Behind the Scenes of David Fincher’s Fight Club
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The following is an excerpt from the new book David Fincher: Mind Games, by Adam Nayman.
Fight Club was adapted by screenwriter Jim Uhls from Chuck Palahniuk’s cult 1996 novel of the same name, which traced its gestation to a Portland-based author’s workshop specializing in “dangerous writing.” The enclave’s transgressive, minimalist mandate would be allegorized in Fight Club’s eponymous bare-knuckle boxing group, whose members become the acolytes of Tyler Durden Project Mayhem, in effect going from pummeling one another to “punching up” against the forces of late capitalism.
In his foreword to a 2004 reprint of the novel, Palahniuk reflects on the book’s themes of catharsis and self pity and ties them to a literary moment “[full of] novels that presented a social model for women to be together.” He cites bestsellers like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt and notes the lack of corresponding masculinist examples; with the calculated humility of a writer who no longer worries about his advance, he proposes that his breakthrough novel’s popularity was a simple matter of supply and demand.
The question of whether Fight Club, in either literary or cinematic form, fills that void deepens it, or disappears down it—or if, like Tyler Durden, such a void ever really existed in the first place—was open at the time and remains so. Twenty-five years after its publication, Fight Club looks like a signal work anticipating, dramatizing, and perhaps exemplifying a condition recently identified as “toxic masculinity,” loosely defined by New York Times essayist Maya Salam as “a series of cultural lessons . . . linked to aggression and violence.”
In his 2019 New Yorker essay, “The Men Who Still Love Fight Club,” Peter C. Baker traced the impact of the novel on various factions and communities treating it not as a cautionary tale but a style guide, including weekend-warrior boxers, hipster pickup artists and reactionary men’s rights’ advocates claiming victimhood in the face of shifting gender norms and politics.
In the summer of 2019, the blogosphere was inundated with essays and thinkpieces examining what the Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz evocatively called Fight Club’s “lingering cultural bruise.” “[The film] popularized a version of toxic machismo that has been co-opted by online trolls and the alt-right,” opined Esquire’s Matt Miller by way of calling Fight Club “a bunch of stylized bullshit”; in a Guardian thinkpiece, Scott Tobias celebrated the movie’s “prescience and power,” characterizing it as a “crystal ball that was mistaken for a cultural crisis.” The irony is that the long view on Fight Club doesn’t clarify its quality any more than the instant reactions of critics like Roger Ebert, whose use of the f-word—that’d be “fascist”—in his horrified Chicago Reader pan was a rare case of a mainstream tastemaker propagating moral panic over a multiplex release.
In light of such extreme reactions, Palahniuk’s citation of a more obviously canonical novel on his own work is worth unpacking. In the same introduction where he juxtaposes Fight Club with The Joy Luck Club, he characterizes his book as “apostolic” fiction in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic The Great Gatsby, which he describes as “a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero… and one man, the hero, is shot to death.”
It was Fitzgerald who famously said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It is as an illustration of this dictum—of its nobility and also its hubris—that Palahniuk’s book and Fincher’s movie earn their talking-point status. Not only is Fight Club a deeply dialectical novel, but it burlesques the very idea of dialectics by splitting its protagonist—and his first-rate intelligence—into characters who, while superficially defined by their opposing ideas, are one and the same. The spanner in the works is really just a cog in the machine; the dialectic folds in on itself like an ouroboros.Not only is Fight Club a deeply dialectical novel, but it burlesques the very idea of dialectics by splitting its protagonist into characters who, while superficially defined by their opposing ideas, are one and the same.
“I read the book and thought: ‘How do you make a movie out of this?’” Fincher told Film Comment’s Gavin Smith in the fall of 1999, echoing the tagline of Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita (“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”) In both cases, the challenge of translating an epically complex, first-person narrative annotated by asides, digressions, and deconstructions of contemporary popular culture—and even of the act of writing itself—was compounded by the problem of content.
Fincher’s plan had been to purchase the rights himself, but he was scooped by the very studio whose bosses tormented him on Alien 3. “Every time I hear the name ‘Fox’ it just makes me shrivel,” Fincher told Amy Taubin. “But I felt that this was something I had to follow through with, so I met with Laura Ziskin, head of Fox 2000 [the studio’s prestige-oriented production shingle]. I said… the real act of sedition is not to do the $3 million dollar version, it’s to do the big version. And they were like, ‘prove it.’”
The greenlight for Fight Club was flashed by senior Fox executive Bill Mechanic, who’d underwritten risky ventures like The Thin Red Line (1998) and Bulworth (1998) and was motivated mostly by the presence of Brad Pitt, whose casting sealed the deal in the same way that Tom Cruise’s participation allowed Paul Thomas Anderson to make Magnolia (1999). The relationship between Fincher and Anderson’s films, with their movie star patrons mutually cast as self-help gurus, helps to place Fight Club’s extremity and unlikely studio subsidization in a paradigm-shifting moment for American movies. The film’s successful packaging as a $60 million studio production represented a wild confluence of artistic conviction and executive susceptibility akin to Nicholas Van Orton ponying up for his own (metaphorical) funeral at the end of The Game.
In opening up Palahniuk’s novel, Uhls introduced the idea that Project Mayhem’s ultimate goal would be the destruction of credit card companies; once Pitt and Norton were on board, Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker solicited their input in group brainstorming sessions intended to further crystallize and refine the material’s cynicism. “They’d hang at Pitt’s house or at an office across from Hollywood’s famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where they’d drink Mountain Dew, play Nerf basketball, and talk for hours, riffing on the film’s numerous bull’s-eyes: masculinity, consumerism, their aggravating elders,” writes Brian Raftery in his book Best.Movie.Year.Ever., recounting a male bonding ritual of the sort that Fight Club would go on to skewer.
Raftery quotes Fincher as literally presenting Fox with an ultimatum at the end of the pre-production process: “You’ve got seventy-two hours to tell us if you’re interested.” Further examples of the director’s hubris can be found in James Mottram’s 2006 book The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood, which describes Fight Club’s flowering under the nose of conservative media tycoon Rupert Murdoch as being “as miraculous as the Virgin Birth… [Fight Club was] distributed by a company owned by the arch-exponent of the very capitalist system the protagonists of the film seek to dismantle, which was also the organization that Fincher clashed with during the making of Alien 3.”
Both authors allude humorously to the “legendary” first screening of Fincher’s final cut for Fox’s governing braintrust, during which, according to producer Art Linson, the executives were “flopping around like acid-crazed carp wondering how such a thing could even have happened.”
Linson’s anecdote evokes fish (call them studio barracudas) that have been shot in a barrel, and Fight Club is a movie that deploys heavy artillery to hit a series of static, generationally regenerating targets. During the movie’s promotional rollout, Fincher repeatedly mentioned Mike Nichols’s 1967, early New Hollywood rallying point The Graduate as an inspiration for his own movie’s mockery of materialism (which would make the Dust Brothers Fight Club’s version of Simon and Garfunkel).
The guy who corners Dustin Hoffman’s promising collegian Benjamin Braddock beside the swimming pool and whispers “plastics” in his ear is describing his own ersatz humanity. For Fincher, Fight Club’s protagonist was an inverted Ben Braddock, “a guy,” as the director described him, “who does not have a world of possibilities in front of him.” In The Graduate, the lure was upward mobility, but financially speaking, Jack already has it made—“plastics” is not a promise but a mortgage-paying reality. His problem is loneliness: an automaton longing to commune with other members of the assembly line.
Fight Club was shot by Jeff Cronenweth, whose use of a bland, desaturated palette in the scenes prior to Tyler’s arrival establishes a definitively depressive visual environment. Cutting from Norton’s sickly fluorescent office space to his carefully curated designer apartment, the lighting scheme remains identical, proposing the ostensibly optimal condition of “work-life balance” as a form of purgatory—a condition diagnosed in the same year in Mike Judge’s Office Space (1999), another comedy about a drone opting out of the hive. The perspectival gamesmanship of Palahniuk’s plot gives Cronenweth and his director the chance to play with different levels of realism, including a spectacular feat of virtual mise-en-scène in which Jack’s condo is transformed into a three-dimensional IKEA catalogue layout in accordance with his over-the-phone impulse buys.
The effect was achieved with a motion-control camera that created the artificial impression of a seamless pan across an increasingly re-dressed set, calling back to archaic models of cinematic illusionism while anticipating the CGI tracking shots of Panic Room. The superimposed product descriptions and price tags play like dry runs for the later film’s tactile title sequence, as well as the sinister scribblings in Zodiac’s margins. The IKEA sequence feeds Fincher’s carnivorous desire to bite the hand that had fed him—or, perhaps, to maul the kind of product-minded producers who had once referred to him as a “shoe salesman.” It’s telling that after extended passages of scene-setting depicting Jack’s cubically compartmentalized life—and his emotionally compartmentalized patronage of various disease and addiction support groups as a salve for his spiritual aridity—Fight Club’s plot is catalyzed when that catalogue-perfect condo gets blown up, Zabriskie Point (1970) style. Its destruction forces Jack into cohabitation with Tyler in a dilapidated house on the edge of an unnamed city, “alone for a half mile in every direction.”
For the first thirty minutes before Tyler’s official entry into the story—not counting the opening flash-forward or the subliminal insert shots that place him flickeringly in Jack’s field of view (and our own)—Fight Club is carried by Norton’s cast-iron deadpan and wearily complicitous voiceover. This authority over sound and image is ambivalent, however; while every aspect of the film’s framing, editing and blocking is keyed to Jack’s perspective, Norton’s performance and sloping, servile, weak-chinned physique connote powerlessness. Gathered into the embrace of the massive, medically gelded testicular-cancer survivor Robert Paulson (Meat Loaf), who’s become a confidant (and who will later re-emerge as a martyr to Project Mayhem’s cause), he’s a shriveled, helpless figure, his infantilization made total by a shot of him clinging to Robert’s massive, pendulous “bitch tits,” with their grim intimations of a perverse maternity.
“Men is what we are,” chant the members of the testicular-cancer support group, a futile affirmation framed smirkingly against an American flag whose presence mocks their protests of potency. No less than Alien 3, Fight Club draws on the monastic satire of Full Metal Jacket, with its militaristic mantras and hive-like clusters of undifferentiated maleness; it is one of the film’s wittier touches that the support group, the Fight Club, and Project Mayhem are all depicted as treehouse societies with their own cliques, orthodoxies and initiation rights. (A 2019 Harper’s expose by Barrett Swanson about an Ohio-based mens’ retreat called Everyman reads like a combination parody-homage to Fight Club, with the narrator describing “countless unsought hugs” as well as an NDA that seems—unintentionally and hilariously—to follow the film’s lips-sealed mantra.)
The aptness of casting an alpha-male rock star like Meat Loaf as an avatar of emasculation is undeniable, and Robert is one of the movie’s most indelible creations, a gargantuan, emotionally insatiable golem who exists in a space between empathy and contempt, and as such is a byproduct of the material’s neo-picaresque sensibility. And yet Fight Club’s philosophical-materialist preoccupations are as invisible from its jabbing, adolescent misanthropy as Planet Tyler is from Planet Starbucks, but to quote The Simpsons—specifically the season seven episode “Summer of 4’2,” where Lisa infiltrates a group of cool kids—the whole thing smacks of effort, man. In Alien 3 and The Game, Fincher cloaked his anti-establishment attitudes in the vestments of genre, but Fight Club is so explicit about its provocations that they graduate from subtext to subject, with mixed if vivid results.Fight Club is so explicit about its provocations that they graduate from subtext to subject, with mixed if vivid results.
You can feel Fincher straining to cause offense in the support-group sequences, which fail to match the standard of morbid brevity set in “Fetus,” with its doomed, in-utero chain smoker. When the skeletal, skull-capped chemotherapy patient Chloe (Rachel Singer) complains to her peers about wanting to get laid before she dies, it’s meant as a humanist rebuke to sanitizing platitudes, but Jack’s comment that she “[looks] like Meryl Streep’s skeleton would look if you made it smile and walk around a party being extra nice to everybody,” marks him as the scene’s true truth-teller.
It’s a harbinger of the deceptively self-reflexive misogyny that the film dredges up out of Palahniuk’s novel—not so much the flip side of his masculine satire as collateral damage. In his later films, Fincher would address complaints about his work’s gender politics by foregrounding brilliant, complex, resourceful female leads, but in 1999, Fight Club looked from a certain angle like the early and ugly culmination of tendencies displayed in Se7en and The Game, with their literally and/or figuratively disposable blondes. (Alien 3’s version of Ripley as an angry, androgynous martyr had gravitas, but was primarily the byproduct of creative inheritance.)
Fight Club’s Marla Singer is, in her way, a striking and memorable character. “This is cancer, right?” she asks mid-drag at one of Jack’s cancer-survivor group meetings, pale and fetchingly dishevelled behind sunglasses at night. The screwball velocity of Helena Bonham Carter’s performance not only obliterated the actress’s reputation as a Merchant Ivory “corset queen,” but established Marla as a Goth prototype for a millennial movie archetype: the so-called “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” those free-spirited females who, as Nathan Rabin put it, “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
Marla isn’t so much free-spirited as depressive, and her stated curriculum is slightly different than the affirmative mandate outlined by Rabin’s sample observation: “the condom is the glass slipper of our generation”). Her Manic Pixie status derives mostly from her being a device, one that Fincher and Fight Club deploy with a chill, mechanistic precision on the level of plot and theme. In terms of the film’s story, Marla is there first to frustrate Jack by horning in on his empathy-tourism racket, activating his guilt over faking pain in the company of true sufferers, and then to serve as a wedge between him and Tyler by becoming not-so-clandestine fuck-buddies with the latter.
Of course, because Tyler doesn’t exist, what this means is that Marla has been sleeping with Jack, recasting his possessive jealousy as a symptom of schizophrenia and undermining her blithe, give-no-fucks persona with real confusion over her lover’s behavioral inconsistency. (“You’re Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Jackass,” she fumes in the middle of a late-film blowout.)
Within Fight Club’s representational matrix, Marla exists as another double for Jack—a behavioral twin with the same self-pitying tendencies—as well as an incursion of atypical but unmistakable femininity into Fight Club’s homosocial (and intermittently homoerotic) universe. Like Ripley in Alien 3, she’s a self-possessed Wendy descending into a nest of Lost Boys; when Jack grabs her in a tight embrace during a group hug session, she’s a mother-whore figure even more ambiguous than Robert Paulson. She’s also a get-out-of-jail-free card for the gratuitous sexism and “locker room talk” in which Fight Club’s male creative braintrust engages under the superficial aegis of critique. “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school!” she exclaims after one athletic sexual session with Tyler, testifying to his (and of course Pitt’s) potency while oh-so-naughtily invoking pedophilia: the lack of a laugh track can’t disguise the pandering, sitcom-of-the-damned sense of humor.
This tactic of ascribing Marla a set of voracious appetites and vulnerbalizing neuroses in order to score comic points off of them is consistent and exhausting. The “grade school” one-liner is a replacement for Palahniuk’s original dialogue, which had Marla telling Tyler “I want to have your abortion”; when Ziskind blanched at its inclusion, Fincher insisted that whatever he offered as a replacement be included no questions asked. As Looper’s Sezin Koehler reports in her Collider article “The Untold Truth of Fight Club,” “when [Ziskind] heard the replacement line . . . she visibly cringed and begged [Fincher] to return to the original script.” Autonomy becomes indistinguishable from vindictiveness: “I am David Fincher’s Smirking Revenge.”Jack’s Meet Cute with Tyler at 30,000 feet reroutes his fascination-slash-fixation in the other man’s direction. From there on, we see the character exclusively through awed and desirous eyes.
Bonham-Carter’s acting in Fight Club is above reproach—fearless, inventive, and very much on the same wavelength as her co-stars. It doesn’t prevent Marla from seeming like a ventriloquist’s dummy (or maybe a Corpse Bride). If, as Paulie Doyle argued in Vice, Fight Club has “been embraced by the loose collection of radical online male communities (known as the “manosphere”) as a kind of gospel text,” it’s surely not incidental that its lone female character is styled as an atrocity-exhibitionist, with the added indignity of being reduced in the final act to a quasi-damsel in distress, the unconvincing impetus for Jack to try to intervene against Tyler’s demolition initiative, lest the woman he loves accidentally get injured in the chaos.
The logistical vertices of Fight Club’s central love triangle are tricky, but they’re also Gatsby-ish, with Marla drawn towards Tyler for his mystery and charisma. It’s a Svengali-ish dynamic that she shares with Jack even as he resents its implication (i.e. that Tyler has both of them under his spell). Pitt’s extraordinary performance testifies both to his gifts and the fetishistic attention of Fincher’s direction. A few years removed from being crowned People’s “sexiest man alive,” the actor is Fight Club’s true erotic object: where at first Jack is distracted and unsettled by Marla and her femme fatale act, his Meet Cute with Tyler at 30,000 feet—in his mind as a seat mate during one of his red-eye flight—reroutes his fascination-slash-fixation in the other man’s direction. From there on, we see the character exclusively through awed and desirous eyes.
Every aspect of Fight Club’s mise-en-scène is torqued to celebrate Pitt’s sleek, prime-cut body and fashionably tacky wardrobe—an offhandedly trashy elegance that doesn’t so much challenge or contradict Hollywood leading-man conventions as reimagine them in Gen-X terms. Tyler’s surname evokes Kurt Cobain, and his array of garish-but-glam outfits and goofy accessories (especially his outsized sunglasses) resemble the Nirvana frontman’s gleefully sullen anti-celebrity posturing.
The character’s burnt red leather jacket, meanwhile, nods to the sartorial legacy of another premature youth-culture casualty: James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1956), who was paid similar tribute in The Replacements’ 1989 single “I’ll Be You,” (a pretty good alternate title for Fight Club) through a character referred to as a “rebel without a clue.” Paul Westerberg’s lyrics jokingly collapsed the distance between idealism and anomie in a way that anticipated Cobain’s own lyrical gamesmanship two years later in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which couched grunge’s social insurrection as a kind of anti-intellectual virus: “I feel stupid and contagious.”
Westerberg and Cobain were both college radio staples because of how they inhabited and ridiculed rock-star conduct. There are lipstick traces of both singers in Fight Club: Westerberg’s deathless refrain from “Bastards of Young”—“we are the sons of no one”—is reprised in Pitt’s rabble-rousing monologue to his followers about the frustration they feel as “the middle children of history,” while Marla functions nicely in image and temperament as a Courtney Love stand-in. A number of gnomic Nirvana lyrics could serve as epigraphs: “I’m so happy, ‘cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head”; “Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”
As for, “I feel stupid and contagious,” it sums up the unquestioning, dead-eyed devotion felt by all of the film’s characters for Tyler Durden. What unites Jack and Marla with Robert Paulson or Holt McCallany’s hollow-eyed Project Mayhem lieutenant “The Mechanic” is a deeply suggestible headspace that Fincher attempts, in genuinely if agonistically Fitzgeraldian fashion, to construct as an arena for adulation and deconstruction. Fight Club allows Tyler’s fascist rhetoric to speak for itself through Pitt’s offhandedly commanding cadence, and trusts—or burdens—its audience with parsing its content.
Excerpt from the new book David Fincher: Mind Games by Adam Nayman published by Abrams, available November 23, 2021. Text copyright © 2021 Adam Nayman and Little White Lies.