in love but he doesn't treat women in a condescending way and he just accepts people for the way they are. That's an interesting characteristic because we wanted the love story between him and Lisabeth to be stronger in the film than it is in the book. We wanted them to be equal characters and we made them equal in screen time. We kind of made her the developing character. He is the male hero, of course, but she is actual a bigger hero than him.
HG: From what I've read, you had doubts about Noomi Rapace playing the role of Lisabeth Salander.
NAO: Well, I didn't have doubts about her, I was afraid that she was too beautiful - that was my main problem! I thought that it was going to be impossible to cast the role because it's such a specific and visual character. I thought it would be impossible to find anybody that had that strength and energy also. But when I did the first rehearsal...
I had seen pictures of Noomi and I'd seen a clip from an arthouse film she had done. I definitely thought she was a strong actress but I thought that she was so damn beautiful that it was going to be a problem! And then she came to rehearsal in her husband's worn-out rock music clothes and she certainly hadn't put on any make up or anything and I did a two-hour rehearsal with her.
HG: She's brilliant in the film.
NAO: She's a remarkable, strong, young actress. In her interpretation of Lisabeth she showed me this really strong, dark energy - that's a very seductive quality on screen. So I knew after those two hours that this was Lisabeth Salander. She's such a strong character in the book that you need somebody with a really strong energy from the screen for the audience.
When you cast you can't cast only visually, you have to cast emotionally, too. The audience will think that they have a distinct visual picture of Lisabeth [from the book] but the truth is that they have a blurry visual picture but they have a strong emotional image, and you have to meet both of them. Possibly it's more important to meet the emotional image of the the book's readers than the visual.
HG: What is your own take on why the book is so popular?
NAO: Well, the thing with 'The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo' is that is it's like an Agatha Christie plot and an investigating journalist is also a classic character. I think all of that is really well written and identifiable, but maybe not unusual. What's unusual is Lisabeth Salander's character and when she enters the story the story really takes off and jumps to a higher level than a normal crime story. Her character is what makes the book and the film an enormous success because, for women, she is a fantastic character. No matter what, she never becomes a victim. She always fights back and that's an enormous inspiration for women.
HG: 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is the first of three films that have been made based on Stieg Larsson's books. Did you have any interest in doing the other two?
NAO: I had the offer to do them but I said 'no' because the production plan was very compact and the scripts weren't written yet. If you could have done a more kind of 'Lord of the Rings' production, where you had all the stuff more prepared and you could shoot it over a longer time and the films would not have to be finished while the other ones were shooting and stuff... I thought that I would break my neck trying to do all three films and I would surely be divorced when I came back to Copenhagen! So I thought, 'I'm not going to stretch myself too far. I'm not going to be greedy. I'm going to limit myself'. This was a very big film to do and I thought, 'I'm going to do it right and then I'll pass it on'.
HG: There are plans to remake the films in the US. Would you direct the Hollywood version if they asked you?
NAO: No. I've done this film and I've done it successfully and I should do something else.
HG: So what's next for you?
NAO: Well, I'm in America now and my whole family is here and we're going to spend some time here. I'm developing some really exciting ideas, two of them for America and one of them for the UK/Europe. It's exciting times and I have, I guess you call it in English, tailwind. I have a hell of a lot of tailwind right now. I have a film in Europe alone, without Ireland and the UK, that has done 15 times its budget. This is the biggest Scandinavian film in history. It's grossed $100m so far in Europe - I don't think any Scandinavian film has been halfway there. It's absolutely a phenomenon. It's the most frightening thing out of Sweden since ABBA!
'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is in cinemas from Friday, 12 March. Read the review.