BLOOD, SWEAT AND FEARS – by Benjamin Sventkey
With their bloody buddy picture, Fight Club, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and
bleak-chic director David Fincher get ready to rumble
"First rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club. Second rule
of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club."–Tyler Durden in FC First
rule of interviewing David Fincher: talk all you want about FC. Ask him anything
that pops into you head abut his new $65 million film starring Brad Pitt, Ed
Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter. About its unrelenting violence. its murky
morality. Its provocative politics (which one outraged critic has already denounced
as "fascist") Go ahead, ask. He won’t hit you. "This is the part
of the interview where you ask who the hell do I think I am and what the hell
do I think I’m doing," correctly observes the 37 yr. old director of what
could turn out to be the most controversial release from a major studio since
Natural Born Killers. "But, you know, I honestly don’t get what the big
deal is. I’ve always thought people would think the film was funny. It’s supposed
to be satire. A dark comedy. I think it’s funny. But I dunno," he goes
on, stumbling onto an epiphany, "maybe I have a different take on funny."
Oh, he has a different take all right, and not just on funny. As one of the
most subversive mainstream filmmakers in hollywood–the man who made moral ambiguity
and psychological dubiety into a marketable cinematic style with his 1995 serial-killer
thriller Seven and his 1997 Michael Douglas mind trip The Game–you can always
count on Fincher for different.
Still, even by his sublimely warped standards, FC is a shocker, a film so harrowingly
brutal and unabashedly out there it makes that elephant-dung art at the Brooklyn
Museam of Art look about as disturbing as a big-eyed Walter Keane pixie. Norton
(American History X, The People vs. Larry Flynt) plays the movie’s insomniac
narrator, a corporate drone alienated by his cookie-cutter job and consumeristic
lifestyle; his only true joy is crashing support group meetings for the terminally
ill. Pitt (who’s done Fincher’s bleak brand of "comedy" before, starring
in Seven) plays his newfound pal Tyler Durden, a mysterious (and none too hygenic)
soap salesman who helps Norton’s character get in touch w/ his inner anarchist.
Together, they start a support group of their own–FC–where disillusioned men
from all walks of life learn to work through their pain and find emotional insight
by beating each other’s heads into bloody pulps.
"There’s something about getting hit in the face that gives you an adrenalized
version of life that’s very profound," Fincher says as he relaxes in the
sunroom of the Los Feliz, Calif., rental where he’s spent the last few months
putting a postproduction polish on his film. "It’s like nothing else you
experience in life."
There’s more. Like a story line about a cabal of anti IKEA terrorists scheming
to bring down the evil home furnishings empire (and other oppressors, like Starbucks
and Calvin Klein) by sabotaging corporate art and blowing up office towers;
a sadistic love triangle involving Bonham Carter as a suicidal Goth goddess
named Marla and a surprise ending so shocking (and complicated) we’d have trouble
revealing it even if we wanted to. And all of it unspools in a synapse frying
rush of flashbacks, jump cuts, and stylish special effects that hang together
more like a Mobius strip than a motion picture. There’s even not quite subliminal
footage of x rated body parts, though perhaps subliminal inch age describes
some of the inserts better.
"This isn’t the sort of movie you just sit back and watch," Fincher
warns. "This is a movie that’s downloaded in front of you. It doesn’t wait
for you. If you don’t keep up, you’re lost. It’s like you’ve tripped and sprained
your ankle. You have to tell the rest of the audience, ‘Go on, go ahead without
Some people will undoubtedly enjoy the ride. In fact, a few critics have already
declared FC brillient ("an orgiastic pop masterpiece," according to
American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis’ review). But when 20th Century Fox
opens the film to the public on Oct. 15, Fincher may be dealing w/ more than
sprained ankles. In the current post-Columbine climate, w/ Congress contemplating
legistration to regulate violence in entertainment and Oliver Stone battling
in court over crimes supposedly inspired by Natural Born Killers, a movie this
viscerally savage and morally fuzzy–a film that could be misconstrued as actually
advocating violence–is bound to be explosive. The only question is how loud
will its boom be?
Even the film’s biggest star recommends taking cover. "Fincher is piloting
the Enola Gay on this one," Pitt predicts, "He’s got the A-bomb."
"I want you to make me pregnant. I want to have your abortion."–MARLA
Turns out the executive at Fox who discovered FC, or least who purhased the
film rights to the ’96 first novel by Oregon mechanic Charles Palahniuk, was
none other than Laura Ziskin, the producer who launched her career nearly 10
yrs. ago by reworking a dark, edgy screenplay about a down and out prostitute
in L.A. into a frothy romantic bubble bath called Pretty Woman.
This time, though, Ziskin didn’t slip any Roy Orbison songs onto the soundtrack.
"I was sitting at the edge of my bed in the middle of the night reading
passages of this book to my family and calling up colleagues on the phone sayin,
‘You have to hear this dialogue!’" says Ziskin, recalling her first bout
w/ FC. "The ideas in the book were so potent and compelling and original."
Fincher had spent a sleepless night w/ the novel as well–he’d even tried to
bid on the movie rights himself–so it wasn’t long before he was sitting in
Ziskin’s office pitching his directorial services. "It was one of those
jerk-off meetings where you come in and say how great it’s going to be,"
he recalls. "I told Laura we could do the movie a number of ways. We could
do it for $3 million on vidiotape, a sort of anarchist cookbook version. Or
we could really go for it, try to embrace everything in the book, like the scene
w/ the plane exploding in midair and the car crash…"
Fox liked the second version, although originally the sturdio was planning
on embracing only about $50 million worth of the novel. First time screenwriter
Jim Uhls was hired to translate Palahniuk’s prose into a shootable script ("A
faithful fleshing out" is how the novelist reviews the results) and Fincher
started fishing around for movie stars willing to take on the film’s raunchy
roles. Sean Penn wa briefly talked about for Pitt’s part; Courtney Love was
mentioned for Marla, the movies only significant female character ("too
busy" says Norton, explaining why his ex girlfriend didn’t do the film).
Of course, back during those early stages of pre production–in ’97 B.C. (before
Columbine) the violence in entertainment debate wasn’t the front burner political
issue it is today. Nobody was particularly troubled by the film’s bone crunching
milieu, or even paid much attention to it. Norton, for one, saw the movie as
a ’90s update of a classic ’60s love story. "It reminded me of The Graduate,"
he says. "My grandfather was very uncomfortable w/ it. He thought it was
negative and inappropriate. But my father loved it, thought it was a great metaphoric
black comedy that dealt w/ his generation’s feeling of disjointedness. And that’s
exactly what FC is. My character is sort of like Benjamin, and Brad’s character
is like a postmodern Mrs. Robinson."
One word: plastiques.
In any case, Pitt wasn’t deterred by FC violence, either. In fact, he was so
elated at the prospect of working w/ Fincher again (understandly, since Seven
was the actor’s last movie to hit $100 million at the box office) he sprinted
to the director’s house to seal the deal. Recalls Fincher: "I hung up the
phone and he was knocking at my door in, like, four minutes. And I live in a
gated community. I don’t know how he got past security."
"Finch is hyperbolizing hte moment a little," Pitt semi-corroborates,
"but, yeah, I was pretty excited about doing it. I hadn’t read anything
like it, and I read everything. It’s an astounding, extraordinary, amazing movie"
he gushes, inventing his own FC rule (talk about FC, but only in superlatives).
"It’s a pummeling of information. It’s Mr. Fincher’s opus. It’s provacative,
but thank God it’s provacative. People are hungry for films like this, films
that make them think."
The movie certainly forced Pitt into some heavy thinking. "Fincher, Norton,
and I had endless discussions about it before we started filming," he goes
on. "We sat around for months battling around ideas, breaking apart every
line like it was Shakespeare. It’s such a hard film to get a handle on. How
do you characterize something you’ve never seen before?"
Oddy enough, about the only thing Pitt didn’t contemplate during those long
months of pre filming rap sessions was what effect playing Tyler Durden–by
far the ugliest role this prettiest of movie stars has ever undertaken–might
have on his career. For an actor like Norton, who make his name by slipping
into dark, difficult parts FC was a no brainer. But Pitt? Playing a nihilst
antihero who shaves his head, urinates in cafeteria food, and manufactures his
soap in ways that are 99 44/100 % impure? "Actually, I didn’t think about
that too much," he says. "It didn’t seem gutsy to me at all. It seemed
like it would be foolish not to do it."
"People who don’t know Brad think he’s a strange choice for the role,"
Fincher acknowledges. "But people who do know him–who know the Brad Pitt
who hangs out at his house with his five dogs, who chain-smokes, who lives under
an inch of dust–they think he’s perfect."
As it happens, the only one who expressed any reservations about appearing
in Mr. Fincher’s Opus was Bonham Carter. "I was the last one on board,"
says the English actress. "I wanted to meet Fincher just to ascertain that
he wasn’t a complete misogynist. The script was awfully dark, and in bad hands
it could have been immature or possibly even irresponsible. But after meeting
him, I could tell that it wasn’t going to be a concern. He’s not just an all-out
testost package. He’s got a healthy feminist streak."
During shooting, Fox maintained a mostly hands-off policy toward Fincher. But
there was one moment when Ziskin felt compelled to put her foot down–when she
saw dailies of a post-coital scene in which Bonham Carter delivered that line
about wanting to have Tyler’s abortion. Fincher remembers her reaction: "She
came to me with her voice quivering and said, ‘You know, we just can’t release
a movie that has that line in it. Will you please shoot something different.’"
He obliged, penning Bonham Carter’s replacement line himself: "That was
the best f— I’ve had since grade school."
"After we previewed the picture, Laura came up to me," Fincher says,
laughing. "She said, ‘Please put the abortion line back in.’"
"This buttoned-down schizophrenic could probably go over the edge at any
moment in the working day and stalk from office to office with an Armalite AR-180
carbine gas-operated semiautomatic." –Fight Club’s narrator to his boss.
Originally, Fox had slated Fight Club for release last July, opposite Stanley
Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. But last April, two lunatic teenagers wearing black
trench coats went on a shooting spree in Colorado. Suddenly, fairly or not,
Hollywood became ground zero in a political and cultural battle over the roots
of teen violence. A frenzy of proposals aimed at curbing Hollywood’s supposed
excesses whipped through both the Senate and the House (most were eventually
voted down, but a bill to begin a special congressional investigation of Hollywood’s
creative practices, complete with subpoena powers, is still under consideration).
None of the above had anything to do with Fight Club’s release being bumped
back three months, at least according to Fincher. "It just wasn’t ready,"
he says. "There was a lot of concern about the length of the movie. I had
it down to two and a half hours, but we wanted to get it down to two-nineteen.
I needed more time."
Still, the Columbine tragedy (and the three other mass killings given saturation
media coverage since then) has put a distinct chill in the air. And whatever
else Fight Club may be–an orgiastic pop masterpiece, a fascist rant, a remake
of The Graduate–it will definitely make a tempting bull’s-eye.
At this writing, with the movie only just arriving in theaters, it’s too early
for reaction from the usual Hollywood bashers. "I’m lucky if I see one
movie in six months," says former Family Research Council leader Gary Bauer,
reluctantly admitting that his jihad against the entertainment-industrial complex
may have lost some steam ("I cannot find any constitutional case that I
could make that would permit government limitations on this sort of thing,"
he says). Conservative moralist Bill Bennett hasn’t viewed Fight Club either,
although he was quoted in Larry King’s USA Today column blasting the film’s
"illicit, pummeling free-for-alls." And while there’s no word yet
from Kathie Lee Gifford–who, Pitt recalls, once advised her viewers that it
was their "moral imperative" not to see Fincher’s Seven–you don’t
have to get up early in the morning to figure out which way her thumb will probably
end up turning.
Of course, fundamentalist presidential candidates and perky morning-talk-show
hostesses aren’t exactly Fight Club’s target demographic; in fact, they’re precisely
the sort of people the movie hopes to offend. "I don’t really care what
Bill ‘S—head’ Bennett thinks about this movie," Fight Club producer Art
Linson lets loose. "I don’t care if he thinks it’s irresponsible. It’s
not irresponsible. The fact is, there’s more violence in the first five minutes
of Saving Private Ryan than you’d see watching Fight Club four times. To me,
Spielberg’s movie is the one bordering on irresponsible, with all those limbs
flying around on the beach." "Art has always reflected society,"
Norton offers more calmly.
"Art doesn’t invent violence. It doesn’t inspire violence. This movie
examines violence and the roots of frustration that are causing people to reach
out for such radical solutions. And that’s exactly the sort of discussion we
should be having about our culture. Because a culture that doesn’t examine its
violence is a culture in denial, which is much more dangerous."
Elegantly put. But you don’t have to be a right-wing cinemaphobe to wonder
whether Fight Club’s true target audience–young males in their teens and 20s–will
be quite so subtly Socratic in their interpretation of the movie. Or to worry
that some may walk away with an entirely different message. Already there have
been ominous (although unsubstantiated) rumors of real-life versions of Palahniuk’s
fictional Fight Clubs popping up in New York and California. If true, Fincher
may want to give Oliver Stone’s lawyers a call.
Even New York City college professors have some concerns. "I found the
film fascinating and provocative, often scathingly funny, and ultimately requiring
a real leap of faith in psychological projection," ruminates Annette Insdorf,
director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, who saw a sneek
peek of Fight Club last summer. "But, yeah, I am worried about young males.
What bothers me is that the body is rendered as an object upon which pain can
and should be inflicted. I can see people asking if impressionable young men
will be inclined to play Fight Club. But then," she says, adding a caveat,
"I was concerned when Rambo came out too."
Fincher, meanwhile, is still stuck on the comedy thing: "People say this
movie advocates violence, but did M*A*S*H advocate alcoholism? That’s how the
characters in that movie dealt with their circumstances in Korea. And this is
how the characters in this movie deal with their circumstances. This isn’t A
Clockwork Orange. It was never intended to be. It’s a fairy tale, a coming-of-age
story about choosing a path to maturity.
"You know, I’m 37 years old," he goes on. "I don’t purport for
a second to know what a film should be, what entertainment should be, how much
it should teach, how much it should titillate. I’m just trying to make a good,
funny movie." And then the slightest glimmer of what might be doubt creeps
into his tired, red-around-the-edges eyes. "You didn’t think it was funny?"
What was that first rule of Fight Club again?