Chuck Palahniuk says he doesn't mind a bit when smart filmmakers mess with his books.
In fact, Palahniuk -- the author of "Fight Club," "Choke" and several other transgressive cult-hit novels -- encourages the tinkering.
Here's what he says about director David Fincher, who tweaked the ending of "Fight Club": "These people are really, really smart -- and whatever they're going to do is going to be smarter than what I can dictate. My job is not to try to control this process; it's to try and be present and learn from what they're doing."
And here's what Palahniuk told writer-director Clark Gregg, who just finished a no-budget adaptation of "Choke," which opens in Portland this Friday: "For six or seven years, every conversation was me really pushing Clark to change everything he wanted to change ... so that the movie and book would stand alone as their own distinct, valid things.... There was a little bit of browbeating for him to finally accept that he had that freedom. But I think he loved it when he had it."
Of course, Palahniuk is lucky in that his trust has been well-placed: "Choke" is weird and shocking and funny and terrific. It tells the story of a historical re-enactor and sex addict named Victor (Sam Rockwell) who stages choking incidents in restaurants for cash. Victor dropped out of med school to care for his mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), a former '60s radical fading fast in a mental hospital. Victor's barrel-scraping life plunges even deeper when he courts a loony-bin doctor (Kelly MacDonald) with surprising revelations about his parentage.
Gregg (who wrote "What Lies Beneath" and is best-known for playing Richard on "The New Adventures of Old Christine") shot his film in a blistering three weeks. The resulting lack of visual panache is more than compensated by the film's wicked humor and terrific performances -- especially Rockwell's furious, sympathetic take on a sleazy con man.
Palahniuk forged a writing career in his mid-30s, after stints as a journalist and diesel mechanic. He now lives in the Columbia Gorge and occasionally turns up in costume at Portland Cacophony Society events like the pirate-themed Plunderathon. Mostly, he nurtures his rabid fan base and concentrates on his writing -- which also includes "Invisible Monsters," "Rant," "Survivor," "Snuff" and the occasional journalism assignment.
Palahniuk and I talked about "Choke," Sam Rockwell, Bruce Dern, the power of the "profane something," Shakespeare, the perils of literary fiction, Portland's Cacophony Society, sex addiction, Nazi re-enactors, and fan management, among other things. An edited transcript follows the jump.
CHUCK PALAHNIUK: I think Clark was unaware, too, of how passionate and crazy my readers are. I'm glad he didn't know, or he might not have signed on for this. That constant Internet chatter. He could not be online for a long period of time.
Q. He only had a 21-day shoot, correct?
A. Yeah. Those sets and the actors were available in a tiny window of time. It was really, really furious. I think I was probably there for half of it.
Q. See, I'd imagine a 21-day shoot would be like a freight train -- just stay out of the way.
A. Clark created sort of a party atmosphere to get it done. David Mamet told Clark to always keep a movie shoot like a party -- the director is the host, and your job is to facilitate and make sure people have a great time.
He was only doing four or five takes of each shot -- so there was this constant momentum, always moving forward, new setups all the time, and not having the money to do anything but the bare bones.... The budget was just a fraction of the "Fight Club" budget.
A. Sam's sort of like Bruce Dern, whom I grew up with: He can play a crazy, very threatening person, always trying to kill Barbara Stanwyck on "The Big Valley"....
A. Exactly -- where he's heartbroken and misunderstood. Or he's Jane Fonda's damaged husband walking into the surf in "Coming Home" -- and he would just break your heart in this dysfunctional way.
Sam is very much that character -- he can be either frightening or sympathetic.
Q. I can see a young Bruce Dern as Guy in "Galaxy Quest."
A. Yeah. Or in "The Green Mile," as that child murderer. He's funny -- until you see him kill those kids.
Q. What sort of conversations did you have with Clark Gregg about the film before it got underway?
A. Really, for six or seven years, every conversation was me really pushing Clark to change everything he wanted to change -- to really fully adapt the story into something that expressed him, so that the movie and book would stand alone as their own distinct, valid things. Because if he was going to make a visual copy of the book, then that's sort of pandering to the book. It never earns you respect. I wanted Clark to develop it as it own thing -- so it wouldn't be this shallow, lesser reflection of the book.
There was a little bit of browbeating for him to finally accept that he had that freedom. But I think he loved it when he had it.
Q. Did your experience with David Fincher changing the ending of "Fight Club," but also honoring the story, give you the comfort to tell him that?
A. These people are really, really smart -- and whatever they're going to do is going to be smarter than what I can dictate. My job is not to try to control this process; it's to try and be present and learn from what they're doing with it.
It's not exactly my thing -- but it's going to be something better than I could imagine.
A. Clark having the comic-relief stripper character Cherry Daiquiri give a Biblical speech from Galatians -- that was just brilliant. I love that scene. And pulling back on Paige Marshall -- making her so much more sympathetic. The way Kelly MacDonald plays her, it's just really heartbreaking.
Q. Joel Grey delivered his lines so calmly: "When you're stalking a tranny hooker...." The guy from "Cabaret" playing a sex addict is a brilliant piece of casting.
A. Joel Grey is really surreal. He's Jennifer Grey's father, and Jennifer Grey is married to Clark Gregg. It's a small world.
Q. You've said you feel "reprimanded" by the heartfelt speeches Gregg added to the script.
A. You know, it is really, really difficult for me to have a character who expresses himself openly and honestly. It's just more sentimental than I could ever be. And so I have to admire that Clark can just have these characters say these things. I don't have the guts to have that in the book.
Q. You've said: "You have to unfold a world of unrest, disgust, un-wellness before you can have an epiphany of well-being."
A. The darker the place you get to, the lighter the epiphany will seem beyond that. You have to have that contrast.
Q. You're not just a "shock jock" writer, but you do put a lot of transgressive stuff in your books. Is it harder to shock readers in the age of the Internet?
A. I think as long as you use a profane something to achieve a profound result, you can have that contrast, that evolution, that progress. I think people will engage with it.
And if you can have it be funny -- creating tension through circumstance, but periodically relieving that tension with a laugh -- you can actually coax people through a very extreme place they wouldn't rather go.
You can play with tension and escalation with humor, and eventually get people to a big, big breakdown that shows them their worst-case scenario, but then shows them the character living beyond that -- so the reader has the reassurance that they could live beyond worse things than they can imagine.
I think people -- especially young people -- like to see that.
Q. You've argued that Shakespeare knew how to mix high culture and low culture in ways that maybe some literary-fiction writers might have forgotten.
A. I think hyper-intellectual people forget how bawdy so much of Shakespeare was, and how gory. It had to play to the people at the bottom of the theater as well as the people sitting in the seats. People forget he worked on all those different levels. Mozart also chose bawdy, low-culture settings for his operas. They were sort of scandalous and sexy for the time. People forget the transgressive elements of what's become "classic" culture.
A. In American culture, writers come from one of two schools: They either come from academia, where they have a fairly limited amount of personal experience and exceptional writing skills -- they can write beautiful prose about very little -- or they come from journalism, where they have an enormous wealth of experience and exposure to people and events, but their writing tends to be kind of pedestrian, very plain. So they tend to write very plain-language stories about very important events. So it's either fancy writing about nothing or it's plain writing about huge things.
Q. Your own writing style is very direct. I'd be curious to know what you make of some of the overwriting in literary fiction.
A. Some of it annoys the hell out of me. [laughs]
Q. How important has Portland's Cacophony Society been to you?
A. I cannot wait to do Plunderathon. I've got some magazines asking me, "Write up Plunderthon for us!"
I thought Cacophony was really touching in that it really showed that people want to be together -- and will come up with the most arbitrary reasons just to come together and spend time with each other. I thought it was so sweet -- this basic human need.
Maybe it's just the costumed events I find so appealing -- I can just kind of blend in. Be a pirate, have a good time.
Q. A fake beard covers a lot of celebrity -- and a lot of sin.
A. Oh, yeah. It muffles your voice.
Q. You did a lot of research for "Choke" at the gym.
A. At the gym, I would write down a lot of physical description, because it was a really good time to study people for gestures. But really, so many stories came from Sex Addicts Anonymous. There's a club up in Northwest that has a sex-addicts meeting, and I know there are a couple of other ones in town. I would go to those three times a week, just sit in the culture, and keep track of how the meetings were run and the language at the meetings and the general nature of the stories that are told.
Q. Did you go into these meetings saying, "I'm reporting on this" -- or did you infiltrate them in a different way?
A. You know, I just went and sat, and I don’t think it was at a time when I was very recognizable. At least, I hope I wasn't recognizable.
I never borrowed the actual stories -- but it was fascinating to hear how people presented them. If anything, I borrowed the way people phrased things -- how they told their stories. Because recovery groups are a kind of theater where people have really crafted their stories to get the best effect. It was really a study of storytelling techniques as much as the stories themselves.
Q. Yeah, I guess there really would be a kind of person at those meetings who thinks, "I've really gotta knock this one out of the park. My recovery story really has to wow 'em, or they won't take me seriously."
A. Some of the people have been going for years, so they’ve had a lot of practice.
A. A lot of it was history-book stuff. A lot of it was talking to people who work at big institutions like Disneyland -- where they play a big character and their behavior is constantly dictated....
Q. Well, certainly, there's no shortage of re-enactment culture in Portland.
Q. Well, there's the Civil War re-enactors in McIver Park....
A. I just came back from a couple of weeks in London, and I hooked up with a photographer who's documenting largely secret World War II re-enactments in Kent. It's really bizarre, because all these German families come over with truckloads of Nazi uniforms -- they dress up their children as Nazis. They find all these Irish families who are also fervent closet Nazis, and they re-enact all the classic WWII battles in Kent -- and the Nazis win.
Q. Holy crap.
A. I can't wait to get into that and write it up for a magazine. You should see the pictures: They look like they're 70 years old, but they were taken last week. The photographer uses an old camera, and these people are so completely in-character, and their clothing and accessories are so perfect.
Q. I remember covering the McIver Civil War re-enactors for the Clackamas Review, and they told me, "You should come out and spend the night! We'll eat some beans!"
A. "This time the South's gonna win!"
Q. Getting back to "Choke": The movie really does capture the way the book depicts sex as a mechanical process. People in the film are always talking about other things as they go through the motions of sex. I don't think there's a straight sex scene in the film.
A. Yeah. I've always loved that moment in "Klute" where Jane Fonda's getting screwed in the hotel room by her john, and she stops moaning and screaming long enough to look at the wristwatch behind his head. It's just such a wonderful break in character.
Q. One thing I noticed in the transition from book to screen is that the flashbacks Victor has with his mother have been moved around a bit -- in fact, the very first flashback in the book serves as a very poignant exclamation mark at the end of the movie. What was the thinking there? [pause] This is a Clark Gregg question, isn't it?
A. Yeah, you'll have to talk to Clark. [laughs] That really works for me. Because I think you can have a despicable, horrible character -- someone who behaves really badly -- but occasionally showing that character before they were corrupted, as a child being manipulated by circumstances, makes that character much more likeable and understandable in the film. The flashbacks really serve that function -- to make Sam Rockwell more sympathetic.
Q. There's a great line where Victor's mom, Ida, compares humanity to animals in a zoo -- it's just that the animals can see the bars. Is that a big idea in "Choke"?
A. Really, I’d always seen the Ida Mancini character as an extension of Tyler Durden -- who only sees what doesn’t work in the world and never really ends up standing for something.
Ida never had a primary relationship, never had a romantic relationship, and she never really created anything -- including Victor. Now she's at the end of her life, having fought everything and never stood for anything. That's kind of how Tyler Durden will end up. There's a pathos there that I find really heartbreaking.
Q. "Fight Club" and "Choke" at least superficially have a lot in common: a deviant messianic protagonist, support-group meetings, first-person narration, a damaged love interest, major "hidden gun" reality-bending surprises….
A. You've got the strict context in which the character is allowed to have emotional breakdowns in the arms of other people. The character has died or almost died....
Q. When you were writing "Choke," did you see it as a chance to revisit those ideas, or was it a subconscious thing?
A. In a way, I saw it as sort of the second half of "Fight Club." I wanted to show "Fight Club" at the end of Tyler Durden's life, and I wanted to show a character attaining the ability to create his own reality and his own identity -- instead of external circumstances always dictating who he was going to be and the world he was going to live in. So "Choke" is sort of the second half of what "Fight Club" started.
Q. What do you think of all the "fight clubs" popping up in schools? I've heard you actually think that's pretty cool.
A. You know, if it didn't serve people in some way, they would not be doing it. There's almost a weekly fight club here in Union Square. People have been talking about that a lot.
Q. You're very good at managing and nurturing your fan base. Is that partly a product of achieving success in your mid-30s -- when you can appreciate it in a way maybe someone who had success at a younger age wouldn't?
A. Maybe. I could definitely see that being part of it. It's also just really hard not to return the enthusiasm I get from people. People come to me with so much passion and enthusiasm. You really need to return that; it's much harder to shut down in the face of that.
Q. Even so: Not many writers would spend thousands of dollars to mail gifts to every single person who writes them a fan letter.
A. You know, so many of my readers, too, are people who had given up on books for a long period of time. And I just want to make sure that their first book event, or the first time they write to an author, is as extraordinary as it can be. There's an opportunity to really surprise them rather than waste it. It's kind of an honor just to have the opportunity to do it -- so why not do it in an over-the-top way that will really, really dazzle?
Q. You could change someone's life if you gave them just the right feedback.
A. Sort of like working with Clark Gregg -- giving them the permission at that moment to do what they want to do.
Q. Are you still participating in Portland writing workshops with Tom Spanbauer?
A. Not with Tom, because Tom's workshop is really full of new students, and it's not fair for veteran students to keep on coming. We always sort of move forward to make room for new people. But I meet in kind of a weekly workshop on Thursdays with writers -- including Chelsea Cain.
Yeah, some other students of Tom's, we've been meeting together since -- what? -- 1991? It's been a long time.
A. [laughs] You know, if I think I were going to really get into a play, it would be a play version of "Snuff" [which concerns, among other things, three men waiting their turns with a porn starlet attempting to have on-camera sex with 600 men in a row].
Q. Oh. Oh, my.
A. Yeah. "Snuff" is just really written for one set, four actors, two hours. It's the tightest little stage idea I've ever done.
Q. Is "Snuff" unfilmable? I know Clark Gregg found a way to get a lot of transgressive stuff onscreen....
A. You know, I think with a lot of noises, and a lot of monitors turned away from the audience, you could imply a lot. It would be even more horrific in people's minds.
Q. Yeah, that wouldn't be hard with gonzo.
A. The occasional donkey bray would be even more upsetting....
A. Yeah, it really has already. "Haunted" and "Rant" both optioned in the last month. I think a lot of that was because of "Choke." And "Lullaby" seems to be really close to production; I understand they might have the financing in place in October, and they've already attached an Academy Award-winning actor as the male lead and executive producer -- but they're not ready to announce it yet.
"Lullaby" is being developed by a Swedish director named Ulf Johansson, who's mostly done music videos and TV commercials -- another sort of David Fincher bad boy. His grandfather was a famous actor in all the Bergman movies, and his name was also Ulf Johansson.
And ["I Am Legend" director] Francis Lawrence has had "Survivor" in development for a couple of years. They've got the screenplay, but I'm not sure if they're casting yet; they had said that after they launched "I Am Legend" that "Survivor" would be their next project. So I'm still waiting to see if that's the case.
Q. You've also said 9/11 caused a certain interruption of interest in film adaptations of your work.
A. Mm-hm. Very much so. Fox had made a lot of progress towards getting "Survivor" into production, and all of that just totally evaporated with 9/11.
Q. But of course, "Fight Club" the movie sparked readership of your novels in the interim.
A. Right. It helped all of my books. And now enough time has passed that "Survivor" is marketable again.
We're at a point in history like during my adolescence, when we had a president that everyone hated with a huge passion, and we were stuck in a war with body counts on the news, and the price of gas was wrecking everyone's lives and inflation was a big threat. It feels, in some ways, like 1972. And in 1972, all of the big hit movies were movies in which people tried hard and lost. They died. "Cuckoo's Nest," "Love Story," "Harold and Maude".... They all end with the characters kind of failing, losing or dying. "Saturday Night Fever" -- he wins, but it turns out it's fixed and he should have lost.
And so I think that kind of a dark, fatal, romantic image is coming back. That aesthetic is coming back -- and it's making my books a lot more marketable.
Q. One thing that comes up a lot in interviews is that you're actually an upbeat fellow, and interviewers are surprised by this. People seem to think you'll be as morbidly focused in person as Victor or Tyler Durden. This is kind of a pop-psych question, so I apologize in advance, but: Are you just getting all that out on the page?
A. Yeah. It seems like the happiest people I know are people who are professional fighters or sort of death-goth musicians -- because their public persona is just so violent, so fully expressed, that their private persona is really relaxed and pleasant.
Q. When "Fight Club" hit, suddenly people were declaring you the standard-bearer for young male angst in America. Is that a mantle you welcomed?
A. One of the blessings of living in the Northwest is that you're never fully aware of mantles like that. It’s just something I never considered, never thought about.
Q. If you were in New York.....
A. You know, I wouldn't get nearly as many books written if I lived in New York. The Columbia Gorge is fantastic. When the sun shines, I just want to be outdoors.
Print version: "Chuck Amok: Palahniuk talks 'Choke'" (The Orgonian, Sept. 24, 2008)
Official "Choke" movie site (Fox Searchlight)