‘Fight Club’ Turns 20: Inside the Production, Finances and Creation of a Cult Classic
“Fight Club” was released in October, 1999. It arrived like a fist with a middle finger to the prior generation and a stick of homemade dynamite thrown through capitalism’s window.
Critics, left with a foul, soapy aftertaste, generally hated it. One called it “anti-capitalism,” “anti-society,” “anti-God” and “an inadmissible assault on personal decency. And on society itself.” The Hollywood Reporter said, “This movie tells you exactly what to think and say while offering almost nothing of substance or insight.”
Oh, how wrong that second point was. And how right the first. “Fight Club” was an assault on societal norms, but in a good way. It slowly scratched its way to become a massive cult hit, selling millions of DVDs.
It’s one of the most curious films ever to have been made. But where did it come from, and how did it become the revered, bone-crunching classic that is today?
Let’s take a deep dive into “Fight Club,” from its inception as a book to its casting, financing, production, release and reception. We also included some trivia, because everyone loves talking about “Fight Club.”
A Spirited Night While Camping Lead to ‘Fight Club’
Chuck Palahniuk got the living snot beat out of him during a mid-1990s camping trip, after he asked a group of adjacent campers to quiet down so he could sleep.
“[T]hey literally beat the crap out of me. I went back to work just so bashed, and horrible looking. People didn't ask me what had happened. I think they were afraid of the answer,” the “Fight Club” author told The Guardian in a 2000 interview. At the time of his beating, he was working as a diesel mechanic for a truck company in Portland, Oregon.
“People didn't ask me what had happened. I think they were afraid of the answer. I realized that if you looked bad enough, people would not want to know what you did in your spare time. They don't want to know the bad things about you. And the key was to look so bad that no one would ever, ever ask. And that was the idea behind ‘Fight Club.’"
Fighting Made Palahniuk Happy
It was also the spark that made Palahniuk want to get into more scraps.
“I discovered that I'd never been in fights, and went, wow, that was sort of fun. That was a great release, and yeah, it hurts a little bit, but I lived through it. And it made me really curious about what I was capable of,” said Palahniuk.
“And after that, if the opportunity arose, I didn't hesitate to get in a fight. So through the writing of the book, there was a period where I was in fights pretty regularly. My friends never wanted to go out with me, because I was always looking,” he said.
To him, fights were natural expressions of masculinity that were being suppressed by society. As told The Guardian in 2008, "If we try to suppress that completely, it is going to erupt in some horrible uncontrolled way. In a culture where we have condemned all forms of violence as invalid and not needed, violence still comes up,” he said.
Drum Circles and ‘Fight Club’ Have More in Common Than You Think
Fighting is one thing, but there’s an underlying philosophy to “Fight Club” that’s rooted in the mythopoetic men’s movement, something that was popular during the 1980s and 1990s.
The mythopoetic movement, popularized by the author and poet Robert Bly, believed that postindustrial society had essentially removed or whittled down vital areas of masculinity from men by removing them from their fathers (who are forced to work) and then forcing them into stringent societal roles, whatever they may be. (Those who observed the movement concluded that it primarily consisted of white guys at white-collar jobs.)
But those followers didn’t have fight clubs. They mostly met in the woods, slapped drums and yelled. That wouldn’t make a good book, much less a good movie. “Drum Circle” has a bit less bite than “Fight Club.”
The Book Wasn’t a Smash Hit
Palahniuk’s title sold less than 5,000 copies during its first printing run of 10,000 copies, and Palahniuk sold the book to his publisher for just $6,000. That’s about 12 signed first editions, which now sell for around $500 each.
The Rights Were Cheap
Before “Fight Club” hit bookshelves in 1996, producer Ross Grayson Bell got his hands on an early copy. As Brian Raftery writes in his book, “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen” (and from an excerpt published in The Ringer), Bell loved the book but grappled with how it could be turned into a film. So he “hired a group of unknown actors to read the book aloud, slowly stripping it down and rearranging parts of its structure” and then sent the recording off to Fox 2000 Pictures, who hired him to work on the fledgling film.
Bell optioned “Fight Club” for just $10,000.
Peter Jackson Was the First-Choice Director
According to Sharon Waxman in her book, “Rebels on the Backlot,” Bell had four directors on his list. The first was Peter Jackson, who was editing “The Frighteners.” Bell traveled to New Zealand, then drove 300 miles to Wellington for a meeting with Jackson. The two met, but Jackson didn’t read the book — although when he finally did, he sent a note to Bell expressing some regret that he hadn’t.
Other choices for director included Bryan Singer, who had just made “The Usual Suspects,” and Danny Boyle, the director of “Trainspotting.” Singer never read the book. Boyle did, but he signed on to another project.
David Fincher was the last one on Bell’s list. He loved the book immediately, although he thought, “There’s not a movie studio in the world who’s gonna make this.”
Fincher Did Not Want to Work with Fox
Ironically, one studio was willing to make this twisted, anti-corporate tale: Fox. It was the last studio on Earth that Fincher wanted to deal with.
Fincher had sworn off Fox ever since making “Alien 3,” a movie which he subsequently disowned after it released. Filming was fraught with endless script rewrites, reshoots and arguments with studio brass who thought they could push around the 27-year-old, first-time director.
Troubles started on day one, with Fincher calling up the studio and telling them to “‘Ship me home right now and take my name off this f******* piece of s***.’ This is before we started shooting,” d special effects guru Alec Gillis told HN Entertainment.
The Cast Helped Sculpt the Script
Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls all loved “Fight Club” before it was even in production. The three would sit around at each other’s houses and talk about all the things that pissed them off. For example, Norton tells Raftery how much the re-release of a Volkswagen Beetle ticked him off.
“They just wanted to repackage an authentic baby boomer youth experience to us — they don’t even want us to have our own,” he said. “They just want us to buy sentiment for the sixties, with a little f****** molded flower that you sit in the dashboard. And they wonder why we’re cynical.”
They worked on the script for months, adding in bits of dialogue and sculpting it into what would become the year’s most controversial movie.
Edward Norton Actually Punched Brad Pitt in the Ear
In one of the movie’s iconic scenes, Tyler Durden convinces the Narrator to hit him.
“Where, like in the face?” the Narrator asks. “Surprise me,” says Durden.
The Narrator winds up…and smacks Durden right in the ear. “Ow you hit me in the ear! Why the ear, man?”
And that actually was Norton punching Pitt, right on the ear. And he was directed to do so.
“Fincher came up to me and said, ‘Hit him, connect with him somewhere.’ I didn’t know what to do and I hit him in the ear,” Norton said on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” And Pitt’s reaction was genuine. “Yeah, that was real!”
The Movie Was Originally Set to Be Small Budget
There were two ways the studio could do “Fight Club.” Either as a $3 million art film or a big-budget film with movie stars to “get people to go and talk about the anticonsumerist rantings of a schizophrenic madman,” said Fincher.
Producers initially thought they could make a little artsy movie for around $20 million. But after nabbing Norton and Pitt — whose salaries already required $20 million — Fincher decided to go big. He made his pitch to Fox for a bigger budget.
“It’s Edward. It’s Brad. We’re going to start inside Edward’s brain and pull out. We’re going to blow up a plane. All this s***. You’ve got seventy-two hours to tell us if you’re interested’ And they said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’”
Marketing Was a Disaster
While Fox spent $20 million to market “Fight Club,” that money wasn’t spent well. This was a failure on both Fincher himself and Fox’s marketing department.
Fincher didn’t want to market Brad Pitt, the movie’s only obvious draw, and hired an expensive marketing company to try and draw attention. But the company was the one used by Nike, and as such, created an eye-catching but ultimately confusing campaign for a movie.
The company, Wieden+Kennedy (inventors of Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan), was the one to devise the now-iconic pink soap imagery. Tag lines included “Mischief. Mayhem. Soap.” and “Wash your feminine side right off.” In retrospect, the marketing only makes sense if you had seen the film.
“It was too smart, too in-the-know,” an unnamed Fox executive told Sharon Waxman in her book “Rebels on the Backlot.”
Marketing Was a Disaster, Continued
Movie trailers emphasized the fighting, much to Fincher’s aggravation. And studio focused on advertising its “Fight Club” commercials during professional wrestling broadcasts in an attempt to attract a crowd used to shirtless dudes consensually beating each other up.
“[Fox] had an intense contempt for creativity and an intense disregard for any kind of intellect that the audience might bring to it. You can’t sell something you don’t like,” Fincher said.
Fox couldn’t be perceived to be trying to market the movie to teenage boys, either. As Waxman notes, movie and television studios were under heavy scrutiny in the post-Columbine world and a studio risked coming under fire in the media if it thought marketing was trying to push an R-rated movie on possibly suggestible young minds.
The whole thing was a recipe for a box office disaster.
The Film Flopped. Hard.
The “Fight Club” budget ended up being $63 million, plus an additional $20 million in advertising. It made $11 million during its opening weekend.
By the end of its 14-week run at the box office, it had only made $37 million. It made $63 million internationally (sounds good, but overseas ticket sales are worth much less than domestic ones), and finished with $100 million in total. After theaters took their cut, the film was a flop.
During the film’s premiere, “It got booed. It wasn’t playing well at all,” Norton told Raftery.
Pitt didn’t care. He turned to his co-star and said, “‘That’s the best movie I’m ever gonna be in.’ He was so happy.”
Courtney Love Was Denied the Role of Marla
During the time of filming, Norton was dating Courtney Love, who “desperately” wanted the role as Martha Singer, Palahniuk told Total Film. But Fincher thought she was too “obviously ‘the type’” and also had concerns about her relationship with Norton, which could create problems on set.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Reese Witherspoon Were Also Considered
Julia Louis-Dreyfus was playing Elaine Benes when the “Fight Club” floated across her desk. Apparently, that didn’t go well.
“She had no idea who I was. I’m sitting there thinking of myself, ‘My God, you are just a f***ing loser,’” Fincher told Total Film.
Reese Witherspoon was also considered, but Fincher thought that she was “too young” and too innocent. “When you realize Tyler doesn’t exist and the Narrator’s been abusing Marla himself, it needed to be somebody who, for lack of a better explanation, was there out of choice; not somebody who didn’t know any better.”
Fincher wanted Janeane Garofalo, but she was uncomfortable with all the sex scenes, and the studio wanted Winona Ryder.
Ultimately the cigarette-sucking role went to Helena Bonham Carter after Pitt recommended her and showed Fincher the award-winning film “The Wings of the Dove,” for which Carter earned an Oscar nomination. Specifically, Pitt showed Fincher Carter’s sex scene at the end of the film.
Carter Smoked Way Too Many Cigarettes
Fincher is notorious for his Kubrickian take-after-take directing style — for example, in his Netflix show, “Mindhunter,” he did 75 takes for a nine-and-a-half minute scene. The Marla character is a chain smoker, so Carter needed to smoke. A lot. During filming she acquired bronchitis and later, as a gag, sent an x-ray of her lungs to Fincher.
One Line Caused the Most Uproar
Although “Fight Club” has a good share of cursing, sex and violence, the studio was generally fine with the film. Except there was one scene that studio brass took umbrage with.
In the original script, Marla and Tyler are lying in bed, post-coitus. Marla says, “I want to have your abortion.”
Fox wasn’t having it.
“[T]hey didn’t want to get into the whole religious right thing. I mean, this movie is the poster child for movies that should be picketed,” said Fincher. The studio begged him to change it, and Fincher agreed, but only on the condition that he wouldn’t change it again.
Fox agreed. Apparently the studio thought it couldn’t get any worse. It did.
In the final cut, Marla gazes at the ceiling and announces, “I haven’t been f***** like that since grade school.”
The line was upsetting enough that, during the world premiere of “Fight Club” at the Venice Film Festival, the guy running the event got up and left.
The line made Pitt and Norton crack up.
“Edward and I were still the only ones laughing. You could hear two idiots up in the balcony cackling through the whole thing,” said Pitt.
Carter’s Mother Hated the Script
Carter wasn’t entirely convinced that the script was right for her. While other cast members thought the movie was hysterical, Carter didn’t get it.
“I thought, ‘This is weird. Is this message particularly life-enhancing?’” she told Total Film.
Also, it did not have her mother’s approval. She didn’t even want the script near her. “Mum put the script outside her bedroom, because it was a pollutant!” said Carter.
Norton Wanted to Play it More Like a Comedy
Despite the violence and grittiness, “Fight Club” is a deeply funny film; it works because the actors aren’t cracking jokes or flailing about. But if Norton had his way, the movie would have turned out differently.
When Norton first read the script, he asked Fincher if it was a comedy — to which Fincher said yes. But there are different ways to interpret what a comedy movie is.
“I think Edward had this idea of, ‘Let’s make sure people realize that this is a comedy,’” Fincher told Raftery. “He and I talked about this ad nauseam. There’s humor that’s obsequious, that’s saying, ‘Wink-wink, don’t worry, it’s all in good fun.’ And my whole thing was to not wink. What we want is for people to go, ‘Are they espousing this?’”
The two would get into lengthy, 30-minute debates while the rest of the cast waited for the cameras to roll again. There was take after take to get the tone right in the Narrator’s office scenes, which were the first scenes filmed.
Rosie O’Donnell Spoiled the Show for Millions
The critical castigation of “Fight Club” was unique. It offended so many sensibilities that some of those who presented that most mind-numbing form of sanitized entertainment, daytime talk shows, considered the film as some kind of societal warfare. Like Rosie O’Donnell.
“Fight Club” was released in October 1999. During the same week it premiered, O’Donnell went on her show — which, at its height, reached five million people — and told everyone about the movie’s twist ending. O’Donnell, who went to an early screening of the film, claimed that she couldn’t sleep because of how disturbing it was, so she decided to ruin the film for potential movie-goers and dissuade them from buying tickets.
On the DVD commentary, Pitt calls it “unforgivable.”
Norton Was Originally Given a Lowball Offer
According to Fincher, as told in Waxman’s book, Norton loved the book and wanted to sign on, but Fox lowballed him with a sub-$1 million offer in 1997. But Norton was becoming more famous, with “Rounders” and “American History X” drawing him critical praise. Eventually, the studio agreed to pay him $2.5 million for his role as the unnamed main character.
Other Actors Were Considered for the Main Roles
Sean Penn and Matt Damon were considered for the Narrator, but Fincher wanted Norton after seeing him in “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” “Edward’s ultimately kind of a blank slate,” Fincher told Raftery. “His opacity is part of the thing that makes him a terrific Everyman.”
For the role of Tyler Durden, Russell Crowe was a top contender.
Brad Pitt Made Bank
The producers tried to get Pitt to sign on for $7 million, still hoping to make a small-budget movie (and possibly hoping that Pitt, who had just done the romantic drama and box office bomb “Meet Joe Black,” would be game for something different). Pitt’s agent wasn’t going to let that happen; according to Waxman, Pitt was given $17.5 million for his role as Tyler Durden.
Like the Fictional ‘Fight Club,’ the Movie Found an Underground Audience
While the film may have bombed at the box office, “Fight Club” was on its way to becoming a cult hit on DVD. People would come up to the actors and make “Fight Club” references. Everyone was talking about “Fight Club.” Over the next 15 years, the movie sold over 14 million DVDs and is now considered one of the 1990s’ greatest films.
There’s a ‘Fight Club’ Music Video with Pitt and Norton
Pitt off-handedly mentioned in a 1999 interview with Rolling Stone that he and Norton shot a music video in character, which Rolling Stone described as “a twisted version of Frankie Avalon’s ‘Venus.’” Fox didn’t release it, but about 10 years later, it popped up on the internet.
It’s a 1:30 video of Pitt and Norton strumming guitars and singing “Venus,” only they replace the ‘Venus’ with the male organ that rhymes with that word. Here it is (it’s probably NSFW).
Palahniuk’s Father Was Murdered Months Before the Movie Was Released
Eight months before “Fight Club” hit theaters, Palahniuk’s father, Fred, answered a personal ad in a magazine. The woman, it turned out, had a murderously vengeful ex-husband, who threatened to kill her and whoever she was with. In May 1999, the ex-husband found the two lovers, gunned them down, and burned their bodies in a cabin. They had just come home from their third date.
The Palahniuk family had been beset by violence before. Palahniuk’s grandfather shot his grandmother dead over the cost of a sewing machine, then killed himself. Fred, who was three years old, cowered underneath a bed the entire time.
It Coined the Modern ‘Snowflake’ Insult
“Listen up, maggots,” Tyler Durden lackadaisically announces through a megaphone while his minions dig. “You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”
Fast forward 17 years. During the lead-up to the 2016 election, the term “snowflake” was widely used by the right to criticize the left for being (in their opinion) pathetically fragile and specially unique. It is, for the most part, the same way that Durden uses it in the film. But now it has a political meaning.
Is that what Palahniuk meant to deliver? Not exactly. “
‘You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake’ became my mantra for deprogramming myself,” writes Palahniuk, who was trying to “deprogram” himself of past learned behavior. “My use of the term ‘snowflake’ never had anything to do with fragility or sensitivity. It just meant that I wasn’t going to be dismissed as just another mass-produced ‘genius.’”
And it wasn’t the first time “snowflake” was used negatively. In the past, snowflake was used as an insult for those who opposed the abolition of slavery, and in the 1970s, as a term for a black man who acted white, according to Merriam-Webster.
But that usage never went mainstream. So yes, you can thank “Fight Club” for its modern usage, even if it wasn’t intended.
There’s a Nod to Fincher’s Directorial Debut
The first video Fincher ever directed was a 1984 anti-smoking ad for the American Cancer Society called the “Smoking Fetus.” Which featured a fetus puffing away on a cigarette while still in the womb, with an umbilical cord coiled at its feet. It’s a pretty weird commercial.
In “Fight Club,” during the scene where Norton’s character is examining a burned-out car for his job as a recall coordinator, a co-worker says that one of the victims’ braces “are wrapped around the backseat ashtray. Might make a good anti-smoking ad.”
Does anyone know of a darker movie Easter egg?