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September 24, 2008

Chuck Palahnuik On "Choke"

By Cole Smithey


In adapting Chuck Palahnuik's novel of sexual addiction, con artistry, and subjugated maturity screenwriter/director/actor Clark Gregg creates a fantastical brand of satire that is engaging as it is diabolically ribald. If the film never gets around to paying off on its absurdist themes of debauchery and search for identity, it at least points in a direction of public liberation that is at direct odds with the outrageous level of surveillance Americans are subjected to. Sam Rockwell is positively devilish as medical school dropout Victor Mancini who works a day job at a Williamsburg-styled colonial theme park where the staff is made to speak only olde English to one another. At night, Victor chokes on his food in fancy restaurants in order to be Heimliched by rich patrons he then bilks in order to pay for his dementia-suffering mother Ida (well played by Angelica Huston) to stay in an expensive private care facility. "Choke" is the most assertively anti-mainstream film of the year, and to that end it succeeds as a positive form of cinematic/social rebellion.

I met Chuck Palahnuik at the 20th Century Fox publicity offices in Midtown Manhattan where he charmed everyone in the room with his soft-spoken yet effusive demeanor.

Cole Smithey: You asked screenwriter/director Clark Gregg not to stick to the book when adapting it. That seems like an unconventional way to go.


Chuck Palahnuik: Yeah, I said, "I know the book, I’ve read the book." I always really curious to see how people interpret things. I know my version, and I’m kind of bored with my version so I want to see their version. Also, I didn’t know it at the time, but Clark’s father is a minister--so he had a body of information that allowed him to write a speech, which I think is the most important part of the movie, and is not in the book. So he was able to bring things to the movie that I had no inkling of.

CS: What was your reaction when you saw how Clark handled the sex scenes?

CP: When I first started writing, there was no way I’d write a sex scene. That just seemed impossible. That’s why in "Fight Club" all the sex happens off-screen. It’s all just a noise on the other side of the wall or the ceiling. I just couldn’t bring to write in a scene like that. So one of the challenges with "Choke" was I wanted to write sex scenes until I was really comfortable just writing them in a very mechanical way.

So I thought he (Clark Gregg) handled it just perfectly—in a very mechanical, perfunctory way—cutting right to the physical moment and then cutting away from it.

CS: "Choke" is a mix of several genres. How do you view the genre it best fits?

CP: It’s interesting because when David Fincher was making "Fight Club," he said, "It’s a romance." And it really is. Almost everything I ever write is just a romance. And that needed to be sort of pointed up at the end of "Fight Club." The film has a very different ending than the book does. Now "Choke" has a much more romantic ending, which I think is important, otherwise you lose track of the fact that it is a romance.

There is a social contract in "Fight Club" and in "Choke" where the protagonist has deceived a whole bunch of people. In "Choke" it’s all of these people who think that they’ve saved his life, and really care about him because they’ve embraced him and they’ve been his saviors. In "Fight Club" it’s all of these people who are dying of various diseases, and they thought that Edward Norton was also dying so they allowed him really strong pent-up emotions. In both books, there’s a scene where the deceiver is brought back to these communities and is unmasked and is humiliated in front of those people that have been deceived, and the social contract is completed. In both movies that social scene is missing. It’s interesting, but it is of a pattern that the social contract is absent from the third act of both movies. People didn’t miss it in "Fight Club," so I think ultimately they won’t miss it in "Choke."

CS: Can you talk about your use of support groups like the 12-step sex addict group in "Choke."

CP: I’m always looking for context in which people tell stories. In "Fight Club" it’s these support groups for dying people, and then in "Choke" it’s 12-step recovery groups. In one novel it’s artists’ colonies, in another novel it’s a diary form that submariners’ wives typically keep so that when their husband comes back from serving on a submarine they have an accounting of their spouse’s time. So I’m always looking for, number one, a non-fiction context—because you can tell a more outrageous story if you use a non-fiction form. "Blair Witch Project," or even "Fargo," which had the "Based on true events" part at the beginning, lent a gravity to an otherwise outlandish story. "War of the Worlds" told as radio broadcasts—suddenly this Martian story becomes frighteningly real because it’s told in this non-fiction context.

Number two, looking for a place where people go specifically to tell stories. My theory is that church used to be that place. Instead of being a place where you went to look good, it was a place where you could risk going every week to look your worst. You could go church and you could describe your worst behavior, your worst self, and despite your worst behavior you would be forgiven and then redeemed and then accepted back into the community through communion. So you didn’t have to carry this burden your entire life. Once a week you went someplace you went someplace where you could really look terrible and be loved despite how terrible you were.

Nowadays church doesn’t seem to really serve that function. It’s more of yet another place you go to look good. I find that people willing to risk looking bad go to support groups, 12-step groups—those have really become the new church for us. Phone sex hotlines—that is people at their worst self, and they’re seeing it and they’re confessing it. And they’re bonding and they’re uniting with other people despite their worse selves. So a non-fiction sort of form for gravity, for credibility, but also finding a storytelling situation where people present the worst aspects of themselves.

CS: Did you visit a 12-step program to help you develop the book?

CP: I went to Sexaholics three times a week, and it was fascinating. It was absolutely the most incredible…because it’s not just people telling really outrageous stories that are completely in opposition to how they present themselves. The most boring ordinary person you’d ever want to meet, suddenly opens their mouth and describes the completely outlandish secret life. But also, they’ve really become performers and so they know how to craft and present their stories to get the strongest reaction possible. It’s good for your writing as well as for your content.

CS: Were any of the scenes in the movie derived from a specific story you heard?

CP: I didn’t use anybody’s story. I used the context and the structure of the situation. People were so, so desperate to tell their story and begin to digest their experience—like turning it into a story—that after the fist few weeks I could go with a pad and pencil and take notes. People didn’t seem at all bothered by that.

CS: Did you ever have to tell any stories?

CP: Oh my God…people were so desperate. No. We were lucky if we made it half way around a room. There was a two-minute rule and nobody ever told a story in less than 20 minutes.


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