By Ray Pride
“Fight Club” is twenty years old. In the decades since its release, box-office disappointment and reinvention through myriad DVD and Blu-ray releases (thirteen million DVDs by 2014), Brad Pitt established himself as a productive, adventurous film producer, with his Plan B productions involved with this summer’s “Ad Astra,” but also award-winning work like “Moonlight,” “Killing Them Softly,” “Tree of Life,” “Twelve Years A Slave,” “Okja” and “The Last Black Man In San Francisco.” Edward Norton, who has moved away from acting, directed and stars in his own adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, “Motherless Brooklyn” in November.
The world had not yet seen, or reacted, to David Fincher’s film at the time of this bantering interview with Pitt and Norton. (A review that includes my contemporaneous interview with Palahniuk is here.)
[August 1999] “Fight Club” is a ride, a sneaky mindfuck of a movie, and a thunderous journey into the darkest parts of one man’s mind. Within a few dozen seconds, we rush through someone’s brain and out onto a rooftop where another character holds a gun in his mouth. The ride begins.
Brad Pitt plays Tyler Durden, a trickster character who insurance agency flunky Edward Norton meets at a time when he’s been wishing for someone who could push him over the edge. By night, Norton’s unnamed narrator trolls support groups for the grievously ill, pretending to have illnesses in order to sob. That’s where he meets fellow grief-ghoul Helena Bonham Carter. But that’s set-up. The impression is out there that “Fight Club” is about yuppies gathering in alleys to beat each other up. Uh-uh. There’s more to it.
Everyone’s stuck—in their jobs, their bodies or their heads. Except for Tyler, everyone’s a flunky, a waiter, a cop, solid blue-collar stock. “Fight Club” is one of the funniest, most piercing movies you’d hope for, a ferocious satire that builds on the madness of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, and in its many richly detailed scenes, exceeds even what David Fincher accomplished in “Seven.”
When we talked, no one knew yet if “Fight Club” could be the first epic audience movie of the new millennium, or whether it would tank. Pitt, thirty-five, has a reputation as a reluctant interview, but after talking with him, it seems it may be more out of modesty than ego or fear. Norton, thirty, was his customary talkative self.
Does the actor Brad Pitt exist in the universe of “Fight Club”?
Pitt: [shaking his head] What does that mean, what does that mean, what does that mean?
There are in-jokes throughout the movie, marquees showing “Seven Years in Tibet,” “Wings of the Dove” and “Larry Flynt.” And Tyler tells the narrator at one point, “I’m what you want to be like.” If you ask guys what they want to be like, a typical guy would be happy to be you.
Norton: I thought that was a great perversion of Bradley’s baggage.
Pitt: Yeah. Perverting the baggage. That was dealing more with the projection and the image, y’know, that’s out there. Good and bad. Myself, I’ve certainly never felt a part of that.
You talk about good-looking guys in the movies, a few names come up: Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt…
Norton: Edward Norton.
Pitt: Edward Norton. You sexy fool!
Norton: He never hurts my feelings.
There’s a lot of yelling in the movie, it seems cathartic, especially in the bedroom scenes with Helena.
Pitt. [whispers] Sex. You look through the crack and you just see all these crazy gymnastics going. Doing gymnastics. Yeah, we’re just jumping on the bed.
You’ve worked with David Fincher before…
Pitt: He’s one of the guys leading the pack. There are a lot of interesting guys out there, who are pushing the medium, but I’ve said this before, I think Finch is picking up where Kubrick left off.
Norton: If anyone can do it, he can.
Pitt: This thing he created here is extraordinary. It’s beyond all our hopes and he always set out with an image of what this thing could be. This thing just roars.
Norton: I don’t feel like I’ve seen a film—
Pitt: It’s a monster.
Norton: —That’s that far-out there in terms of its technique, its use of style to enhance the emotional themes of a narrative. When you work with Fincher, you slowly absorb that he is the complete filmmaker. He is the most comprehensive modern filmmaker. He has a complete command of all the tools that are available to a filmmaker now. He’s as good a DP as his DP, he’s as good at sound—
Pitt: —all his tweaking—
Norton: —his technical tweaking as the guys who work for him. He’s an excellent script doctor—
Norton: He’ll even come in and give you a good line reading at times. And yet he’s dealing in f/stops. He knows more about CGI as anyone.
Pitt: And not only that, ideas. He takes whatever groundbreaking technology is available, like the Rolling Stones video in Central Park where they’re giants. There was this technique meant for something else, and Fincher goes, “Can’t I take this and actually make them people?” He’s inventive that way. But on a directorial level, this thing is one to be studied. There are so many things that are fine-tuned, from sound on. All the way from opening up coming out of a brain to the product placement. Any product placement you see, like Pepsi machines, it’s always put in a somewhat violent scene. It’s just these little, little comments that are more subliminal than anything.
The film’s tricky in ways we shouldn’t talk about, but knowing ahead of time what’s happening, were you unusually careful about clues?
Norton: I believe that if you go over this movie with a fine, fine comb it will hold up. We spent weeks and weeks and weeks dropping in little things—
Pitt: —building it for the second viewing, too.
How does having a lot of rules, as these characters required to pull off the twists, make acting more interesting?
Pitt: It’s a challenge. I go back to architecture on that. You have certain parameters you have to work within. And so you have to answer, these are your restrictions, where can you take those and make them work? It’s actually more challenging. Great stuff comes out that wouldn’t have when you’re presented with a challenge.
Is there a masculine “crisis”?
Norton: The thing I liked is that the specific crisis of men is dealt with in the film, things very specific to the male experience of feeling emasculated by the modern society. There’s that whole first conversation we have in the bar about, “We’re not hunter-gatherers anymore.”
Pitt: We’re gatherers!
Norton. We’ve become consumers, receivers, we’ve gone from having a proactive role to being people, y’know, who distinguish between duvets and comforters. Worrying about stripe patterns. But there’s a lot more, too, about the broader generational crisis that includes women and everybody, the broader generational crisis of having been the first generation really raised from the cradle on television and had our value system to a disturbing degree informed by an advertising culture that says these are the signifiers of your life that will make you happy.
Pitt: The selling of a lifestyle instead of a value system—
Norton: —and reaching an age, growing up, you realize, “I have a lot of those things and I’m still not happy,” then coming to grips with the emptiness of that promise and the inability of that promise to be fulfilled and recognizing that you’re not going to achieve spiritual peace through your home furnishings. The emptiness at the core of that is very resonant for both men and women. The need in some way to strip away, to free yourself from the cocoon of the idea that you’re going to be defined by your possessions, or by how much money you make or the kind of clothes that you wear.
Pitt: Another aspect of that is that men were known to be responsible earlier, “I must provide for my family.” There was an authoritarian aspect to that, you don’t question the man’s word. Then we got into a time when we took that too far the other way, then it was about sensitive man and “thirtysomething,” we don’t yell, we don’t fight, it’s not right, it’s not the evolved way of being. Somewhere in there, we took [that] too far and we skipped a step, some kind of rite of passage that I have to think is still in our DNA. At least in some sense of dealing with that desire to protect your own and not knowing how. We’re sensitive now, but no one told us how or when to stand up. How did or do we get to that higher mode of behavior? Saying, you can’t understand violence or a fight, per se, that starts in the sandbox or in grade school. More men find themselves running from it than engaging it. What was specifically interesting to me about this thing is that it wasn’t so much about going in there and taking out your aggressions, exercising on someone else, it was more about, stop being a spectator, let’s get in the ring, let’s receive a punch. Tyler’s first line is, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”
Norton: “I want to have experiences myself, my own life.”
Pitt: Right, instead of “I’m tired of sitting in front of my television and watching everyone else” and getting in there and seeing how you come out on the other side. Win, lose, it’s [all] all right. Have the experience.
There’s a line in the movie, “We all thought we were going to be millionaires, movie gods and rock stars.”
Pitt: I loved the irony of it, yeah. I always felt I hit the lottery.
Norton: It’s a delicious irony. I don’t think there’s anything about the fact that I’m an actor invalidates my participation in that kind of substantive discussion of these themes. I’m of this generation; I’ve experienced these things. There’s nothing about the fact that Brad and I are actors that makes it invalid for us to participate in that discussion. Everybody’s enmeshed in it, that’s the point.
Pitt: It’s not material objects themselves; it’s our chase for them that’s become the quest. It’s like working from the outside in to achieve some kind of spiritual happiness. It’s not that Calvin Klein is evil, y’know; he’s coming up with great esthetics. Tommy Hilfiger may be evil! [laughs] The point is that we can anesthetize ourselves with these things and more and more we become spectators and the constant goal is accumulation. If you look at commercials from the 1980s onward, the whole intent has been selling you a lifestyle.
Norton: There’s nothing about the critique that’s in “Fight Club” that limits who it’s applying to. I think the narrator is purposely very much a nameless proxy for an entire generation. The film is not a literal anarchist handbook. I think it’s an obviously surreal, obviously stylized world.
You almost got your degree but you stopped short and came out to L.A. hoping to become an actor. If you’d finished, do you think you would have become an actor?
Pitt: I remember this moment so well. Two weeks before, and all my friends were literally getting married and they had applied for jobs, and were going off to take those jobs, and man, I wasn’t ready. The thing I was studying, I couldn’t see making a life out of it. And it literally hit me, two weeks before, being a guy who always loved movies and always kind of regretful that I wasn’t around ’em, that I could go to them. I had this epiphany, I’m not ready for this, I’m going to go pursue that and see what happens.
What were you studying?
Pitt: I was in an advertising sequence, studying graphic design. It was a very Procter & Gamble kind of school. I didn’t gel. But there were some Saatchi & Saatchi things out there that I admired.
Ever get into a real fight?
Pitt: Well, sure, growing up, y’know, but it’s been some time for me. Never a fight I provoked, I tell you that. I don’t have it in me. I was not much of a fighter growing up. I walked away more than… I certainly didn’t provoke any.
“Fight Club” arrives in the middle of fights about violence in movies.
Pitt: It’s time for that debate. It’s ripe for discussion. Films and art can get scapegoated. We have to separate this movie from a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. I’m not even sure if that’s completely true, but what we often talked about was, if you follow that line of thinking, as the Nazis did in 1937 with the book burnings… You just can’t do that. Art has to critique our lives and hold up a mirror to our dysfunctions and each other.
Norton: If you don’t make art that was critical, then you’ve got a society in denial. If art is considered and complicated… This film, whatever you want to take out of it, it’s a very substantive and provocative critique of the dynamics that are going into creating certain kinds of feelings of people in our culture. I think it’s a healthy and important discussion about violence in art. It’s appropriate and important. We live in a violent culture. If you didn’t make that kind of critical art out of fear of what would happen after it, Nabokov wouldn’t have written “Lolita,” because some old man might be inspired to go out and molest a young girl. And the Beatles shouldn’t have written “Helter-Skelter” because Charlie Manson was there to misinterpret it. “Taxi Driver” wouldn’t have gotten made. Arguably, something sprung out of that, but John Hinckley is going to find an outlet for his pathology one way or another, and it doesn’t mean that Scorsese shouldn’t have made “Taxi Driver.”
“Fight Club” is pessimistic about men being able to make those distinctions.
Norton: I think that’s absolutely a part of what the film is an examination of. It is about a process of exploration between these two people. It’s a dialectic between two people, “are we fed up with this?” “Yes.” “Well, let’s try this.” “Well that seemed to work, let’s try this.” There’s a point where these two people split, where the impulses in one of these people, one of these people wants to carry it out, to see what the practical limits of this kind of nihilism are, in a way, and the other person ultimately retreats from it and says, I think—
Pitt: How do you see it as nihilism? I never saw it as nihilism.
Norton: Well, nihilism, not in the sense of being a moral negative, but in the sense of saying, we need to tear some things down and start over in order to build back up. And the other person saying, this is making me feel as terrible as everything was before. I think it’s totally fair to call that almost a critique of how things get misinterpreted and what can start off as a liberating nihilism becomes a fascistic thing because people ultimately glom onto it and lose their identity.
Pitt: Yeah. And how do we stop that cycle of history, where we have a new line of thought, then we get too comfortable with it, then go too far, and hit a dead end. There are always people fighting against a new line of thought. It’s an evolving cycle like the world evolves.
Are ideas about fascism important to other movies you’ve made?
Norton: I never felt “American History X” was about fascism at all. I don’t even think the kids who are involved in that kind of stuff out here really have any understanding on a sophisticated level of what fascism is. Those tattoos aren’t because they’re fascist but because they’re looking for something to belong to. That movie was about the American tragedy of projecting rage outward against other people. But I think it’s a fair comparison, they’re totally different conversations, but these are both films attempting to provoke a discussion about a dysfunctional dynamic in the culture.
It’s a cliché to say, “Stop beating up on yourself.” Well, this movie says, start beating up on yourself.
Norton: [laughs] Exactly! I think that’s such an important distinction.
Pitt: Wow, that’s interesting.
Norton. Yeah. I don’t think on any level there’s anything in the film that’s an espousal of the idea of aggression directed outward at others as a means of solving your problem. The fight club is a metaphor for it, or is a gesture, it’s inwardly directed violence. It’s about making the radical gesture of stripping yourself of your own fears.
Pitt: It’s about experience. And the things you’ve sequestered yourself from? Why are you hiding out?
Norton: I agree. Brad keeps saying it, Tyler doesn’t walk out and say, “do me a favor, let me whack you,” y’know? He says, “Do me a favor, hit me as hard as you can,” I need to shake up.
Is it more about belonging to fight club than the fighting?
Norton: No, I think it’s about people coming who feel paralyzed, numb or disenfranchised, but part of the critique may be that then it grows into something like that.
Pitt: To their surprise.
Norton: In the beginning, it’s about people who want the wool shaken off their eyes.
You two have developed a great relationship—
Pitt: [laughs] Strictly lovers, really, strictly sexual, yeah, yeah. Other than that…
Norton: We worked on this film far too long. [laughs] There was a really good creative synergy with everyone from the start, from Brad, Fincher, of common purpose of taking aim at certain things. We had an immediate bond and mutual excitement at tackling this. We all felt that if we only got seventy-five percent of the text of the book into a dynamic film that it would really be a kind of zeitgeist film something like “The Graduate” for our generation, a real movie about the complaints we have about—
Pitt: I was thinking it was a complaint we hadn’t even defined yet.
Norton: You read the book, and you said, “That is it.”
You joked you were lovers—
Pitt: Oh, I wasn’t joking!
In the early going, there are homoerotic overtones.
Pitt: See, I didn’t think that way. People take it that way, fine, it doesn’t mean anything to me, really. It’s coming from the line, “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I wonder if a woman is really the answer we need.” My interpretation of that, I always took that as, Listen, we’re so fucked up, we’re looking at a brick wall. We’ve got to sort ourselves out before we take on the responsibility of another person and just jump into happily-ever-after and all that bullshit. Then we can get to a partner and family much later down the road.
Norton: And also it may be time for us to stop doing the things that are received ideas from other people.
Pitt: Go to college, get married…
Norton: It’s the idea of young people doing things because they’ve received it from their parents’ generation that this is what you do. Then the idea of waking up one day, and going, I’ve done all those things and I don’t feel happy inside. So maybe I need to start figuring out what makes me happy.
Pitt: One other thought on that. We talked about the tenets of Buddhism, which I found interesting, in the sense of, one of the tenets states, “Kill your parents, kill your god, kill your teacher.” That’s kind of how we framed the narrator. You find your own ideology. It’s not literally murder or killing, but it’s saying, learn from them, take what works for you, and then understand it with God and what works for you and what doesn’t.
Were you inspired to get rid of credit cards or material possessions?
Norton: I did a major spring-cleaning. [laughs] I got rid of all of last season’s clothes!
Pitt: But the point is not about material possessions. It’s not saying material possessions are evil or that technology should stop, it’s saying that surrounding yourself, the hunt for these things and buying into the image, or seeking spiritual peace through home furnishings, it’s hiding ourselves and walling ourselves off and getting a jones watching QVC and buying, buying, buying.
Norton: Don’t ask Brad to give up his Chevy Yukon!
Pitt: It’s about buying into it, like, “This car is gonna define how I am.”
While some might say this is the first movie to jack into the nonlinear style of information on the internet, it’s also the stream-of-consciousness in the mind of someone who’s deeply troubled.
Norton: There was a discussion from the beginning about this. Fincher’s whole idea of it was having it be like a random access download—
Pitt: —Information downloading in mixes and in different orders and still have the same complete story.
Norton: The impact for me was like the experience of a dream that is so dense with images and ideas that are sometimes non sequitur that you come out of it, going, like when you wake up from a really epic dream and go, “I wish I could rewind that because I wish I could go back to just one or two of those ideas.” That’s how I felt when I watched it, it was almost too thick with imagery and ideas. I wanted to watch it again right away.
Is this movie a provocation? Lazy writers are going to accuse “Fight Club” of seeking controversy.
Pitt: One, I say, if you’re offended by it, tell your friends not to go see it, but also I say, don’t ruin it for the rest of us.
Norton: I’ve never had a problem with people not agreeing. I think it would be a shame if art stopped dealing with complicated people or there was a suggestion you can’t find redemptive stories in the lives of complicated people.
Your character, Edward, is just called “the narrator,” which is ironic, since he’s so… unreliable.
The movie suggests we’ve all got this interior monologue that can drive us crazy, and that we’re unreliable narrators of our own lives.
Norton: Oh I think so, totally. It reminded me of “Catcher in the Rye” in that sense. He’s like a postmodern Holden Caulfield. He’s telling you his own story, but like “Catcher in the Rye,” you get to see the juxtaposition between his own interpretations of it and then you see the reality of it. One of my favorite moments is when you hear the voice-over say, “I got right in everyone’s hostile little face, yes, these are bruises from fighting, but I am enlightened,” and of course you see him coming down the stairs and he’s a psycho, he’s ravaged. He is not enlightened. It reminded me of those times when Holden’s talking about the way he responded to something but then in his dialogue you hear how insecure he is. A lot of that grew straight out of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, which is entirely stream-of-consciousness. Fincher wasn’t reverent in the sense, let’s not change anything, but he said, there’s so much in this that’s so rich, let’s try to stay true to how the novel flows.
It also preserves Palahniuk’s warped sense of humor.
Norton: My initial response to reading “Fight Club” was that I laughed a lot. It really made me laugh.
Any unexpected reactions to the movie?
Pitt: We did find a few people who were offended and came up with completely irrelevant ideas—
Norton: —oversimplifications that it’s an espousal of violence. I always think that if you make a movie like this, and you don’t irritate someone? You’ve done something wrong. It’s an indictment of things that others have embraced. You’re having fun with, y’know, the idea of questioning some value systems that some people are happily entrenched in. I’d be nervous if everyone was going, “Oh it was lovely.”
Multiple editions of “Fight Club” can be bought from retailers or at a yard sale near you.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.