Fede Alvarez and Claire Foy are in the midst of a debate about how Lisbeth Salander would handle a particularly challenging situation. It’s March, and they’re on a bathroom set that’s been constructed in a Berlin soundstage for production on The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Finally, after several minutes of discussing how Lisbeth is feeling during this pivotal scene, which involves a physical fight and a death, someone shouts, “Shall we actually shoot one?” There are a lot of these moments during the two days I spend on the film’s set, where it quickly becomes clear that Alvarez’s main strategy is just to feel things out in the moment until something sticks.
“I don’t plan,” the director tells Playboy, sitting down to chat after the first day on set. “I used to believe that it was a good thing, and then I learned it just makes it boring. If you plan too much, then people just play something that looks rehearsed. I have learned to keep the movies like a living, breathing thing. I’m ready to change the whole thing in the morning—and drive everybody nuts—but in the end, it’s always the best results.”
He does this by going with the flow, a sensibility he expects his crew to work with as well. “You never know until you show up, in a location or on set, how light is flowing in the place,” Alvarez says. “You can prepare a little bit. But if you’re just doing what is storyboarded, then you’re missing a lot of opportunities. You need to have the team that is ready to respond to that kind of work. We have started building sets a few days before because I changed my mind on something or because we just realized something was going to be better.”
Before coming on board Sony’s new reboot of the Lisbeth Salander series, Alvarez has been best known as a horror director who always aims slightly off-center. His 2013 revision of Evil Dead earned high praise, but it was his 2016 film, Don’t Breathe, which he wrote and directed, that solidified Alvarez as a director to watch. The latter, centering on a female protagonist played by Jane Levy, was outrageous, terrifying and lauded for its unusual storytelling. It wasn’t a stretch for Sony, the studio behind both films, to put Alvarez at the helm of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which adapts the fourth novel in the Millennium series created by Stieg Larsson. Alvarez takes over where David Fincher left off in 2011 with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which starred Rooney Mara as punk hacker Salander and Daniel Craig as journalist Mikael Blomkvist. After being unable to realign the schedules of the original cast and director, Sony opted to skip books two and three, and allow Alvarez to essentially reboot the franchise.
“After I finished Don’t Breathe, I started having a conversation with the studio just to do something else together,” recounts the director, who points out that he initially planned to avoid studio fare but eventually decided he was up for the challenge. “When they mentioned the Millennium series, I said yes right away. It was something I wanted to do. I’ve always been a fan. They had an idea to adapt the fourth book, and they had a script at that point—that ended up changing a lot. They gave me the chance to jump in as a writer, to really make it my own film. Not to just adapt a book, but really make a movie based on all the books that haven’t been done yet.”
Alvarez, 40, was born in Uruguay, but grew up loving classic American horror films (Evil Dead was, unsurprisingly, a particular favorite). He created several short films, but his most notable was Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!), which the director unveiled in 2009 via YouTube, and led to him nabbing Evil Dead. “I made horror shorts before I ever thought I was going to work in Hollywood,” he notes. “As an audience, I watched a lot of them since I was very young.”
As a director, Alvarez is interested in surprising, authentic moments, whether they’re a fight scene in a bathroom—like he’s shooting today—or that turkey baster incident in Don’t Breathe. He’s found a strong collaborator in Foy, who was his first choice to embody Lisbeth in a new film. The pair have an obvious push-and-pull, with her allowed to step in and ensure that Alvarez is giving his female protagonist her due. The director has also been open to any and all questions from his cast, which includes Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason as Mikael Blomkvist, Stephen Merchant as programmer Frans Balder and Lakeith Stanfield as NSA agent Edwin Neeham. Merchant is on set today as part of the bathroom scene (which shall not be specifically spoiled for future film viewers), and the British actor is grateful for a director who offers real answers. “You need a director like Fede who can give you an answer,” Merchant tells Playboy. “Even if he’s just making it up on the spot.”
He adds, “What really helped was that Fede had confidence in me. I’m known for comedy, but I was looking to take on another dramatic role after [2017's] Logan, and it takes a bold, brave director to put someone without proven dramatic chops in a movie alongside powerhouse performers like Claire Foy. Fede pushed me to go deeper when needed, and that’s what you need as an actor—the faith of your director that you can get where you need to go.”
Lisbeth gives you the chance to play with things that are not specific to women. It’s a lot more than just a female hero.
Alvarez not only answers, but he listens, too. Unlike other movie incarnations of the Millennium series, this film is very much about Lisbeth and her journey to help Balder and his son. The story centers on a hacker plot that ultimate has familial ties to our heroine. Although she’s the protagonist, it was essential to Foy—who at one point during filming exclaims, “This is definitely my favorite set”—that Lisbeth never be over-sexualized or filmed in a way that inhabits the male gaze. And Alvarez agreed.
“Something I wanted to do was put Claire in that situation and have her be in control of how we portrayed her,” Alvarez says. “Every decision with hair and makeup and costumes starts with me really wanting Claire to find a look she’d be comfortable in. Even from how we were going to shoot a scene—or if she was in the shower, how you’d shoot that—to not make it to exploitative. Those were things we were keeping a close eye on, and Claire was the main guardian of that, in a way. I don’t think any of my movies have ever tried to get a female character and exploit that aspect of it. But particularly on this one, I felt that to tell the story of this character, I had to be really responsible because of who she is. It would have been completely unfair to the character.”
It even goes beyond portraying Lisbeth as a strong female character, especially one who will inevitably be linked to the current #MeToo movement. “Lisbeth gives you the chance to play with things that are not specific to women,” Alvarez notes. “It’s very interesting. It’s a lot more than just a female hero.”
While The Girl in the Spider’s Web is more of a thriller than a horror film, there are some congruencies in Alvarez’s approach. He uses a gritty, dark tone, especially in the interior sets, and the grime of Berlin stands in for many of the Stockholm-based scenes. The story line, which uncovers some of Lisbeth’s childhood, also finds some roots in horror—at least, emotionally.
“My movies are all about guilt, all of them,” Alvarez says. “They’re always about this idea we have in our lives that there’s a door, and we’re convinced that on the other side of that door is something dreadful. It’s just something that terrifies you. Usually, we can’t articulate the thing we’re scared of the most, but we know there’s a door there, and it’s ajar, and you never want to look behind it.”
He laughs, adding, “The most optimistic movies tell you that if you open that door, what’s on the other side won’t be that bad. My movies, on the other hand, tell you that what’s on the other side is even worse than what you can imagine. But you have to go through that to make it go away. Through it is the only way out. That theme is in every one of my movies, and definitely in this one. It’s a very personal story for Lisbeth.”
The director, who has confirmed he’s currently working on a sequel to Don’t Breathe, may have a strong sense of his work, but he refuses to acknowledge its merits until long after a film has been released. He puts immense pressure on himself to succeed, which he’ll readily admit after what seems like a successful day of filming.
“It’s the only I know—to put a lot of pressure on myself,” he shrugs. “To have, every day, a constant self-loathing of myself and my work. It’s the only thing that makes me try harder. I can’t congratulate myself for feeling good or for what I do. I need to feel like I’m sinking. I’ve learned to enjoy it. On my first movie, I thought, ‘I’m never going to work again! That’s it! That’s not even a movie.’ And it worked out pretty well. And with Don’t Breathe, I was like, ‘This is the nail in the coffin. I will never work again.’ Every time I’m making a movie, and once I’m done, I’m convinced of that. Someday I’ll be right, but so far I’ve been wrong.”
Months later, once production has wrapped, and the film is on its way into the theaters, Alvarez calls from Rome, where he’s doing press around the movie’s upcoming release. How does he feel about this project now? “Once they’re done—and even once they come out—I think it’s never good to feel too good about it,” Alvarez confirms. “It’s good for the audience because you push yourself harder all the time." But he's proud of how the final product evolved, and he can certainly recognize Foy's vibrant and energized performance. "I always believe, if you give your actors freedom, you’re going to get a different version than you had in mind, but sometimes [you get] the better version, a more live version, and more organic and more realistic to what the character should do. That’s what happened here.”