Steven Zaillian: 'Screenwriting is a lonely business'

David Jenkins meets the ace Hollywood scribe behind 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

Steven Zaillian, screenwriter for Spielberg, Fincher and Scorsese Steven Zaillian, screenwriter for Spielberg, Fincher and Scorsese

Steven Zaillian is the screenwriter to the stars, having worked in the past with such Hollywood luminaries as Steven Spielberg (‘Schindler’s List’), Martin Scorsese (‘Gangs of New York’) and Brian De Palma (‘Mission: Impossible’). He’s also a director, with films such as ‘A Civil Action’ and ‘All the King’s Men’. His most recent project has been adapting Stieg Larsson’s Swedish crime thriller ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ for the upcoming English language version directed by David Fincher.

You’ve worked with a lot of big name directors. Are they all very different? Was going through a script with Fincher very different from going through a script with, say, Spielberg?

‘No. The similarity between the big directors I’ve worked with is that they allow the writer to find a way of doing what they want done without saying “do it this way”. They describe what they want, then letting the writer figure out a way to do it. Other directors, not the top-tier directors, tend to say things like, “do it this way” or “if you don’t do it this way, I’ll do it”. That’s not really the way you get the best work out of somebody.’

Do you ever come back to them and say, ‘Well, this is how Spielberg does things…’?

‘No. The secret is just to try and work with good directors!’

Is David Fincher very pernickety about small details in the script?

‘Not really. I have no problem with anyone being precise about small things. It’s when they’re unhappy with the big things that you get into trouble. If a director said to me, “I don’t understand this character, I think this character is wrong”, I wouldn’t know what to do with that. David and I were talking about very specific things, like “can this scene be more terse?”,  “can something more happen in this scene?”. It was very specific.’

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was on the set when Fincher was making ‘The Social Network’. Was that the case with you?

‘I was there for two weeks when they started but they were shooting and I was still revising a few things and talking to the actors and doing a few rehearsals on some of the key scenes. That was it. I would get sent the dailies in order to see if there was anything happening that, plot-wise, had to be adjusted. But, no, I’m not somebody who wants to sit around on a set and make sure things are going right. That’s not a job I want.’

After you’d read ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, did you begin a period of outside research or interviews?

‘No, there was none of that. It was just a matter of getting a sense of “do I think that I know what to do with this?”. I didn’t go and see the Swedish version of the movie so I couldn’t use that as a template. I spent months agonising over how to do it and making notes and making outlines and making lists, going for walks and hating everybody and everything. It’s a lonely business. The guys at the coffee shop down the street all know me. They see me coming.’

Early on in the production process Fincher mentioned that he’d seen ‘Chinatown’ in the original novel. Did you see that also?

‘I never did. I think “Chinatown” is one of the great movies of all time. But it never really occurred to me on this one. Now that you mention it, it does have that similar old-fashioned vibe. “Chinatown” was a modern take on an old fashioned story, and I think this is too. It’s a modern film noir. You have these two detective characters who eat sandwiches and drink coffee instead of drinking scotch and wearing trench coats. But they’re functioning in the same way as noir detectives.'

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig star in David Fincher's take on 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig star in David Fincher's take on 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

Lisbeth Salander is very a taciturn, almost monosyllabic character. Was she an interesting character to write?

‘I’m not one of those people who writes long soliloquies. I find that most of my scripts have a lot more scenes than most films, so the average movie might have 100 scenes, my average script has 300 scenes. So everything is shorter in terms of the action, in terms of the scene, in terms of the interactions: they’re not like plays at all. And I just think that visual storytelling, for me, is more interesting. So if I can show something rather than say it, I will. And to have a character who almost says nothing is perfect for me, I love that.’

Would it appeal to you to adapt the second and third books in the trilogy?

‘I’ve already started on the second one, but whether it’ll get made will depend completely on how this one goes. I think… we’ll see how it goes.’

I wondered, were there any lessons you learned on your first screenplay, ‘The Falcon and the Snowman’, that still apply now for you as a screen-writer?

‘I think that back in those days I overwrote things. I would say it was probably the longest script that I’d written since then was this one. “The Falcon and the Snowman” was a very long script and it was very painful because things had to get cut out of it that were important. And also, don’t spend a lot of time setting up a character. Set up the character as the plot is happening, because it’ll either get cut off at the beginning or it’ll be boring at the beginning, so either way it’s not going to be good.’

I saw a rumour that you’re working with Michel Gondry on a Philip K Dick adaptation of his book ‘Ubik’ ?

‘Yeah, well it’s not for me to write. I have this little company and we’re talking about co-producing it. It’s a tough one though. I mean I love it, I just don’t know that I could write it.’

One thing I’ve read about is an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’, about the intersecting lives of two Afghan women?

‘Yeah that’s not for sure. I wouldn’t direct that though. The person we were talking about was the Iranian director Jafar Panahi [‘The Circle’ ‘Offside’], originally. And then he got arrested and banned from filmmaking. And he had said that he wanted to do it.’

He was going to direct your screenplay?

‘Yes, yes. In terms of direction, we didn’t want to do “The Kite Runner” approach, which is a kind of an Americanised version of the material. We wanted to make it a film indigenous to the Middle East. So we will keep looking for directors.’

Panahi’s situation doesn’t look very good.

‘No, I mean its got much beyond the idea of “wouldn’t it be great if he directed a film’, its like “what’s going to happen to his life now?” So it’s quite a big concern to a lot of people.’

Rear our review of 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'