Fight Club Turns 20: Interview with the Film’s Screenwriter Jim Uhls
This month, Fight Club turns twenty. David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, written for the screen by Jim Uhls and starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, became a movie classic that has generated every form of cultural reference, from memes to research papers. Ranking #10 on IMDb’s Top 250 best-movie list and lending “The first rule of Fight Club” catchphrase to teen chats and corporate meetings alike, the film has come to occupy a unique niche in modern culture.
On the anniversary of the movie’s release, Fight Club’s screenwriter Jim Uhls spoke with Storius, reflecting on the film’s journey and lasting influence, adaptation challenges, fan theories, and his screenwriting techniques.
STORIUS: Today, twenty years after its release, Fight Club seems surprisingly contemporary, especially considering how many changes our society has gone through since 1999. It has entered the cultural lexicon, is often referenced even by people who haven’t seen it, and doesn’t seem to age much. What do you attribute the movie’s endurance to?
It hits a nerve with each generation that discovers it, seemingly because the basic life circumstances of the viewer, whether in 1999 or 2019, are the same. Part of that nerve is the idea of how self-worth is defined — both by society and in one’s mind — which are usually the same.
But, in this film, they become different. Men in their twenties, still puzzled about what they should do with their lives, are discovering a different way to define self-worth. A group of them meet to experience something that is outside the parameters of civilization. Each fight is one-on-one violence between two men who have no animosity towards each other, might not even know each other. They’re doing it because it’s a ritual, a primal ritual, in which they take part both by doing it and by watching others do it. It’s physical combat, wordless, and true — i.e., the fights are actually happening, so they are true. Other things all around these men can be lies, with or without words, but the fight cannot be a lie.
Another part of that nerve is Tyler Durden’s contempt for materialism, consumerism, the impossible ideals invented by advertising, and in effect — everything that is fake, or a lie, or a pathway to soullessness — all constantly bombarding us, in our “civilized” world. I’ve been repeatedly surprised by females, from teenage to senior citizens, telling me they love the film. It’s clearly aimed at a form of emancipation for young men, but part of the nerve it hits must resonate for women.
STORIUS: It’s hard to believe now that the movie was considered a failure when it was released, and that it took a few years and a DVD release to turn it into a financial success and a cultural phenomenon. Why do you think the film had such a bumpy road to recognition?
The bumpy road, the period of initial domestic release, was largely due to the vexing challenge of how to make a trailer for the film that promotes what the film is. It wasn’t an easy task. And it wasn’t achieved.
I ran into a friend about two weeks after the initial release, and he said he hadn’t gotten to the film yet, but he would; he just wasn’t a big fan of boxing movies.
“Boxing movies.” That’s a solid example of someone not having any idea of what the film was about during the time when it was vital to get that across to the public.
STORIUS: What attracted you to the source material and what challenges did you face as you worked on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel’s adaption?
The novel was in the form of a manuscript; it had a publisher, but it wasn’t on shelves yet. Every studio in town had already passed on the film rights. So, I just read it for enjoyment.
I was blown away by it. I read it again immediately. It hit that above-mentioned nerve. It had the big things: zeitgeist, gravitas, and whatever other pretentious words I could use that would enrage Tyler Durden. And, in fact, this character’s antipathy towards anything like a “zeitgeist” or any human who utters “gravitas” was part of what made the novel possess these qualities. I became certain that it was a seminal creation, as if Jack Kerouac wrote understandable narratives — and wrote in 1999.
As for the motion picture business, I had two thoughts: 1) It would be a fun writing gig to be paid to do an adaptation of this novel; and 2) It will never, ever, never, ever get made into a film.
The first major challenge of adapting it was deciding what would not be included. The novel had too much for a feature film. Some aspects of it that David Fincher and I both liked, we decided we had to omit.
The next challenge was adding more to the characters and creating more scenes. Chuck later told me that he had started writing it as a monologue for theater. The novel heavily rests upon first-person narration, and the result is that scenes are either short or simply aren’t in the book.
For example, the scene in which the narrator meets Tyler Durden. In the novel, it’s on a nude beach and has almost no dialogue.
There was an element from the novel in my mind about creating a scene in which they meet. It was part of the narrator’s job, which involved flying around the country, and the way he considered the passenger next to him on each flight to be a “single-serving friend.”
I thought that, after he goes through several flights with those different single-serving friends, the last one would be Tyler Durden.
While I was creating the scene, I already had this weight on my back about how to “transfer the authority” of the film from the narrator to Tyler Durden. The viewer, by this point, has spent a sizable amount of time inside the worldview of the narrator, who judges and condescends with caustic wit. In my mind, the film wouldn’t work if the audience continued to experience the narrator as having the “upper hand” of condescension over everybody and everything.
I realized that this switch, this change of perspective, had to happen completely by the end of this very scene I was in the process of creating — this scene of first meeting Tyler. Just as the narrator does, the viewer also has to become an acolyte of Tyler Durden, making him the film’s authority figure, the dispenser of all opinions, judgments, and philosophy, from that point until the climax.
When David showed me the first half of the rough cut, at his house, I saw that the scene accomplished this (in addition to being stunned at how much the film looked and sounded like what was in my mind). I have to give Brad Pitt a major amount of credit for making it work; he was seemingly possessed by Tyler Durden — a soaring performance — and clearly someone who could make anyone an acolyte.
Another challenge was front-and-center for me and David — to create the experience in the viewer of what it felt like to read the book.
An interesting thing about the process of adaptation to screenplay — some of the elements and scenes seemed to be exactly like the book because they were different. You experience a film in a different way, psychologically, than you experience a novel. To make it seem to be the same experience required changing things.
There was also the constant need to drive a film narrative forward with increasing velocity, making it more compelling as it gets later in the story. The novel, if looked at from strictly a structural viewpoint, wasn’t built that way entirely (but partly, yes).
STORIUS: How many revisions did the screenplay go through?
Five and a half.
STORIUS: How did it evolve as you worked on it?
Mainly, it increasingly became clearer in its intention. That might cause some to laugh, since the intention is somewhat murky. But that tells you how much murkier it was in the beginning.
STORIUS: You mentioned in your interviews that sometimes, as you work on a script, you interview your characters to find their voice and motivations. How did you apply this technique while working on Fight Club? Who did you interview and how did it help to shape the characters?
I should start by mentioning that I called the narrator “Jack” in the script so that he wouldn’t be referred to as “narrator.” In the film, as in the novel, the narrator’s real name is never known.
Interviewing the characters was essential, because I had to make Jack and Tyler separate, real people in the script (despite the revelation about Tyler). So, for this project, the character interviews had a heightened importance to me.
Tyler tried to continuously spout his nihilistic, anticivilization philosophy while I kept pulling the interview back to the personal.
I also interviewed Marla, finding out why she was self-abusive and was sexually drawn to sadistic partners. I remember wanting to somehow get this layer of her into the script, but it would’ve added too much while we were still deciding to omit things.
STORIUS: Voice-over narration has somewhat of a stigma outside of documentaries. Yet your choice to have Jack narrate the film worked really well and is often referenced as an example of great use of narration. How did you decide to use the technique? Was it your first choice or did you try another approach first?
At first, Ross Bell and I considered omitting the narration from the script. To test our opinion, I wrote about ten pages without it. We looked at it, and questioned the idea. We had a phone call with Fincher (who was shooting The Game), and he said he thought it would be confusing without narration.
So, I went ahead and wrote the first draft with narration included. One particular aspect of the narration was that I did not want it to be an expositional crutch. I wanted it to be its own thing, aside from the scenes — in fact, I wanted it to either skew the scenes in a way that wouldn’t be apparent without it or even contradict the scenes. I let the narration become out of control, in a way.
Since the book is all first-person narration, I obviously had to choose which lines I wanted to use in the film’s narration. And, sometimes, I gave the lines to Jack within a scene, instead. Also, I sometimes gave lines to Tyler. I also made up some of the narration lines.
One repeated motif in the narration is Jack saying: “I am Jack’s [something.]”
I thought it would be fun, late in the story, after we’ve been used to hearing this phrase in narration, to have Jack say one of these out loud. So, I wrote it that way for his big final scene with his boss, Chesler. Chesler starts the scene by telling Jack he’s in trouble with his job. Jack says, out loud, “I am Jack’s Complete Lack of Surprise.” Chesler replies with a confused: “What?”
STORIUS: Fight Club is a film that seems to be intentionally designed for rewatching. This goes beyond the big twist at the end, which puts every preceding scene in a different light. The movie is full of minute details that make it a delight to rewatch, but which cannot be even noticed, let alone appreciated when watched the first time. Why did you pay so much attention to these details?
It was David Fincher who paid attention to details. He brilliantly inserted all kinds of things that a viewer would likely miss the first time. I think David pays attention to details incredibly well in all the films he makes.
STORIUS: Among several key differences between the book and the movie, the ending truly stands apart. Why did you decide to end the film on a more positive note than the novel ended (assuming, of course, that a popular fan theory about an imminent explosion that follows the ending is incorrect)?
I think the ending of the novel is not necessarily negative. It’s still possible for Jack to get together with Marla. We just don’t see it happen.
As for the film, and how we ended it — for starters, we knew we didn’t want the ending of the novel. We thought it wouldn’t play. And we wanted to see Jack and Marla together, because Jack’s inability to get Marla was the cause of him creating the Tyler Durden personality in himself. In fact, it’s more important that we see Marla pairing with Jack than the other way around — because we didn’t think Marla would go for the real personality of this guy. And she does.
It’s all a parody of a Hollywood ending. The hero “Jack” kills the villain “Tyler” and gets the heroine “Marla.” In its own scrappy way, it emulates this kind of ending. Even though Tyler’s plan to blow up multiple buildings is something we see happening, we know that he’s gone, so Project Mayhem will dissolve.
Also, in the novel, only one building is blown up, an empty building, like the ones in the film, and the purpose is so it will collapse onto a museum.
In the film, we decided that Tyler, who plans to dismantle civilization, would target a group of buildings of critical financial information and activity because he’s going to start by destroying the economy.
And, no, the building in which Jack and Marla are standing together had its bomb defused, so, it was not going to blow up. If we wanted that to happen, we wouldn’t have implied its possibility — we would have blown it up overtly, clearly, along with Jack and Marla.
STORIUS: Is there something — a scene or a message or a reference — that to this day, despite all the buzz surrounding Fight Club, no one has really noticed or you wish was more discussed as people talk about the film?
There is a theory that Marla is an invention of Jack’s imagination, just like Tyler. I’m not sure that either the novel or the film supports it. Chuck and I talked about it at a screening of the film, a few years ago. He had thought about it, after writing the book, but it’s not really in there.
I know that some people who had read the novel, then saw the film, think that the scene on the airplane, in which Jack meets Tyler, is in the book. It isn’t.
But, in a way, that’s flattering, because it means I smoothly kept the same style as the book, which I wanted to do. David wanted to keep the style when he shot it — and succeeded.
One of the things I think merits discussion is how Tyler went from being Jack’s “id” in a way that Jack really wanted and needed, to being, by Act Three, a villain that Jack had to foil. Why would an id personality go from liberating young men, like Jack, to forming them into an army of nihilists, bent upon destroying civilization? How is the latter related to the former? Is the impulse to be free something that naturally grows into the impulse toward large-scale elimination of global society?
STORIUS: From its likable antihero, to the use of violence, to the breaking of social norms as a way to find liberation, Fight Club feels like a precursor to many movies and TV shows of the last two decades. There is a reason Breaking Bad characters watch its final scene in one of the episodes. What were your own influences when you worked on the screenplay and does the movie include any indirect homages to them?
I thought a lot about the film Sunset Boulevard, which had the cynical, sarcastic narration by William Holden, as the character Joe Gillis — a narration he begins by pointing out that he is the dead man floating in the swimming pool. For such subversive material to have been made by Billy Wilder in the mainstream Hollywood system was astonishing — and inspiring. It was always surprising to me that Fight Club was made in the same system.
But the narration is not the only reason I call the film subversive. It’s also because Joe Gillis is a young man trying to make his way in the world and the story shows the fracturing of young masculinity. Was Joe Gillis the “hero” of the film? No — there was no hero. For a 1950 film, it seemed to fit the late ’90s, during which the new generation of men was in a state of having no direction.
A Clockwork Orange and The Graduate were also influences on me. Again — subversive, with resonance, young men and rebellion, generational opposition to the norm, and chaos.
STORIUS: According to Brad Pitt, the screenplay was so challenging that at some point, the cast and filmmakers were “breaking apart every line like it was Shakespeare.” What are your thoughts on the impact of a screenplay’s complexity on the resulting film? Does a complex script result in a more powerful movie because it pushes everyone involved to dig deeper into the characters and their interactions?
I would say a more complex script leads to a more complex film. Not only causing the actors to dig deeper, but also the viewers. Fortunately, Brad Pitt, along with the rest of the cast, gave transcendentally great performances, and David Fincher did a transcendentally great job of directing, with a great crew supporting him.
STORIUS: What has been your journey as a screenwriter?
I was approached with projects that had major attachments — stars, major directors, major producers — the kind of attachments that would cause a studio to make the film, even without seeing the screenplay.
All of these projects were “out there” — left-field — yet, with stories that had a grounding in some aspect that was commercial enough for a studio to green light.
With each of them, the players involved had high praise for the screenplays I wrote (from first draft to polish).
But — due to completely different types of misfortune that befell each project — none were made into films. Many a savvy veteran of the industry told me that this was typical — and more likely than a script making it to film.
I was too lucky with Fight Club being the first film that was made from a script I wrote. The whole ride was too good. So, it created an impossible expectation within me.
STORIUS: Did the experience of working on Fight Club and seeing it turn into a modern classic influence your subsequent writing? If yes, in what way?
Well, obviously, I was on the lookout for new novels that were unusual and reflected the times, in some way.
Aside from that, I became determined to “stretch and bend” genres, to be subversive, yet within a story that was commercial enough to be made.
Being influenced by Fight Club probably emerged in me the most when I began work on adapting the novel Flicker. It was considered an unadaptable novel (as was Fight Club).
I wrote and rewrote a screenplay under the guidance of the attached director, Darren Aronovsky, which was a great experience. He wanted no limits on my creative invention.
That is another story of a project seemingly destined to be made, yet not made. At least I have the consolation that Darren liked every draft, to the end.
STORIUS: What, in your opinion, are major success factors for a screenwriter?
“Success factors.” That’s an interesting term. It sounds like a list of items that, if accomplished, guarantees success.
A screenwriter’s success factor is luck.
If the screenwriter is just starting.
Luck is boosted by repeated social contact with people working in the industry. Besides parties or kickbacks, one kind of social contact is making friends with assistants, even over the phone. They know assistants at other companies, and if they like a script, it gets passed around. Any one of these assistants could try to get it read by a higher-up. And keep in mind — assistants are human, just as you are, working to move upward, just as you are. If one becomes a junior agent, you and your script could be his/her “discovery,” presented to senior agents at a weekly meeting. At some point, you’ll see that some former assistants are heads of production at major studios.
Luck is also boosted by digging in and continuing onward, no matter what; letting discouragement hit you, then wash over you as you relentlessly stay in the game, with a determination that’s made of steel.
If you’ve recently become a working screenwriter:
The success factor is being an enthusiastic source of creativity about the project, being flexible and diplomatic, yet steering your ideas around powerful people and being convincing about your opinion. The people with whom you’re working don’t want a pushover “yes” type and don’t want a stubborn, thorny refusenik. They want someone with whom they can work. Then, you keep getting hired.
STORIUS: What should aspiring screenwriters pay attention to as they hone their craft?
Write characters that are roles. Read over your lead character as if you were a star considering playing the lead role — a role that will cause the star to win awards in a screenplay that will win awards, a screenplay that will attract a director and cause the director to win awards.
If you’re not writing a big tentpole movie for a studio, you’re writing a smaller film. The way financing comes together is based on a star wanting to play the (award-winning) lead role, or a director wanting to make the (director-award-winning) film and knowing that a star will want to play the lead role.
Pay attention not only to your lead character, but also your supporting characters — actors win awards for those, too. And sometimes, financing doesn’t come completely together, if there is a medium-level star in the lead role, until a known character actor is cast in a supporting role.
Okay, no, it’s not actually about this — the crass consideration of awards and financing. But that’s a good way to push yourself towards excellence, unique inventiveness, fullness, and substance. In a medium that requires stars, directors, and financing.
And, believe it or not, formatting.
If the script appears to have been written by an amateur, the presumption is that it was written by one, therefore, a person who probably can’t write a film story or good characters.
- Subscribe to Storius Direct to receive articles like this to your inbox
- Subscribe to Storius Digest to receive a weekly digest with links