Menace II Society
Story by Damon Wise
Empire, December 1999
Bare-knuckle boxing. Consumer terrorism. Fascist overtones. Subliminal imagery. Nitro-glycerine recipes. Brad Pitt. Ed Norton. David Fincher. Meat Loaf with tits. The right-wing press think it's the most dangerous film ever made. It's called Fight Club. And it's a comedy.
David Fincher had always wanted to surprise people with Fight Club. His original plan was to trailer it without fanfare, to catch its audience unawares, and he directed two cinema ads precisely for that purpose. Both posed as public service announcements sponsored by 20th Century Fox; the first showed Brad Pitt, telling cinemagoers that, "In the unlikely event of a fire," they should move quickly and responsibly to the designated exits. His speech over, the screen faded to black - then suddenly zoomed back again. At which point Pitt leaned into the camera and grinned, "Did you know that urine is sterile? You can drink it!" The second showed Ed Norton, urging cinemagoers to, "Please turn off your cellphones and pagers" - but as soon as his lecture on modern manners was complete, there was another point. Without skipping a beat, Norton continued, "And remember: no-one has the right to touch you in the bathing suit area." In both cases, the only clue was a website address: fightclub.com. Fincher knew what he was doing. "I wanted to set the stage for the idea of disseminating misinformation," he says, "and I knew there was gonna be enough misinformation about this movie without any help from me."
Fincehr wants you to know that Fight Club is meant to be a comedy. Yes Ed Norton plays a jaded yuppie, a "misery vampire" who feeds his boredom by posing as a victim of several potientially fatal ailments and leeching off the pain and suffering to be found in their support groups. Yes, Brad Pitt plays the sado-masochistic Tyler Durden, a kind of Vampire Lestat figure who encourages Norton to believe that self-destruction is better than self-improvement. Yes, they go on to form the Fight Club of the title, an underground bare-knuckle boxing society where men gather by night to beat each other to a bloody pulp. And yes, it ends with Tyler taking it all to far, starting his own underground anarchist group ('Project Mayhem') and waging a surreal, dangerous war on corporate America.
But remember: this is a a comedy. True, it's savage, uncompromising and black as
night, but it's a comedy all the same. "I want people to understand that they should
laugh," explains Fincher. "We're not saying, 'Okay, everybody you're done seeing
the movie - get out in the parking lot and start fighting."
There wasn't much laughter at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. On Friday September 10, Fincher - together with Norton, Pitt and their two co-stars, Helena Bonham Carter and Meat Loaf - wearily faced the press after a special 9.30 am pre-premiere preview of his latest movie. The critics were divided, and even some of the film's champions queried its sensory overload: the sound of fists slamming down on bone, the dsight of pretty boy Pitt drenched in blood and revelling in his masochism, subliminal images and seemingly authentic recipes for home-made bombs...
At Venice, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange was the film most often quoted as a precident for Fight Club, which was kind of ironic given that his now infamous last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, had opened the festival with barely a ripple. There were claims that the film would provoke copycat violence; that, in the wake of the Columbine school massacre, Project Mayhem would give people ideas. But Fincher had seen some of thie hysteria before with Seven, and had lived with Fight Club so long, he found it hard to get defensive about it. "Fight Club is what it is," he thinks. "You're either in on it or you're not gonna buy it."
Fincher says the thing about film festivals is that you never get enough sleep to make interviews or press conferences worthwhile. In Venice, he was definitely too tired to do battle - especially with the German woman who didn't think there was anything funny about his movie at all. After listening patiently to her diatribe, Fincher simply looked at her and gave his now pat sarcastic response, "You're absolutely right," he said, "and I'm sorry."
That afternoon, the London Evening Standard delivered Alexander Walker's verdict. Walker, instrumental in the furore surrounding David Cronenberg's Crash, was every bit as memorable ponitificating on Fight Club. "The sound of bones crunching is like a building site," he wrote. "...It is not simply the unbelievable brutality of the film that has caused critics to winder if Rupert Murdoch's company, 20th Century Fox, which produced it, knew what it was doing. The movie is not only anti-capitalist but anti-society and, indeed, anti-God..."
Looking back at the festival now, Fincher still finds it hard to believe the fuss. "There's
a bizarre Puritanism that you find in the strangest places," he muses. "That Alexander Walker
piece - fuck, I'd like to put that on a one-sheet. I would! I read that and I was like, 'I'd
go see that movie in a heartbeat!'"
When Helena Bonham Carter, who plays fellow support group junkie Marla, received the script of Fight Club, she hadn't read Chuck Palahniuk's original novel and didn't quite know what to make of it.
"I thought, 'In the wrong hands, this could be abominable,'" she says. And possibly even in the right hands, thought Fincher. Which is why, when Fox committed to the project, he went to veteran producer Art Linson.
"Art was like, 'Hey, the script's good, you've got a cast, you're ready to go - what do you need me for?' I was like, 'Dude, first three weeks of shooting they're gonna see the daily footage: skinny women in support groups with veins painted all over their faces, saying how they would like to get fucked one more time before they die. It's not gonna have the voiceover yet. Studio people are gonna be looking at that. You've gotta be there to watch my back, so they can understand that this is not just cynicism. The cynicism of Ed's character at the beginning of the film is not the attitude of the film.'"
So is it true that Fox was not prepared for the absolute blackness of the film's humour?
"I think that's gotta be nonsense. Unless they're totally naive! There's nothing about any of our pasts that would lead them to believe we were gonna go off and make Runaway Bride! I think there was always a worry that it was going to be sinister and seditious. And we always said, 'No, it's gonna be funny and seditious.' The sinister element is the context for the understanding. The things we talk about in the film are dark fantasies or ... you know ... stewing rages that come out in unexpected ways. We always wnated to temper it with humour.
"But then," he continues, "there were people who read the book and said, 'This isn't funny at all.' There were people at the studio who said, "This is evil and nihilistic.' And I said, 'No, it's not.' Because it's talking about frustration, about an inability to find an answer. It's about a guy struggling to make sense of something, as opposed to a guy giving in to the fucked way things are. So there were definitely people who didn't get it."
Despite the controversial subject matter, the daily footage didn't elicit the reaction Fincher feared, mostly because it was full of goofs, ad libs and little moments where the actors would break into laughter in the middle of a major speech. But when Fincher took all that out, the first cut of the film seemed a whole lot stronger. "I don't know how sharp they were," laughs Fincher, "but I do know that there are people - to this day - who are working with this movie and have no idea that it's funny."
Fincher, of course, famously had problems working with Fox over his debut, Alien3. Working under chaotic circumstances from a script that seemed to be written as it was being filmed, Fincher came under fire for the bleakness of his vision. So was there a certain amount of mischief in deliberately presenting something as dark as Fight Club?
"Mischief?" he says, genuinely surprised.
In seeing how Fox would handle it, and what they would do with it?
"Shee ... I don't know. I mean, I ..."
Is this your own Project Mayhem?
"The first rule of Project Mayhem," he replies, laughing, "is you do not talk about Project Mayhem!"
BEWARE! PLOT POINTS REVEALED BELOW
How do you feel about the accusation that your film is, "An apology for fascism"?
"That's just rhetoric from the unimaginative. But I love this idea that you can have fascism without offereing any direction or solution. Isn't the point of fascism to say, 'This is the way we should be going'? But this movie couldn't be further from offering any kind of solution. Anyway, whatever. What are you gonna do?
Has the film been cut much since your first edit?
Not much. I think there was a prosthetic piece in the scene where Angel Face (Jared Leto) gets beaten up. You actually see his nose split and the skull underneath, then this kind of jelly-like bubble of blood gushes out like a volcano. We had to cut that, and I'm OK with that. The scene still makes people understand that things have gone horribly awry."
Was the studio nervous about the recipes for explosives?
Are they accurate?
"They're all accurate. Oh yeah. In fact, we changed some stuff to be slightly more socially responsible. But ... look, you can get this stuff off the internet, in the Anarchist's Cookbook. It can be found."
The Starbucks coffee shop chain gets a rough ride in the movie. What's your problem with them?
"When I first moved to LA in 1984, you could not get a good cup of coffee in Los Angeles to save your life. I mean, it was really pathetic. Then Starbucks came out, and it was such a great idea: good coffee. And when it became successful there were, like two or three on every block. It's too much of a good thing. But they read the script, they knew what we were doing, and they were kind of ready to poke a little fun at themselves. I mean, they wouldn't let us use their name on the coffee shop that gets destroyed by the piece of tragic corporate art, but they were willing to give us the rest of their stuff. We had a lot of fun using that - there are Starbucks cups everywhere, in every shot. In The Game we had this joke, 'cause (cinematographer) Harris Savides' nickname is Haggis, so there's this can of haggis in every scene - in Michael Douglas' office, on the shelf ... So the Starbucks cups became like that. 'Do we have room for a Starbucks cup?' 'Yeah!' But, no, I don't have anything personal against Starbucks. I think they're trying to do a good thing. They're just too successful."
Are there actually any subliminal messages in Fight Club?
"There's a moment during the burning scene (Pitt puts acid on Norton's hand) where the narrator says, 'I try not to think of the words "searing" or "flesh",' then we cut to, literally, the dictionary definitions of 'searing' and 'flesh'. We thought that would be funny: at the moment he's trying not to think of those words, he literally thinks of those exact words, so you see them for, like, two frames."
Is the scene where Tyler threatens to castrated the mayor, and leans down into his face, a direct homage to A Clockwork Orange?
"I'm not that familiar with A Clockwork Orange. I've seen it once or twice. That scene was more about the idea of being a 55 year-old man on your back, with your pants pulled down round your knees and your nuts wrapped up with a fuckin' rubber band, and here's this face, this young guy, standing over you, and he's really reading the riot act: 'OK, here's the deal...' I love the idea of this, this ... affront."
Was it a deliberate in-joke to have Seven Years in Tibet showing at a cinema in the background towards the end?
"The funny thing is, there are two other marquees in the background, but you can't see them 'cause they're covered by the bus. One says Wings of the Dove, the other says People Vs. Larry Flynt. So we had all three actors represented. Actually, the one you see says "Seven Year in Tibe" because theatres never have enough letters."
At one point, Ed Norton appears to be dragging himself backwards. Did he really do that?
"Oh, that was an effect. Actaully, that was sort of a total afterthough. We knew we wanted a kind of Peter Sellers/Dr. Strangelove battle at the end, and we wanted to heighten the absurbness. Originally, he gets the gun away and starts shooting at himself, but it was just too much money and too much work. So we thought, 'What if Tyler really was scary at the end?' He needs to reach a point where he's saying, 'OK, if you're not going to go along with the programme I can't make you - but if you're gonna get in the way, I will try to break your ankles and throw you down the stairs.'"
Chuck Palahniuk's original novel ends with the narrator in mental institution, and none of the bombs are detonated. Why did you decide to change the ending?
"(Screenwriter) Jim Uhls and I got to this point - actually, I think Jim was the first one to identify this - where we were sitting there saying, 'OK, why don't the bombs explode at he end?' 'Well, because they would destroy all these great public buildings.' I was like, 'And why don't we wanna do this? They're credit card companies, right? So why don't we do it?' Originally we were going to have Ed and Helena in this van with the Space Monkeys (Tyler''s secret army), driving away while all the buildings collapse, but it was a little long. But I never thought the mental institution thing with Tyler worked. I always felt - and I said this to Chuck - that the book, to me, seemed like the film: totally in love with Tyler Durden. It couldn't stand to let him go. I wanted people to love Tyler, but I also wanted them to be OK with his vanquishing."
Midway though the film we see Tyler working as a projectionist and splicing a subliminal image of a cock into a family movie. Is that really a subliminal image of a cock we see in your own film, flickering for a fraction of a second just before the end credits?
"Oh yeah. There was, if you'll pardon the phrase, a bone of contention about that. A lot of
people thought it was too much of a wink and that it was trying to make light of everything that
happened before. I never really saw it like that. Yes, Tyler goes too far but ... (laughs)
some of the ideas he's talking about are not so bad! They should be ... if not embraced, at least well
thought of. So that was our way of saying ... Not that it isn't over, just that the spirit of
Tyler Durden is kinda still out there. Yeah - Tyler Durden is alive and well and in the theatre while
you're actually watching this movie."
David Fincher was once quoted as saying, "I just do my work and try to live it down." He remembers that and laughs.
"That's true," he says. "And it's still try. I just try to get home as early as I can, do as good a job as I can., and when it's all over with, I just ... go into hiding and try to live it all down." He's already tired of the controversy. He's tired of seeing Pitt and Norton's work buried in an avalanche of criticism. He's bored by people who haven't read Palahniuk's much more scathing novel and cannot see even a fraction of the wit and intelligence in Uhls' amazingly faithful script. "Making movies is a crap shoot," he sighs. This movie was written five years ago. Nobody saw Columbine coming, nobody saw any of that shit happening. Nobody knew there would be a new shooting every three weeks in the United States."
While Fincher is trying to live down his latest movie, he'll be thinking about his next. There's nothing planned as yet, but he's definitely like to work with Pitt again, and certainly with Seven writer Andrew Kevin Walker, who gave Fight Club a final polish in the run-up to principal photography. "If it's wrong for a man to love other men," Fincher says with a wry smile, "then it's probably wrong for me to talk about Andrew Walker."
He'd wanted to make Walker's most recent film 8MM, later made by Joel Schumacher and starring Nicholas Cage as a private eye hired by a millionaire's widow to verify the authenticity of a snuff film. They'd even talked about doing it as a sequel to Seven with Morgan Freeman returning to play Detective Somerset, but the buzz about Walker was too strong and Fincher wasn't quick enough. He was especially intrigued by Walker's original ending in which Cage's character is so appalled by the things he sees, he drives his car into a concrete embankment at 70 mph.
"I was like, 'Hmm, interesting, Andy, but not particularly emotionally satisfying..."
Like every artist worth his salt, Fincher just wants to leave a body of work. "I'm thinking about the stack of laserdiscs I would put by my bed," he says, "ready for the day when the Grim Reaper shows up and says, 'OK, your time is over.' You wanna be able to say..."
His voice becomes a pathetic, nervous quiver.
"... But ... but ... I did this - this is sort of funny! And this one's quite well done..."
"...Can I get a few more weeks?"
Sidebar: "Mind Bender!"
Fight Club's subliminal form of tom-foolery might be bad for your health
It has been described by the ITC as a technique that can influence viewers, "Without their being aware, or fully aware, of what has been done," but the jury is still out as to whether subliminal messaging actually achieves anything more than giving its audience a bit of a headache.
Nevertheless, following accusations that clips of people eating and drinking had been inserted into various B-movies - in an attempt to prompt concession sales - the device was banned from television and advertising as far back as the 1950s. The film industry may remain untouched by the legislation (in the past, the technique has allegedly been employed by rogue animators in both The Lion King and Aladdin), but according to Dr. Simon Meyerson of London's Institute for Psychology and Group Therapy, it should be employed with caution.
"When someone watches a film they take in the information and consciously digest it. But when an image is subliminal it's so quick (approximately one twelfth of a second), it slips through - under the thinking - which means it goes into the mind unfiltered, uncensored, and uncontrolled."
It is this lack of control that causes concern.
"Once they're in, these negatives can stay with you forever, waiting in some dark corner of your mind until something triggers them," he says. "It can be very dangerous, as suggestions can be planted in people's minds without them knowing. And, as they say, never underestimate the power of suggestion..."
Sidebar: "Fasten seatbelts"
Frightened of flying? You are now
For a quick example of the frankly "irresponsible" mischief that Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt)'s anarchist terror group - the Space Monkeys - gets up to, one need look no further than the somewhat more realistic aircraft safety cards that they mock up and distribute in airliners across America . As opposed to ridiculously calm faces dealing with disaster, we get dinky diagrams of flaming aircraft, praying passengers and outright panic - not exactly your usual diagrams of orderly evacuation. The card is reproduced here solely to illustrate the depraved nature of Durden's character. And not at all because it's really funny.
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