In the entertainment business, all the big movies hold junkets so that they can do as much press as humanly possible without leaving one floor of a fancy-pants hotel. Members of the press who attend these events are referred to as “junketeers,” and the whole scene is not-so-cute. Unless you’re doing a one-on-one interview for some trashy TV show, you must often do the “roundtables.” This is when you sit at a round table with several members of the online/radio/print press and talk over one another and try to get your questions answered before the time runs out with the actor or writer or director or whatever. It’s like trying to order a sandwich at a deli without those little paper numbers. What’s even more disheartening is the appearance of some of our compatriots in the media, who sometimes shove the free food into their purses and are often dressed like a gaggle of homeless people. So we put a helmet and kneepads on Katy, and sent her in to talk with Sam Rockwell, Clark Gregg and Chuck Palahniuk.
Here is what she gathered. The movie comes out on 26 September. Enjoy.
How he got involved with the movie:
I didn’t know the book, but I had worked with Clark Gregg as an actor. We had both done a play together years ago…and then years later he became a writer and I heard that he had adapted this Chuck Palahniuk book. They had sort of sent it my way, and nobody was biting. I was probably like the seventh choice but I got it. He’s not your typical Cassanova so it’s a difficult part to cast. You don’t want to cast a really super handsome guy because it’s not right.
Whether he was a fan of Chuck Palahniuk before doing the movie:
I was a fan of the movie “Fight Club,” and that’s how I knew about Chuck. You know, I’m not the biggest reader. But I was a fan of the movie “Fight Club.”
On reading the novel “Choke”:
I read the book over and over again and I also listened to Chuck reading the book on tape. I became obsessed with the book. Some people never want to read the book, but whenever I do a move that’s based on a book, whether it’s “The Green Mile” or “Snow Angels” I always read the book religiously. It’s great because you can just refer to the book; it basically tells you what you’re thinking in each moment.
About his tendency to choose unconventional roles:
Well I’m an unconventional guy, so I’m not going to get cast in every…people don’t quite know where to place me. I’m just not conventional. I don’t empathize with the white collar protagonist. I don’t usually go for the yuppy pieces. Oh, this couple and this couple are having problems and we’re going to have a romantic comedy. I don’t really get into those, I don’t really understand what’s the concept.
On his character, Victor Mancini, a sex addict who works at a colonial theme park:
I see him as sort of like Hamlet or something where he has all these issues with women because of his mother. It’s really the psychological breakdown of a ladies man. It’s funny because it’s not glamorous. If you meet a real ladies man, so to speak, if you hang out with them long enough, eventually you’ll see that it’s only fun for a little while and then it becomes sort of this empty pit. So I think in that way you can empathize with him. It’s one of those anti heroes, it his hard to empathize with a character like that but as an actor you find a way.
What it was like working with Anjelica Huston, who plays Victor’s mother, in the film:
She’s visceral and lovely and very committed. She’s glamorous, wise, and funny. She is everything that she seems to be and more, she’s really something.
How he felt during the many sex scenes in the movie:
Well it’s all very silly. You have to be very nice, some of these women are coming in for only a day. There was one woman who was very nervous and I have to put my head under her skirt so it’s like, Jesus Christ, you can’t get anymore…So I was very careful, tried to keep the atmosphere very light. There was this one time, it was like four in the morning after an 18 hour day. And they’re doing a close-up of me having an orgasm and basically it’s me fucking a camera and I lost it. I just started laughing. It’s pretty silly stuff.
Adapted the Screenplay and Directed “Choke”
Adapting the novel, “Choke,” into a screenplay took over six years for Clark Gregg:
Everyone told me way too late that this was an un-filmable book. I thought, what do you mean? It’s funny, there’s great dialogue, it is a very visual world with the colonial village and the mental hospital. It seemed totally filmic to me. And once I started adapting it I started to understand what they meant in that it was more difficult than I’d imagined.
Aside from being “un-filmable” he also had a rabid fan following to appease:
If I had known that he had such a crazed following, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I didn’t understand the passionate people that would confront me at the first screenings and say, “Why didn’t you put my favorite line in!” It’s daunting and at the end of the day I really feel like we have respected the spirit of the book.
Gregg has acted in film, theater, and T.V., what took him so long to direct his first movie?:
Not for lack of trying. It’s a bitch to get a movie made. I think it’s like the lines at the DMV in LA, how many people would like to make a movie.
What’s next for Clark Gregg:
Well we just started a full season of “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” There’s some talk about doing “Iron Man II.” That will be in the spring. I’m pretty sure Robert Downey will be in it, I’m pretty sure Gwyneth will be in it. I’m not as sure that I’ll be in it. But I’ve heard some rumors. I went to Switzerland where they screened “Choke,” and I got on the airplane to come back from London to LA to get to “Old Christine” by Monday and Robert Downey was in the seat next to me. I was trying to milk him for something, “Come on man you’ve seen the outlines, is Agent Colson mentioned in any of them?” He said that there was some Colson mentioned.
On Colonial Dunsboro, where the main character, Victor (Sam Rockwell) works and where Gregg makes a directorial cameo:
I thought it was a brilliant metaphor that these guys who are stuck in life and are living this perpetual adolescence are living this same day over and over again in 1734. They are frozen in time. I always thought that was powerful and excellent. People in those goofy colonial outfits stoned and having sex constantly was just immediately funny to me. And I knew that if I was going to play a part I damn well wanted to be in one of those outfits. I don’t think you can go wrong with a Colonial village.
What it was like to work with Kelly McDonald who plays Victor’s love interest:
She was a person I always had very high on my list. I just think she’s brilliant. I think she has the most complicated role in the movie. And Sam and Kelly got on like a house on fire. I have a video of the two of them at 4:30 in the morning – Sam’s a fantastic dancer – and it’s the two of them doing the rumba around the mental hospital off in a corner just to kill some time while they’re waiting for the shot to set up.
What it was like to work with Anjelica Huston who plays Victor’s mother:
She’s an icon. And I went to have lunch with the icon who I knew was a little nervous about the script. I was very nervous about it. I’m a big fan, and I thought she was perfect. And – I hope she’s okay with me telling this – but she took one look at me and she got really emotional and she said, “I was raised by an Irish nanny,” ’cause her mother had passed away when she was kind of young. “And you look just like my Nanny.” Turns out she loved this Nanny.
She came to a read-through. Sam…and Brad Hankey who played Denny, and Anjelica came together around a conference room. We read a couple of her scenes. And then she was done. They were magnificent together – her and Sam – I think they want to adopt each other. And then it was time for her to go but she insisted on staying and reading every hooker and female sex addict – she just wanted to stay and play with these guys. She’s there for the work and the reason the movie worked is that she was going to be cool with [the low budget] and was there for the work. So our cast is what made the movie work and she’s the reason the cast [worked.]
Author of “Choke”
Why he thinks some of his novels have been called “un-filmable”:
In “Fight Club,” the big twist is that these two people are the same person. That’s what everyone said would be “un-filmable.” And the fact that I depict things that are so extreme. One of the reason’s I depict them is that books have so few advantages over other forms of mass media, which have continued to evolve over the past century. But books still hold on to this 19th century model, which is comforting, but it can’t compete with the immediacy of movies and television. So I think the advantage that the book still has is the intimate nature of consumption – that you make the ongoing consent and effort to read a book. So a book can depict things that are so extreme and challenging that movies could never get away with. I want to play to that strength. I want to tell the story that really only books can tell at this point. And I think it’s the extreme nature of this material that makes people also say that it’s “un-filmable.”
On the deviant nature of his books, and whether that, in fact, pertains to his own life:
When I was little I wanted to priest. I thought it would be great – you just sit there and people come in and they tell you these horrific things and they entertain you all day long. And then I found out that priest’s can’t tell and that that seemed kind of pointless.
So most of what I do is gathering stories from folks. In Seattle a woman came up and said, “I know something you don’t know yet. I’m a nurse in a kidney dialysis ward and people don’t talk about this but guys with kidney disease can’t get an erection. The only time they can get it up is when they’re on dialysis. I’m managing this ward, which is filled with beds filled with guys and everyone’s got a big tent pole underneath their blankets. And the only time they can get off is while they’re on dialysis. So part of my job is, periodically I have to sneak off the ward and give these guys a few minutes to get off. And then the worst part of my job is I have to collect the blankets.”
And if I tell that story then someone else will come up to me and say, “I worked for the airlines. And when people want to get it on, they don’t go to the bathroom they ask for a blanket. And most of the sex that happens on airplanes happens under those airplane blankets. And they don’t get cleaned, they just get refolded and put away.” And by accumulating stories from people and relaying the best ones – it gives people an opportunity to tell me stories that are thematically linked to those stories. It becomes very easy to put these together.
On the allure of the twist ending:
I basically know what’s going to go on until the end of the second act. Here’s a guy who fakes choking so he can have this really public, cathartic, emotional moment. And this would work great until two people who’ve been fooled meet and they realize that they’ve all been fooled. And then the machine will break down in a spectacular way. But beyond that I don’t know what comes. I didn’t know he was going to kill his mother. I didn’t know that Jack and Tyler were the same person. And in a way, in the act of trying to fool myself, and surprise myself – because I will never consciously go to certain places and express certain things unless I’m fooling myself into doing it. The trick is to write a book that a year later, when I read it, when I’m forced to go out and promote it, I will just be appalled at how honest I’ve been, what I’ve expressed about myself. And the third act twist is that moment where I try to surprise and shock myself.
A theme that runs through Palahniuk’s books are that society produces consumer-driven, zombie-like people who need a shocking event to wake them up. What event will wake us all up?:
The books I tell are so much about individuals that I really can’t speculate about huge populations of people. People are going to do what serves them most, what serves them best until a better thing that serves them is presented. A hundred years ago, you would go to the state of Oregon and you could not find a beaver. The trappers, the Hudson Bay company, they had just hunted those beavers to extinction because everyone wanted beaver hats. But now beavers are crazy! We are saturated in beavers! You can’t open your car door without hitting a beaver. And it’s not because people said, “Oh, we got to save the beaver,” it’s because someone said, “Let’s make hats of silk because they look better.” They were presented with something that made them look better. And you could get laid if you wore a silk hat. And people will give up a mindless consumerism, or whatever mindless behavior once they’re presented with a way of being that serves them better. And we just haven’t seen that yet.
On the set of “Choke”:
It’s not really to supervise, if anything it’s to give a permission so that people with an idea and can have a confirmation of their take on it. So I can just nod and say, “Oh, perfect. That’s great, you nailed it.” I don’t want to control their interpretation of this thing. Also, being around people who are so good at what they do and enjoy what they do is intoxicating. It’s hard to pass up the opportunity to be around these people who are just so passionate about what they do for a living.
Victor in the movie has problems with emotionally and physically connecting with other people. Palahniuk does as well:
I come from a family where people really don’t touch each other. My friends know that they can freak me out by just putting a hand on me and I’ll just [shivers]. And my father was killed in 1999 just before “Fight Club” came out. I remember I was out in the yard waiting for a call from Time Magazine, and that was so exciting. And a call came from Meghan, who’s a publicist and she said, “I hope to God this is a joke, but there is a detective calling from Idaho and they found your father’s car outside a house with two burned bodies in it and you need to call these people right now.”
So I called and they said “Yeah, your father’s car is here and we have two murdered people in this house. And the house has been burned down and can you send us your father’s dental records.” So I ended up making all these trips to Idaho to get medical records and ultimately find out that that it was him, he’d been murdered.
Coming back I was all dressed up and I was driving through the mountains on some two-lane highway late at night and I was thinking about a story about a guy who just lives this sort of very ordinary life. Paying the bills, maybe as a traveling sales rep. He’s got a baby seat in the back of his four-door Taurus – a very ordinary, respectable car. And he’s a clean-shaven, ordinary, respectable looking person, middle-aged. When things get just a little too overwhelming he pulls over at the side of the road and he leaves the car running. He leaves the head lights on, he even leaves the driver door open. But he gets out and he walks ahead of the car a few feet and he lies down in the gravel shoulder in the headlights. And he lays there in the dirt like he’s dead, getting colder and colder knowing that eventually a car will pull up and a police person will put two fingers, two really warm fingers to his neck and feel his pulse and then will put their hands around him. And sort of lift him and say, “Sir can you hear me? You’re going to be okay. We’re going to help you.” He would be coaxed back into his life and the man would do this periodically – he would be periodically embraced and brought back to life.
I pulled over and I almost did it. But then I saw how dirty the ground was and that these were my very best clothes. So I turned it into a guy who pretends to choke.
So that was really about that night coming back from the inquest.
And it may just be a me thing. But I have to think sometimes that it’s a male thing. That guys just don’t know how to ask what they need. They don’t know how to express their emotions so they’re always looking for a context or a scam in which they can express their emotions so they can get what they need emotionally. Because they just can’t be up front about it. I think women are much, much better about that.