On a dark, icy afternoon in late November, director David Fincher was in a photo studio in Stockholm adjusting blood. The blood, which was of course fake, covered the hands of a young actress named Rooney Mara, but to Fincher’s mind, which is prone to reimagining reality in cinematic terms, the bloody hands belonged to Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Salander—an androgynous, bisexual computer hacker with multiple piercings and a distinctive tattoo on her back—is the complicated star of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series, a trio of novels that have sold more than 50 million (and counting) copies worldwide. Larsson described Salander in opposites: slender but tough, “spidery” but elegant. Fincher, who is directing the American movie version of the first book in the series, has taken that gamine, biker-chick, downtown-girl template and tweaked it. Now she’s his.
The transformation began with the hair. Mara’s long brown mane was dyed black and cut in a series of jagged points that looked as if she had chopped it herself with a dull razor. The bangs were cropped very short and uneven, and the rest of the hair was layered into an extended shag. The final result was a mash-up of brazen Seventies punk and spooky Eighties goth with a dash of S&M temptress. That look, which could also describe Salander’s nature, was echoed in her wardrobe—a collection of ripped stockings, low garter belts, skintight leather, and heavy-soled boots. In all the angry, attractive darkness, Mara, who is 25, lithe, and petite, radiated an intriguing mix of menace and vulnerability. Fincher’s Lisbeth Salander, as channeled by Mara, is unique—a brilliant but childlike avenging angel with an understanding and an appreciation of violence. In essence, she’s a lot like her creator, David Fincher.
“I think we need more blood,” Fincher said as he stared at Mara’s outstretched hands. Fincher, who is tall and looks like an outdoorsy grad student, was dressed in jeans and winter hiking fleece to combat the chill. Like all great directors, he has a God complex, a need to create people and worlds. Those fully realized realms (which masquerade as movies) are intricate, built to exacting standards, and replete with highly developed personalities that particularly intrigue Fincher. In such films as Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac, Fincher masterminded parallel universes filled with violence, decay, and obsession. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which he characterizes as “a grand romance about death,” he invented a land where a man aged backward. And more recently, in The Social Network, Fincher took a “true” story about Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook and transformed it into a multilayered microcosm of great ambition and lost friendship—a parable, like most of Fincher’s films, about America and the times in which we live.