This has been a banner year for screenwriter and director Steven Zaillian: He wrote the script for the critically acclaimed box-office success Moneyball, and tomorrow his highly anticipated adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig, hits theaters.
Rolling Stone caught up with Zaillian at his home in Santa Monica, California to discuss his writing process, what he thinks of the movie and why he didn’t see the Swedish version of the film.
How do you approach the task of writing a screenplay for such a popular novel?
I approached it like it was any other book, putting out of mind that 60 million people have read it, so what’s there at the end of the day is what I think should be there. The other thing is I like the book, I’m a fan of the book, so if I’m writing for myself I’m writing for the other 60 million fans at the same time.
Why didn’t you see the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [movie]? Your version is quite different than the first.
Well . . . a book is written in such a way that a person brings something to it when they’re reading it. Whoever they are, they kind of overlay themselves onto the story or onto the characters or onto the descriptions so that they see what they want to see. They’re led in a sort of direction, but what the image of Lisbeth looks like or what her apartment looks like is left to the imagination to a large extent.
If you see a movie, that’s not true. If you see images they’re kind of imprinted in your brain and you can’t get rid of them. I just wanted a clean slate to work with.
How do you start on a project? Do you have a process you apply to all your movies?
A lot of the work happens before I even say yes or no. I’ll often start on a project before I’ve said yes, to convince myself that I’ll know what I’m going to do with it. I do everything you’ve ever heard of writers doing, except drink . . . I don’t drink too much [laughs]. But I’ll make notes, I’ll do 3-by-5 cards, I’ll make lists, I’ll jot down ideas, I’ll put things up on the wall, I’ll pace around, I’ll go get coffee, I’ll crumple up pieces of paper, I’ll rethink it, I’ll hate it, I’ll go through this whole elaborate process of basically doing nothing for about two or three months, and then I get so frustrated with the whole thing that there’s nothing left to do but sit down and write it, and that’s when I actually get something done. But unfortunately I have to go through this process every time, I don’t know why. I’m guessing I’m actually doing some good thinking during the hating everything process. I’m eliminating things not to do. So, to me that’s writing. I mean, a lot of times not writing is writing.
Besides your own contribution to the movie, what are your favorite aspects of it?
In order for a film to work, everything has to be right. From the writing, the casting, the directing and about a thousand other things and I honestly feel that in this case that’s what’s happening. The reason it works is because everything was right.
But nothing stands out to you in particular?
No . . . Well, does something stand out? Yes, David Fincher stands out because David is so involved in every aspect of it, from script to shooting to marketing to everything – I mean, his stamp is on everything. So, yeah, he stands out and I would say the actors stand out because they’re good. But again, all the other things, they’re not intangible but they’re smaller things, also have to be right and I think that’s the case.
So you’re very happy with the movie?
Yeah. Couldn’t be happier.