Inside Out

Film Comment cover

Gavin Smith goes one-on-one with David Fincher

Film Comment, September/October 1999

It's tempting to describe David Fincher's stunning mordantly funny, formally dazzling new movie Fight Club as the first film of the next century and leave it at that. It certainly suggests a possible future direction for mass-appeal cinema that could lead it out of the Nineties cul-de-sac of bloated, corrupt mediocrity and bankrupt formulas. Indeed, its vertiginous opening credits shot - a camera move hurtling backwards from the deepest recesses of its main character's brain, out through his mouth and down the barrel of the gun that is inserted into it - could almost be a metaphor for the cinema viewer's predicament.

Adapted from Chuck Palaniuk's novel by Jim Uhls, Fight Club is ostensibly an anti-New Age satire on both the dehumanizing effects of corporate/consumer culture and the absurd excesses of the men's movement. Its main character is a twentysomething wage slave (Edward Norton) whose voiceover discloses a sardonic, dissenting, but impotent interior life beneath his subdued exterior conformitu. Finding relief from chronic insomnia by attending multiple self-help group meetings under false pretenses, he leads a pallid, vampiric half-life, feeding vicariously on the catharsis and suffering of others. He reluctantly shares his perverse addiction with Marla, a despised fellow misery "tourist" (Helena Bonham Carter, whose damaged-goods-with-attitude turn is something of a revelation). In the course of his travels as a "recall coordinator" for a major car maufacturer (a job that deeply implicates him in the casual cynicism and corruption of corporate America), this unnamed protagonist encounters and falls in with an elusive, slightly outrageous trickster called Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).

For all his ironic distance, the nonconformism of Norton's character pales in comparison. Durden, with his outlandish self-presentation and ersatz-Nietzchean pronouncements, is everything our narrator isn't. He answers to nobody, sees through the hypocrisies and agreed deceptions of modern life, given to casually mentioning, say, the recipe for making nitroglycerin out of soap, and in his part-time job as a movie projectionist amuses himself by splicing single frames of pornography into family movies. In his best work to date, Pitt, who's always good when he takes risks as an actor, relishes every juicy moment.

The two men seal a kind of unspoken pact with a spontaneous fistfight - someting that becomes a regular activity. Before long, other men begin to participate, and a club is founded for weekly one-on-one fight sessions. Durden also takes up with Marla, to our narrator's disgust. In sharp contrast to the drab ambiance of the narrator's prosaic daytime world of offices, hotels, and public spaces, Durden inhabits a disorderly realm of eccentric dilapidation that suggests a shadowy subconscious hinterland. As Durden's influence on him grows, the protagonist becomes an accomplice in his escalating program of antisocial pranks and subversive mischief, until they take an abrupt left turn with the formation of a quasimilitary all-male cult with an expressly antisocial, revolutionary agenda - a kind of surreal prole insurrection against bourgeois values.

For all their emphasis on hard surface, vivid texture, and sensational effect, Fincher's previous films staked out suggestively dreamlike psychic/narrative spaces: Ripley's rude awakening from cryogenic suspension in Alien3 (92), Somerset going to sleep to the tick of a metronome in Seven (95), the living nightmare of The Game (97). A tale told by an insomniac who doesn't know when he's asleep, Fight Club takes things one step beyond into new realms of dissociation and movie mindfuck. Suffice to say viewers might wonder just what they can trust: Is Tyler Durden projecting this movie? And just how reliable is this flipped-out narrator anyway?

To be sure, this film is the culmination of a recurrent Fincher scenario: repressed, straight white masculinity thrown into crisis by the irruption of an anarchic, implacable force that destabilizes a carefully regulated but precarious psychosocial order. In Alien3, a shaven-headed, celibate, all-male penal colony of killers that anticipates Fight Club's "space monley" cult of violent, obsolete masculinity, is disturbed first by a woman, then by a libidinously destructive organism. In Seven, locked in an endgame with a killer who's equal parts deranged artist and Old Testament avenger, Morgan Freeman's troubled, paternal detective seems to act with the stoic understanding that an older civilization of culture, values, and reason that he defends has been all but submerged in a Bosch-like world of corruption and chaos. The sterile, controlled universe of Michael Douglas's uptight millionaire tycoon in The Game unravels until he is stripped of everything he relies upon to define himself - though in the end, masculine power and privilege remain intact, indeed reaffirmed, by the ordeal. In Fight Club, sweeping through the main character's tidy, airless life like a tornado, Tyler Durden is a galvanizing, subversive force dedicated to revolt against the inauthenticity and mediocrity of modern life, seeking a nihilistic exaltation of disenfranchised masculinity through abjection and destructive transgression.

Fincher's films seemingly repudiate the values he's paid to uphold in his TV commericals. All his features, Fight Club especially, seem to be reactions to or commentaries upon the seductive, fabricated realities, spectacles of consumption, and appeals to narcissism and materialism of commercials. The dreamlike suspension, relative freedom from conventions and formats, and formidable technique that distinguish Fincher's sensibility have been honed or acquired from commericals and music videos, with their routinization of spectacle and "style," conceit-based construction and permissiveness in terms of breaking down film grammar conventions. (Fincher's 1989 Madonna video "Oh Father" demonstrated the potential aesthetic discipline and integrity of the form at its best.) His features apply these qualities to more complex, rigorous aesthetic strategies: the starkness and fragmentation of Alien3 with its minimization of wideshots and spatial resolution; the gliding, hollow sleekness of The Game; the luxuriating in painstaking degradation and gloomy decay of Fight Club and Seven

Fight Club belongs to a distinct moment of both dread and rupture in American mainstram cinema, also manifested in The Matrix and traceable at least as far back as Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. The acceleration and dissolution potentially ushered in by digital cinema are only a partial manifestation of this. There's a kind of dissociative hyperrealism operating in Fincher's film, and a mocking sense of flux and liminality in its attitudes and values both formally and conceptually. Its recourse to evident digital imagery has less to do with expanding the boundaries of what can be visualized than with a derangement of or insolence toward cinematic codes and conventions concerning authenticity and the narrative representation of space and time. (In an early, defining scene, Fincher's protagonist, ironically contemplating his consumerist lifestyle, moves through his condo as it transforms around him into a living Ikea catalog with prices floating in space.)

Is Fight Club the end of something in cinema, or the beginning? Zeitgeist movie or cult item? Whether you find the state-of-the-art cinematic values of this current moment liberating or oppressive, radical or specious, of lasting significance or entirely transitory, as the little girl in Poltergeist says: they're here. --G.S.

What did you set out to do with this film?

I read the book and thought, How do you make a movie out of this? It seemed kind of a coming of age for people who are coming of age in their 30s instead of in their late teens or early 20s. In our society, kids are much more sophisticated at an earlier age and much less emotionally capable at a later age. Those two things are sort of moving against each other.

I don't know if it's Buddhism, but there's the idea that on the path to enlightenment you have to kill your parents, your god, and your teacher. So the story begins at the moment when the Edward Norton character is 29 years old. He's tried to do everything he was taught to do, tried to fit into the world by becoming the thing that he isn't. He's been told, "If you do this, get an education, get a good job, be responsible, present yourself in a certain way, your furniture and your car and your clothes, you'll find happiness." And he hasn't. And so the movie introduces him at the point when he's killed off his parents and he realizes that they're wrong. But he's still caught up, trapped in this world he's created for himself. And then he meets Tyler Durden, and they fly in the face of God - they do all these things that they're not supposed to do, all the things that you do in your 20s when you're no longer being wathced over by your parents, and end up being, in hindsight, very dangerous. And then finally, he has to kill off this teacher, Tyler Durden. So the movie is really about that process of maturing.

Is the narrator a kind of everyman?

Yeah, definitely. Every young man. Again, The Graduate is a good parallel. It was talking about that moment in time when you have this world of possibilities, all these expectations, and you don't know who it is you're supposed to be. And you choose this one path, Mrs. Robinson, and it turns out to be bleak, but it's part of your initiation, your trial by fire. And then, by choosing the wrong path, you find your way onto the right path, but you've created this mess. Fight Club is the Nineties inverse of that: a guy who does not have a world a possibilities in front of him, he had no possibilities, he literally cannot imagine a way to change his life.

Like The Graduate it's also a satire.

A stylized version of our Ikea present. It is talking about very simple concepts. We're designed to be hunters and we're in a society of shopping. There's nothing to kill anymore, there's nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman is created.

Tyler says, "Self-improvement is masturbation. Maybe self-destruction is the answer." That's a pretty radical statement.

I totally believe in that. I love the way it was couched. In the book, Tyler's already been on the journey. He's waiting impatiently for the narrator to make the same trip he has. And that was a thing we consciously got rid of. One of the things that Brad brought to it - and I think it was really smart - was, you don't want to pedantic. You don't want to have a guy going, "No, don't you understand, this is bullshit." you have to have a guy that's going, "Well, I can see your point, but it seems to me... You can look at losing all of your stuff both ways. Yeah, it's all of your stuff; yeah, it took you years to collect; yes, they were all tasteful, interesting choices. But there's another side to it, and the other side is, you don't have any of the responsibilities to that. Or to dig deeper, you find responsibilities to that image of yourself. But it's up to you - maybe I'm wrong."

You have the impression that he's making it up as he goes along.

Kind of saying,"We're both on the same path together, there's something in me that says it might be interesting if you just hit me. I don't know where it's going, it's no big deal; if you really don't want to do it, you don't have to."

Were you involved with the adaptation from the start?

Yeah, pretty much. A lot of the typical development-speak was being thrown around: "You can't have it all in voiceover because voiceover's a crutch." The first draft had no voiceover, and I remember saying, "Why is there no VO?" and they were saying, "Everybody knows that you only use VO if you can't tell the story." And I was like, "It's not funny if there's no voiceover, it's just sad and pathetic." I remember having a conversation early on when we were discussing what the feel of the first act should be. I was saying, "it's not a movie, it's not even TV, it's not even channel-changing, it's like pulldown windows. It's like, pffpp, take a look at it, pffpp, pull the next thing down - it's gotta be downloaded. It's gotta move quick as you can think. We've gotta come up with a way that the camera can illustrate things at the speed of thought."

And that's one of the things that was interesting to me, how much can you jump around in time and go: Wait, let me back up a little bit more, okay, no, no, this is where this started, this is how I met this person... So there's you into the present and then leaping back to go, Let me tell you about this other thin. It's almost conversational. It's as erratic in its presentation as the narrator is in his thinking.

I think maybe the possibilities of this kind of temporal and spatial freedom point to a future direction for movies.

Well, I kind of do too in a weird way - just in the amount of freedom over content, and also how those different things are apportioned. You don't necessarily have to make everything so concisely, narratively essential. There are a lot of scenes that, although they feel narratively redundant, are part of a thematic build.

What was the thinking behind the opening shot?

We wanted a title sequence that started in the fear center of the brain. [When you hear] the sound of a gun being cocked that's in your mouth, the part of you brain that gets everything going, that realizes that you are fucked - we see all the thought processes, we see the synapses firing, we see the chemical electrical impulses that are the call to arms. And we wanted to sort of follow that out. Because the movie is about thought, it's about how this guy thinks. And it's from his point of view, soley. So I liked the idea of starting a movie from thought, from the beginning of the first fear impulse that went, Oh shit, I'm fucked, how did I get here?

What was your attitude towards the use of CGI to accomplish these impossible camera moves?

To me it was a selfish means to an end. It wasn't about, Oh it would be cool to try something like this. In the book there are these long passages of description about how nitroglycerin gets made, and what could have happened to cause the explosion at the narrator's condo, and we were going, How do we illustrate that? "The police would later tell me the pilot light could have gone out, letting out just a little bit of gas" - but you can't just cut to a stove, you've got to become the gas. I always loved the threatening nature of the telephone in Scorsese's After Hours. Every time the phone rang, the camera rushed right at it as somebody picked it up and you didn't want to find out who was going to be on the other end. Well, if we were talking about how this tea smells, we'd just push in so we knew we were talking about the tea, and show you the steam coming up, and then follow the steam and see that there's other people in the room, and end up on somebody sniffing. There's a way to tell that story as a narrator's telling you that stuff. That's what makes Chuck's writing so funny - there's this cynical, sarcastic overview, and at the same time when he gets into detail about how things are done, it's sort of wonderfully compulsive. Here's something you need to know, here's the recipe for napalm.

It's the visual equivalent of stream of consciousness.

That's it, that's what the movie is, it's a stream of consciousness. And that's the thing that makes it so fun to follow. Because he's just doling out information as he thinks of it. We take the first forty minutes to literally indoctrinate you in this subjective psychotic state, the way he thinks, the way he talks about what's behind the refrigerator, and you go there. He talks about the bomb, and you zip out the window and the camera just drops thirty stories and goes through the sidewalk, into the underground garage, through the bullet-hole in the van and out the side. We take the first forty minutes to [establish], This is what you're gonna see, this is what he's gonna say, those two things are inextricably tied, this one comments on that one. And then we get to a point where we go: Oh yeah - remember where we were taking you and showing you this whole thing? You only saw this much of it- the other side of it is, this is what was going on.

[WARNING: If you haven't seen Fight Club yet and want to have an optimal viewing experience, skip over the next section.]


I HAVE TO say I didn't see the twist coming.

You can't. I've had this argument with people who go, Yeah, well, I knew. And I go, Bullshit, how could you possibly know? We spent tons of money to get two different people to make sure that you wouldn't know. The point is not whether you're stupid or smart because you didn't see it coming, the point is that that's the realization that this guy comes to. But if you trick people, it's an affront, and you really better be careful about what you're doing. A wise friend of mine once said, "What people want from the movies is to be able to say, I knew it and it's not my fault." And it's so true. I've had this argument with a couple people we've shown the movie to. Like, "Fuck you man, this is like The Game, you're just looking for some way to dick with me." It's not about tricking you, it's a metaphor, it's not about a real guy who really blows up buildings, it's about a guy who's led to feel this might be the answer based on all the confusion and rage that he's suffered and it's from that frustration and bottled rage that he creates Tyler. And he goes through a natural process of experimenting with notions that are complicated and have moral and ethical implications that the Nietzchean ubermensch doesn't have to answer to. That's why Nietzsche's really great with college freshman males, and unfortunately doesn't have much to say to somebody in their early thirties or early forties. And that's the conflict at the end - you have Tyler Durden, who is everything you would want to be, except real and empathetic. He's not living in our world, he's not governed by the same forces, he is an ideal. And he can deal with the concepts of our lives in an idealistic fashion, but it doesn't have anything to do with the compromises of real life as modern man knows it. Which is: You're not really necessary to a lot of what's going on. It's built, it just needs to run now. Thank you very much, here's your Internet access.

Is the Edward Norton character ever named?

In the screenplay we call him Jack. In the credits it says "The Narrator."

Did you see him in terms of the literary device of the unreliable narrator?

Oh, he's totally unreliable.

How does that affect the staging - how do you hint at it?

We had tons of little rules about Tyler. Tyler is not seen in a two-shot within a group of people. We don't play it over the shoulder when Tyler gives him an idea about something that's very specific, that's going to lead him. It's never an over the shoulder shot, it's always Tyler by himself. There's five or six shots in the first two reels of Tyler, where he appears in one frame, waiting for Edward Norton's character. When the doctor says to him, You wanna see pain, swing by First Methodist Tuesday night and see the guys with testicular cancer, that's pain - and, boop, Brad appears over the guy's shoulder for one frame. We shot him in the environment with the people, and then we matted him in for one frame, so that Tyler literally appears like his spliced-in penis shot, just dink, dink. You can see it on DVD. We did a lot of that stuff. When Edward's on the airplane and they have that little promotional Marriott television loop, when they're showing all their banquet facilities, there's this shot of all these waiters going "Welcome!" and Brad's in the middle of those waiters.

I didn't know what the flash frames were but I took them to mean that the movie we're watching has been tampered with by Tyler Durden.

True. Same thing. At the end, when the building blow up, we spliced in two frames of a penis.

Do you see links to The Game in which he goes on this journey where everything is stripped away and nothing is what it seems.

He's humiliated. Yeah, they're cousins. It's a "Twilight Zone" episode. That's all it's supposed to be. In Fight Club it's even worse - having to contend with somebody who's powerful and you look up to them and his ideas become all too questionable, but then to find out that they are indeed your ideas, that this is your mess, that you are the leader.

WHAT DID YOU envisage in terms of style?

Lurid was definitely one of the things we wnated to do. We didn't want to be afraid of color, we wanted to control the color palette. You go into 7-Eleven in the middle of the night and there's all that green-fluorescent. And like what green light does to cellophane packages, we wanted to make people sort of shiny. Helena wears this opalescent makeup so she always has this smack-fiend patina, like a corpse. Because she is a truly romantic nihilistic.

[Cinematographer] Jeff Cronenweth and I taked about Haskell Wexler's American Graffiti and how that looked, how the nighttime exteriors have this sort of mundane look, but it still has a lot of different colors but they all seem very true, they don't seem hyperstylized. And we talked about making it a dirty-looking movie, kind of grainy. When we processed it, we stretched the contrast to make it kind of ugly, a little bit of underexposure, a little bit resilvering, and using new high-contrast print socks and stepping all over it so it has a dirty patina.

What's resilvering?

Lover-scale enhancement. Rebonding silver that's been bleached away during the processing of the print and then rebonding it to the print.

What does that do?

Makes it really dense. The blacks become incredibly rich and kind of dirty. We did it on Seven a little, just to make the prints nice. But it's really in this more for making it ugly.

We wanted to present things fairly realistically, except obviously the Paper Street house - there are no Victorians with 18-foot ceilings on the West Coast. [Production designer] Alex McDowell and I looked at books of [photographer] Philip-Lorca diCorcia because it just felt like the motel-life world that you see. Marla's apartment, which was a set was literally like photographs of a room at the Rosalind Apartments in downtown L.A. We just went in and took pictures of it and said, "This is it, build this." As much as possible we tried to incorporate real office buildings, just went down and said, "All right, put some cubicles in and we'll shoot." Kind of a low-budget approach.

Where did the Ikea catalog scene come from? That was the moment where I knew I'd never seen a movie like this before.

In the book he constantly lists his possessions, and we were like, How do we show that, how do we convey the culmination of his collecting things, and show how hollow and flat and two-dimensional it is? So we were just like, Let's put it in a catalog. So we brought in a motion controlled camera and filmed Edward walking through the set, then filmed the camera pan across the set, then filmed every single set dressing and just slipped them all back together, then used this type program so that it would all pan. It was just the idea of living in this fraudulent idea of happiness. There's this guy who's literally living in this Ikea catalog.

Did you have a sense of biting the hand that feeds you, given that you direct commercials?

Well, I'm extremely cynical about commercials and about selling things and bout the narcissistic ideals of what we're supposed to be. I guess in my heart I was hoping people are too smart to fall for that stuff. But it's unfortunate that it had to be presented in such a low-budget way. I would have loved to have done a whole sequence of it.

What gets you going as a director?

I don't want to be constrained by having to do something new. I look at it as : What are the movies that I want to see? I make movies that other people aren't making. I'm not interested in the Hero With a Thousand Faces - there's a lot of people that do that. A friend of mine used to say there's a pervert on every block, there's always one person in every neighborhood who's kind of questionable. You're looking for that one pervert story.

What's the most creative part of directing?

Thinking. It's thinking the thing up, designing all the sets, and it's rehersals, and then the creative process is fuckin' over. Then it's just war, it's just literally, How do we get through this day? It's 99 percent politics and 1 percent inspiration.

I've had days of shooting where I went, Wow, that's what it is, that's what it's like to be making a movie. Everything's clicking, people are asking questions, and the clock's ticking, but you feel like you're making progress. But most of the time it isn't that. Most of the time it's, How do you support the initial intent of what it is you set out to do, and not undercut that by getting pissed off and letting your attention get away on that? It's priority manangement. It's problem solving. Oftentimes you walk away from a scene going, Wasn't what I thought it was gonna be. Often. But it's also knowing that you don't have to get it exactly the way you see it.

You want to be able to provide something, and you're pissing down a fucking well. It will suck you dry and take everything you have and, like being a parent, you can pour as much love as you want, and your kid still says, "Just let me right out here, you don't have to take me all the way." You're working to make yourself obsolete. I'm not going to make Persona - my movies are fairly obvious in what the people want and what it is that's happening; it;s not that internalized. What's internalized is how you process the information from the singular, subjective point of view. And that becomes the subtext of it.

I'm not Elia Kazan; I'm probably not going to reinvent an actor for the audience or for themselves. But I pay meticulous attention to getting the environment right so that the people have to do less work to pretend to be that person. It makes sense - seeing them next to that desk, and with that light. Michael Douglas and I went through this on The Game a lot. He would say, But you need to be able to make this turn, so that later on you can do this. And I would say, "You know what? That may be narratively essential, but I don't believe that somebody would do that at this point. So go ahead and take the producer cap off and be the selfish actor and make me deliver what's around it to make it make sense. You don't have to help me tell my story. You don't have to get riled over here. You don't have to let people know what your potential is for losing control." There are times when you, as the director, need to say to the actor, "Be selfish, make me do this. Create a hurdle for me to jump over instead of me creating a hurdle for you."

Any example where something turned out the way you wanted it?

No. [Laughs.] I think the master in Seven where they walk in and see big Bob on the table with his face in spaghetti - that was what I thought it was going to be.

What about in Fight Club?

I went into it thinking, Grow up, stop trying to fucking control everything and just let go. Try to give the guidance where you can and be smart editorially about what you allow to happen - directions that you allow things to go in, so you don't create a fucking morass for yourself. But don't try to overthink it, because it's the kind of thing that's got a lot of truths in it, and those truths are going to come through no matter what you do. You have a responsibility to the schedule and the budget and those things, but you're not really responsible for making everything happen. Create a good environment, cast the thing as well as you can, and get the hell out of the way of those people. This is a movie about 26-to-34-year-olds, and I think that there's a definite generational division between Brad and Edward. They're definitely about a different kind of thought process. I thought, There's a thing that Edward Norton's going to bring to this that's going to be really important, and he's safeguarding his generational input, he's the caretaker of that.

Apart, from the fact that directing pays the bills and you enjoy it -

I don't enjoy it at all.

Okay. So what need does it satisfy in you?

Filmmmaking encompasses everything, from tricking people into investing in it, to putting on the show, to trying to distill down to moments in time, and ape reality but send this other message. It's got everything. When I was a kid I loved to draw, and I loved my electric football sets, and I painted little things and made sculptures and did matte painting and comic books and illustrated stuff, and took pictures, had a darkroom, loved to tape-record stuff. It's all of that. It's not having to frow up. It's four-dimensional chess, it's strategy, and it's being painfully honest, and unbelivably deceitful, and everything in between.

When I was a kid I would spend hours in my bedroom drawing. I could never get my fucking hands to do it the way I had it in my head. I used to always go, Someday you'll have the skill to draw exactly what you see in your head, and then you'd be able to show it to somebody, and if they like it, then you will have been able to transfer this thing [in your head] through this apparatus to this, and then you'll truly know your worth. And I gave up drawing and then painting and then sculpture and then acting and then photography for things that were that much more difficult - to get that idea in your head out there.

It's kind of a masochistic endeavor. I know that if I can out all this together, record the sound the way I want to hear it.... You know, we had such a hard time getting the timbre of Edward's voiceover, because it has to sound like a thought. We ended up using five different microphones trying to get this sound. You listen to it and it doesn't sound like a thought, it sounds like a guy talking to you. The voiceover in Blade Runner, if you listen to it, sounds like a guy reading prose while he's sitting on the john. How do you avoid that? So it's all those things, it's so challenging.


Fight Club Main Page



Main Page || Biography || News || Films || Articles || Photo Gallery || Multimedia || Site Map || Website Updates

Edward Norton in Fight Club Edward Norton Information Page

Search edward-norton.org Search WWW

Powered by Google

If you have new information on Edward Norton (and you can provide a verifiable and reputable source), please email me- Susan

Note: Articles and images have been posted without permission for noncommercial and nonprofit use with no intention of copyright infringement. The purpose of this reprinting is to disseminate correct information about the actors, films, and studios. I have included author names and links to sources whenever possible.

EN Info Page banner