On September 26th, audiences will be shocked, entertained, grossed out, and possibly even turned on (you sicko) with the release of the new film CHOKE, from the twisted minds of first time Director and Writer, Clark Gregg and Novelist, Chuck Palahniuk. ScreenCrave was lucky enough to sit down with Clark and Chuck and have a little heart to hard with them about adapting this sexually explicit novel about a sex addict, choker, with a delusional mother to the screen. (Check out Sam Rockwell and Brad William Henke’s interview here.)
The topics may have been dirty, you couldn’t have asked for two more pleasant, well spoken men to discuss the film with. Although the two men appeared to have just met one another for the first time, they seemed to have an extremely similar view on the film, the characters, and the overall tone of CHOKE. Chuck even went so far as to say that this was a closer film adaptation than Fight Club and one he enjoyed.
The first thing out of Clark’s mouth as he sat down to the table was “Good morning. Let’s talk about dirty stuff!” So lets!
Well now that you mentioned it, have you had any trouble with the rating system or do you feel like you had to sacrifice anything in the film in order to get the film on the big screen for audiences to see?
Chuck: The monkey, the monkey.
Clark: The monkey with the chestnuts. Anytime I found something and I thought, well that’s probably not going to be possible to put that in a movie that will be seen by more than 19 people, I had a counter-impulse, which is: I must put it in there (laughs). There’s certainly kind of a running thing, which is actually really sweet, hilariously, that the one kind of constant in the young Victor’s sedentary, crazy life is that wherever he is, he logs on and watches this guy that has his own Web site. This guy on a Web site who has a trained monkey that puts chestnuts up his ass. And for some reason it’s very comforting to him the absolute surrender to the debasement.
Chuck: Right, the idea that there are these people that sort of transcend the compulsion to always look good, to always sort of present this sort of ongoing dignity. And especially for young people. Young people, their only access to power, really, is looking good. Because typically, they don’t have wealth, they don’t have education, not huge amounts, and they don’t have a lot of contacts. They haven’t developed their talents. So really their youth and their energy is their access to power. So when you present a narrative that shows someone losing all of that power, all of that looking-good power, and being kind of left without any kind of that power, yet still transcending and moving forward. Then that’s a narrative young people can really respond to, because your worst fear, is losing that one form of power – that looking good.
Gregg: So if you show someone who’s already lost that and yet they’re still struggling on and seemingly OK.
Chuck: That’s why we like the Olsen twins. That’s why we like these narratives of young, beautiful people sort of coming to humiliation. Britney Spears – becoming that laughingstock. But then, transcending it, and not being stopped by it.
Gregg: It is. It’s the endless cycle of American culture. We want to see someone rise up out of the masses by their own volition and willpower and strength. And then we want to see them get fuckin’ destroyed.
Chuck: They show what’s fear, live it for us, and show us that we can get past it as well. And thanks for wearing the necklace.
Gregg: I want to finish answering this question. So, because it’s very germane to Choke. So, there was a little bin, a cerebral bin of things I wanted to try to include. And certainly, at the very top of that bin, was the chestnut monkey. And so my concerns about it were partly: That could really pull the movie into the dangerous NC-17 rating and I’d really want a lot of people to see this story, but that wouldn’t have taken it out. It’s just like, there was a very sophisticated rating system in my mind about what would make it in and not in because I loved so many things in the book and I also must say a much stronger consideration for me was, it became two things: One: given the way we had to set it in time, to have it make sense with Sam in the adult age at the present day, I didn’t start to believe there would be Internet wherever he went, in the early 80s, which is when he was a kid. So I felt like I had a little bit of a logic problem. I love the monkey with the chestnuts so much, that still wouldn’t have knocked it out. To me, then, when I saw the budget, and I tried to conceive of where I was going to find a chimpanzee who was trained to perform this particular action within the tight time constraints – that might have been the thing that knocked it out.
Chuck: And then PETA would have been all over that.
Gregg: Yeah. I would have had the, “No actual Chimpanzees were forced to stuff chestnuts up their ass,” in the credits.
You should have got a CGI monkey.
Clark: Not with our budgets! And also it just wouldn’t have been the same. Cause you know on our budget it would have just been me with the monkey in a room. Try it again.
Chuck: Or you in a monkey suit.
Gregg: That’s probably much more accurate.
You guys are kind of talking about difference between the book and the movie. Chuck, in almost every novel, you engage the reader by addressing them as you, and then you write in first, seconds and third person, how does that translate to film?
Chuck: I could tell my trick for why I do that. It’s a film trick. I switch between first, second and third person, and also between past and present tense because it’s a way of sort of filmically doing a close-up shot, a medium shot, or an establishing shot.
Chuck: And when you do the ‘I,’ it stands most away from the reader. And it means to remind the reader that they’re not experiencing this, they’re getting this second hand. When you do the “the” – the third person, it’s a little closer, but when you actually lapse into second person, “you,” it’s very much like a close-up. So second person present tense is just a really sort of extreme close-up on that moment or that sort of object, that action, that gesture. And so I do it for that reason, to make it more, sort of filmic in that way.
So did you call coordinate that at all, in the making of it?
Clark: No that’s the first I’ve ever heard that.
Chuck: Oh come on! You’re supposed to run with these things!
Clark: (Sarcastically) Yes, we did.
Well actually, can you talk about the adaptation, because Fight Club, the adaptation was so almost verbatim to the book.
Chuck: This one was even more verbatim.
Clark: Though Chuck didn’t know this, I always wanted to do an incredibly faithful adaptation of the book. And yet in order to do that, a certain kind of transformative process has to take place, because, not to be annoyingly literal, a book’s a book and movie’s a movie. To just reference this last question, I don’t necessarily have to use those tenses because I have a wide shot, I have a medium shot, I have a close-up, and if I’m narrating that to you, then you’re always more distanced. No matter how tight the shot is, if I’m narrating it too much, there’s a barrier between you and the experience, because the process of reading a book, or watching a movie, or watching a play is that you’re watching a dream. You know, at a certain point, the reason you care is because it becomes your dream.
So I had the task of having this brilliant voiceover, which is a very important part of the book because you’re hearing Victor’s take on what he’s doing and a lot of times what he’s doing could seem scummy, and yet you’re hearing what’s driving him to do it, and then suddenly it’s got a very different spin on it. And vice versa. He’s doing something that seems very sweet, but it’s really just to get the old ladies off his back. He’s not expecting it to give him some kind of gigantic catharsis and change their lives. So, a lot of my challenge was, how do I tell this filmically in a way where you can not be listening to a narration in your head at the same time so that you can actually connect a piece of that catharsis to yourself, and still do it in a way where you understand those dynamics? And the way I chose to do it was to kind of lead us into the world and let him tour-guide us in his own sardonic, Victor voice through the kind of, first circuit of those worlds and then filter it out, so that then you can go with him there.
Do you feel the narration in the films affects how people read your books after the film? How do you retain your voice when other people are saying it?
Chuck: For most of my books, I’ve sort of operated out of the idea that in American fiction, there are two kinds of writers. One is the writer that writes us through sort of academia graduate programs, and they write with really, really beautiful language, and rich language. But they write from very, very limited experience. So their books tend to be just a lot of beautiful language about not very much happening. And then the other American writer, our type, is the journalist, who, is like Steinbeck. He’s exposed to an enormous amount of experience like Hemmingway, but uses incredibly simple language. And so I tend to use a lot of experience from a lot of people. Things harvested from years and from hundreds of people. But to try to keep the language incredibly simple that the language doesn’t really jump up in its own way. Next year’s book is written entirely in this bizarre pigeon dialect, sort of third-world running pigs-of-communism dialect. And so, it’s going to be impossible to put that in Edward Norton’s mouth.
Are there any reservations you’ve had as a writer about this book being adapted into a movie?
Clark: (Laughing) You want me to go out?
Chuck: The reason why it’s hard to answer is I’m trying to think of anything. It’s interesting that there’s a social contract scene, like in Fight Club where someone has deceived a peer group into thinking that he’s dying, so they will provide him with this cathartic outlet where they will embrace him and he’s allowed to have this existentialist breakdown publicly. And in the third act of Fight Club, he was brought back to those groups and unmasked, and sort of placed below them, and they were allowed to pass judgment on him. And in Choke there’s a similar scene where the people that think they saved his life come back and they’re given the option of either killing him or letting him live. And it’s interesting that in both stories, those sort of social obligation scenes don’t make it to the movie. But in a way, movies have the immediacy that what’s more important is staying with the one-on-one relationships. You can’t complete all of those plot points in a movie, so you have to really focus on completing the most important ones. The ones that are between individuals. It would have been nice to have seen the social obligation scene done, but I think by then people would just be squirming in their seats. It would just be too much time in a chair. And what’s important is you do complete the ones with the mother and the ones with the romantic lead.
Clark: That’s so interesting. The scene in Choke that you’re talking about is the scene that we shot more than once. It’s the only scene that we re-shot cause I wasn’t pulling it off with the budget that we had. With the rock house being torn down and the extras, it just wasn’t working. And later, we came up with a version of it. Editing’s amazing. You can kind of find a way to do a minimalistic impressionistic version of that scene, and that scene leant itself to it. And yet it to this day, I don’t really know if with more money, and a more experienced director, we might not have had that scene in a way that it managed to exist in the continuum. But, I did think of it as kind of the social contract scene. In terms of, I felt like there is this scene where he’s held culpable by at least one of the groups that he has scammed. And, the kind of rules-of-screenwriter guy inside my head was going, ‘you got to have that. You gotta hear him say he’s sorry in order to earn his happy ending. But in a way it’s interesting. I never thought of it not also being in Fight Club. But in a way, I wonder if it might not be something that you don’t need in your material [talking to Chuck].
Chuck: You do have a social contract completed with the policemen arresting him for the rape of the old woman. Because in a way he’s deluded these old women, but in a very good way. So in a way he’s answering that social contract with a group of people.
Clark: That’s funny because I also get that in that when he’s in there, he’s recognizing that he’s sorry. To himself though. I’m sorry, you got me thinking.
Do you feel that Choke has be categorized as a “love story”?
Clark: I think to me it absolutely was a love story. It’s a love story as much with Ida as it is…it felt to me like a love triangle. There’s a line in the book that to me was interesting, which said something like, ‘the child of a single mom can’t get married until he gets divorced.’ And it’s interesting because I never found a way to use where it didn’t feel writerly and artificial in the movie, but it was a huge guiding thought for me. And especially when I saw Sam and Angelica with the huge love they seemed to have for each other immediately, I felt like, that’s what this is. That it’s about a person…what I thought about the book is that it functioned on a lot of different levels, but for me, this love triangle – having to break away from this kind of unhealthy, co-dependent orbit around someone he did love, but who couldn’t love him back in a way that wasn’t damaging to him – that he had to break away from that in order to achieve some kind of intimacy. And that the kind of sexual compulsion…well, a huge part of it was one of the ways that he was hiding and anaesthetizing himself as a result of the damage done by the first lover.
Denny, Brad William Henke’s character, seemed to have the strongest bond out of all the characters of the book with Victor, how do you feel this played into the love triangle?
Clark: I felt like the story discovers them just in the last moments when Denny is kind of this sub-lieutenant wingman. And so I feel like it had to be implied. I always feel like you have to kind of get, ‘I know how they’ve been rolling. I know what they’ve been doing.’ There was a great line where they’re like, “we like to say co-dependence in 1734.” I deserve a beat-down for the number of great lines that are not in the movie. But, I thought it needed to be implied because I think the most important thing in the Denny/Victor relationship is the way that Denny’s moving past him, and departing from his wingman duties, and becoming, if anything, a little bit of a trailblazer into a more healthy place. Cause there’s nothing worse for a dysfunctional guy, and you can trust me on this, than to lose your wingman to a healthy relationship. It’s a huge impotence on you, to either get sicker or get better.
Chuck: I really saw it as a triangle also and I tend to write in triangles. Tyler, Jack, Marla. There are triangles in pretty much everything I do because it’s the smallest number I think that you can build a lot of dynamics between. And in minimalism you keep your location and you keep your characters to a real minimum because they build faster that way. And there’s a sort of a third dynamic there that I didn’t do in the book, which is developing a relationship between Ida and Paige Marshall, which I thought Clark had done really, really well in the movie. And I hadn’t even considered that. And so the speech that Paige has at the end, instead of just being bat-shit lunatic crazy, like she is in the book, she actually develops that relationship that was missing from the book, that really completes that triangle, and makes them almost like a family, rather than just three people fighting. And so I though that was very sweet. That’s the kind of thing I wanted to see that would ongoingly surprise me about this story I knew so well.
Many of your supporting cast characters seem to be very fleshed out, does this have anything to do with your experience with acting and writing?
Clark: I don’t know if it’s because I play a lot of smaller parts sometimes, and that I always want those characters to be full. I don’t know think so. I think it’s because I wanted to develop this idea. I thought about the movies that I loved before I directed my first movie, the ones that I like, I’ve always felt like they’ve taken an idea and they’ve just wrung it out, they’ve taken a very simple kind of structure and they’ve just wrung that idea out. I felt like it had to do [this] with the ways that various people were trying to recover from some kind of traumatic, emotional damage in order to give or receive love.
When I started to think about that, all of a sudden it made me think, ‘well what is the rest of the stuff that Paige Marshall had to say?’ and ‘Why is she doing all this stuff for him?’ And because I wanted her to be a little bit less crazy and to be more of a kind of slightly demented agent of change for Victor, then all of a sudden, it started to make sense that Ida had in turn done something to heal her. We see so much stuff that Ida does that’s a little demented and not particularly caring, but I also think Ida’s really loving and I thought that it was a nice twist to throw in that here was this catatonic woman in the hospital and she was a med student and she put the jacket on her and all of the sudden she was changed.
And I just felt like it’s what made me want to add something to Lord High Charlie’s story, it’s what made me want to have Denny and Beth, you know?
What was experience like transitioning from directing plays to directing theater?
Clark: Terrifying. I think it’s a little bit like losing your virginity, if you come from a conservative school. Cause you know, I’d been around and heard a few things, but just nothing prepares you for what that’s gonna be like. And I remember the first time I French-kissed a girl. Caroline Slushinger in 8th grade. She’s not gonna be happy. I just remember thinking, ‘oh god. I know I’m supposed to be doing something with my tongue. Is it circles? Is it up-and-down? I mean, is there a system? I figured there’s gotta be a thing I should have fuckin asked somebody, cause I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing with my tongue now. ” After a while you feel like, ‘she doesn’t seem like she has a particular pattern going on here. If I just avoid the braces I feel like I’m in pretty good shape.” It was a pretty apt thing.
I kind of turned it around said, directing plays was hugely useful to me because you see the entire story every night and when you’re acting in a play, you’re in the middle of a story. And when you’ve got stuff you don’t actually need you feel people start to cough and move their chair and you know, you learn hard and quick what people care about watching. I also kind of turned around and went, all these movies and TV shows I’ve been doing for years…I actually learned much more than I thought I did about what’s going on on set. I also felt like I kind of knew what I didn’t want to do.
So nothing really prepares you, but you certainly go in armed with a little bit more than you thought, and I guess I had learned enough to know to not try to come off like I knew everything and not to be afraid to stand there and go, ‘hey. I have no idea what you guys are talking about right now with this tracking shot, and I don’t understand how that’s going to shut off a still shot, so we’re going to have to stop the train and you’re going to have to explain it to me for a few minutes.’
Now that you’ve had a couple books adapted to film, is it hard when you’re writing not to think that it could become a movie?
Chuck: No. If anything I think, maybe, I’d like to see this as a play, because I really admire how a play takes so little of everything – so little time, so little casting, so little resources, space, and does something really extraordinary with almost nothing.
Gregg: I think Snuff would be would be a great a play.
Is that something you would consider Chuck?
Chuck: Not really. Maybe I just haven’t even written it yet. But the idea of doing something that uses almost nothing to create something…and with a book, I feel that books – really the only strength that they have – is their intimate nature of consumption. Someone’s consenting ongoingly to turning that page and making the effort to read that thing, so books have this ability to depict things that are more extreme or challenging than television or movies could. So I think in a way, I’m always trying to write to that extreme thing that can’t be depicted by other forms. And so that’s always my goal: to do something that only a book could do.
And what about you Clark, should we expect to see more directing from you in the future?
Clark: Much more. I loved it as much as I was afraid I might, so yeah I’m going to definitely, hopefully, if I can find something of Chuck’s that’s available, or if there’s an original idea that I’m working on…I want to do it again soon.