Anarchy in the U.S.A.

Flashback: Fight Club

Talking about one of the most divisive films of the 1990s, as director David Fincher teamed with first-time feature cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, ASC to craft a tale of modern disillusionment.

Director David Fincher teams with first-time feature cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth to craft a tale of modern disillusionment in Fight Club.

Christopher Probst [ASC]
Unit photography by Merrick Morton [SMPSP]
November 1999
American Cinematographer

In his 1996 novel Fight Club, writer Chuck Palahniuk posed this question: What do you do when you realize the world is not destined to be your oyster, when you recognize the innocuous banalities of everyday life as nothing more than a severely loosened lid on a seething underworld cauldron of unchecked impulses and social atrocities?

Director David Fincher is no stranger to this theme. All of his previous films, Alien3 (see AC July ‘92), Seven (AC Oct. ‘95) and The Game (AC Sept. ‘97), have explored the dark side of the human psyche. With Fight Club, Fincher once again demonstrates his affinity for this bleak and foreboding realm, displaying a deft cinematic sensibility and a gift for taut visual execution.

Fight Club opens as its disenfranchised — and nameless — narrator (Edward Norton) feigns illness and begins attending cancer-patient support group meetings in a vain attempt to find purpose within his lonely, mundane existence. Through a chance encounter on an airplane, he meets the enigmatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the organizer of Fight Club, an underground group of young men who take part in bare-knuckle brawls concocted to vent their pre-apocalyptic angst.

Fincher has worked with a score of prominent cinematographers on commercials, music videos and feature films. Interestingly, he began shooting Alien3 with the late Jordan Cronenweth, ASC — who left the production due to his battle with Parkinson’s disease, and was replaced by Alex Thomson, BSC. For Fight Club, Fincher enlisted Jordan’s son, Jeff Cronenweth [ASC], to realize his uniquely dystopian vision.

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Cronenweth (wearing cap, just behind the camera on left) and his crew set up double coverage for a conversation scene between Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and the film’s nameless narrator (Edward Norton).

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The First Rule of Making ‘Fight Club’: Talk About ‘Fight Club’

Dan Evans (The Ringer)

In an excerpt from the new book ‘Best. Movie. Year. Ever.,” David Fincher, Edward Norton, and the minds behind ‘Fight Club’ talk about the bare-knuckled, bloody battle to bring Chuck Palahniuk’s book to the big screen

Brian Raftery
March 26, 2019
The Ringer

Sometimes, during their breaks, the men who worked alongside Chuck Palahniuk would gather to talk about where their lives had gone wrong. It was the early nineties, and Palahniuk was employed at a Portland, Oregon, truck-manufacturing company called Freightliner. Many of his colleagues were well-educated, underutilized guys who felt out of sorts in the world—and they put the blame on the men who’d raised them. “Everybody griped about what skills their fathers hadn’t taught them,” says Palahniuk. “And they griped that their fathers were too busy establishing new relationships and new families all the time and had just written off their previous children.”

Palahniuk’s Freightliner duties included researching and writing up repair procedures—tasks that required him to keep a notebook with him at all times. At work, when no one was looking, he’d jot down ideas for a story he was working on. He’d continue writing whenever he could find the time: between loads at the laundromat or reps at the gym or while waiting for his unreliable 1985 Toyota pickup truck to be fixed at the auto shop. The result was a series of “small little snippets” about an unnamed auto company employee who’s so spiritually inert, so unsatisfied, that he finds himself attending various cancer support groups, just to unnumb himself. He soon succumbs to the atomic charisma of Tyler Durden, a mysterious figure whose name had been partly inspired by the 1960 Disney movie Toby Tyler. “I grew up in a town of six hundred people,” says the Washington-born Palahniuk, “and a kid in my second-grade class said he’d been the actor in that movie. Even though he looked nothing like him, I believed him. So ‘Tyler’ became synonymous with a lying trickster.”

After meeting Tyler Durden, Palahniuk’s narrator begins attending Fight Club, a guerrilla late-night gathering in which men voluntarily beat each other bloody. Fight Club comes with a set of fixed rules, the most important of which is that, no matter what, you do not talk about Fight Club. Many of the book’s brawlers are working-class guys with the same dispiriting jobs—mechanics, waiters, bartenders—held by some of Palahniuk’s friends. “My peers were conflict averse,” says Palahniuk. “They shied away from any confrontation or tension, and their lives were being lived in this very tepid way. I thought if there was some way to introduce them to conflict in a very structured, safe way, it would be a form of therapy—a way that they could discover a self beyond this frightened self.”

Palahniuk would bring work-in-progress chapters to writing classes and workshops around Portland, holding one successful early reading at a lesbian bookstore. “They wanted to know ‘Is there a women’s version of this?’ he says. “They just assumed Fight Clubs existed in the world and wanted to participate.” Palahniuk, then in his early thirties, had recently seen his first novel get rejected. “I was thinking ‘I’m never getting published, so I might as well just write something for the fun of it.’ It was that kind of freedom, but also that kind of anger, that went into Fight Club.” He’d wind up selling the book to publisher W. W. Norton for a mere $6,000.

Fight Club’s quiet 1996 release came just a few years after the arrival of the so-called men’s movement, in which dissatisfied dudes looking to reclaim their masculinity would gather for all-male retreats in the woods. They’d bang drums and lock arms in the hope of escaping what had become a “deep national malaise,” noted Newsweek. “What teenagers were to the 1960s, what women were to the 1970s, middle-aged men may well be to the 1990s: American culture’s sanctioned grievance carriers, diligently rolling their ball of pain from talk show to talk show.”

Palahniuk’s Fight Club characters, though, were younger and angrier than their aggrieved elders. A few primal scream sessions in the woods weren’t going to cut it. “We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t,” Tyler says of his peers, adding “Don’t fuck with us.” It was one of many briskly written yet impactful mission statements in Palahniuk’s book, which earned positive reviews from a few major critics—the Washington Post called it “a volatile, brilliantly creepy satire”—as well as the author’s own father. “He loved it,” Palahniuk says. “Just like my boss thought I was writing about his boss, my dad thought I was writing about his dad. It was the first time we really connected. He’d go into these small-town bookstores, make sure it was there, and brag that it was his son’s book.”

Fight Club wasn’t an especially big performer in its original hardcover run, selling just under 5,000 copies. But before it even hit shelves, an early galley copy reached producers Ross Grayson Bell and Joshua Donen, the latter of whom had produced such films as Steven Soderbergh’s noir The Underneath. Bell was put off by some of the book’s violence, but as he read further, he arrived at Fight Club’s big revelation: the insomniac narrator, it turns out, really is Tyler Durden, and at night he’s been unknowingly leading the Fight Club army raiding liposuction clinics for human fat—first to turn into soap, and then to use for explosives. Eventually Tyler’s hordes of followers begin engaging in a series of increasingly violent acts. “You get to the twist, and it makes you reassess everything you’ve just read,” says Bell. “I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep that night.” Looking to make Fight Club his first produced feature, Bell hired a group of unknown actors to read the book aloud, slowly stripping it down and rearranging parts of its structure. He sent a recording of their efforts to Laura Ziskin, who’d produced Pretty Woman and was now heading Fox 2000, a division that focused on (relatively) midbudget films. According to Bell, after listening to his Fight Club reading during a fifty-minute drive to Santa Barbara, Ziskin hired him as one of Fight Club’s producers. “I didn’t know how to make a movie out of it,” said Ziskin, who optioned the book for $10,000. “But I thought someone might.”

Ziskin gave a copy of Palahniuk’s book to David O. Russell, who declined. “I read it, and I didn’t get it,” Russell says. “I obviously didn’t do a good job reading it.” There was one filmmaker, though, who definitely got Fight Club. He was the perfect match—a guy who viewed the world through the same slightly corroded View-Master as Palahniuk; who could attract desirable actors; who could make all of Fight Club’s bodily fluids splatter beautifully across the screen. And he wasn’t afraid of drawing a little blood himself.

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The Ringer: The 50 Best Movies of 1999, Part 1

The Ringer: The 50 Best Movies of 1999, Part 2

The Ringer: Make the Case: ‘Being John Malkovich’ Was a Head Trip Masterpiece—and the Best Film of 1999

Order Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, by Brian Raftery (Simon & Schuster). On sale: April 16, 2019

Dissecting the Classics: Fight Club

Merrick Morton (20th Century Fox)

Aaron Hubbard
February 1, 2019
411Mania

Who’s ready to break the first two rules?

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

What Do We All Know?

Fight Club is perhaps the most enduringly popular work of director David Fincher. While it received mixed reviews from contemporary critics and a modest box office performance, the film found its true audience on DVD, becoming a cult film in the early 2000s. It has since been reevaluated as one of the best films of the 1990s, with Empire Magazine going so far as to call it one of the ten best films of all time in 2008. But the film also has its fair share of detractors: many take issue with the glorification of violence and social terrorism, fearing the impact it would have on male viewers. Those fears aren’t totally unfounded: several fight clubs were started in the early 2000s, and an attempted bombing of a Starbucks in 2009 was attributed to trying to recreate Project Mayhem.

If you haven’t seen Fight Club and are reading this for some reason, this review is going to be very spoiler heavy, and I recommend seeing the film first. That’s partially because it has a brilliantly executed twist that I’d hate spoiling. But primarily it’s because Fincher and his team excel at crafting complex themes that require a deep dive and it’s better if you’ve scratched the surface by yourself. With that out of the way, let’s talk about Fight Club.

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Fincherphilia & Beyond

Cinephilia & Beyond - Logo

Just a small sample of all the precious filmic resources bestowed by Cinephilia & Beyond:

1993. Alien3 01

Alien3: “Take all of the responsibility, because you’re going to get all of the blame”

1995. Se7en

Se7en: A Rain-Drenched, Somber, Gut-Wrenching Thriller that Restored David Fincher’s Faith in Filmmaking

1995. The Game

Downwards Is the Only Way Forwards: Welcome to David Fincher’s The Game

1999. Fight Club

Fight Club: David Fincher’s Stylish Exploration of Modern-Day Man’s Estrangement and Disillusionment

2007. Zodiac

Fincher’s Zodiac As Easily One Of The Best Thrillers Of The Millennium So Far

1982. David Fincher at ILM

Cinephilia & Beyond, one of the finest websites dedicated to the art and craft of Film, is struggling financially and needs your support: DONATE

The Difficult History of David Fincher’s Fight Club

Merrick Morton

David Fincher’s Fight Club is now considered a classic, but it had trouble getting off the ground.

Ryan Lambie
October 15, 2018
Den of Geek! (US)

What the hell is Fight Club anyway? A horror film about a Jekyll-and-Hyde office worker who becomes a terrorist? A drama about late 20th century masculinity in crisis? A warped romance about a man trying to change himself into someone as interesting as the woman he loves? A thriller about a decadent generation goading itself into extremism?

Executives at 20th Century Fox certainly struggled with Fight Club. Unsure how to market a film in which young men beat one another to a pulp and stole bags of fat from the bins of liposuction clinics, the studio placed ads for it during World Wrestling Federation matches. Meanwhile, Fight Club‘s posters, dreamed up by an expensive design firm, featured a pink bar of soap with the title incised into its waxy surface. It certainly looked unlike anything else stuck up outside a movie theater in 1999, even if most people walking past wouldn’t have had a clue as to what it meant – the soap being a wry reference to a key scene in the film.

The bewildering split between TV ads during wrestling matches, which emphasized the film’s bruising bare-knuckle scenes, and the artistic posters with their pink bars of soap, were an indication, perhaps, of Fight Club‘s slippery quality. How do you get people to go and see a film like this, Brad Pitt or no Brad Pitt?

In retrospect, it’s little surprise that some of Fox’s higher-ups didn’t like Fight Club – least of all one Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul whose News Corporation had acquired Fox in 1985. Here, after all, was a film which openly attacked corporations, advertisers and the entire capitalist system.

One of Fight Club‘s producers, Art Linson, recalled the first screening of the film for Fox’s executives; they were, he said, “flopping around like acid-crazed carp wondering how such a thing could even have happened.”

There was one executive who did believe in Fight Club: Fox’s studio head Bill Mechanic. In the mid-90s, Chuck Palahniuk‘s Fight Club novel was doing the rounds at Fox before it had even been published, and was originally envisioned as a low-budget movie to be made through the studio’s Fox 2000 division, which specialized in independent film. Along with production executives Laura Ziskin and Kevin McCormick, Mechanic was an enthusiastic champion of Fight Club‘s spiky humor and unpredictable plot.

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