How do you shoot a movie in freezing cold Sweden, from a book the whole world has read? David Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth, ASC heat up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. By Chris Wolski. Photos by Merrick Morton.
Billed as the “feel bad” picture of the holiday season, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo –based on the international, best-selling novel of the same name – is a return to the dark territory explored by director David Fincher and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth in Fight Club, where even the heroes are drawn in moral shades so murky it’s hard to discern where right and wrong begin, let alone diverge and conquer.
Cronenweth, fresh off Fincher’s Oscar-winning The Social Network, says the third most essential presence in front of the camera (behind stars Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig) was Sweden’s frigid landscape, where most of the film was shot last winter and spring. “Weather plays a big part as the texture of the film,” he explains. “It actually helps you get a sense of what the characters are feeling.”
That texture was much more stylized than their last film, and, as Cronenweth notes, the cool, blue Nordic light was a perfect match to the story. “Because this is a serial killer murder mystery,” he continues, “we had more leeway to stylize the lighting. That was different than The Social Network, where we were going more for the reality of the Harvard environment.”
In fact, Cronenweth says the locations took him back to his days as an apprentice with the “father of soft lighting,” Sven Nykvist, ASC, whose lessons served Cronenweth well on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. “People used to talk about how [Nykvist] did so much to bring soft light to the forefront, but he always told me, ‘That was what was there.’ After being on this shoot, I totally understand where he came from.”
Light Iron colorist Ian Vertovec, who also graded The Social Network, agrees, noting that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was about 1,000 degrees Kelvin cooler than Fincher and Cronenweth’s last film. “Because they wanted this very unique ‘Swedish’ feel,” Vertovec describes, “It seems the moon and sky acted like a [cooling] filter. It’s an amazing nighttime look.”
Although the dark material is classic Fincher, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a departure, of sorts, as it’s the first remake in the director’s canon. The book (whose original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women), about a journalist who is aided in his search for a woman who has been missing for 40 years by a hacker/rape victim, was first produced as a film in Sweden just two years ago. It starred Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. Girl, and the subsequent filmic adaptations in the Millennium triology, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, have been huge hits with Steig Larsson fans, so when Cronenweth was approached to lens the American version he was understandably confused.
“I didn’t understand why David wanted to be involved,” Cronenweth admits. At least not until he saw the Swedish film. “I found the original picture completely engrossing. It’s a fantastic revenge story that is cleverly structured with female empowerment at its core. After watching it, I totally understood why David wanted to revisit the story and create an English language version. We have a very diverse and interesting cast with Rooney Mara [as Lisbeth]. She went through a complete transformation to play the role. We also had the benefit of a budget that allowed us to further dive into the intricacies of Steig’s book and, of course, the ‘Fincher factor.’”
At just under 160 days, the psychosexual/political thriller was the longest shoot Cronenweth had done since Fight Club (132 days), and most of that time was spent in cold, wet Sweden. “I was on location in Russia for K-19 the Widowmaker, and it was cold there, but it was dry,” Cronenweth offers. “This was wet cold that got under your skin. But the locations are where everything comes together, because the story is set there, in a soft, overcast, and cold place.”
The international production took cast and crew from Sweden to Switzerland to London and to Los Angeles, Norway, and back to Sweden. A-camera operator David Worley recalled how nature sometimes played devilishly sly tricks on the VFX team. “The effects crew spent a weekend laying artificial snow at one location,” he says, “only for it to snow the night before shooting!”
Cronenweth lensed about 80 percent of the movie with the RED ONE and its Mysterium chip. When the workflow became refined (Red Rocket compatible) and datacards readily available, he shot the remaining 20 percent with the RED Epic. He used ARRI master primes throughout, and because of the chip sensitivity variables between the two cameras, used an 80D filter in front of the lens when shooting with the RED ONE, with the lights gelled to 4000 degrees Kelvin. “The Mysterium sensor is more blue sensitive and it gave us more to grab onto and more latitude,” he explains.
Weather was challenging. But an even bigger issue was latitude. Sweden is so close to the Arctic Circle that as the year progresses from spring to summer, the nights get significantly shorter. In fact, as Girl neared its wrap, both dusk and sunrise were two hours plus in duration; because the crew had to abide by Swedish labor laws, working time (which also included breaks for meals) was limited to approximately 10 hours per day.
That meant intensive pre-planning for a film that mostly takes place at night. Cronenweth, and gaffer Harold Skinner both cite the movie’s last exterior night sequence, which takes place in an historic Stockholm district covered with cobblestones and hugging several hills, as the most challenging, and rewarding. Requiring multiple directions, and only four hours of darkness to cover a two-square block long area, the only conceivable approach was a full pre-light.
“It was the most daunting scene of the production,” Cronenweth recalls. “We pre-lit the area the night before, sending in a rigging crew to plant cranes and set everything up. When we pulled the trigger the next night, we only had a few hours to complete the sequence.”
“I would be standing at the monitors with David [Fincher] shooting in one direction and pre-lighting the turnaround for the end of the film,” Skinner recalls. “When we did the turnaround, I was expecting notes. Fincher casually turned to me and said, ‘Looks good, man,’ and we shot. It was a very simple and unexciting moment, but it felt like a great achievement.”
Matching the disparate backgrounds and ambient light levels was also tricky. “Sweden’s latitude and short nights provided long days where the sun pivots overhead,” Skinner continues. “One particular nightmare was a café scene where Daniel Craig orders a sandwich. Throughout the day, every building in the background was in full sun and full shade multiple times. Usually when the shadows come in, the sun doesn’t return. We solved the problem by flying 30-foot-by-40-foot light grids over the background and applying neutral density filters to various windows to balance exposure.”
The term that always comes up to describe a Fincher movie is precision. “David just preps very, very thoroughly,” Cronenweth continues. “We usually rehearse for a good hour before the crew shows up. This allows time to block the scene, plan the coverage, and, at least in theory, start lighting. By the time the cast is picture ready, we are lit and spend most of the remaining time shooting. The goal is to give David and the cast as much time to perfect their performances as possible, which is a very effective approach.”
Production designer Don Burt described a planning process that harkened back to another master of cinematic darkness—Alfred Hitchcock. “David makes the movie during prep,” observes Burt, who won an Oscar for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and also worked with Fincher on The Social Network and Zodiac. “On shoot day, everything is figured out, and it then becomes all about the actors and the narrative.”
Not that such an exhaustive prep limits Fincher’s camera team. Girl shot with multiple rigs (Cronenweth operated the B-camera), and Worley says he was given plenty of freedom to frame up shots according to Fincher’s vision. “David doesn’t use a viewfinder on set,” the operator explains. “He appreciates what each lens will give him and, once selected, will seldom change. So ‘A’ and ‘B’ shots were lined up with Jeff and me on the cameras while David finessed the shots via the monitors. Obviously, he’s extremely precise, so we knew the exact framing David wanted before shooting. It’s well known that he likes to do many takes, whether for technical or non-technical reasons. But David’s a perfectionist and expects – and gets – the highest standard of expertise from all the participants on set.”
In fact, Vertovec says Fincher and Cronenweth’s preplanning paid off with a much simpler DI. “David and Jeff have already planned where they want the highlights and shadows to live,” he says. “We’re mainly adjusting contrast levels and setting the right quality of light. In other words, we’re not fixing ‘sins.’ We’re enhancing what’s there and taking it to the next level.”
Burt’s work with Cronenweth is an extension of the careful planning that pervades Fincher’s movies; his designs are drawn with the cinematographer in mind. “Don’s very collaborative,” Cronenweth says. “His set drawings and renderings are great blueprints for me, and he designs sets with a photographer’s eye. In fact, he’s always conscious of the light – practicals, for example, or potentially problematic features such as a low ceiling on an existing location.”
Such attention to lighting, according to Burt, is just part of a production designer’s responsibility. “Whether it is a stage or a location, it’s important for sets and lighting to be woven together in execution,” he explains. “We used built-in practicals on quite a few of the stage sets so it was important for Jeff to be aware of the fixtures that were proposed, and, conversely, for the art department to have an understanding of the light quality Jeff felt was appropriate.”
Burt adds that his goal in designing sets is to give Cronenweth – and any DP he works with – “opportunities,” and not “handcuff them.”
Most of the film takes place in the stylized, blue-hued present. But there were a few flashbacks, which meant that Burt had to do a lot of research, looking for the right textures and nuances, which was surprisingly difficult at times. “Stockholm has been around for hundreds of years, and while there are still a lot of great period buildings, many of them have been bastardized with the Swedish equivalents of Starbucks and Jamba Juice,” he relates.
As part of the prep for these flashbacks, Burt changed out many of the current lighting fixtures for period practicals – again to give Cronenweth the option of using them.
Despite all the challenging weather and locations,there were happy accidents that went Cronenweth’s way. One was the casting of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salandar, and as he describes, her “ivory skin” that became his secret weapon on what could have been some really long nights.
“We used so little light sometimes that I had no idea how the shot was going to work,” Cronenweth says. “But then we’d bring in Rooney and she’d just be glowing in the middle of the night, and I’d say, ‘Thank you, God.’”
As the shoot spread into summer, the darkness became even more elusive, meaning that the camera team had to be ready to work at a moment’s notice. One of the last nights of shooting involved a scene in which Mara’s character drives off on a motorcycle. The production waited for the interminable dusk to fade to the black of night. Cronenweth and Worley were ready to shoot. Darkness came and Fincher happened to glance back over his shoulder to see the sun reappearing! “Is it getting bright?” Fincher asked. “It is,” replied Cronenweth. “Shoot, shoot!” the director urged explosively. So Cronenweth and Worley went into action and got the shot before the sun chased off the fleeting night.
Such unexpected moments, like Mara’s alabaster skin or a thimble of darkness to work with, happened to turn out well. But Cronenweth says the shots that stick most in his mind actually took place back in L.A., shooting interiors.
One particular night was on location in a youth hostel, where the cinematographer used sodium vapor lights outside the window to cast a cross-like pattern over Mara’s face as she reads a Bible. The light from the handheld flashlight Mara holds bounces back up on her face.
“It was a magical, beautiful, haphazard shot, and we were clever enough to go with it,” Cronenweth recounts. “Although it was gorgeous, I may be more attached to the last of the film, both because of its majestic grandeur and emotional content – a crane shot of Salandar riding down a cobblestone street into the city lights of old Stockholm. It’s very good.”