The road to sequeling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was long and twisted, but after years of back and forth with David Fincher and original star Rooney Mara, Sony Pictures eventually handed the jet black motorcycle to an entirely different filmmaker: Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez. Álvarez knocked out skeptics with his Sam Raimi-approved remake of Evil Dead, and shocked audiences with his calibrated invasion thriller Don’t Breathe, making him a logical choice for cranking up the dial on Lisbeth Salander’s vengeful arc.
The Girl with the Spider’s Web follows Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, a fourth book sanctioned by the author’s estate in hopes of raising Lisbeth to the level of James Bond or Jason Bourne. The movie has a similar intention; under the direction of Álvarez (who also co-wrote the script), Spider’s Web is a 007 mission with a technological twist, with Lisbeth’s hacking abilities not unlike an X-Men superpower.
Polygon sat down with Álvarez where he talked about bringing his button-pushing horror instincts to a more mainstream vehicle and revealed why he always hopes someone walks out of his movies infuriated by what they just witnessed. Anyone who has seen Spider’s Web knows that certain suffocating moments are not for the faint of heart.
[Ed. note: this interview contains mild spoilers for The Girl in the Spider’s Web]
Polygon: Sam Raimi produced your previous two movies, Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe. Did you show him Spider’s Web?
Fede Álvarez: He saw it. I showed it to him before anybody. We’re good friends, and you usually do a friends-and-family screening when you have first cut, so obviously Sam was there. He actually coordinated the Q&A with the audience — usually you don’t want the filmmaker to be there because the audience is too nice to you. So I had Sam doing that. He’s a very smart man. He also knows me. He knows what I’m good at and what I’m not good at.
Did Raimi give you a note on Spider’s Web?
Álvarez: I think it was more about do more of this thing. That’s always been his notes on my cuts. It’s like that thing you do with that place, do it more. I remember on Evil, he watched the movie and there was a bathroom scene ... it was quite gruesome, but it was half the length, and he was like, “That scene should keep going for another two minutes.” So we went and shot a little bit more. So I think that in this one it was the emotion, to really get more of a window into Lisbeth’s character, to really try to get into her head even more.
How did you go about rewriting the original script by Steven Knight [Peaky Blinders]?
Álvarez: We had a great script that basically did the job of selecting the storylines we were going to take from the book. So I started there with Jay Basu, a British writer. We wrote together on Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe. He joined us at the very beginning to start cracking our own version of the story. Basically, it’s all about making it your own story, meaning to really inject the scenes that you care about, the scenes that you’re passionate about and because the scripts and books usually have many, many scenes, to decide which one is the one you’re going to empower by bringing it to the front. That’s what I try to do as a writer on all of my movies.
What did you want to inject into this script?
Álvarez: I mean, it’s the theme of secrets and shame. It’s always the same movie in a way over and over. There’s always someone begging for forgiveness at the end.
Why are you obsessed with that?
Álvarez: I don’t know, everybody tries to figure it out!
I think it’s because it’s one of the most powerful things that rarely happens with the people that we have around us. You hope someday it’s going to happen, that a person that has a problem with you or the person that we have a problem with, one day they will come to us and we’ll go, “You know what? I was wrong. I’m really sorry if I ever hurt you.” That rarely happens, or never happens, from a very honest and deep place. Particularly in family relationships. It’s so precious because it rarely happens.
What were the demands from the studio on this movie? Did you have to make it click with the previous movie or were you trying to get away from that tone?
Álvarez: That was the good news in a way, that it didn’t have to be like the last movie, the last American movie. I make pulpier movies. That’s what I’d be doing in my life. So for me it was good that I could bring that into the film to make a film that was less realistic, to bring in that cinematic scope. I would have never made the second and third book because that would have meant to continue the tone of the first one. But the books themselves got pulpier — Stieg Larsson’s third book is way pulpier than the first one. So in a way, for me, the fourth book, even if we have a different author, it just continues riding that wave of getting even bigger and crazier. This is the crazy, and maybe because I’m a fan of that movie, but this is like the Rocky IV to the first movie’s Rocky. [Laughs] I may think that because I was a huge fan of Rocky IV when it came out.
But what I mean is it’s a saga that starts in a very small, realistic place, almost an art film place, and evolves. So, you know, for people that expect to find the same thing as the first one, if they want to see a slow burn, Agatha Christie mystery that is very bleak and perverse, they should go rewatch the first film because this is a completely different movie. I’m not particularly interested in with like reality, crude reality. I try to play it as realistic as I can, which is different. The tone and the places is realistic, but it’s almost magical. It’s definitely not the real world.
Where did the prime number codebreaking in the movie come from? It’s complicated.
Álvarez: The cryptic stuff was actually real science. Like a lot of the things in a movie that feel [over the top] are actually quite realistic. When it comes to the hacking in the movie, everything that was there was actually curated by real hacker that felt like it was 100 percent possible. The thing is, we’re all naive and we think that that’s not possible, no one is going to be able to hack into some system just by putting the phone somewhere, but the reality is that they can. The movie is played really straight when it comes to that and it feels crazy. Even when she hacks the other car and deploys the airbag — totally realistic. If she has the serial number of the car that she gets from the police vehicle in the movie, she can hack that particular model. It was very hard to get brand cars to you allow us to do that to a car!
In one terrifying moment, you seal Lisbeth in a black latex suit. How did you land on that image?
Álvarez: It came from Jay Basu, my co-writer. Most stories will reach the place sometime in the beginning of third act where the villain is going to be in front of the hero, and the hero is going to be strapped to a chair, and the villain is going to be unloading her plan. There’s always a version of that, and sometimes it’s not as literal, but there’s always a version of that. So, we knew we were going to get to that point, but we couldn’t do the chair. Or the pipe from the ceiling. So how do we constrict the character in a place that will be visual, that will be kind of perverse, that will also make sense and track in the story because what she’s doing to her at that point is the thing that she escaped from in that small prologue at the beginning of the movie. It’s the thing that Camilla suffered, but Lisbeth didn’t, so Camilla wants her to suffer what she did. That allowed obviously for one of my favorite moments in the movie when she’s rebirthed, since death and rebirth are classic beats of the third act. And what better rebirth than coming out from the placenta, all sweaty and with no clothes, when you finally realize that you’re ready to face the end of your story?
How do you know if you’re going too far into the perverse?
Álvarez: Well, the MPAA will make sure you’re going too far [laughs], but when it comes to morals, I like to push the boundaries of taste. South Korean cinema is one of my favorites. And directors like Hitchcock or De Palma are the kind of the directors that I think I learned more from by watching their movies. Particularly De Palma, who is one of those guys that was never afraid to amp it up. Even the wardrobes are over the top.
I always like knowing that I really went for it, rather than thinking that, oh, I played that one too safe. There would never be a worse feeling to me in a movie than to think that I played it safe, that I was scared to go in too far. Actually, I look back at Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe and now this — I feel like an old conservative man! But I really try not to be afraid of going overboard.
There’s a scene in Don’t Breathe involving a turkey baster that stirred up some controversy at the time. How do you feel about it now?
Álvarez: I wanted that. Usually, if there’s not a good portion of the audience that’s upset or offended or hated it, I think I failed. It just means I did something across the board that works for everybody. If you did that, you just did some Pixar movie. I need to offend someone because the other group of people in the theaters needs to do that as well. They want that kind of chaos. They want that anarchy in the theater.
There’s potential for more Lisbeth missions, and Don’t Breathe 2 has been sitting on your IMDb page for ages. Do you have a sequel in you?
Álvarez: I honestly have no idea what I’m doing next. I think people who have watched what I do know that I don’t do sequels to my own movies. I could have every time jumped right into them — I’ve been lucky enough that I could have. But I’m usually too anxious and I want to move around and go explore different things. The thing with IMDb is that if someone asks, “Would you do it?” — BOOM! It’s on IMDb.