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The Setting
From the beginning, David Fincher and Steven Zaillian made the decision to maintain Stieg Larsson's Swedish setting for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and not presume to drop the story wholesale into America. "There was no way to transpose it,” Fincher comments. "You couldn't make this movie in Seattle, or even in Montreal. It had to take place in Sweden because the story's roots are wholly Swedish.”

Indeed, Larsson had invited international readers into a Sweden most had never encountered. While elements of Sweden's social democracy, rustic landscape and cultural emphasis on functionality were very much in evidence, the Millennium trilogy also readily exposed the often-unseen cracks in the nation's polished veneer.

To capture Larsson's interplay of light and noir against the Swedish landscape, Fincher worked closely with an artistic crew that includes Oscar®-nominated cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (The Social Network) and Oscar®-winning production designer Donald Graham Burt (The Social Network, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button).

The cast also immersed themselves in Swedish life. "Being in Sweden was more helpful to me in many ways than any of the training I did, " says Rooney Mara, "because you can't really understand Stieg Larsson or Lisbeth until you've gotten to know the Swedish people and felt the energy of Stockholm as a city.”

From the icy Norrland coast to the modernist minimalism of Stockholm, the Swedish environment was a constant inspiration to Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, who worked with the digital RED One camera (which he also used on The Social Network) as well the newest RED camera, the Epic, taking full advantage of their versatility and resolution. The decision was made early on that the look of the film should have a roughness around its atmospheric edges that mirrors Larsson's tone in the books.

"The idea was to use unorthodox light sources and keep it all very real,” Cronenweth explains. "So there may be shadows, there may be flaws, but it's reality. You allow silhouettes and darkness, but at the same time we also wanted shots to counter that, so it would not all be one continuous dramatic image.”

Shooting exteriors on location, Cronenweth worked in synch with the mercurial shifts of the Swedish seasons to enhance the film's moods. "The Swedish weather was a huge part of this movie,” he comments. "It's always an element in the background and it was very important that you feel it as an audience member. The winter becomes like a silent character in the film giving everything a low, cool-colored light that is super soft and non-direct.”

Cronenweth was impressed with how the Epic camera handled the austere conditions. "It was really interesting shooting all these black trees against white snowfields with shiny cars driving through under falling snowflakes – elements that are hard for any camera to capture, let alone a digital camera,” he says. "David and I were both really, really happy with the images.”

By now, Cronenweth has developed more than a shorthand with Fincher; they share many visual instincts. "I like to think we see eye-to-eye on aesthetic choices,” the cinematographer says. "We've had such a long, long relationship that I feel like I can get as close to the way David sees things as anyone can. David is really amazing at conceptualizing all kinds of emotional shots.”

Cronenweth says many of those shots involved Rooney Mara's face in situations ranging from terrifying to tender. "Her skin as Salander is so fair that light bounces off it magically,” he muses. "So we were able to use really low light situations and she always comes out looking phenomenal.”

A favorite sequence for Cronenweth is when Lisbeth chases a computer thief through the frenetic Stockholm subway. "David staged that scene on these long escalators in an actual Swedish subway station,” he explains. "You see Lisbeth provoked into an almost animal persona and the trick was to capture the energy of that. It was one of the situations where we utilized the Epic cameras the most because you can make them so small. Sometimes we balanced them on a baseball as a tripod. We also created rigs that the escalator railings could pass through. The idea was to really get in there and be participants in this battle. We shot it so things suddenly come into view and other things are obscured and the tension builds because the audience can't see everything. Whether it's a fight scene, rape scene or love-making scene, that's something David does very well.”

Adding further layers to the film's imagery is the work of production designer Donald Graham Burt, who also has a long history with Fincher, garnering an Oscar® for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (along with set decorator Victor J. Zolfo). On The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Burt was drawn by the chance to completely immerse himself in a culture with which he was largely unfamiliar.

"I thought it would be a really interesting challenge to make the first major Hollywood movie inside Sweden,” he says. "It's a culture that really hasn't been tapped into and it was something new and different that intrigued me.”

He set out on a month-long trek across Sweden, not so much to scout locations as to soak in the atmosphere. "It takes time to start really taking in the nuances of a culture, to start seeing the themes that recur in the architecture, the landscape, the layouts of the cities and the habits of the people,” he observes. "I felt I had to really integrate myself into this world to develop a true sense of place for the film. It was not just about understanding the physicality of the locations, but the metaphysics of them, and how the way people live comes out through design.”

Later, Fincher joined Burt in Sweden, and the two began to talk about the film's overall design structure. "The approach was to keep everything very true to Swedish reality, but without being picture postcard, without going to the typical places. We wanted to use locations that are in the margins, more offbeat, more unknown,” Burt describes.

While Burt built some sets on location in Sweden, working with local Swedish crews, the majority of stage work was done in the U.S. to afford Burt and his team more creative flexibility. These sets included two of the story's most essential locales: Blomkvist and Salander's diametrically opposed apartments. "Salander's apartment is mostly about her computer and her hacking and everything else is sort of secondary,” Burt notes. "When she is on her computer, she's completely absorbed and it's her whole world, so there is a sense that all the other objects in her life are somewhat neglected or ignored. She also lives in a large, anonymous apartment building that is very basic which adds to the sense that she is a loner, that she is hidden. Blomkvist's apartment, on the other hand is more stylish and outward. He works for an upscale magazine, and yet he is an investigator and there's still a bit of an outsider quality to him.”

One of Burt's most fascinating challenges was creating the Vanger estate, shot in a mansion located southwest of Stockholm that the team turned into a family enclave rife with secrets. According to Burt, the estate is considered to be in a typical style of a "manor from Småland” – based upon 18th Century French architecture. "We wanted something that would be very austere, very organized, very formal and very Old Money,” he sums up. "The Swedish are very good at the modern and the minimal but they also have these wonderful country homes that can be juxtaposed against the modern city – yet both speak to money.”


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