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Thursday, October 24, 2002
Updated: October 28, 12:26 PM ET
Reel Life: 'Fight Club'

By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

There have been few recent movies that have spurred as much controversy, and disagreement, as 1999's "Fight Club," based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel of the same title. It featured big-name stars, intense special effects, lots of violence and sex, and some disturbing ideas. And it also featured underground anything-goes fighting.

 
Palahniuk says he made most of it up. But he also wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "For my friends and me, [it] is a nostalgic scrapbook." Guess that means we'll have to try to separate fact from fiction. Let's go.

In Reel Life: Jack (Edward Norton) has insomnia.
In Real Life: "I do have insomnia and wander with no sleep for weeks, like Jack," wrote Palahniuk in a 1999 Los Angeles Times article.

In Reel Life: Jack goes to a doctor. He wants medication to help him sleep. The doctor says, "You need healthy, natural sleep. Chew valerian root and get more exercise."
In Real Life: According to William Collinge, writing at WebMD.com, short-term insomniacs "may find some benefit in valerian" -- it may help them fall asleep faster, and sleep better.

In Reel Life: Meat Loaf plays Bob.
In Real Life: Mr. Loaf is listed in the opening credits as "Meat Loaf," and in the closing credits as "Meat Loaf Aday." Perhaps the man whose legal name is Marvin Lee Aday is trying to sow even more confusion over how he should be properly referred to. Many newspapers refer to him politely as "Mr. Loaf," as in a recent Louisville Courier-Journal article about his appearance at the Barnstable Brown Gala: "Mr. Loaf sandwiched himself between two of the party's most fetching blondes ..." Meat's wife, Lesley, is also sometimes referred to as "Mrs. Loaf."

Meat Loaf
Mr. Loaf plays celebrity baseball, minus the man breasts.
In Real Life: In a testicular cancer support group ("Remaining Men Together"), Jack meets Bob. "Bob had been a champion bodybuilder," says Jack, who narrates the film. Bob says, "I was a juicer. Using steroids ..."
In Real Life: "This is sad because I know like a dozen guys who did steroids in the '80s, and it's like they're all Bob now," says Palahniuk. "They're all so heavy and they all have back injuries now. And it's miserable because a friend of mine is named Bob and ended up getting testicular cancer after I wrote the book. And so the irony of that was just crushing."

In Reel Life: Jack uses different names in different groups. In one group, his name tag reads "Cornelius." In another, "Travis." In a third, "Rupert."
In Real Life: Jack must be a movie buff. Travis is derived from Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver;" Rupert from Rupert Pupkin in "The King of Comedy." Both characters were played by Robert De Niro. Cornelius was a character played by Roddy McDowell in "Planet of the Apes."

In Reel Life: Jack spies another faker in the testicular cancer support group -- Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). He criticizes her for so blatantly faking a disease she can't possibly have. Later, Jack says he attends a group for those suffering from sickle cell anemia.
In Real Life: This is supposed to be a bit of a joke, but it's based on a common misperception. It's unlikely, but not impossible, that someone as fair-skinned as Jack would suffer from the disease. Many believe that only those of African descent can get the disease (meaning, in this country, African-Americans). But it's also common in Mediterranean countries, India, and South and Central America.

Helena Bonham Carter, Edward Norton
Edward Norton confronts the alone, lonely, birdlike and tiny Helena Bonham Carter.
In Reel Life: Marla has a very unusual look -- part goth, part bridesmaid.
In Real Life: "Helena Bonham Carter's disheveled-princess look was fashioned after Judy Garland, in the period when she start to fall apart," wrote Merle Ginsberg in Women's Wear Daily. "I wanted her to look alone, lonely and birdlike," said costume designer Michael Kaplan. "And she had to teeter on huge platform shoes and boots, because Brad and Edward are so much taller than she was."

In Reel Life: Jack explains his job. "I'm a recall coordinator. My job was to apply the formula. It's simple arithmetic. It's a story problem. A new car built by my company leaves Boston traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now: Do we initiate a recall? You take the number of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), multiply the result by the average out-of-court settlement (C). A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one."
In Real Life: Recall coordinator is a real job, and one that can involve some ethical quandaries. There is a kind of formula that goes into recalls, and sometimes it's as insidious as Jack implies, but more often it's mundane stuff. Products are recalled when it's determined there's a "substantial product hazard," which includes taking into account the nature of the defect, how many defective products are out there, if the product can cause severe and/or frequent injuries, and if it's likely to cause many injuries in the future. Companies usually work with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to determine if recalls are necessary and how they're to be carried out. There's some cold-blooded cost/benefit analysis going on.

In Reel Life: Tyler (Brad Pitt) says, "You know why they have oxygen masks on planes? The oxygen gets you high. You're taking in giant, panicked breaths and, suddenly, you become euphoric and docile, and you accept your fate."
In Real Life: Bogus, says air safety expert Todd Curtis. "That is a theory not backed up by facts," he told Seattle's The Stranger in February 2000. "In most oxygen systems, you have a combination of oxygen and ambient air from the cabin. So it is not pure oxygen coming in. As far as oxygen getting you high, I was an Air Force flight test engineer in the '80s, and during a high-altitude vertical dive in an F-16, hurtling toward the ground in excess of 200 mph, I was on 100 percent pure oxygen, and the only high I experienced was in altitude."

Edward Norton, Brad Pitt
Don't try this at home: Norton's and Brad Pitt's home recipes aren't worth trying.
In Reel Life: Tyler says you can make napalm by mixing equal parts of orange juice and gasoline.
In Real Life: Don't bother trying. Palahniuk said he had researched the explosives recipes and put them in his book, but in the movie Norton changed one ingredient in all the recipes.

In Reel Life: After Jack loses his apartment, he meets Tyler at Lou's Tavern. They discuss what it means to be a man in today's society. Tyler says, at one point, "F*** Martha Stewart."
In Real Life: Talk about being ahead of the curve! Lots of ImClone and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. investors have been uttering the same phrase lately.

In Reel Life: Besides making and selling soap, Tyler works as a projectionist. As a hobby, he splices single frames of pornography into family films.
In Real Life: Another slice of Palahniuk's life. "My friend Mike was a projectionist at the Jefferson Adult Theater, so he had this huge collection of those single frames," he explains. "And then after that, whenever he got a union job, he would just splice them in wherever. So those movies are still out there, in circulation, in distribution, with Mike's little additions to them."

There are some single frames spliced into "Fight Club," as well. Tyler shows up four or five times before our conscious minds perceive him as a character -- in single frame images that you can see on DVD by stepping through frame by frame. Tyler first pops up in a frame to the left of the copy machine in the forefront, 4:01 into the film. He next pops up at 6:16, behind the doctor's right shoulder. He again appears for a single frame as Marla walks away outside the testicular cancer group -- 12:33 into movie. And he briefly appears in a hotel's "Welcome" video, as a waiter in the front row on the far right.

Oh, and there's some smut, too, at the end. For six frames -- a quarter of a second -- a realistic-looking (but fake) penis is shown.

In Reel Life: Tyler, who smokes, doesn't seem to care all that much about his own appearance, or that of his house.
In Real Life: "Fight Club" director David Fincher told Entertainment Weekly that Pitt had much in common with Tyler. "People who don't know Brad think he's a strange choice for the role. But people who do know him -- who know the Brad Pitt who hangs out in his house with his five dogs, who chain-smokes, who lives under an inch of dust -- they think he's perfect."

In Reel Life: Jack moves into the Paper Street house with Tyler. One night, they drive golf balls from their lawn into the deserted street. You can hear the balls crash into something.
In Real Life: Pitt and Norton were a bit tipsy when shooting this scene, they say in their DVD commentary, and were aiming (successfully) at the production's catering truck.

In Reel Life: Jack and Tyler start Fight Club, where men brawl, bare-fisted, in the basement of Lou's every Saturday night.
In Real Life: Palahniuk was a barroom brawler. "I went through a few years when I did nothing but fight. I fought anybody -- it's amazing how fast people in a bar can find a reason to fight each other. I fought people at work. I fought a dishwasher at a restaurant."

But the club concept was fiction. "There's no secret society of clubs where guys bash each other and gripe about their empty lives, their hollow careers, their absent fathers," he wrote in the L.A. Times. "Fight clubs are make-believe. You can't go there. I made them up."

At first, Palahniuk dismissed those who worried that "copycat" fight clubs would spring up everywhere as a result of the film. "A lot of people are probably going to shave their heads," he told the New York Daily News. "But Americans are too blood-phobic these days -- nobody's going to wallow in the blood of a stranger they never met."

Later, though, Palahniuk acknowledged that he had heard of fight clubs at BYU and elsewhere. He was unapologetic. "In a way, I have to think that it has to be meeting a need," he said. "If there wasn't a reward or big payoff, why the hell would people be doing it? It's not attractive and it's not something we'd think of as fun."

"Fight Club" is no Ultimate Fighting.
In Reel Life: The fights are barefisted, and the damage done to the recipients of punches is considerable.
In Real Life: As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of the movie, "Sensible people know that if you hit someone with an ungloved hand hard enough, you're going to end up with broken bones, [but] the guys in 'Fight Club' have fists of steel, and hammer one another while the sound effects guys beat the hell out of Naugahyde sofas with pingpong paddles."

Even with gloves, broken bones in the hands are fairly common among boxers, and these fractures usually require a cast. "When it comes to those fight scenes where people pummel each other nonstop for extended periods of time, [former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion] Bas Rutten feels that they are unrealistic," wrote Gideon Cross in UCLA's Daily Bruin. "People can't take that much damage and they can't give it out -- at least without causing themselves serious damage. 'If a guy hits your skull, he has a good chance of breaking his hand,' Rutten said."

In Reel Life: All kinds of old periodicals are in the basement of the Paper Street house. One of them is an issue of Movieline magazine with Drew Barrymore on the cover.
In Real Life: It's an inside joke -- Barrymore and Norton are friends who once shared a pad in New York.

In Reel Life: Jack finds other goodies in the basement. "Listen to this," says Jack to Tyler. "It's an article written by an organ in the first person. 'I Am Jack's Medulla Oblongata. Without me, Jack could not regulate ... There's a whole series of these. 'I Am Jill's Nipples ...'"
In Real Life: Jack's reading thinly disguised versions of a series that Reader's Digest published. For example, "I Am Joe's Man Gland," appeared in the November 1970 issue. An excerpt: "Joe thinks of me as related only to sex, which is nonsense. I do mechanical conversions that would amaze him. It was I who changed him from a boy to a man; and, to a great degree, it is I who will decide if his old age will be tranquil or miserable."

Jack Osbourne
You are Jack's ... Osbourne.
"I am Joe's Prostate," published in December 1971, includes this judgmental nugget: "I am one of the hot spots in Joe's body, a design nightmare for which Nature should hang her head."

Sorry, guys -- we weren't able to locate "Jill's Nipples."

In Reel Life: After one fight, Jack's tooth comes loose. He pulls it out. Tyler's philosophical about it. He says, "Hey, even the Mona Lisa's falling apart."
In Real Life: The Mona Lisa, which turns 500 in 2003, has been deteriorating, at varying rates, for hundreds of years. Before finding its current home behind a climate-controlled glass case in the Louvre, Leonardo's famous painting got around a bit, and was the victim of yellowing varnish, smoky environs (think candles and oil lamps), and other natural and man-made hazards. But considering the extensive modern preservation techniques being harnessed to protect the painting, hundreds of years from now the Mona Lisa will probably look much as it does today.

In Reel Life: Jack and Tyler make soap, and their first step is to get bags of fat from Dumpsters behind a liposuction clinic.
In Real Life: Palahniuk says he invented this disgusting scenario when, just after one of his friends taught him how to make soap, he learned that the Canadian government was dealing with a crisis -- so much fat was being removed by liposuction clinics that they couldn't dispose of it quickly enough. "I thought soap, fat, why not just ... you know ... make soap out of it," he said in a CNN.com chat.

In Reel Life: Tyler sells the soap to stores at a wholesale price of $20 a bar.
In Real Life: That's some ultra-exclusive stuff, which probably retails for more than even Erno Laszlo's fashionable Sea Mud Soap, which goes for $27 a bar at Neiman Marcus.

In Reel Life: Tyler and Marla have wild sex, as we can see.
In Real Life: That's not Helena Bonham Carter's bod -- it's a double.

In Reel Life: Tyler and Marla have wild sex, as we can often hear.
In Real Life: That's Pitt and Carter screaming, all right -- but that's all they're doing. "We had no qualms on these sound effects," says Pitt in his DVD commentary. "No politeness. No little hint of embarrassment." Bonham Carter, in her DVD commentary, provides more detail. "I spent so many days coming in and basically doing voice-off orgasm sounds on this film. The first time was a bit embarrassing, but I got used to it. And David (Fincher) would say, 'And roll. And Edward: Act. And Helena: Orgasm.' It can make you quite dizzy, because you can tend to hyperventilate. But I think I got that technique down. That was one major thing I learned on this film: faking orgasms repeatedly."

In Reel Life: After yet another athletic session with Tyler, Marla says, "My God. I haven't been f***** like that since grade school."
In Real Life: The original line was "I want you to make me pregnant. I want to have your abortion." A Fox exec objected, so the grade school quip was inserted. When the exec heard that line, he wanted it switched back. Fincher and company refused.

In Reel Life: One time, as Marla leaves the Paper Street house, she sings, "Gotta get off. Gotta get off this merry go round ..."
In Real Life: She's singing the theme from "Valley of the Dolls," which, sung by Dionne Warwick, got as high as No. 2 on the charts in 1968. This re-emphasizes the Marla-as-Judy Garland theme -- Garland was supposed to star in "Valley of the Dolls" and sing the theme song, but was fired from the film after three days.

The song was written by Dory and Andre Previn:

"Gotta get off, gonna get
Out of this merry-go-round
Gotta get off, gonna get
Need to get on where I'm bound
When did I get, where did I
Why am I lost as a lamb ..."

In Reel Life: Tyler says, "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything."
In Real Life: Tyler gets his philosophy where he can find it -- in this case, a likely modern source is the Kris Kristofferson tune, "Me and Bobby McGee." As Janis Joplin sang in her hit version of the song, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

Edward Norton
Norton is "Jack's smirking revenge."
In Reel Life: Bob hooks on with Fight Club, and he and Jack go at it in Lou's basement. Bob and Jack are about the same height, but Bob's a lot bigger.
In Real Life: From the neck down, no one in this film underwent greater changes than Meat Loaf, who wore a fat suit to look much larger than his 6-2, 240-pound frame.

In Reel Life: Jack confronts his boss, and ends up beating himself silly, in a scene reminiscent of a Jerry Lewis slapstick bit. When he starts hitting himself, he says, "I am Jack's smirking revenge."
In Real Life: "Fight Club," the novel, was, in fact, Palahniuk's revenge. He wrote the book in anger because publishers rejected his first novel, "Invisible Monsters," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I thought, 'I'm gonna write a novel that's so offensive and so upsetting that they'll be even more upset than they were about "Monsters." ' It was never supposed to be published. It was just me giving my middle finger to those people who rejected my work."

In Reel Life: Project Mayhem begins.
In Real Life: "Project Mayhem was based on the Portland Cacophony Society, which I used to do more of," Palahniuk told DVD Talk. "They get together and pull these enormous pranks. They're international now, almost every major city has a Cacophony Society and they pull huge pranks and jokes and stunts."

In Reel Life: They talk about blowing up the "TRW Building."
In Real Life: TRW is a global conglomerate that used to be in the business of credit reporting; it no longer is, and does not have a location in Delaware.

Brad Pitt
In "Fight Club," you get the gritty, dirty Pitt without the Hollywood smile.
In Reel Life: Tyler has at least one chipped tooth.
In Real Life: Pitt's Hollywood smile was just too good for Tyler, so the actor had his teeth uncapped.

In Reel Life: When Jack fights with his shirt off, you can see that he's rail-thin.
In Real Life: Norton lost at least 15 pounds for the role, by running and dieting. "I decided I was going to get very, very thin, because in essence my character is wasting away, falling apart," Norton told The Face magazine. Norton added that he was going for "an Iggy Pop, wiry physique."

In Reel Life: Jack starts to figure out that he and Tyler inhabit the same body. He flies all over the country, covering Tyler's tracks. When he returns, a bartender who has his head in some kind of Frankenstein-looking contraption, greets him. "It's good to have you back, sir," he says.
In Real Life: That line, delivered by Michael Shamus Wiles (who is credited as "Bartender in Halo") was harder to deliver than you might imagine, says Norton. "The screws in his head weren't holding to his head, so he kept making it tighter and tighter on his head, until he was slurring his lines."

In Reel Life: Near the end of the movie, Jack shoots himself in the mouth. Tyler says, "What's that smell?"
In Real Life: This was one of Fincher's contributions to the script. It's a reference to the lyricist Ira Gershwin, who, before dying of an undiagnosed brain tumor, said he smelled something like burning chicken feathers. He kept asking, "What is that smell?"