Dialogue: Chuck Palahniuk
Chuck Palahniuk rose from being an obscure Pacific Northwest novelist to best-selling author after the 20th Century Fox release of "Fight Club" in 1999, based on his book of the same name. While producers are clambering to adapt more of his books for film, Fox Searchlight released an adaptation of a second of his novels, "Choke" starring Sam Rockwell, Kelly Macdonald and Anjelica Huston on Sept. 26. Palahniuk discussed what it's like to work with the movie business.
The Hollywood Reporter: You have so many other works out there in development for film, how did "Choke" become the follow-up to "Club?"
Chuck Palahniuk: It's kind of ironic. "Choke" was written, in a way, as a sequel to "Fight Club." I wanted to write a book in which we saw the Tyler Durden character played by Brad Pitt grow old -- see what happens to those anarchist characters who stand up for something but never accomplish anything in the end. So Anjelica Huston (Ida Mancini) plays that sort of Tyler Durden character at the end of his life.
THR: Clark Gregg is a veteran actor but new to writing and directing and was eager to adapt "Choke" for film. He has said it took up to two years and several drafts before he really had a handle on your world and turning it into a movie. How was it working with Clark and helping him through the process?
Palahniuk: In a way, I was just trying to give him permission to do exactly what he wanted to do with it, to not be too faithful to the book. It doesn't work well if a movie panders to the book. If he didn't attach something to himself in the movIe, he wouldn't have the passion to get the movie done. I left the book like a baby on his doorstep and let him write it the way he wanted to.
THR: Many novelists complain that when their work is turned into a film it didn't follow their story. Why doesn't it bother you?
Palahniuk: The way I work, I'm more like a journalist gathering stories from huge numbers of people. So in a way, I'm using other people's stories and using them for my purposes and so I don't resent Clark using my stories for his purposes. I don't see myself as having sort of full ownership of this story.
THR: So, in giving Clark that advice, and in seeing the film, did he stray too far from the story? And are you pleased with the result?
Palahniuk: I'm very pleased. "Fight Club" was incredibly faithful to the book and "Choke" is even more faithful to the original book.
THR: Speaking of "Club," That movie propelled you into cult status and made your works hot property in Hollywood. But it's been nine years since the film was released. Do you think "Choke" lives up to people's expectations?
Palahniuk: I think it will. But the problem is there's a much larger audience reading my work now and it has been almost 10 years since "Fight Club" was released as a movie and "Choke" came out as a book. So I think there's a greater awareness of the "Fight Club" book and "Choke" book and that's the biggest challenge -- the greater awareness of the source material.
THR: Was Sam Rockwell what you envisioned in "Choke's" lead character, Victor Mancini?
Palahniuk: He really was. He completely captures the aesthetics that I was raised with in 1970s movies. I was always rooting for Bruce Dern, who was always that sympathetic psycho character from "The Big Valley" to all his 70's movies. I think Sam is that for the current generation.
THR: You have said you visited sex addict groups researching your book. And Sam did as well in preparing for the role. Have you guys compared notes and stories?
Palahniuk: Not really. I didn't know that Sam had done this until we were in interviews together and by then it was a little late. There's an aspect of confidentiality too. I don't want to literally share things I've heard.
THR: Group therapy is a theme with you. Do you think everybody has some kind of deviant nature in them, but it's just a matter of how big of a deal it is to them in seeking help?
Palahniuk: In a way, I always think that group therapy serves the same function that religion used to serve by telling the story of our crime and being accepted back in our community. It really is storytelling by means of processing and accepting the experience of your own behavior. And I think whether or not people do it in a designated group therapy situation, they always do it in some situation where they have to tell that story to somebody.
But group therapy is a very structured, easy way to always have an outlet to tell that story two or three times a week. And that's why I'm drawn to them. They're just storytelling venues.
THR: Group therapy, sex, struggle for identity layered upon a dysfunctional romance are themes we see in "Choke" and to some extent in "Fight Club" as well. They're not, however, themes that sell movie tickets usually. Who do you think is going to see "Choke"?
Palahniuk: I think it will be primarily young people who may or may not see it as a date movie. But the romance is so apparent, in contrast to "Fight Club" where the romance is a smaller plot in the overall plot. I've just always seen "Choke" as a date movie where people can go and see and recognize their power to define themselves in the world rather than accept the definition. Very much like "Harold and Maude." And it was that 70's genre of movies that always ended very poorly on a really dark note, but people still had to continue their lives and were given the tools and inspiration to do that.
THR: Fox Searchlight has said their marketing strategy is to reach out to your fans, but they don't know how broad of a base that is. Do you have any idea who those fans are?
Palahniuk: They started out as very young people in their late teens and early 20s. That was 10 to 15 year ago and now when I meet them, that generation of fans are married and have children that I'm meeting. A new generation is picking up my books. They range now from 14 years old to 45. And it's a little skewed, because I tend to meet people who write to me or come to the events and I don't think the older readers are likely to do that.
THR: When you have a producer option one of your books, what kind of say do you have as far as who does the adapting and do you have script approval?
Palahniuk: No I don't. And I really don't want it. My job is to control the part I can control, which is the original story. Beyond that, I want to be entertained by the subsequent of what people do with that material.
THR: Your next novel set for release in 2009 is "Pygmy." Is that something you can see being adapted for the big screen?
Palahniuk: Yeah, easily because it's primarily young teenage characters who know a lot more than the adult characters who supposedly control them. And it's really a dark comedy. The fact that it's about a little 13-year-old terrorist might not make it that salable.
THR: Has success of your novels being adapted for film changed your writing process?
Palahniuk: The only thing I really try to focus on is trying to depict stories that are too extreme for movies and television to tackle. Books have this ongoing relationship with people. I think that's why my stories tend to skew toward extreme topics with challenging subject matter.
THR: You've also mentioned that DC Comics is interested in partnering with you to do a comic book series. How's that coming along?
Palahniuk: We've really just talked back and forth. I'd love to do it, but until I have a really good idea I just don't want to agree to do anything. I would have to have a really exciting idea before I would do something like that.
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