A few pointed questions for Chuck Palahniuk
In which the Fight Club author holds forth on"dead time,"
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DATELINE Tuesday, 25 January 2000
A resident of Portland, Ore., since his graduation from the University of Oregon in 1986, Chuck Palahniuk garnered literary acclaim with his first novel, Fight Club, four years ago. An underground classic, it was recently made into a controversial film starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. A second novel, Invisible Monsters, followed, and his third book, Survivor, is now available in paperback.
Palahniuk recently took an hour to talk with DVD Journal staffer Dawn Taylor here are some highlights.
I understand you're going to L.A. to do commentary for the DVD of Fight Club?
The DVD comes out in April I go down next week or the week after to record my track.
Have they offered any guidelines on what they want you to do?
They told me to comment throughout the entire movie, that's all they told me. I was thinking about telling all the inside stories about the production, all the things that they shot and they didn't use that I saw. All the things that people told me on the side that weren't used. Brad was so gutsy he shot one whole scene, I think it was the scene where he was saying, "If you could fight any celebrity living or dead..." and they're in the bathroom? In the scene they used in the movie he's in the bathtub, but in the version I saw them shoot, he was stark naked sitting on the toilet. He did that whole monologue, and then he stands up and the camera swoops around at the very last second, as he stands up. And I thought, my God, if he was gonna do thirty takes of that shot, the least the studio can do is use it! I mean... and in the other scene, where he's riding the bicycle around the first floor of the house? In that sort of goofy, goofy way? At very end of the scene the bike rams into the doorframe and he goes flying off the handlebars in, you know, a sort of dangerous way he did 40 takes of that, and he did the first I don't know how many takes with no pants on whatsoever.
Oh my God.
Yeah... and so the next day the studio, they were looking at the dailies, and they were going scene by scene, shot by shot, going, "We can't use this... we can't use this .." because in every shot, Brad's testicles were hanging there. "We can't use this! We can't use this! We can't use this!" And finally they got some takes where he was actually wearing shorts, and they said, "Okay, we can use these". Then the other one, where he throws the door open after Edward Norton's been spying and Helena Bonham Carter falls off the bed at that point, he had his blue sweat pants pulled so low that through the first, like, 30 takes there was pubic hair. And once again, the next day the studio execs were sitting in the dailies saying, "Oh, we can't use this. Next take...next take...next take..." Finally, like take number 32, the pants were up just high enough that there was no pubic hair showing.
What's the new book called?
For the time being it's called "Choke". I'm going to try and do with sex what I did with violence in Fight Club, to make this really, really outrageous dark sex comedy. And if I can do that then... oh, my God. People are a lot less threatened by laughing over sexual things then they are laughing over violence. Frankly, to tell the truth, I can watch Edward Norton punch Brad Pitt in the ear a hundred times and I would laugh every time. There is something about that moment that is so genuinely funny! (imitates Brad Pitt) "You punched me in the ear!" (laughs) And when Edward Norton blows his cheek out, and he's sitting there mutilated but he's still going I'm fine, I'm fine, it's okay... you know, I find that incredibly funny, the whole denial of the situation.
That's funny that you sit and laugh at the same moments as the rest of us, watching the film of your own book. And you're right, those moments of mouth-hanging-open, Oh my God laughter of Edward Norton with his face half blown off...
Of course, Edward Norton is a genius...
Oh God, he is. He's a driven genius.
I can't imagine that you could have had a better cast than Fight Club did, or a better director.
Not for that one, no way.
Which reminds me, my editor only forbade me from asking one question I'm not supposed to ask what Brad Pitt is really like. So I have to ask: what's Edward Norton like?
(laughs) Oh, Edward Norton is really intimidating. He's one of these people that, I don't know, no matter what you say you feel like an idiot. I mean, he is always so far ahead of you, you're like this intellectual puppy running to keep up with him. He just seems so self-assured and so confident, so totally aware of what he wants. And so bright and educated that I found him very hard to be with. Just the exact opposite of Brad (laughs).
So Brad's easy to hang with, then.
Brad is very, sort of... he approaches people constantly, to make sure they're okay, that they're having a great time. It was fascinating to watch him at social events he would literally work the room, talking to people, making sure that everybody was okay and having a good time. He was not stand-offish at all. He seemed so much more invested in making sure other people were okay. I don't know if that sounds stupid or not, but that was just my impression.
Not the stereotype of the mega-superstar actor guy...
No, not at all. But nobody was really what I expected, so...
Was the experience of being involved with the film what you thought it would be?
I had no idea, I had never imagined it would be so boring. Shooting a movie takes so long every angle, every shot, every lighting correction, every run-through, every direction... oh my God, it's so endless! Every take, every shot doing 30 tales of every shot it was brutally boring. I had a huge admiration for the patience those people must have.
There are a few differences, they're very small but significant, between the screenplay and your novel, most notably the ending did you have much input, if any, into the changes they made?
Oh yeah. Well, I went to a lot of meetings before the screenplay was even written and I knew that the ending was going to be changed that way to make it more Hollywood, more sort of crowd-pleasing. I still think it's a wonderful ending, and in a way I was glad that they changed it, because I did not want to have to sit through another version of my book that was just like my book. I wanted to be surprised and entertained as much as anybody.
And were you?
Oh yeah. There were things in there that I was just blown away by. Yeah.
I understand you worked at Freightliner as a diesel mechanic?
Well, I was a Service Documentation Specialist. I worked two years on the assembly line then I got this documentation specialist job, which everyone seems to interpret as diesel mechanic. But basically I did service procedures on trucks, and timed myself, then wrote about the repair times. So I did work on trucks, but I also wrote about it.
How did you work writing in around your job?
I always look for the dead times. You know, dead times are when you're doing laundry in a laundromat that's a really good time for writing, I wrote a lot of Invisible Monsters while doing laundry in laundromats. My car was always breaking down and when I took it into the shop I'd get stuck waiting in that waiting room. That's an excellent time to write, it's a great dead time. Any time you're stuck in traffic, it's like a blessing because it's time when you're sort of forced to write, because you're so trapped.
That would explain a lot of the underlying feelings of frustration and urban angst in your books, your writing them in auto shop waiting rooms and laundromats...
Yeah, it's... they're anxious places, like airports, to begin with and you're trapped, and I'd start analyzing my own feelings and taking notes about "why don't I like this?" What is about being in this situation that pisses me off, and that sort of tweezes it out of myself why I hate that situation so much, and then write about it.
I understand you actually wrote your second published book, Invisible Monsters, first before Fight Club?
I'd done a really rough version of it first, and it had gotten a lot of attention but no one would publish it because it was too risky and I was too much of an unknown. But what came out this fall was about 85% rewritten and that was vastly different, and in a way I'm really glad that the first version didn't get published, because this version is so much better than that.
It's sort of a road story...
A road trip novel.
Yeah, a road trip novel, about a model who gets her face blown off in a drive-by shooting and then goes on an adventure with a pre-operative transsexual in a nutshell...
..it strikes me that in Invisible Monsters, and Fight Club and your latest novel, Survivor, the common theme is that our identities are largely forged by society and outside influences, and that it's up to the individual to create their own identity as they choose..;
So, obviously, this is a theme that's important to you.
Well, you know, we're sort of raised within parameters, we're sort of raised to understand what it is to be a good person, and so it seems that so much of our childhood is about meeting the expectations of all of the people around us. Meeting the expectations of our parents, our teachers, our coaches eventually our bosses and we're sort of, you know, always looking outside of ourselves for how to be. And it's exciting after a certain point in your life when you can start to make up the rules rather than following the rules, and decide for yourself how you want to be rather than constantly meeting the needs and the expectations of everyone else and... I love that. I love playing with that idea.
You've gotten a lot of criticism for promoting a sort of cavalier attitude towards rules and the law...
Hmmm. A cavalier attitude towards the rules... well, in a way I'm not completely supporting the status quo, and I think we should always question the status quo, and never take anything at face value that way. And we should realize that we are the people who make the rules instead of constantly letting them be imposed upon us. We are the people make who make rules and, more importantly, we are the people who follow the rules. And so I don't want to take any of this for granted, I want to show people that there are options.
It was much subtler in the book than in the movie, but it seemed that the first half of Fight Club was spent creating and promoting social anarchy as an alternative to the mind-numbing status quo, but then you tore it all back down again with Tyler's followers giving up their identities all over again, creating new iron-clad rules and following a completely different status quo...
Yeah, it's funny, in a way the book has become a metaphor for the book. In terms of the book, I mean, the book was just some things I scribbled down on paper, talking to my friends and I made up this whole story... and now the book, for awhile, has taken on this enormous life of its own, it's out in so many different countries, the movie's out, the audio tapes are out. Ford Motor Co. and Nike have both inquired about using portions of the book to advertise their products. I mean, the book just has this complete life of it's own now. Songs are now being written using parts of the book. It's crazy! And part of me feels like this little baby of mine has gone off to live it's own completely different life autonomous from me. There's no way I could control it at this point. And it's very much like Fight Club has become for the narrator of the book, it's his precious little invention at first but it takes on a life of its own as more and more people adopt it and like it and sort of usurp it use it for their own purposes.
You address that issue of out-of-control fame in Survivor was this based on your experiences with the runaway success of Fight Club?
Oh yeah, it's based a lot on what I was getting into when I was touring with Fight Club, and how really ridiculous and self-perpetuating this whole world of fame was. I mean, I used to think that people went on the Jay Leno show because they really liked Jay Leno, and that it was fun to sit there and talk to Jay and that they were, like, friends...
You mean they aren't?
No! (laughs) The only reason they show up there is to pitch a movie, or to pitch a product. And so even the most well-meaning, spontaneous looking talk shows are just extended infomercials for whatever movie or book or TV special or whatever that celebrity has got coming out. You know, everything just a constant pitch in a constant marketing campaign, and I was really disillusioned and stunned by that, that so much of this is just about selling product, over and over.
Speaking of pitches, don't you have something coming up in Playboy, or has it already appeared?
I've got two excerpts from my next novel, my fourth novel, that are coming out in Playboy this next year. They both function as short stories, they're chapters from the new book.
You did a reading of one of them recently, a piece about people having sex in airplane bathrooms...
Oh my God... where did you hear me read that?
I didn't, someone else did and commented on it...
I only read that once.
Yeah and the guy who commented on it, he said that the one thing he got out of it was that you had apparently been spending a lot of time on airplanes and reading the Kama Sutra.
Wow. Playboy, that's one of the excerpts that they bought, and it was basically a rewriting of the Kama Sutra based on the configuration of all the major jetliner bathrooms all of which involved a lot of research. Blueprints, you know. And Playboy said, okay, we can publish this as fiction, but it's not going to go into the magazine for a long time because all the fiction slots are filled up months ahead of time. Then they said, but we can publish it as non-fiction if you let us publish it as a non-fiction essay, we'll pay you $15,000.
Yeah... which is far more than they pay for fiction, but, on the other hand, it would make me look like the world's biggest sexual psychopath! So my agent is saying, "Take it, take it, go for it, let them publish it as non-fiction" and I'm like, "No! Come on...."
In Invisible Monsters the characters tour homes that are for sale in wealthy neighborhoods and, um, rummage through the owners medicine cabinets...
I do not do that any more! (laughs) But for a couple of years it was an excellent way to get wasted. We did it across many western states.
That takes a lot of chutzpah.
No, it was actually fantastically easy. I had no problem with it. And I didn't invent it. A friend of mine... the friend who told me about being a waiter, and peeing in the soup, he was the one who invented that, the real estate open house thing. I could never figure out why he always wanted to go to all these big open houses, houses that he could never, ever dream of buying. And he would go to them, every weekend. And finally he showed me what he was doing.
But now that you're a highly respected author, of course...
Now I just have to be more discreet about what I do. But I think, in a way, if you're a writer people expect you to do stuff like that. Nobody wants to see Hunter S. Thompson if he's not fucked up.