The muscle behind Fight Club

“It’s a metaphor,” says Norton, who plays the film’s nameless narrator. “It’s off the charts. It’s not a photograph; it’s lurid and crazy. For me it’s always about, ‘Have I seen this before?’ And I’d definitely never seen this before. Nobody’s ever seen this before.”

The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club. The problem is, Pitt and Norton wanted to apply those rules to this interview.

It’s 10 p.m on a Sunday in April. I’m in Pitt’s impeccably vacuumed trailer, parked beside a soundstage on the Twentieth Century Fox lot. Pitt has been here but he has temporarily dematerialized. Pitt is good at that.

Norton is on his way. 

Finally Pitt and Norton arrive. Norton looks like the coolest guy in the math club, his sharp nose and chin offset by soft eyes and a way with words. Pitt looks like…well, like the guy on the posters, only better, because he’s here in the room. He looks like a small, blond sun.

When Norton speaks, which is often, he fiddles. He fiddles with the label on his water bottle. He fiddles with the handles on the drawers behind him. He fiddles with his sentences, going backward and forward within an idea. On the other hand, when Pitt speaks, which is rarely, he is completely still. He kind of exhales a few words in your direction. But the two are friends. They share a year’s worth of jokes, a fierce commitment to their privacy, and a streak of chuckle-headedness.

“I remember being excited going into this movie-just, ‘Let’s see what happens,’” Pitt says. “It was one of those [projects], where it wasn’t so laid out. It was finding the tone for these…these…scenes.”

Pitt looks at Norton and they burst out laughing. I ask questions. They resist. Eventually they tell me that, yes, they’re here to talk about Fight Club-but they don’t actually want to talk about it. “There are things that when you name them it just misses, and you know it missed,” Norton says. “We feel that way about Fight Club. It feels cheesy to talk about it.”

“Like you can’t do it justice,” Pitt says.

(Oh, I get it-in the subversive spirit of Fight Club, they’ve decided to deconstruct the magazine interview.)

“It’s not a secrecy thing,” Norton says. “It’s just, there are things that speak for themselves so much better than we’re ever going to talk about them.”

“Listen,” Pitt says finally, “You tell us what it’s about.”

Helena Bonham Carter was the last to sign on to the film. “I thought it could be very dangerous-provocative for provocative’s sake,” she says. “About how men who feel emasculated need to prove themselves violently, physically, which I’ve always found faintly pathetic.  [Marla] had to be powerful in her own right, and not just used and abused. I think Marla is somebody who might just use and abuse herself, but it’s her choice. She’s still just the girlfriend. But as a girlfriend, it’s a pretty great one.”

Laura Ziskin, head of Fox 2000 acquired the book when it was still in manuscript form.  Understandably, Ziskin didn’t share it with her bosses until she had a finished script and a director attached–David Fincher, the hotshot 37-year old.

“’There were so many things the book’s narrator said where I went,’ I’ve thought that and never told anyone,’” says Fincher. “For men today, there’s an arid wasteland of information about how to live. ‘Am I supposed to cry? Supposed to f**ing break something? Somebody just give me a hint.’”

Fight Club has a generational energy to it, a protest,” says Norton, who turns 30 this month. “So much of what’s been represented about my generation has been done by the baby boomers. They dismiss us–the word slacker, the oversimplification of the Gen-X mentality as one of hesitancy or negativity. It isn’t just aimlessness we feel; it’s deep skepticism. It’s not slackerdom; it’s profound, cynicism, even paralysis, in the face of an onslaught of information and technology. We’re much more intensely informed at a much younger age than our parents were.”

Pitt is a little older, 35, but he nods in agreement.

Norton gave the script to his father, a former federal prosecutor who’s now involved in historic preservation. His response was, “Interesting.” “It’s the first thing I’ve chosen to work on that my father-who is a very, very smart man-said that about,” Norton says. “And yet, every friend I gave it to went, ‘Mmm. Yeah! That’s us,’ More than any film I’ve made, I pulled directly from my own experience for this.”

“It’s caught in the morality net. We’re gonna get hammered,” Pitt says happily. “The week that Seven came out, Kathie Lee Gifford said on her show, ‘It is your moral imperative to avoid this movie.’ If we don’t get that on this one, then we’ve done something wrong.”

David Fincher is huddled over a camera in a tiny clearing in the center of a vast soundstage. He’s shooting a bar of soap. Now, soap is pivotal to Fight Club. (Fincher wanted this image to be the movie’s poster but he lost that one-a $68 million Brad Pitt film without Brad Pitt on the poster?) For authenticity, Pitt and Norton even took soap-making classes from a woman named Auntie Godmother, who runs a boutique company.

“It’s a real craft,” Norton says. “There’s all this room for creativity and invention around the basic formula.”

“We made a lovely mint glycerin soap,” Pitt says dreamily.

“You can burn yourself badly, though,” Norton adds.

“Yeah, you’re handling lye,” Pitt says.

“You gotta respect the soap.”

“I don’t think there’s anybody else in our generation who could have made this movie,” Norton enthuses. “Fincher is the only one who knows as much about narrative and intention as he does about gels and f-stops and the latest CGI stuff. I think he’s–“

“Picking up where Kubrick left off,” Pitt chimes in. “I’m gonna leave that one up to the scholars, but that’s what I think.”

Who else would shoot a sex scene between Pitt and Bonham Carter as a special effect? The actors, completely naked, were covered with white dots, which a computer read as they assumed different positions of the Kama-Sutra.

Bonham Carter had done love scenes before, “but none quite as technical as this, or quite as weird,” she says. “And very frustrating-to be underneath Brad Pitt for twelve hours and not to be able to enjoy it.”

For a pivotal road-accident scene, Fincher mounted a camera on a car’s hood, put the car up on a rotisserie-like contraption, put Pitt and Norton inside, and rolled them upside down, over and over. “It was such a laugh,” Pitt says. “Crazy. But not so crazy insofar as we’ve seen many cars flip. But how many show what it’s like inside the car?”

“Onscreen it will be this incredibly intense crash,” Norton says, “but the doing of it was a riot. They kept firing off these air bags. They kept going, ‘firing!’ Then, Boof! And we were like, Wha-ha-ha, laughing. And they had these big piles of rubber glass. And we were laughing, and the rubber glass was going in our mouths.”

“At three in the morning,” Pitt says.

I ask if they ever rolled a car in real life. Mistake. It pulls them out of their manic reverie. There’s a long pause.

“No,” Norton says.

“No,” says Pitt.

Another pause. Norton turns back to Pitt. “I think your getting whacked by a car in Meet Joe Black was about the best car hit I’ve seen,” he says. “Fincher and I watched that on video together about ten times.”

“Hyeh-heh-heh,” Pitt says.

Brad Pitt and Edward Norton have some things in common. But their complementary strengths are more…obvious. It’s hard not to think of Redford and Hoffman in All the President’s Men (“Yeah, I get that Hoffman thing a lot,” Pitt says.)

Fight Club is only Norton’s sixth film. His roles, though wildly diverse, have in common an uncommon intelligence.

And Pitt? Well, he’s the Sexiest Man Alive, right? After only fifteen minutes (half of them shirtless) in Thelma & Louise, he became the boyfriend in a billion dreams. “He is about the most modest individual, given what he’s been given, that I’ve ever met,” Bonham Carter says. He is female desire made flesh.

“Brad can say anything, and no matter what it is, you go, ‘Yeah, there’s some truth to that,’” Fincher says. “It’s not a power trip; it’s more like, ‘This is how I see it-but hey, you do what you like.’ Which is a great way of getting people to do what you want.” Fincher laughs.

The perception out there is that Pitt needs a hit-that because his recent films Meet Joe Black and Seven Years in Tibet tanked at the box office, perhaps he’s not the golden boy anymore.

This perception cracks me up. What-one day Hollywood is going to stop hiring Brad Pitt? He’s going to express interest in a film, and a studio head is going to say, “Pitt? Nah, no thanks.” Get real. Pitt sees more scripts than Kinko’s. He lives in a breathtaking, lovingly restored Craftsman home. He dates lovingly maintained Jennifer Aniston. Brad Pitt has the world on a key chain on his belt loop, and he twirls it as he pleases.

“Listen, after what we paid him, I can tell you he doesn’t need a hit,” Fincher says. (Pitt’s asking price is $20 million.) “The great thing about Brad is, he will never arrive. He will do stuff that people maybe will not like; he will do things that people think fit him like a glove. But he’s never going to be one of these guys where you know exactly what you’re going to get.”

“My baggage worked for Fight Club,” Pitt says simply. “Meaning, at this point you think can go into the grocery store and know what aisle to go to find me. I feel this out there. I’m perverting that expectation in this one. There’s freedom in that.”

Norton enthusiastically agrees. “I wasn’t going to say that, but I’m glad you feel that way,” he says to Pitt. “In Fight Club, there is a great subversive inversion of the expectations that are loaded onto Brad. There’s this great perversion of the notion of the person who other people wish they were like.”

“Or hate,” Pitt says, grinning.

“It reveals the absurdity, the ultimate bankruptcy and emptiness of letting someone else become iconic for you,” Norton says.

At a critical juncture in Fight Club, Pitt’s character says to Norton’s, “I look the way you want to look; I f** the way you want to f**.” Said by Brad Pitt, this line is eminently believable. But I wonder how it made Norton feel?

“You can’t be in the business that we’re in and be blind to the way external reductive perceptions come into it,” Norton answers. “But I never make my choices, ever, just to confound those expectations.”

Later, however, Norton breaks a small piece of news to Pitt: He did one thing during the shoot that Pitt never picked up on. When they first started working together, Norton saw what kind of car Pitt drives-a giant black truck-and asked the producers to rent him one. He drove it around awhile and waited to see if Pitt would notice. He never did.

Pitt guffaws for a good long time at this. “I can’t believe I never saw it,” he says.

“I didn’t get exactly the same truck as you,” Norton tells him. “I couldn’t get one as big.”

Fight Club is a response to the detritus of our common culture, “What’s been sold and pushed down your throat that you actually abhor,” Pitt says.

“Take Viagra,” Pitt says. “Someone made billions here, I’m sure it’s helped many men. But you can’t tell me all of the men who bought it had medical problems. So much of it was psychological. It’s a Band-Aid over a wound, but you don’t get at the problem that caused the wound.”

In these days of hyper product placement in films it’s a pretty audacious move to take on consumerism, especially since Fox has its finger in more than a few pop-culture pies. (The first trailers for Fight Club appeared with the new Star Wars.) Is the studio nervous?

“Every movie you take on makes you nervous,” Fox 2000’s Ziskin says diplomatically. “But if you’re really going to examine society, you can’t be bogus; you’ve got to be authentic.”

There are two trailers for Fight Club, however, that audience will probably never see. Both were shot in the deadpan style of public service announcements. The first features Norton, scrubbed shiny, standing in a theater, talking directly to the audience. He asks them to turn off their cell phones and not converse during the show. Then he says, cheerily, “And remember, don’t ever let strangers touch you in the bathing-suit area.” In the second, Pitt gives a similar pep talk about emergency exits, and then eyeballs the camera and says, juicily, “Did you know urine is sterile? You can drink it.” Fincher’s dream is to send the trailers to theaters without explanation

Fight Club is not about people who know how to box. It’s more about getting hit, taking hits. (Fincher, Pitt, and Norton have all been in fights, but not so many, and not since high school.) It’s about putting yourself in the ring, seeing how you do. And the release, the clarity, and the bonding that follow.

So Pitt and Norton worked with a trainer, but not so that they would look good. They trained to get into getting hit. “I clipped you once, didn’t I?” Pitt asks Norton. “In the face. Just enough to wake you up.”

“I cracked my thumb on Brad one time,’ Norton says. “On his stomach.” (This is too good to be true. Have you seen Pitt’s stomach?)

“And we both caught knees in the chest,” Norton continues. “Cracked ribs. Just had the wind knocked out.”

“That’s how cool we are,” Pitt says.

“You obviously can’t cut loose,” Norton says. “But we shot some things wide enough that there was no way to fake it. That’s when it got a bit…”

“Unchoreographed,” Pitt finishes gleefully.

Have humans truly reached the point where the only way to make ourselves feel something is through pain? Because the Space Monkeys in Fight Club are not exhilarated by, say, painting a picture or writing a symphony.

“Would you be?” Pitt asks.

Um, I’d like it more than getting hit.

“Wait. You have to be careful not to say, ‘Fight Club is about the appeal of nihilism, or the cleansing effect of violence or pain,” Norton says. “Because that’s not what the movie’s about. That’s what Brad’s character is suggesting to mine.”

“As an option,” Pitt says.

In the end, Fight Club is what you make it, more or less. Norton sits up in his chair and smiles his first full smile of the night. “For a while, we were describing it as” – here he adopts a glib, oily voice -“a story about two friends who start an amateur boxing club for disadvantaged young men…”

“…and the woman who comes between them,” Pitt finishes. “Which is the best explanation I’ve heard.”

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Premiere Aug.1999.

August 1, 1999 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links