Yellow Bird flies on ‘Girl’ profits

Hollywood remakes of foreign-language pics often create some distance from the original by tweaking the story or moving the setting to America, but filmmaker David Fincher seems unafraid to measure up directly against the popular Swedish “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

The original pic trilogy — gritty and culturally evocative, and based on a blockbuster book series that seemingly put Swedish noir in every bookstore and e-reader around the world — racked up big numbers for producer Yellow Bird: $235 worldwide box office, more than 5 million DVDs sold and 50 million TV viewers. It also focused a global spotlight on Swedish crime fiction, and helped boost and perhaps redefine the local film industry in a way that even Ingmar Bergman could not.

But far from softening or sentimentalizing the material for American tastes, signs are that Fincher’s pushing the visceral anger and Swedish nihilism of Stieg Larsson’s books to new extremes. Fincher’s decision to shoot in Sweden underlines this.

Photos of Rooney Mara as the abused yet somehow invulnerable Lisbeth Salander, with her pierced nipples, shaved eyebrows and roughly chopped hair, make her look even more renegade than the role’s originator, Noomi Rapace.

Sony is gambling that Fincher’s edge is exactly what’s needed to tempt the huge international audience of Larsson/Salander fans again, so soon after they saw the Swedish trilogy, bought the DVDs and watched the miniseries, as well as pulling in the post-literate “Social Network” generation.

In theory, Swedes would be the most skeptical about Hollywood’s haste to remake their country’s greatest hit. However, judging by the enthusiastic response at Stockholm’s Cinematheque in May when Fincher unveiled the first trailer for his “Dragon Tattoo,” the Swedes don’t have any qualms about the new version.

The locals were already won over by Fincher’s bold, some might say hubristic, decision to stay true to the Swedish essence of the novel and to film in Sweden.

“What I saw looked fabulous,” says SVT drama topper Peter Gustafsson, who backed the original movie in his previous job as an SFI consultant. “The big question is whether the fact there’s a Swedish film of the same book is going to make the audience not want to see it. But I think everyone will want to see how it is different.”

In the U.S., the potential-R-rated route is often a challenge. But to Sony’s advantage, the three films were not widely seen in English-speaking territories, with the Swedish movies seen by a fraction of those who read the books. The three novels have sold more than 17 million copies Stateside (including 3.5 million e-books), whereas the three films totalled 2.2 million admissions and 750,000 DVD sales — outstanding figures for a foreign-lingo movie, but still leaving a lot of readers on the shelf, and the mainstream aud untapped.

In continental Europe, and most of all in Scandinavia, a higher proportion of Larsson’s readers have seen the Swedish films. In Spain, 3.6 million book

sales translated into 2.7 million admissions across the trilogy. In Sweden, 3.6 million book sales were virtually matched by 3.1 million ticket sales, plus 950,000 DVD sales and 7.6 million TV viewers.

Spain, Italy, France and the U.K. registered drops of more than 75% in admissions from “Dragon Tattoo” to the final chapter of the trilogy. Some of that may be the result of the fact that the two sequels were cobbled together from footage from the original TV miniseries.

The dropoff in the U.S. was less precipitous — starting from a lower base — and DVD sales were actually higher for the third film than for the first.

But only Scandinavia really sustained a large mainstream audience across the entire trilogy.

For the new version, it helps that Yellow Bird, the producer of the original Millennium trilogy, is co-producing Fincher’s film with Scott Rudin for Sony — although the Swedish company’s involvement is more a matter of courtesy that active input.

“We have (been able) to watch a lot of the material,” says Yellow Bird president Mikael Wallen. “Just the fact they filmed every single exterior minute in Sweden means it feels very Swedish, and of course it’s based on the same book, but it will feel very different from our films.”

However popular the original “Tattoo” and its two sequels, there’s also a sense that their scope was compromised by their TV roots. Rapace’s performance elevated the material onto the bigscreen, but the $20 million trilogy arguably left room for a more ambitious treatment.

“It’s not like the property has been used up,” suggests veteran TV producer Lars Blomgren. “Fincher can make a fantastic movie, a fantastic three movies, out of these books. The second and third Swedish movies were never meant for cinema release.”

Even the first Swedish adaptation “wasn’t in my opinion a proper feature script,” argues Gustafsson. “It was based on two really good TV scripts, and it has four or five endings, typical things you wouldn’t do if you started from scratch as a film. From what I’ve learned from hearing Fincher talk, they have boiled it down to the essence, driving the main story much harder, much more focused on Lisbeth Salander.”

Locals have responded with a certain degree of shock and awe to the spectacle of a heavyweight Hollywood director wielding the biggest budget ever seen in Sweden.

“They were in Stockholm for weeks and weeks, and everyone is 100% positive about it,” says Charlotta Denward, head of production at the Swedish Film Institute. “It’s very special for Swedish crews, to learn how Hollywood does it. There’s a completely different view of what’s possible. Many of us are a bit shocked by how much money you can spend on nothing — lighting a street for hours, or repainting a whole block.”

Adds Blomgren, “So many people have been involved in this project, the gaffers and grips and so on, they have had the chance to learn and see film production at the highest level, so it’s good for everyone.”

Denward concludes, “It makes us proud, not just that the remake was made in Sweden, but that they wanted the Swedish element to be very strong, and it’s David Fincher, not just any director.”