It’s easy to forget that Fight Club pretty much tanked upon its release back in 1999.
After all, was there a grody student house bedroom that didn’t have a poster from the movie Blu-tacked to its walls? Weren’t there more than a handful of people blown away by its third act twist? Did anyone take one look at Brad Pitt and not think “sweet Lord, that man has been working out?” Did it not become an instant cult classic? Did you not personally have to deal with at least one person in your life who didn’t understand that the whole thing was a satire about toxic masculinity and not an endorsement of it?
But bomb, it did. Fox forked out $65 million to make what it truly believed was essentially “a film for no one” and Fight Club ended up only making a paltry $11 million in its opening weekend, eventually cashing up with just $37 million at the box office stateside.
In a new book entitled Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen by Brian Raftery, director David Fincher reflects extensively on the process that led up to Fight Club‘s release. He was fighting everyone at the time, from his star Edward Norton to a studio who didn’t know how to begin marketing such a weird endeavor.
“The people whose job it is to sell it were like, ‘I’m not going down with this,’” Fincher said, recalling that an executive at Fox told him, “Men do not want to see Brad Pitt with his shirt off. It makes them feel bad. And women don’t want to see him bloody. So I don’t know who you made this movie for.”
Fincher added, “When I think of 1999, I don’t think of my feet on the chair in front of me with a sixteen-ounce cup of popcorn in my hands. I think of it mostly as a series of meetings where I would slap myself so hard, I would leave with a calloused forehead.”
People just didn’t get that it was supposed to be funny, but not obviously a comedy, including the real Tyler Durden (Norton), who has notoriously been the bane of quite a few directors’ lives in Hollywood over the years.
“I think Edward had this idea of, ‘Let’s make sure people realize that this is a comedy,’” Fincher noted. “He and I talked about this ad nauseam. There’s humor that’s obsequious, that’s saying, ‘Wink-wink, don’t worry, it’s all in good fun.’ And my whole thing was to not wink. What we want is for people to go, ‘Are they espousing this?’”
Before Fight Club was released, Fincher was informed that the film doing badly was a very real possibility, but he said that the fallout from failing publicly was much worse than the money punch.
“Two years of your life and you get one fax and it’s like, ‘Everybody go home. It’s going to be a fire sale.’ You do a lot of soul-searching at that moment: ‘Oh, fuck, what am I going to do now?’ How do you bounce back from that? People at [the restaurant] Morton’s would pat you on the shoulders like you lost a loved one. The vibe [at CAA] was very much, ‘It’s good you’ve experienced this and that you understand we can sway you from making these kinds of life-altering, possibly career-destroying decisions for yourself.’ I just got up and excused myself. And later on, I had a conversation and said, ‘How dare you? I’m really okay with this movie.’”
If you’ve got the time, a large excerpt from the new book is available now, and it’s very much worth a read. You can find it over at The Ringer.