Fighting Talk

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Interview by Graham Fuller, photographs by Edward Norton

Interview Magazine November 1999

Fight Club - David Fincher's film about an underground society for guys who beat each other to a pulp while training to blow up America's corporations- is one of the most genuinely shocking mainstream movies of the decade. Edward Norton, who stars in it with Brad Pitt, tells us what he thinks it's saying.

David Fincher's Fight Club, which unfolds at warp speed on a dank American cityscape and in skyways frought with plane crashes waiting to happen, takes the shape of a confessional: that of a yuppie (Edward Norton) who has invested so deeply into brand-name consumerism that his apartment is an Ikea showroom and his co-opted life a swamp of soulless despair. Unable to connect, unable to sleep, he becomes a support group junkie and meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a walking mess with a death wish from which she needs saving, and, crucially, the Mephistophelian Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), with whom he forms an underground society for men who seek to shake themselves out of spiritual torpidity by beating each other up. For Tyler, the logical conclusion to this project is the wholesale destruction of corporate America. Rather late in the day, Norton's narrator realizes that Tyler's anarchic solution is no solution at all.

One of the most provocative Hollywood movies in many a year, this hyperstylized adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's sardonic novel is both an unrepentantly nihilistic appraisal of twentysomething disaffection and a trenchant storm warning about materialistic self-enslavement: It's best summed up as a cinematic Y2K of the soul. But whichever way you interpret it, it's going to invoke reactionary wrath. We asked Norton to tell us what the movie means to him.

GRAHAM FULLER: What were the core ideas in the Fight Club script that you wanted to get your teeth into as an actor?

EDWARD NORTON: Fincher sent me the novel, and I read it in one sitting. It's obviously a surreal piece that operates at an almost allegorical level within someone's madness, and I felt immediately that it was on the pulse of a zeitgeist I recognized. It speaks to my generation's conflict with the American material values system at its worst. I guess I've felt for a long time that a lot of the films that were aimed at my generation were some baby boomer perception of what Gen-X was about. They seemed to be tailored to a kind of reductive image of us as slackers and to have a banal, glib, low-energy, angst-ridden realism, none of which I or anyone I know relates to. They didn't speak to the deeper and darker underlying sense of despair and paralysis and numbness in the face of the overwhelming onslaught of media information that we've received from the cradle.

Fight Club seemed much more on the money because it named a lot of what we resent about our inheritance. On one reading of the book, I could remember aphorisms from it that had the immediate ring of a real generational voice welling up and crystallizing ideas about our being raised on television to believe that we all should be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, and saying that advertising has us working in jobs to make money so we can buy a bunch of shit that we don't need.

I called Fincher and told him I thought it was disturbing but that it made me laugh, because I recognized so much of it and because the narrator's plight is so desperate. I found myself relating to his self-indulgent but valid sense of complete dislocation. You just don't get to read generational nerve pieces like that very often.

GF: Isn't there a danger it could be an overreaction to the Ikea-and-Starbucks culture it criticizes? It's an easy target.

EN: Whether or not it's an easy target, it's certainly the source of a common complaint, and I personally find it to be very pernicious. I think there is a serious corruption in the idea sold through advertising that you can attain spiritual peace through lifestyle, and the notion of building your happiness from the outside-in by acquiring things - which, if you think about it, is the essence of advertising. This is where I completely agree with Tyler Durden - it's a recipe for spiritual disaster. We tried to set up a mournful, almost Holden Caulfield-like inner narrative in the film as my character talks about his life of travel and hotel rooms with mouthwash and toothbrushes and single servings and mini-everythings. Tyler, of course, is very quick to bust him for sidestepping the pain he feels about the textures of his life by being smug and cynical. Tyler is, in effect, the reassertion of the purer self. He has a moral certainty, and he's willing to name hypocrisy when he sees it. He's willing to do whatever he has to do to explore what might be right, whereas my character acknowledges what's wrong but holds back from completely stripping himself of those things because theu are still a security blanket for him.

A lot of people have been responding to Tyler as a sort of Nietzschean ubermensch in the sense that he's advocating liberation of the human individual through the rejection and destruction of the institutions and value systems that are enslaving us. Now, that's certainly correct. But the tension in the film comes from my character asking, What are the limitations of a nihilistic attitude? It can be enthralling, it can be seductive, it can feel liberating on certain levels. But at what point do the practical applications of it start to become exactly the things they're critiquing, and at what point do Tyler's initiatives start to dehumanize people just as much? I like that the film raises those questions, but then it dumps them in your lap and leaves you to sort it all out instead of supplying you an easy answer.

GF: Clearly the movie has to be understood at that metaphoric level. It's going to be interesting to see how many people, beginning with the mainstream press, will be willing to do that. I suspect there will be a major tendency to take ideas like the fight club and the bombing of skyscrapers literally.

EN: I've always felt that the dialogue between art and the critical community is one of mutual responsibility. The critical community is always calling for films that are kess formulaic, not soporific in their lack of substance or mindless in their violence - that are unfamiliar, challenging, literate, and provocative. But when anyone makes an attempt to do anything that is more sophisticated, then the responsibility shifts back to the critics to grant it a more sophisticated response - in this case to acknowledge its metaphoric or allegorical nature. It will be very easy for people to take potshots at Fight Club, to reduce it to a film that espouses violence or anarchy, but that's too superficial a way to look at it. It would be extremely lazy, for example, to tie the film directly to the climate around the bombings and shootings that have occurred in the last few years just because, on a brisk, superficial viewing, you could draw that connection. I don't actually think that's what this film is about. I don't even think it's about the exploration of the idea that frustration should be manifested as aggression toward other people. It's much more about people who are exploring modes of self-liberation through aggression that's directed at the self, and the idea of stripping away one's presumptions and fears until you're free of them.

GF: Did you and Fincher and the producers discuss whether the film would be percieved as irresponsible?

EN: Yes. But we all knew what our intention was, ans we had to proceed with that intention. You can't not pursue a creative statement because of the fear that it will be misinterpreted. If you did, nothing of any substance would get done. When I worked on The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Gloria Steinem attacked the idea that the film got made at all, I thought that was an astonishing retrograde critique from a liberal commentator; it smacked of a fascistic kind of censoriousness. To say, for instance, that it was a film that presented only a certain side of a man whose life also involved these other complicated issues would have been a legitimate critique, but to say that it was an invalid subject matter to make a film about was a much more dangerous statement than anything the film came up with.

I feel that way about Fight Club, too. Many of the things that have been called subversive are regarded as classics now, including much of Ocar Wilde. Because some men pursue their sexual obsessions with young girls, does that mean Nabokov shouldn't have written Lolita? Should Martin Scorsese not have made Taxi Driver because there was the potential that someone like John Hinckley would use it as the excuse for his particular pathology? I think the answer to that is definitely no. Art has an important role in holding up a mirror to the things that are unhealthy in a culture.

GF: Just to be the devil's advocate for a moment - what about all those frustrated, highly impressionable guys who aren't going to understand that Fight Club is an allegory and reckon after seeing the film that punching each other in the face, making bombs. and blowing up corporations is a legitimate and appropriate response to their feelings of alienation and inadequacy?

EN: Well, they won't be able to make bombs that work [laughs]. The film's not a demolition handbook. I think people are responsible for their actions, and that their pathologoes find an outlet through the things around them. Was A Clockwork Orange responsible for all the subsequent British hooliganism? I don't think so. There are times when people don't want to make a complicated examination of the things that are disturbing in the culture. They'd rather dismiss those things as evil or aberrant rather than figure out what's causing them.

GF: Do you have any qualms about the way male brutality is presented in the film?

EN: Except in the scene where my character beats up the Jared Leto character, it's very stylized, you know? But I don't think it rhapsodizes about violence. Face/Off makes more of a beautiful aesthetic out of violence than Fight Club does, and so does The Matrix, which I enjoyed as a terrifically stylish film. I don't think the violence in Fight Club is by any means anesthetizing - I think it's nauseating, which violence usually is.

GF: In his recent book, For Commmon Things, Jedediah Purdy attacks the pervasive ironic detachment and smugness of the media-savy illuminati. Like Fight Club, which gets at that same soullessness from a different angle, it's getting people incensed.

EN: One of the most disturbing things about my generation is its lack of engagement with the culture. It's not just a dysfunction - it's a crisis that's growing out of a very unhealthy dynamic. And I don't think you can examine that in a film and leave people feeling safe or OK. If Fight Club wasn't disturbing, if we didn't piss a few people off, we wouldn't have done our job properly.

Flatbroke's Notes

This is one of several interviews between Edward Norton and Graham Fuller. This is notable because unlike many articles/interviews found in the entertainment press, you can see more depth and creativity in EN through these interviews because he talks primarily about his work. For example, in the article above, there is no listing of his film credits or mention of his family, hobbies, dating, awards, etc., The discussion is limited to as an actor, what attracted him to the role and what does he find important about Fight Club (topics which are usually peripheral to the main thrust of many ent. articles). Graham Fuller interviewed EN for Interview mag Jan 1997 (in which he talks about American History X, the interview above on Fight Club, and an extremely long article published in Cineaste and Projections 10 (where he talks about all of his film roles).

Norton's interactions with Interview magazine has also provided creative opportunities. In addition to the two interviews done by Fuller, EN's first ever interview was published in Interview magazine's April 1997 issue. He was interviewed by Everyone Says I Love You co-star and best friend Drew Barrymore. It was a much more relaxed and friendly interview than what is normally found. Norton took on a new role in Interview's May 1998 issue when he interviewed Signature Theater Company founder James Houghton. Photos taken by EN accompanied both this article and the Houghton article (EN's photos can also bee seen in Premieremagazine Jan 1997 issue.

Back issues of Interview magazine can be ordered by calling Brant Publications (212)941-2900. Check the availablity of the issue before sending money (to save yourself the time and aggrevation).

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