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Q&A with Chuck Palahniuk & Clark Gregg (Choke)
Chuck Palahniuk has been described as a "cult author," a term his characters would no doubt mock remorselessly. More accurately, his work has become a touchstone for Generation X and their particular outlook on life. His best-known novel, Fight Club, was adapted to the screen in 1999 and has since become a modern classic. A second adaptation, Choke, opened last week to positive reviews. His other novels include Survivor, Lullaby, Snuff, and the upcoming Pygmy.
Clark Gregg is one of Palahniuk's biggest fans, which led him to both pen an adaptation of Choke for the screen and to direct the effort as his behind-the-camera debut. He has previously worked as an actor, appearing in such films as The Usual Suspects, The Spanish Prisoner, Magnolia, One Hour Photo, and this summer's Iron Man. The two appeared at a recent press conference to talk about their collaboration on Choke.
Question: There is a big twist in this film, not dissimilar to the one in Fight Club. How worried were you about whether it would come off and did the early screenings at film festivals match your expectations as far as that goes?
Clark Gregg: There's been a gasp at every screening I've been at, and I can't tell you what a relief that was. You don't know what's going to play before you shoot the movie, and there were moments before the big revelation that I was sure would let the cat out of the bag. I thought people might suspect something. I knew there were things that weren't going to make one-hundred percent sense, but the audience really needed to be rolling with it by then or the film wasn't going to work. I didn't know until the first screening at Sundance: the first audience we had. It was also the first time Chuck had seen the movie, so my face was pretty much the color of fresh snow. And when they gasped at the moment, I couldn't believe it. I was really pleased. And frankly, it is one of the less outrageous things in the film.
Q: What made you choose this project as the first one to direct?
CG: I would tell you if I knew what kind of rationale I could possibly give for choosing something so brilliant and complex. I didn't know how challenging it would be in terms of the tone and the reality of it all. I just loved it. I loved it and I thought that I could see it, and... it's weird. I didn't want to see anyone else's movie of it. It wasn't ego: there was no "I am the one to bring this to the screen." I just felt like I'm not going to love anyone else's version of this the way I think I might love the one that I could maybe make. I'd been wanting to do something like this, and the book seemed like a good excuse to go on the crazy Don Quixote mission it takes to get one of these onto the screen. It became a very long journey. It was seven years from the time I read the book to when we started shooting. Looking back on it, it's actually been a really good ride.
Q: Was Fight Club a reference point as far as a successful translation goes?
CG: I'd read the book Fight Club, and seen the movie. I loved them both, but I felt very clearly from early on that this was a much different story. At the risk of diving right out of the Pretension Airplane, I though it was the difference between, say, Coriolanus and an especially dirty version of Much Ado About Nothing. They felt like different ends of the spectrum to me... and I also felt very certain that no one would give me even an infinitesimal fraction of the money that they would give someone as brilliant as David Fincher. So I knew that it would have to be on the down and dirty a little bit, a little bit of guerilla filmmaking. But I also felt like that was how I wanted to do it. There's a lot of things going on in this story, but the engine of it is this love story/triangle between Victor and Paige and Ida. At its core, I felt it was a kind of romantic comedy, and I wanted to see a different kind of romantic comedy.
I tried not to watch Fight Club for a year or so before we shot, just so I wouldn't get pulled into that film's visual manifestation of Chuck Palahniuk. That's David Fincher's visual manifestation of that particular book. I wanted to start from scratch with this, and let this sort of spring its own thing up.
Q: Chuck, do you agree with his assessment of those two books? Opposite ends of the spectrum?
Chuck Palahniuk: I always thought of those two books as two halves of a single whole. With Fight Club, I couldn't write a sex scene, because sex scenes are always about nature. You just cannot do it justice. Language is such a horrible substitute for how beautiful nature is. So in Fight Club, all the sex happened off-screen. It was always someone moaning on the other side of a wall and things like that. In light of that, I sort of set myself to write sex in Choke the same way I wrote violence in Fight Club.
I also wanted to sort of depict the Tyler Durden character at the end of his life -- a life spent rebelling and attacking everything, but never actually standing for or creating anything. Never having proposed an alternative to all the things he wanted to tear down. Characters like Tyler -- anarchist characters -- are so compelling and charismatic as long as they're young. But once they're at the end of their life, they really are objects of pathos. They never made Kierkegaard's leap of faith, where you actually stand for something. So I wanted to show Tyler making that passage into old age, and Tyler's child being able to make that leap of faith and actually stand for something... even if it's just a primary relationship.
For a lot of the children of the hippies, that's kind of a crisis. They're seen their parents get everything they wanted. Be rebels, get money, get houses, get wives, get other wives, get third wives, get bigger houses, get everything they want... and still not be happy. So the children of the '60s generation, they're a little swamped. They have no idea what they're supposed to strive for. I think in a way, I wanted to show a child of that revolutionary character finding something that's fulfilling.
Q: How much talking did the two of you do during the writing of the screenplay and the making of the film?
CG: We had a conversation right when I was about to start where I just kind of talked about some of the things I saw in the book. What my main take would be. Chuck agreed, and then said, "Good, go write it." I wrote a draft, and then he said, "Don't be too faithful to the book." I thought he was being polite, so I went and wrote a second draft that was much more faithful to the book. It was terrible. I couldn't bring myself to send it to him. I had such a tough time in part because I thought it was going to be easier. There was so much great stuff and such a great story, I thought it was going to be nothing. It's not nothing, because you're changing all of that from one state of being to another.
There was a really frustrating six or eight months where I was getting a lot of good notes from a lot of smart people, but none of them gave me the key as to how to make the script not suck so much. Finally, I realized that I wasn't going to get it from anyone else. Maybe that was the Zen thing about it. I took it out and I had to read as if it was a script not based on a book or anything else. Just a script by a writer who I didn't like much. It was brutally painful to tear it apart like that, but I also saw some stuff that really worked. I had to let it sort of pass through my consciousness -- to stop being this brilliant, wonderful book and just be a movie we were trying to make. From then on, it got a lot easier.
Much later, when I first had a chance to really sit down and talk to Chuck, I realized what he was originally trying to say to me. He was encouraging me not to be too faithful to the book because if I couldn't make it my own, then I wouldn't be able to stick through the years it would take to get this thing made. And even if I did, it probably wouldn't work. It wouldn't breathe, it wouldn't be organic. That was very wise of him. That's exactly what happened, and it took me that amount of time to absorb it and make it work as a movie.
Q: It's interesting you say that, because the movie is actually very faithful to the book.
CP: It's very faithful.
Q: One of the only scenes you added was when Victor reconciles Lord High Charlie with Ursula.
CP: Those are always the scenes I enjoy the most, where somebody takes it to a place where -- if I had done another draft -- I might have actually made that connection. The scene where Cherry Daquiri is in the kitchen and gives a speech from Galatians, I thought that was incredibly moving. And the scene with Lord High Charlie, and then Paige's speech in the stairwell. She actually completes a circuit between her and Ida, and completes that triangle. It's not just everything passing through Victor -- it makes a connection between Paige and Ida separate from him. It's a much tighter relationship. There's things in these scenes that I'm actually a little embarrassed I didn't write.
CG: But you've got different rules in a movie. Different ways to convey information.
CP: No, it's just smarter. Things I didn't recognize and didn't do. That's sort of the ultimate pay-off: to be surprised by things like that. And I want to be surprised. I don't want to live my life always knowing what's going to happen.
Q: While we're on the note of Lord High Charlie, did you do any prep work -- go to any of these historical sites and re-creation things? [Gregg plays Lord High Charlie in the film.]
CG: No, because I wasn't originally going to play that role. That was going to be somebody else's job. But as the cast evolved, I thought that I couldn't give this to another guy. The casting director, Mary Vernieu -- who actually hires me to play similar jackasses in other movies -- said, "I think you really need to play this role, and I think you know it." I was a little terrified of it and for good reason. I did feel like a jackass, trying to direct the crew in that outfit during the first week. But there's a sort of separate joy that actors get working together, and I wanted to be a part of that. It's very intimate, especially with certain scenes. It's somewhere between being in battle together and having sex in a bathroom stall. Directing is kind of cerebral and controlling, and writing is kind of authorial. Acting is visceral, kind of like being in the eye of the hurricane. It was greedy in a way: it just seemed like too much fun to be that jackass.
Q: How hard is it to sound tough when you're speaking in 18th-century vernacular?
CG: That was the difficulty of it. We'd rehearsed it once or twice, and Sam [Rockwell] and Brad [Henke] were really eager about doing the scenes I was in. They were excited about having a forum in which they could make ruthless fun of me constantly. I wasn't prepared for how difficult it was going to be to keep a straight face sometimes -- trying to run a place like that using lines like "Dost thou know the rules?" And there were moments when I had mud and manure on my face to boot. That scene with the incriminating out-of-period newspaper that they hid in the manure bucket? As it was written, they had originally stuck the newspaper up a cow's ass. This cow in the corner of the barn. Charlie sees the newspaper when it swishes its tail. But we only had an hour to get that entire scene, and when the moment of truth came, the cow looked at me like "You try it and I'll kick you into the next county." So I just said, "Get me a bucket and fill it with manure."
Q: Were there any problems with censors? Any issue with the explicitness of the sex scenes?
CG: The producer and I kind of agreed that we weren't going to shy away from anything with this material. If they come after us later, then we'll fight those battles then. But it didn't turn out that way. They didn't cut anything, and I think that has something to do with the way I chose to shoot it. I'm an actor, I'm married to an actor, and we all talk about the discomfort of scenes like that. The scenes you had to do where it felt awful. So I'm protective of actors and I didn't want it to feel exploitative. I just didn't have the stomach for it. Besides, the more you keep off-screen, the more the audience's mind will fill in the blanks... which is always much more shocking than anything I could put onscreen.
It takes me out of the movie when I actually see those things. I'm not watching the characters, I'm watching their genitalia. I didn't want the audience to marvel at my tracking shots or goggle at someone's balls. I didn't even want them to marvel at the acting. I didn't choose actors like that. I want the audience to lose themselves in the movie... and frankly if they hadn't, then you wouldn't have heard that gasp.
And maybe I did have a bit of an agenda in that I wanted this story -- that I loved so much -- to be seen by as many people as possible. If I didn't, I would have stayed in the theater; I've done things there that I'm extremely proud of that only about a thousand people have seen. So if it was possible to tell this story truthfully and not go into NC-17, then I wanted to do it.
CP: The part that always gets me is how much they let get in. The comic rape scene, the line about starting a lawnmower, things like that. We got no notes about them; they survived intact. I couldn't believe it. One of the reasons I love being a novelist is because I can get away with things like that, and I never think the movie will.
CG: There's a weird schism in this country. When they start censoring novelists, people get up in arms. But they're okay with censoring movies because movies are "just entertainment."
Q: Chuck, you're doing a signing at Borders tonight. What kind of fans do you run into at these things? Are they going to pester you with fears about the film?
CP: When they announced that they were going to adapt The Lord of the Rings, most of the actors got death threats. Ian McKellan got "we will hunt you down" death threats. "Don't do this movie or we will kill you. You will destroy this book that we love so much. Also, we have no friends in the world and have plenty of time to write death threats." And then look how it turned out: everyone was ultimately so happy with it. I think people are always sort of waiting to be upset about something. But once they see Choke, I think they'll see that it does some good things, and that it's actually more faithful to the book than Fight Club was.
A big study came out last year from an anthropologist in England -- I wish I could cite his name -- which said that the Greeks actually wrote ten zillion more comedies than tragedies. Yet we tend to think of tragedy as the highest form of theater because when Christian culture took over, tragedy better served the meta-narrative. The best thing that could happen to you in that narrative would be to get nailed to a cross and slowly bleed to death in sacrifice for others. Or get your breasts cut off like St. Agatha. Or be torn apart by wolves like St. Whoever. So tragedy was elevated and the majority of Greek comedies were discarded and thus don't survive today. But the Greeks actually held that the comedy was a higher art form. The perspective of the gods looking down on human beings was that all human tragedy was ultimately absurd and comic. I've always tried to take these very traumatic circumstances and kind of deny the drama in them, and foster a freedom to laugh at them. Things that people will always be faced with. We're all going to have an aging parent who's going to die, and it's going to hurt really, really bad. We're all going to eventually face our own deaths, and it's going to hurt really, really bad. But all of these things are predestined, and if we can find a way to laugh at them -- through the perspective of the gods -- then we have more freedom to deal with them when we have to. We won't be stopped by them. In a way, I think the failure to engage in things like violence or drugs or compulsive sexual behavior in an appropriate social way is one of the things younger readers respond to in my work.
Article published 10.06.2008.
Read Rob Vaux's review of Choke.
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