21st-Century Boys

David Fincher stages a theater of war in ‘Fight Club’

 Fight Club director David Fincher doesn't think his film (opening October 15) is pervy or socially irresponsible. Others, ranging from the absurdly influential London critic Alexander Walker to The New Yorker's David Denby, disagree. In his review, Walker indicted Fox owner Rupert Murdoch. "If he had to blow dust, it might as well be in that direction," says Fincher, speaking on the phone from L.A. just before the pre-release controversy took on a nastier tone than anything in the film itself. "I understand Edward Norton's character [Fight Club's protagonist] so well that I think what he's thinking is what everybody's thinking. It's not like wanting to fuck somebody's leg brace."

The leg brace reference has to do with the comparison floating around between Fight Club and David Cronenberg's Crash in which James Spader lusts for Rosanna Arquette's heavy metal accessory. Fincher says that he doesn't mean to slight Crash; it's just that his film is less specialized.

If Crash seemed like the last movie of the 20th century, then Fight Club could be the vertiginous, libidinous preview of the 21st. Both films share an outrageous sense of humor; they make punch lines of things that are supposed to be no laughing matter. Walker trashed Fight Club for being "anti-capitalist, anti-society, and, indeed, anti-God," which is exactly what it is. Fight Club levels a Swiftian attack on our consumerist, designer- label-worshipping society and the alienation (Fincher calls it "emasculation") of its citizens.

Pure id with a little Nietzsche thrown in: Pitt in the vertiginous, libidinous Fight Club
photo: Photofest
Pure id with a little Nietzsche thrown in: Pitt in the vertiginous, libidinous Fight Club

Adapted from Chuck

Palahniuk's manic first-person novel (see Palahniuk interview), Fight Club explores the symbiotic relationship between an alienated yuppie (Norton) and the glamorously nihilistic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), whose motto is "Self improvement is masturbation; self destruction might be the answer." Fight Club, in which guys strip off their shirts and shoes and go mano-a-mano, is the strangely liberating manifestation of this philosophy. But when Tyler turns Fight Club into a terrorist network that blows up buildings, the Norton character has to think about how he can separate from a guy who's so much a part of him.

The film seems dangerous because the Fight Club scenes are extremely seductive— the adrenalized rush of head-banging feels like an answer to the mind-body split. But then the worm turns, and the film becomes a critique of the blood-letting it made so erotic. What Fincher said about the people who attacked his similarly controversial Seven— "they slow down when they pass an accident, just like everyone else"— applies here as well.

Fincher read Palahniuk's novel while he was editing his previous feature, The Game. His immediate reaction was, he says, "Awesome. Where do I sign?" To his horror, Fox had already bought the book. Fincher had had a bad time with Fox on his first movie, Alien3. Although the studio never officially took the film away from him, he says that the version that was released was only 25 percent of what he had envisioned. The experience so traumatized him that he claimed at the time to prefer "having colon cancer to making another studio movie." But the success of Seven, which he directed three years later for the mini-major New Line, put Fincher in a better position to call his own shots.

"Because of the horrible Alien3 thing, every time I hear the name Fox, it just makes me shrivel. I lose circulation in my hands and feet and I think I'm going to become a quadruple amputee. But I felt this was something I had to follow through with. So I met with Laura Ziskin [head of Fox 2000]. I said the movie I see isn't Trainspotting. The real act of sedition is not to do the $3 million version, it's to do the big version. And they were like, 'Prove it.' "

Fincher gave copies of the book to Pitt and Norton. He worked with screenwriter Jim Uhls for about eight months after Uhls turned out a first draft that Fincher felt was far too linear and eliminated the inner-voice narration, which was what had attracted him to the novel in the first place: "It was like taking the voice out of Dashiell Hammett." He put together a schedule, storyboards, a budget. "I went back to Fox with this unabridged dictionary­sized package. I said, 'Here's the thing. Sixty million. It's Edward, it's Brad. We're going to start inside Edward's brain and pull out. We're going to blow up a fucking plane. All this shit. You've got 72 hours to tell us if you're interested.' And they said, 'Yeah, let's go.' "

Fincher's starting point was the narrator, whom he dubbed "Ikea boy." Nameless in the novel, he's referred to as Jack in the film. Fincher says he knew Jack's world and his plight because he once was an Ikea boy too— and not just because he learned how to make films by directing Nike commercials and Madonna videos. "At some points in my life, I would say, 'If I could just spend the extra money, I could get that sofa, and then I'd have the sofa thing handled.' I was reading the book and blushing and feeling horrible. How did this guy know what everybody was thinking? It's funny how everybody has this sense of propriety about this material but in slightly different ways. Edward, who was 29 when he read it, sees it as about his generation— not slackers, but numbed and befuddled and with this pent-up rage. Art Linson [one of Fight Club's producers], who started making movies in 1972, says that he felt all these things. And Brad, who you wouldn't expect to identify with this feeling of impotency, said, 'I know this guy.' It was like a call to arms."

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