The Difficult History of David Fincher’s Fight Club

David Fincher's Fight Club is now considered a classic, but it had trouble getting off the ground.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

What the hell is Fight Club anyway? A horror film about a Jekyll-and-Hyde office worker who becomes a terrorist? A drama about late 20th century masculinity in crisis? A warped romance about a man trying to change himself into someone as interesting as the woman he loves? A thriller about a decadent generation goading itself into extremism?

Executives at 20th Century Fox certainly struggled with Fight Club. Unsure how to market a film in which young men beat one another to a pulp and stole bags of fat from the bins of liposuction clinics, the studio placed ads for it during World Wrestling Federation matches. Meanwhile, Fight Clubs posters, dreamed up by an expensive design firm, featured a pink bar of soap with the title incised into its waxy surface. It certainly looked unlike anything else stuck up outside a movie theater in 1999, even if most people walking past wouldn’t have had a clue as to what it meant – the soap being a wry reference to a key scene in the film.

The bewildering split between TV ads during wrestling matches, which emphasized the film’s bruising bare-knuckle scenes, and the artistic posters with their pink bars of soap, were an indication, perhaps, of Fight Clubs slippery quality. How do you get people to go and see a film like this, Brad Pitt or no Brad Pitt?

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In retrospect, it’s little surprise that some of Fox’s higher-ups didn’t like Fight Club – least of all one Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul whose News Corporation had acquired Fox in 1985. Here, after all, was a film which openly attacked corporations, advertisers and the entire capitalist system. 

One of Fight Club‘s producers, Art Linson, recalled the first screening of the film for Fox’s executives; they were, he said, “flopping around like acid-crazed carp wondering how such a thing could even have happened.”

“I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”

There was one executive who did believe in Fight Club: Fox’s studio head Bill Mechanic. In the mid-90s, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club novel was doing the rounds at Fox before it had even been published, and was originally envisioned as a low-budget movie to be made through the studio’s Fox 2000 division, which specialized in independent film. Along with production executives Laura Ziskin and Kevin McCormick, Mechanic was an enthusiastic champion of Fight Clubs spiky humor and unpredictable plot.

Mechanic remained supportive as Fight Club‘s journey through Fox’s digestive system gathered pace. Its story, about an ordinary, 30-something white collar worker who starts an underground boxing club, attracted some prodigious talent. David Fincher came aboard as director, despite his unpleasant experience with Fox during the making of Alien 3. Brad Pitt was brought in as one of the stars, his reported $17.5 million payday immediately pushing the project’s budget beyond typical indie territory. Edward Norton signed up to play the Narrator, and Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer, the third point in the story’s warped love triangle.

Gradually, Fight Clubs budget grew. A projected $23 million grew to $50 million, and swelled again to $63 million during filming. The combination of extensive location filming, construction of around 70 sets, subtle yet extensive digital effects and Fincher’s exacting approach to lighting, performance and framing all took their toll. Financiers grew twitchy, one even threatened to bail if Fincher didn’t reduce the budget by $5 million. The director pugnaciously stood his ground.

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By early 1999, filming had completed on Fight Club, and Fincher had assembled an early edit. Then that fateful screening for Fox’s executives took place, and everyone started flopping around like acid-crazed carp…

“Losing all hope was freedom.”

If Fight Club had been sold to some financiers and executives as a late-20th century iteration of The Graduate (that film’s screenwriter Buck Henry was even going to adapt Palahniuk’s novel at one point, before Jim Uhls fought for and won the job), the tone of the resulting movie was wildly different. Where The Graduate wielded its subversive humor with a lightness of touch, Fight Club leapt out of the screen like a clenched fist.

Edward Norton’s Narrator provides us with a detachedly amusing waypoint into Fincher and Palahniuk’s diseased world. Bored by his job at a car company, emotionally unfulfilled and unable to sleep, the Narrator has become a powerless bystander as his life whistles by. A throwaway comment from a doctor prompts the Narrator to attend various support groups, where he’s fascinated by the people he meets: they may be dying from cancer or rare blood diseases, but they’re free and expressive in a way the Narrator finds intoxicating.

He finds solace as an imposter among the sick and desperate, until Marla Singer turns up – another grief tourist whose presence throws the Narrator out of his blissful fantasy.

Marla’s arrival sparks a series of seemingly disconnected events. First, the Narrator meets Tyler Durden: a colourful, self-assured and eccentric man who sells bars of artisan soap and offers a philosophical perspective entirely at odds with the Narrator’s brow-beaten, narrow world view.

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Watch Fight Club on Amazon

Then the Narrator’s expensive apartment blows up, his European furniture blasted out of its windows by a raging fireball. Material possessions charred and worthless, the Narrator goes to live with Tyler in a hideously run-down house on the city’s edge. Together, they form Fight Club.

Fight Club is a kind of men-only support group for what Tyler describes as “the middle men of history”: through one-on-one sessions, a growing assortment of waiters, garage apprentices, and office drones work out their frustrations in a chorus of flailing knuckles, broken teeth, and strangled screams.

Gradually, Fight Club evolves from a vaguely-organized illegal boxing den into a cult. The Narrator becomes increasingly invested, quitting his job in spectacular fashion and garnering begrudging corporate funding for his Club in the process. But Tyler has bigger things in mind for Fight Club. The Narrator observes with increasing nervousness as the cult becomes a full-blown, hermetic terrorist cell. Tyler amasses a growing army of shaven-headed devotees, crammed into his ramshackle house and called Space Monkeys. Tyler becomes their Colonel Kurtz, whose orders are followed to the letter, regardless of how absurd they may be.

Under the banner of Project Mayhem, a series of pranks degenerate into wanton destruction, as the Space Monkeys blow up shops selling Apple products, destroy expensive civic sculptures, and scorch smiling faces onto the sides of buildings.

Too late, the Narrator realises his suppressed affection for Marla, and tries to stop Tyler before he pulls off his biggest prank so far – the detonation of financial buildings which, he believes, will wipe the world’s credit records for good. On Tyler’s eve of destruction, the Narrator makes one final discovery: that he and Tyler are one and the same – yin and yang like the designer coffee table that got blown out of his flat a few months earlier.  The Narrator exorcises Tyler with a bullet, but can only watch as his alter ego’s bombs detonate, sending the financial buildings and their credit records crumbling to the ground. The story ends with the Narrator and Marla united, and facing an uncertain future.

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“I’d like to thank the Academy…”

If certain higher-ups at Fox were ashen-faced after seeing Fight Club, it was nothing compared to the reaction of certain film critics. The New York Observer described it as a “film without a single redeeming quality, which may have to find its audience in hell”. Roger Ebert said it was “cheerfully fascist” and “a celebration of violence.”

Few were as withering as Alexander Walker’s write-up for the Evening Standard. “It is an inadmissible assault on personal decency,” he seethed. “It resurrects the Fuhrer principle.”

Fight Club was written and orchestrated to provoke, and it certainly succeeded at doing so. But among the shouts of disgust, there were also a few hollers of approval. One of the film’s most high-profile champions was Rolling Stone magazine: “How good is Fight Club? It’s so fired up with explosive ideas and killing humor that the guardians of morality are yelling, ‘Danger – keep out!’ That’s how good.”

Nevertheless, Fight Club, having had its release delayed until the autumn of 1999, faced an uphill struggle to win over audiences as well as critics. The latter seemed to be willing it to fail, and with Fox divided as to how it should be advertised, the studio was soon to be disappointed by its box-office take in America. By the time its tour of US cinemas was over, Fight Club had grossed just $37 million – considerably less than  the $60 million it cost to make.

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It was only later, as the initial shock of Fight Clubs arrival began to subside, that the tide of opinion began to change. Fight Club sank at the box-office, but soared on DVD – buoyed, perhaps, by the positive word of mouth from those who’d seen it in theatres (not to mention the stories of disgusted patrons getting up and leaving the screening room during some of its more squirm-inducing scenes). Fight Clubs DVD release was one of the most successful in Fox’s history, and even pushed the movie back into profit.

The critical reaction had begun to soften, too. It was through repeat viewings, it seemed, that audiences could peer through the darkness and appreciate what really lay at Fight Club‘s core.

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As many viewers observed, Fight Club is  about a discontented man railing against the trappings of modern life. But far from a celebration of fascism, or violence, or an irresponsible rallying cry for young men everywhere to come up with their own twist on Project Mayhem, the film is instead a sharp jab at masculinity in its most directionless and lunk-headed form.

Sure, Fight Club is a horror film, a romance, a drama and a thriller. But it is, above all, a satire of a certain unquestioning way of thinking – and to see how that element of this mad, perplexing film works, you only have to look to its anonymous Narrator.

“You met me at a very strange time in my life.”

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In David Fincher’s breakthrough hit, 1995’s Seven, two cops are led a less-than-merry dance around an unnamed city by a fiercely intelligent serial killer, who remains well ahead of them right to the bitter end.

In Fight Club, Edward Norton’s Narrator struggles to keep up with the narrative flow in a similar fashion. His job, his demeanor and his dry, somewhat glib voiceover might imply that he’s well-educated and intelligent, but he’s far from the smartest guy in the film.

Look again at one of his first encounters with Marla: like much of the movie, it unfolds so quickly we can only just keep up with it ourselves. While he and Marla talk about splitting their visits to support groups so they don’t have to see each other again, Marla walks into a laundrette, helps herself to a bundle of clothes, marches across the street and sells them in a second-hand shop. The Narrator visibly struggles to even comprehend what Marla’s up to.

Then there’s the scene where the Narrator first meets Tyler. Look at Tyler’s expression when the Narrator says, “We have the exact same briefcase”. It’s an expression of indulgent pity, like a parent watching a child struggle with his shoelaces.

The Narrator is so out of touch with his emotions that he doesn’t even recognise the nature of his feelings towards Marla. In a twist on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where protagonist Winston Smith’s lust for Julia initially manifests itself as violent hatred, the Narrator initially reacts to Marla with barely-concealed disgust (“I am Jack’s raging bile duct”). Marla’s personality is at odds with the Narrator’s buttoned-down, consumerist outlook, yet there’s also something about her that appeals to a repressed, primal part of his psyche.

As a result, Tyler Durden emerges from the Narrator’s subconscious, larger than life and determined to break all the taboos the Narrator’s kept locked up for so long – he’s like a cool, post-modern Cat in the Hat.

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Initially, Tyler’s right-on messages about being enslaved by credit cards and material goods are fascinating to the Narrator, and seductive to us. Why should we blindly accept the life handed to us by the previous generation? Who says we have to be consumers, climb the career ladder, buy a house in the suburbs and fit in?

The initial comfort of those cheerfully anti-establishment thoughts is quickly replaced by the more disturbing excesses of Tyler’s plans for a new society. Tyler may believe that he’s freeing the world’s population from financial tyranny through Project Mayhem, but all he’s doing is creating a new dictatorship with Tyler at the head.

Like the gradual corruption of the “Four legs good, two legs bad” motto in another Orwell novel, Animal Farm, Tyler’s Fight Club rules soon evolve into those of Project Mayhem – the first and last being:

1. Do not ask questions about Project Mayhem


5. You have to trust Tyler Durden.

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It’s no coincidence that Tyler’s Space Monkeys don’t resemble an army so much as a college fraternity. Tyler has assembled a group of men who’ve shuffled through life without once thinking for themselves, and, as a result, they’ve willingly and unquestioningly replaced one set of tyrannical values for another.

To the side of it all, there’s the Narrator: constantly two steps behind, blissfully unaware of what the other half of his own brain is doing. It’s a jet-black and comical view of how impressionable minds can be swayed by powerful slogans and simplistic ideology: of how a generation of disillusioned, frightened young men can be manipulated into joining any cause if they’re prodded in the right direction.

Fight Club doesn’t revel in its extremism, as some critics have suggested, but instead offers a quite moral warning: don’t be a Space Monkey. Don’t take everything the increasingly corporate-led world sells to you at face value. By the same token, don’t be too tempted to trust those who try to sell you some utopian alternative to it, either – no matter how seductive the messenger might seem.

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“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

That such a risky, violently anti-establishment film as Fight Club could have been made within the Hollywood studio system was surprising in 1999, and it’s unthinkable that such a movie would get the green light now. Bill Mechanic, the Fox chief who was at the helm of the studio at the time of some of its biggest hits, including Independence Day and Titanic, left his post in June 2000. It was stated publically that a series of flops as well as Fight Club – including Titan AE and Anna And The King – had made his permission untenable, so he resigned. There were rumors, however, that Murdoch loathed Fight Club so much that Mechanic might have been quietly nudged from his position.

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“Murdoch doesn’t mind a good fight,” an unnamed Fox exec told the LA Times in 2000, “but he wants to move on…”

Fight Club was an inflammatory film willed into existence by a group of unusually determined producers and filmmakers. And at the heart of it all, there was David Fincher, who’d somehow pulled off the conjuring act of making one of the least commercial $60 million films of the 1990s. Fight Club is a manic rave of a film, the movie equivalent of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 a generation earlier. It arrived in a dervish of trendy fast edits, CG-enhanced camera moves and fourth-wall-breaking post-modernism.

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Time will diminish some of the once hip edges that once made Fight Club so spiky, and it’s likely that a younger generation will watch the movie and wonder what all those critics were fussing about in 1999. But there’s much in Fincher’s film that remains current, and probably will remain so for years to come. Certainly, the sentiments about not allowing material goods to define us as people still rings true – it’s only the material goods that have really changed.

Fight Club ends with the song “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies. There’s one line in particular that sums up the film just about perfectly: “Your head will collapse if there’s nothing in it.”

We now live in a new millennium, where terrorism and clashing ideologies have done so much to define world events, from 9/11 to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. A million voices – advertisers, politicians, religious leaders, parents – constantly try to pull us in one direction or another and sway our thinking. Against this landscape, Fight Clubs lingering message about the importance of individual thought seems more urgent than ever.

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