Choke - Chuck Palahniuk interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
CHUCK Palahniuk talks about new film Choke, which marks the first adaptation of one of his novels since Fight Club. He explains why he is so pleased with it, why Heath Ledger was once in the running for the lead role and he spills the beans on everything from censorship to Fight Club: The Musical.
He also spills the beans on his research process, the weirdest comment he’s ever received by a fan (while mid-flight!) and offers some tips for any aspiring writers out there…
Q. Are you happy with the way Choke has turned out?
Chuck Palahniuk: I’m really happy with it. [When it first screened] at Sundance there were some really technical things that weren’t happening. The whole humour with Clark Gregg’s character, with the dialect and the olden speak, and breaking character so often didn’t work because the soundtrack was kind of muddy. Fox gave Clark this whole dump of money to re-cut it, so they re-recorded the soundtrack, re-cut it and got Radiohead to do more music and now the film really works. Now I’m 100% happy with it.
Q. That must have been a dream come true, having Radiohead do the score? Because you wrote Choke while listening to Pablo Honey, didn’t you?
Chuck Palahniuk: It’s more than a dream come true. When things like that happen, or meeting someone that you’ve always seen such as Angelica Huston or Brad Pitt, it doesn’t even occur like a real experience because it’s so beyond what you ever expected. It doesn’t feel real. You can’t even remember it like a memory.
Q. In your books you frequently deal with ordinary people that have things to hide. Do you think a lot of successful people are hiding things?
Chuck Palahniuk: That’s why they’re successful… jeez. To a certain extent everybody has a certain sort of way of being a persona that they learn how to be when they’re really little. They figure out that if they’re really funny, or really pretty, or if they work really, really hard or are really smart, then that’s what’s going to get them by. That is what is going to make people like them.
But around the age of 33 they start to recognise that that’s a really limiting thing and they don’t want to be that funny person, or that pretty person for the rest of their lives. At that point they face a crisis and that’s sort of what I tend to depict in my books – people facing that crisis of either continuing to be that person but just being it in an angry way; like the angry beautiful woman that hates you for the fact that you like her because she’s beautiful, or the angry funny person, who is just mean. Or they kill themselves… and a lot of them do. It’s usually 33 for men, 36 for women, the ages where they typically do that. Or they get it together and they re-invent themselves in a more thorough way, which is always the best option.
Q. This is Clark Gregg’s first film as director. Did you require much convincing to hand it over?
Chuck Palahniuk: At the time he bought the option he had just gotten his first screenplay produced and that was What Lies Beneath. That turned out so well, and people were so impressed by it, that it was kind of easy to hand off and see what he would do with it. But also part of you doesn’t expect it will ever go into production. So, it’s kind of easy because you think it’s never going to happen, so why not?
Q. Do you find that Hollywood executives want to make a lot of changes because they don’t really get the books?
Chuck Palahniuk: You know, that’s less of a possibility now because thanks to David Fincher being so faithful to Fight Club the book had such a passionate following that I think people recognise that if they monkey with the story too much it is going to piss off the existing audience for that story and they don’t want to do that.
Q. Does censorship bother you?
Chuck Palahniuk: It really depends on the medium and I really love writing books because nobody really gives a shit about books right now. Seriously, in the States, nobody really reads, so it’s not a big deal. But that gives you this fantastic freedom, which is a freedom that movies and TV don’t have. So, censorship doesn’t really bother me because it’s not really a factor in my work.
Q. How involved in casting were you and what do you think of Sam Rockwell in the lead role of Victor?
Chuck Palahniuk: Sam Rockwell’s never really occurred to me as an actor… everything I’ve seen him in I’ve always just associated him so strongly with that character. So, he’s always been the crazy man in The Green Mile, the over-the-top guy in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or the really sympathetic character in Galaxy Quest. I never thought of those characters as being Sam Rockwell. So, he was not somebody that I would think of but he was just perfect.
For a long time it was supposed to be Ryan Gosling, who I couldn’t see, and for a brief period of time it was supposed to be Heath Ledger, which I wasn’t sure about. And so in a way I think it’s turned out for the very best. It’s the same with the mother character… for a while it was Susan Sarandon and then for a little tiny bit it was Helen Mirren. But then with The Queen, apparently her price went way up [laughs] and they couldn’t afford her any more. But I was very happy with Angelica Huston because I don’t think the other two would have looked very Italian.
Q. When you write are you aware of the attention being paid to each new work in the wake of the success of Fight Club? Do you ever find yourself thinking that something would look good on film?
Chuck Palahniuk: The rules that I adhere to are the rules of minimalism. And those rules kind of force writing to be more filmic… to have the immediacy and accessibility of film so that the reader really has to fill in a lot of the details. So, really all that you’re depicting in the story is the action people are taking because that’s the strongest thing about film – it’s something that’s constantly in motion. That’s the strength of film – it’s accessibility and immediacy. But the strength of books is that freedom to really depict anything you want because people are going to be reading it in private. It’s just one person reading that book and agreeing to read it. So, I’m always trying to write with the immediacy and the constant motion of film but I’m also trying to write with the complete freedom of subject matter that books have. So, if anything, I’m actually kind of surprised when they do get translated into film because I always think my subject matter will preclude that.
Q. You’ve written about 10 books now, why do you think more of them haven’t been made into films?
Chuck Palahniuk: In 1999, Twentieth Century Fox had optioned Survivor, my second book, and David Fincher was really pushing them in their development and they’d gotten Jake Paltrow – Gwyneth’s brother – to write a screenplay and people were very happy with that. They’d started to cast it but then 9/11 happened and that seemed to harpoon all kinds of transgressive comedies.
Q. It could still be revived though…
Chuck Palahniuk: Well, it’s likely that it will be made this year or early next year. Francis Lawrence has the option, he’s written the screenplay and has said several times that it’s going to be his project after I Am Legend. So, I’m hoping one of these days that I’ll get a call about that.
Q. Is it true that you’re working with David Fincher again on Fight Club: The Musical?
Chuck Palahniuk: [Laughs] Once a year, for the last two years, Fincher has called me and said: “Are we still doing this?” And every time I think that it’s dead, someone tells me that Fincher is still working on it. I thought it was dead this winter until I was talking to a reporter for Rolling Stone or MTV who had just interviewed Fincher and said that he was still talking about it. So, all I know is that Fincher is still talking about it.
Q. Was it Trent Reznor [Nine Inch Nails] who was going to be writing the music for it?
Chuck Palahniuk: That was who David called to get a verbal commitment from… so, that’s another call that maybe I’ll get one of these days [smiles].
Q. Would you ever consider writing your own screenplay for a movie?
Chuck Palahniuk: [Laughs] You know, it’s funny because I always thought that would be the dream until I’ve talked to people who actually do it for a living and they always say: “You people who write novels have it made because you get it your way, it’s never changed and what is ultimately brought to market is your vision, whereas a screenwriter has it monkeyed with by everyone who touches it.” Everyone who is involved has to make some change. Screenwriters get paid a hell of a lot more money but their level of frustration seems to be so high that I don’t want that.
Q. You must be delighted, though, that the two films [Fight Club and Choke] that have been adapted have been so great… A lot of authors are disappointed with how their work has turned out on-screen…
Chuck Palahniuk: Well, maybe it depends on how emotionally attached they are to it but my goal has always been to have a really good time while I’m writing the story and have such a great time that by the time I can let the story go I can have a great time with a different story. So, that really, really helps distance me from the last story and that really comes in handy the next year when it comes out and maybe the critics tear it apart or something horrible happens, or it gets a cover that you just hate and it’s totally beyond your control at that point. So, it’s always nice to be fully engaged by the next thing and at this point, I’m like nine things later.
Q. Could you describe your research process?
Chuck Palahniuk: Jeez, it used to be that I would go to places where people felt really safe telling the truth sort of making their confessions like they used to do in church. People would go to support groups for illnesses and tell the truth and present the worst parts of their lives, or they would go to recovery groups, or 12-step groups… Or, for one book, I called phone sex hotlines and people would just completely tell you everything! I could just sit there for hours and take notes. It used to be those lines where 20 people would be on the line and so you had this constant selection of people telling the most sordid upsetting stories from their lives. But it was like a constant buffet of stories and if one got boring you could press a number and go to another one. They were all live people and you could copy down their speech patterns, copy down their phrasing and then copy down the stories they were telling as well. And they were telling them in a kind of broken, passionate way so you could tell they were true stories. So, places like that where people really tell the truth about themselves were the places I always went to in order to gather stories.
But more and more I can’t get away with that because I’ve lost the anonymity so my new method is to kind of take a little tiny story from my life and tell it at a party to see if it resonates with other people and if they tell me a story back. In this way, you can demonstrate themes with a lot of different anecdotes from the lives of hundreds of different people that are so much stronger than your own. It’s like a process of doing a huge field study, or a survey, or an anthropological study – but it’s less anonymous now.
Q. You mention anonymity, so does it feel weird to be a celebrity author now because there’s a lot of stuff written about you, especially on the Internet?
Chuck Palahniuk: God bless the Internet! I never go there because it can just drive you crazy. There’s a rule for minimalist writing that you can never use abstracts; you can never have a 6ft tall man or a 100-degree day. You can never have somebody who’s 45-years-old because those are all abstracts and when I say: “The man was 6ft tall…” what I’m cheating in is that I’m kind of missing an opportunity to describe myself by how I would describe that person. So, you always have to avoid the abstract because how the character describes the world is really the character describing themselves. So, when I see people talking on the internet about me or my work it’s almost always more a description of themselves and so I never really think of myself as anything more than just who I always was. But as writer, you’re not really recognised so it’s not that kind of notoriety.
Q. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Chuck Palahniuk: I was teaching at Seattle, at the University of Washington for a lot of this summer, and the thing that I was really pushing was – along with the 400 rules of minimalism – the idea of not writing something so that it’s liked but writing something so that it’s remembered… so that it lingers in people’s memory. When I was writing Fight Club I was doing it with such sort of anger and resignation that I was thinking: “Yeah, these people have hated everything I’ve written, they haven’t bought it, and they’re going to hate this, but they are not going to forget this! This is going to stay in their mind. They’re not going to buy it but they’re not going to forget it and that’s going to be their burden for the rest of their lives.” And yet that was the one that they bought.
So, the idea is that public taste changes and the aesthetic of a culture changes over time, so the idea isn’t to appeal to the aesthetic of the moment and what people will like right now; the idea is to somehow keep yourself in the public memory so that as taste evolves it will eventually come to embrace your thing. So, it’s about writing to be remembered rather than writing to be liked.
One sort of heartbreaking moment was when I finally got an agent I visited this agency in New York and they said: “We shouldn’t show you this but check it out…” And they brought out these huge, huge rolling carts of manuscripts and said: “We get 900 unsolicited manuscripts from wannabe writers every week!” 900 a week – like a room full every week and almost every one was about current events. People don’t realise that by the time this thing is produced as a book even in the best-case scenario it will be a year later [before it’s published]. So, writing to be liked at the moment, or to somehow resonate with the moment, just doesn’t work. So, it’s always about writing to be remembered.
Q. What’s your writing habit like? Do you sit down every day and try and write something?
Chuck Palahniuk: It’s more like self-mutilating… I take pens and I write on the inside of my arm. When I’m with people and somebody says a really fascinating anecdote, or fact, or phrase, I’ll write it on the inside of my arm. At the end of the day, I’ll take the very best things that are on my arm and I’ll copy them into a notebook that I always carry and only when the weather is absolutely terrible will I really key the very best of that notebook into the computer. At that point, it’s already been sort of censored twice – only the best things go from the arm to the book and only the best things go from the book to the computer. This way, I have found a way to be with people and in the world where ideas actually happen.
Q. Is there any subject that you wouldn’t write about… that would be too controversial?
Chuck Palahniuk: Did you ever read Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares? There’s a scene where he tortures and kills a German Shepherd [dog]… after that was published my editor, who publishes Irvine Welsh in the States, said: “Never kill an animal in a book! It’s not worth the hassle. That pisses people off more than anything.” I wrote one story… a fictionalised story of a friend of mine from college; she and her boyfriend paid for college by every weekend they’d go out as this well-dressed, nice married couple and they would adopt pets from people and then take those pets and sell them to product testing laboratories. It was this hideous, cold thing they did for money, so I wrote a story about them and my editor just kicked it right back and said: “No way, this is just going to make more people hate you.” So, torturing or killing any sort of animals in stories is just beyond the pale. It’s the one concession I make to my editor, Jerry, who should be grateful he’s not Cormac McCarthy’s editor! [Laughs]
Q. You’ve probably been asked this loads of times but if you could fight one person, who would it be?
Chuck Palahniuk: You know, the one thing I cannot stand is when I do interviews, when I interview people, and I listen to the tapes and I hear myself talking and sort of stumble and stammer, or I hear the horrible sound of my own voice, or God forbid I see myself on video, there is that complete revulsion with seeing how I occur in the world. So, I think it would be interesting to fight me [laughs]. I think that would be absolutely overwhelming and I think, in a way, that would be the inspiration for Edward Norton’s character, kind of fighting himself – the idea that he was trying to destroy this thing that he’s not absolutely happy with.
Q. Have you ever been genuinely surprised by a reaction to one of your books, or a comment that’s been made about your work?
Chuck Palahniuk: Yeah and it kind of goes back to what people say about things that says more about themselves. It’s a classic example that I’ve said a lot of times, so forgive me, but I was flying to Los Angeles and I was sitting in my seat, and a flight attendant came down the aisle with the passenger manifest, and he checked out my seat number and said: “Are you the Fight Club guy?” So I said that I was and he replied: “Would you tell me the truth, because I think I figured out what Fight Club is about… Fight Club is really about gay guys in bath houses fucking each other in public, right?” [Long pause, smiles]. I realised in that moment what his life is about, but what do you say? I thought the diplomatic thing was just to say [in whisper]: “Don’t tell anybody!” But it made him so happy. He was just lit up and he gave me free drinks all the way down [to LA]. And now every time I’m on a plane that he’s on I get free drinks. So, yeah, there have been a lot of reactions like that and I can sort of see that it’s my job to agree with them and make them happy.
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Chuck Palahniuk interview
- View our Choke photo gallery