A Brief Oral History of Fight Club Starring Ed Norton, David Fincher and Chuck Palahniuk

Apparently they forgot about that first rule.

Though it would later achieve classic status, “Fight Club” attracted few moviegoers and a lot of criticism (too much violence, too few shirts) when it debuted in 1999. The author of the book, the star of the movie, and the director were disappointed, but unrepentant. They figured their movie would eventually find it’s audience. It did.

Chuck Palahniuk: Right before I started writing Fight Club, I had been camping up on the Pacific Crest trail up in Northern Washington when some people arrived in the middle of the night and started playing loud, rave-ish music. I went over to protest, got into a fight, and I came back to work with a black eye. No one would look at it, much less comment on it. That gave me the idea that if you looked bad enough, no one would ever ask about your personal life and you could get away with anything.

David Fincher: The book’s anger was exactly in the right place – it was rooted in satire. That’s Chuck’s gift. He’s able to shock you into opening orifices in your brain so he can set up camp in ways that are stunning and frightening.

Chuck Palahniuk: The story was a product of my circumstances at the time. It’s about that stage of life when you’ve followed every rule, you’ve done everything people told you is necessary to succeed, but you haven’t succeeded. You’re at a point when you have to start breaking the rules.

Edward Norton: Initially, some people didn’t see a shred of a positive statement in the film, a shred of hope or insight or inspiration, and they didn’t see how it was a call to anything other than nihilism. I think they failed to understand the power of art to make people feel connected to each other by expressing the things that make them unhappy. 

David FincherIf a movie still resonates with people 10 or 20 years later, it’s usually because its ideas are so well articulated. Lolita is a classic not because it’s about pedophilia but because it so smartly deals with human emotions that aren’t about pedophilia.

Chuck Palahniuk: At one point, an executive at Twentieth Century Fox said to Fincher, ‘Men don’t want to see Brad Pitt with his shirt off. Women don’t want to see bloody fighting. Congratulations, you’ve made a movie no one wants to see.’ That pissed David off. They had gone and bought tens of thousands of dollars in advertising on WWF (World Wrestling Federation) programs, which was totally inappropriate for the movie. The whole strategy was lame and failed.

Edward Norton: I don’t think Fincher would deny hoping that it was going to catch a wave, or being a little disappointed when it didn’t.

David Fincher: It took a while for people to figure out how funny it is! The notion of two people holding hands while buildings tumble around them was supposed to be absurd. The thing that made Fight Club frightening, after Columbine, was its notion of people who become Dadaist terrorists. People unfairly saw the movie as dangerous because it was right on the heels of something that was truly frightening. But I don’t think it’s my place to comfort people when they’re upset or offended by my work, or my adaptations of other people’s masterpieces.

Edward Norton: Ultimately, the impact of the film was a positive one, in the sense that it made people say, ‘I’m being spoken to, someone understands what I feel, they’re putting a name and words to it, and they’re building a story around experiences I’ve had.’

David Fincher: The movie was ineptly served up to the world, and it was absurdly received, but we got to make the movie we wanted to make. In the end, you can’t ask for more than that.

Edward Norton:  A lot of people think the narrator’s name is Jack, just because of the reference from Reader’s Digest magazine, “I am Jack’s.” We had a license made up, or some other document, that had the Narrator’s name on it, but we’ll never tell. It’ll be like Carly Simon’s “You’re so Vain” – in 10 years, we’ll put it in an auction for cancer research and you can find out what the name was.

Chuck Palahniuk: With the film, I really like the way David deconstructed the medium. He had Brad break the fourth wall and talk about film splicing, and at certain points, we see the splices. Fincher told me that when was in high school, he’d been a film projectionist and had actually sliced bits of porno into movies.

David Fincher: I did, yeah. Well, not porno, because I didn’t have porno to project. I worked the late night shift, because audiences are forgiving at 10 P.M., so it could be somebody who was not a very good technician. And the guy I worked for, as I recall, used to swipe bits of nudity. I think he had some stuff from one of Brian De Palma’s films – Dressed to Kill or maybe Obsession. And we did splice a frame of that into Audrey Rose or some other movie. We did exactly what Tyler espoused.

Edward Norton: David’s got a very sincere, solid center when it comes to keeping perspective on the ultimate goal. There were a million times when he could have said, “All right, we won’t go quite so far.” And he refused to make it for less money. He refused to have it be any less funny. He refused to back off his own sense of what he thought was hilarious, of what he thought was important. The film’s integrity is a complete testament to Fincher’s strength in sticking to his guns. He was not just mouthing off when said, “If we don’t violently piss off a lot of people with this movie, then we have not gone far enough.”