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11.12.09

Fight Club Turns 10

A decade after Brad Pitt and Edward Norton punched their way into our hearts, director David Fincher talks to Paul Cullum about his macho masterpiece.

When some future generation looks back on the 1990s as the golden age of indie-inflected cinema, they’ll settle on 1999 as its apotheosis—one of those watershed years in American cinema that gave us American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, Boys Don’t Cry, Election, The Limey, Magnolia, The Matrix, Office Space, Three Kings, and The Sixth Sense, among others. But none of them will carry quite the lasting shock, or present as clear an endcap on the era, as Fight Club, now celebrating its 10th anniversary with a specially re-mastered Blu-ray disc. With its continuing controversy and fiercely divided audience, it may well be to the ’90s what Apocalypse Now was to the ’70s.

“When we were shooting,” Fincher said of Fight Club, “everybody loved the idea that we were making this movie, that it was so nasty, and when it finally came in and they could see it, they were appalled that it was as nasty as they had promised everyone it was going to be.”

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In his bracing screed and incendiary satire on rampant consumerism, end-of-the-century capitalism, political agitprop, the macho yearnings of metrosexuals and the outer banks of narcissism, director David Fincher not only throws in the kitchen sink—for good measure he packs it with a homemade recipe of household cleaning products and blows it to kingdom come. As Fincher told Fox 2000 head Laura Ziskin at their first meeting (as reported by Amy Taubin in the Village Voice, virtually the only positive press on the film’s release), “The real act of sedition is not to do the $3 million version.” Instead, they spent $65 million of Fox’s money and hired bona fide movie stars (Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) in a marriage of ambition and scale unseen since the heyday of Stanley Kubrick.

Weighing in by phone from the Boston set of The Social Network, his movie about the founding of Facebook, Fincher reports that 10 years after he dressed an apartment set with Ikea furniture and set it on fire or rolled a giant globe-like piece of corporate art through the front window of a Starbucks, he will not be able to use the word Google as a verb.

“I had sort of vowed never to go back there,” he says of Fox Studios, where he estimates that no more than 25 percent of his original cut of Alien 3, his debut feature, made it to the screen. Instead, however improbably, in Ziskin, producer Art Linson, and Fox head Bill Mechanic, he found a perfect calm of studio executives willing to give him carte blanche. “[Ziskin] basically said, ‘We realize that this is not a movie that can be made via committee,’" says Fincher. “We were just sort of misbehaving; they were the tissue between vertebrae—where the rubber meets the road.”

They settled on Jim Uhls to adapt Chuck Palahniuk’s 1993 novel (restoring the novel’s first-person voiceover in the process), and producer Linson, who Fincher saw as “appropriately anti-establishment.” And to his credit, Mechanic, whose fights with his boss Rupert Murdoch over the film are the stuff of legend, kept his director shielded from the bulk of that drama. “He had made them a bunch of money with Titanic, and I think he thought it was OK for them to try and do something different,” says Fincher, whose Se7en two years before that had earned $300 million worldwide. “I think when we were shooting, everybody loved the idea that we were making this movie, that it was so nasty, and when it finally came in and they could see it, they were appalled that it was as nasty as they had promised everyone it was going to be.”

One line in particular, Helena Bonham Carter’s post-coital, “I want to have your abortion.” When Ziskin asked for that single line to be excised, the replacement the filmmakers came up with—“I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school”—reportedly made her long for the original.

The end result is a noxious stew of culture jamming, The Anarchist’s Cookbook, Beau Travail, Kimbo Slice, Naomi Klein, and Benetton ads set on fire. Headlines like “Police Seize Excrement Catapult” and “Missing Monkeys Found Shaved” coexist alongside cancer support groups, designer soap as a byproduct of bathtub napalm, and single frames of male genitalia (Fincher was a projectionist in high school). Its unremitting blood and violence kicked the door off the hinges for everything from the Saw franchise to The Passion of the Christ, and one horrifying fantasy sequence, wherein Edward Norton finds his inner “power animal,” may have introduced to the world animated penguins. (Fincher’s belated denials ring hollow.) He identifies as his primary influence The Graduate, in its technical virtuosity and ability to nailgun the zeitgeist. But he could just as easily have called it a pomo send-up of The Great Gatsby, a war film for the antiwar audience or Idiocracy with teeth; such is the nature of the subject matter that 10 years later, it’s still gathering signifiers.

And for their trouble, they were excoriated in the press. Normally rational critics were reduced to howling ninnies trainspotting the barbarians at the gates. In a special feature added to the Blu-ray disc, Fincher, Pitt, and Norton accept their prize at the Spike TV Movie Awards (presented by Mel Gibson on a horse) by reading a cross-section of their original reviews (“Washington’s poster child for what’s wrong with Hollywood,” Anita Busch, Hollywood Reporter; “the most cheerfully fascist film since Death Wish,” Roger Ebert—of all people). (Opening on a title card of Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed which vaporizes after five seconds, the new release includes all the features from the original DVD, a re-mastered version of the film, the chance to remix your own sound design and extensive search indexes [“Undeniably Brilliant, Underground Garage, Urine…”]).

According to the Fight Club chapter in Linson’s book What Just Happened?, Mechanic confided to him 18 months after the film’s release that it would eventually turn a $10 million profit. Of course, at that point, Mechanic, Ziskin, and anyone affiliated with the film at the studio had been terminated with extreme prejudice. The film went on to be one of Fox’s top-earning DVDs (Fincher estimates the DVD alone made Fox $130 million).

To be fair, the film’s release date was pushed back several months because of the Columbine school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, whose participants voiced what was perceived as a similar message of consumer disaffection and orchestrated mayhem. “People said, ‘Wait a minute—do you want to have this conversation? We’re going to be on every talk show in exactly the wrong way,’” says Fincher. (Of course, with its copious shotguns, floor-length dusters, and balletic violence, it might be argued that The Matrix was potentially a much bigger influence on Columbine, but no matter.) A month and a week after Fight Club debuted, the Battle in Seattle took place, where masked protesters to the WTO Conference shattered windows, trashed Starbucks, and seemingly appropriated the film’s Project Mayhem as a blueprint. A year later, George W. Bush ascended to the presidency and the idea of the angry liberal driven to fight back was suddenly not so much the stuff of speculative fiction. Two years later, in an eerie reprisal of the film’s final image, the towers fell (“That’s certainly what I thought of when I watched the World Trade Center fall,” says Fincher) and the war on terrorism (in the film labeled Operation Hope) was suddenly everywhere. Even the film’s designated high-value target of the credit-card companies seems more tenable now than then.

Fincher credits Palahniuk’s source novel for most of the above. “We literally went over that script a dozen times asking, ‘How do we get this line in?’” he says. “ Fight Club is a movie that until it came out on DVD was an abject failure. I remember coming out of that screening in Venice [at the Venice Film Festival]—certainly the response in the room was not what we were looking for—and going out on a speedboat with Brad, and he said, ‘I could not be happier at this moment. I’m so proud.’ And Edward said the exact same thing the same night. That’s ultimately why you do it. Yes, you want everybody to love your movies, but you can’t count on that. So you make them, and hopefully they come from a place inside you that has questions yet to be answered.”

“In Hollywood, it’s a sin to try for greatness and fail, because that’s irresponsible. And I think part of it is because they honestly believe the audience has no expectations. But there are people at key places in town who got into this business because they want to be immortal. They want to make stuff that stands the test of time. You can argue all you want about what the audience wants, but the fact of the matter is, a lot of it is just gut. I learned my lesson on Alien 3, which is: You’re going to get the blame, so you might as well just do it the way you want. It’s your fault no matter what.”

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Paul Cullum is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, Variety, Details, Radar, Vanity Fair and hundreds of tiny magazines that pay comically little.