Just a few years after author Chuck Palahniuk was receiving much attention thanks to David Fincher’s adaptation of his 1996 book Fight Club, he decided to test the loyalty of his new-found readership with Choke, a novel that explored the underbelly of sexual addiction through the eyes of Victor Mancini, a Colonial village employee and part-time conman, who spent half his time pretending to choke on food in hopes of finding new marks and the other half trying to sleep with every single woman he meets.
As hard as Fight Club must have been to adapt, Choke would be a real challenge, which is why it might have been surprising to find a first-time filmmaker tackling it. Actor Clark Gregg may be best known as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ ex-husband in the CBS sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine” or as Agent Colson of S.H.I.E.L.D. in this summer’s smash Iron Man, but for his first movie, he decided to take on the challenge that is Palahniuk’s best-selling novel. Wisely, Gregg cast Sam Rockwell to play the cynical anti-hero Victor Mancini, the sex addict with mother issues, and for that mother, who lays in a retirement home suffering from dementia, Gregg went to the always-great Anjelica Huston, who was able to play her in present-day and 30 years earlier in flashbacks. Kelly McDonald plays a pretty doctor who convinces Victor that the only way to cure his mother would be to use some unconventional medical techniques, and though she agrees to have sex with Victor, she’s ironically the one woman he wants to be intimate with, and he can’t.
The movie premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it was received with critical raves before being picked up by Fox Searchlight, who releases it this weekend in hopes that fans of Palahniuk’s demented and twisted worldview will be interested in seeing how Clark Gregg and his cast brought the popular book to life.
It’s pretty impressive how this project came together, as ComingSoon.net found out when we talked with Clark Gregg and Sam Rockwell a few weeks back. For whatever reason, some journalists don’t like doing interviews where actors or filmmakers are paired, but in this case, it couldn’t have worked out better. Rockwell and Gregg worked so closely on bringing Palahniuk’s novel to life, and while they’re both funny alone, they’re even funnier when together.
ComingSoon.net: I wasn’t really a fan of the book, but I think the movie actually works better in some ways. What made you want to tackle Chuck Palahniuk for your first film as a director?
Clark Gregg: Naivety was a nice of way of saying it. I mean I’m a perv and I read it and I loved it, and I thought it’s cinematic, it’s got the Colonial village and it’s funny and it’s the saddest thing that I ever laughed hysterically at. It felt like an unbelievably unique blend of that stuff, and I also felt like the whole kind of notion of sexual compulsion and the kind of transformation of that into intimacy, or the attempt to, felt like something that’s really everywhere, and not explored in any movies. After I started working on it or later when we started to get the movie made, people said, “I never thought there was a movie in that book.” I didn’t know any of that and other people said, “You must be so intimidated because he has such ardent, even psycho, fans, you know, plus you must have been really intimidated by having to live up to ‘Fight Club.'” If I’d been smart enough to pay attention to any three of those three things, I never would have tried to do it. I would never have really processed any of that until it was way too late.
CS: Sam, you worked together with Clark many years ago, so did you two keep in touch at all?
Sam Rockwell: No, we’d see each other once in a while, like we saw each other in a Chinese restaurant
Gregg: and I’d always be happy.
Rockwell: Yeah, we’d always be happy to see each other. We saw each other at Mr. Chow’s and we both had been through a lot of changes since then, but it’s funny that we did a sex play.
Gregg: We did a play together at the Orpheum called “The Unidentified Human Remains”
Rockwell: …and it was a sex-oriented play where everybody was naked except for Clark.
Gregg: Yeah, but at the same time, they didn’t want me naked. He was a bartender and I was a serial killer.
Rockwell: No, that’s not true. We desperately tried to get him naked, but it’s funny that we ended up doing this film, because we did that in ’91 or ’92, and I was still in acting class when we did that play, and we were both starting out.
Gregg: You’re not now?
Rockwell: I still am, and in fact, right now, a teacher is going to come over no, we were both doing it and trying to make ends meet, and then I don’t know, I just got this call that this script had been sent my way. I heard Clark had written it and I knew “Fight Club” as a movie, so I asked about it, and I just heard “Colonial theme park and sex addict” and I was in already. I read it and I called Clark and we both mentioned some movies. I mentioned “The Fisher King,” “Tom Jones” and he mentioned a few movies. Did you mention “Alfie”?
Gregg: “Harold and Maude.”
Rockwell: That’s right. He mentioned “Harold and Maude,” “Bad Santa,” “Five Easy Pieces.” We talked about
Gregg: traditionally sympathetic protagonist movies.
Rockwell: Yeah, anti-heroes from the ’70s, but we talked about “The Fisher King” and we both said, “Yeah, that’s how I see it. That’s how I see it.” And from there, it just seemed like it was a go. We are going to do it and we’re going to find some women and that was it, we were off to the races.
Gregg: And then do it, just like when we first worked together! (All three of us start laughing at how funny this came across, particularly the way Sam put the bit about finding women)
Rockwell: No, but that was kind of it. It was almost that simple, and then we found money, we lost money, the movie almost didn’t happen. David Matthews’ company saved us, Johnathan Dorfman, but basically, Clark and I had a “build it and they will come” kind of attitude.
CS: You knew that you’d have to make this movie independently because there would be no way to get a studio behind it to make the movie and keep it in line with the book.
Gregg: They offered me $60 million to make it at Fox and I said “To hell with you!” I will only make this for dirt.
Rockwell: Who were the actors they wanted? Was it Brad Pitt? Heath Ledger? There were a bunch of people probably.
Gregg: What? Pitched to us?
Rockwell: I’m sure at that budget
Gregg: No, but there was a funny thing on one of Chuck’s websites which was his fans, in anticipation and before the film was even set up, “Who should be Victor and Danny?” It was funny because they were so hung up on “Fight Club” that they wanted Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, lots of them did, to play Victor and Danny, which is interesting because some people just really wanted to see “Fight Club” again.
Rockwell: I feel like Robert Downey, he’s the only other guy I can picture doing Victor in my mind.
CS: Are you flattered when you get offered a role like this, to play a sex addict?
Rockwell: Incredibly flattered, and I’m so glad that Clark had thought of me. It was a great opportunity and I can’t thank Clark enough for that. I mean, it’s a great part, it’s like a comedic Hamlet. It’s a wonderful idea for a movie to sort of psychoanalyze Casanova in a comedic way. It’s basically what we’re doing, we’re kind of breaking down what it is to be a ladies’ man, and it’s not as glamorous as it is in certain films. Ladies’ men, a lot of times they’re not a lot of them are not extremely good looking guys, they’re not like
Gregg: Terms get revised and the term “ladies’ man” certainly feels like something of the ’50s, and this guy is very much of the new millennium, and he’s what used to be called a ladies’ man maybe, and now we call him a “sexual compulsive.”
Rockwell: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.
CS: Well in the ’70s, he’d still be kind of cool.
Gregg: Yeah, oh, please, in the ’90s, he’s a “playa.”
CS: At what point did Anjelica Huston come on board? I thought it was pretty amazing that she could play both the older and younger versions of her character.
Rockwell: She came on just in time.
Gregg: I always liked the idea of Anjelica an awful lot, because Ida Mancini was born in Italy and needed to be this charismatic, passionate strong person, and that felt her. I think there were ways that the mother-son relationship in “The Grifters” did not feel completely different than this, and yet, like everybody else in the movie, it’s a very dark, twisted piece of material that they refer to as “execution-dependent” which means if you have a first time director on this thing you’re screwed. So it was a tough sell until I got Sam involved, and actors want to work with Sam, the same way I did, so the minute Sam was involved, all of a sudden, Anjelica was willing to meet with me.
CS: Was the script evolving as you brought different people into the roles?
Rockwell: Oh, it was a pretty beautifully structured screenplay. He changed a few things here and there, and there was some stuff on set.
Gregg: I had already spent five years with it, you know? I certainly was determined to keep an open mind when I had actors of this caliber to what they would bring to it.
Rockwell: I was constantly bugging him about stuff in the book, but
Gregg: Well, he was involved in the same thing I was involved with as the adapter in that there’s so much clever stuff in the book that you could make a four hour movie of funny, funny stuff, and it just wouldn’t be a satisfying movie.
Rockwell: You had sort of gotten over that four or five years ago, and I was just discovering the book.
Gregg: But Sam–who I hope is using an iPod by now–but at that time was the last man on the planet using a cassette Walkman. He had that on the whole time during the shoot, and I was worried that he had lost his mind, so I said, “What are you playing on there?” And it was the book on tape read by Chuck Palahniuk. I thought that’s cute that he was doing that, that’s cool preparation, I gotta learn that. Then when I got into editing, Sam would like to go in and out of scenes and sometimes in the middle of scenes with a little improv here or there. When I started editing, I looked and thought, “Wait a minute give me that book!” and all these clever improvs, he was putting back in the lines from the book.
Rockwell: That’s just subtext kind of . Your job as an actor is to try to fill in blanks for yourself, and if they end up on the floor
Gregg: But you put in a lot of jokes I might have left out that paid off, I think, and thank God for those.
CS: Clark, I know you met with Chuck while developing it, but did you get a chance to meet with him, Sam?
Rockwell: Yeah, Chuck came on the set, he was really enamored with Anjelica I remember
Gregg: Well, he was starstruck. I think he was very nervous about the whole thing until he heard Sam was cast. He thought if that’s who they got for the leadhe told me thishe knew he could relax.
Rockwell: That’s a nice thing to hear, and a nice thing to say. He was great though, but there were some interviews on that book on tape where he just talked to a journalist about what inspired him to write the book, and those were really helpful, just to find out what motivates this guy.
CS: This is the case with the book as well, where there’s a lot of clever jokes at the beginning but then things start to get more serious later, and for a movie, where’s the balance in keeping things light? Sam’s had to do this in a lot of movies but in terms of adapting the book
Gregg: Yeah, I felt like there needed to be some kind of balance. I tried to be aware of it when I was writing, but at the same time, I kind of felt like the story was king, and that certainly getting the tone of it right felt to me like the #1 job that went from the beginning of trying to adapt it all the way through production, in terms of how the great DP Tim Orr and I worked out how to shoot it, the production designer on how to make the mental hospital feel like it’s a place. The thing that’s great about the book would also be in the movie, which is that it can be tremendously grim and painful and kind of unflinching in its portrayal of this world and these characters, and then a few minutes or even a few seconds later, be hysterically funny. It’s why I needed actors who could do that and not all of them can, and at the same time, I also felt like I didn’t want to manipulate it too much where we’ve had three heavy scenes, better have a funny scene here. I wanted some of the heavy scenes to suddenly get funny, and I think they do.
CS: Can you feel that on the set while shooting the scenes, feel heavy things getting funny?
Gregg: Well, you know honestly, some takes I knew that the thing wouldn’t work unless I had people who could imbue this crazy world with absolute reality, so that’s for my money, how everybody played it. I needed people who knew that they were in a comedy, but never would let you know that while they were acting. (to Sam) I felt like you, some takes of a scene would have me almost in tears how sad they were, and then the next take of that scene, I’d be howling. I never quite knew. I felt like I wanted to leave it some room to kind of be whatever tone it was, as long as we were within parameters where it never lost you.
CS: Did all the actors sign a nudity clause when they signed up for this?
Rockwell: Well, I didn’t! Wait a second
Gregg: We thought they had actually, and then they put up a red band trailer, and suddenly, we realized there were some thing that weren’t quite covered, so there was a quick flurry of negotiations with people.
CS: Did you always know you wanted to play Charlie?
Rockwell: He’s great in this, isn’t he? I think he’s awesome.
Gregg: I didn’t. I thought it would be too daunting to direct. I didn’t want to act in it, but then that character started to become
CS: Well, his job in the movie is sort of to be the director of the Colonial village, so it seems kind of natural for you to play him anyway.
Gregg: It is. Everybody should play the “Lord High Something” at some point in their life, and then when I got this cast of these people, I just wanted to get in there and mix it up. If I had known that my opportunity to mix it up with the actors and to act would come at the end of the first week of shooting when the crew was already barely listening to me, to suddenly be telling people what to do wearing the frilly shirt and the wig I think I would have waited for the next movie.
Rockwell: Or schedule it for the last week
Gregg: I tried to do that. That got shot down quickly.
Rockwell: Wow. Remember the day we shot the thing with the same angle in the barn?
Gregg: That was the last thing on the longest day. Good times.
CS: Besides the fans of Chuck’s book and Sam’s fans and people who just want to see a strange, perverted movie, who do you see this movie appealing to?
Rockwell: Well, again it’s like tone is “Harold and Maude,” “Fisher King,” those movies, “Alfie,” it’s the same people who would watch those movies.
Gregg: It’s people who watch a lot of porn, but they want to have some porn that has content. They feel that the porn they’re seeing doesn’t have enough of a story. We feel that we have porn here that has a pretty good story.
Rockwell: That’s a very good answer actually. That’s a better answer.
Gregg: I don’t know about you, but when I’m watching porn, which is when I’m awake, I’m often wishing there just a little richer characterization, and I feel that we’ve offered that.
CS: What are you guys doing next? (We decided to keep this entire exchange as it went down, since it was kind of funny.)
Gregg: I’m doing “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” we just started the season, may revisit the “Iron Man” franchise if I’m lucky. I’m writing a new thing, it’s another vehicle for Sam.
Rockwell: What? What are you talking about? Get out of here!
CS: A new original thing?
Gregg: Yeah, I’m writing a new original thing, yeah.
CS: What about yourself, Sam?
Rockwell: I’m getting into some basketball, I’m learning about basketball, because I’m going to play a basketball coach, a Bobby Knight type character actually. He’s actually modeled after Bobby Knight, maybe a little Van Gundy
Gregg: Those are two opposites!
Rockwell: Well, Van Gundy grabbed that guy in the leg
Gregg: It was kind of a maternal protective
Rockwell: Oh, okay, but he’s an alcoholic basketball coach, he gets a job coaching a girls high school basketball team. He’s washing dishes at Applebee’s and he gets this job.
CS: That’s based on a real story?Rockwell: It’s a “Bad News Bears” kind of movie, but sort of “Half Nelson”-ish.
CS: Are you going to be in George Ratliff’s next movie “End Zone”?
Rockwell: No, I don’t know what’s going on, it might have fallen apart, but it might come back again. I don’t know what’s happening. I was supposed to, yeah.
CS: Was wondering because I was a fan of “Joshua.”
Rockwell: Oh, good, thanks, yeah.
Gregg: I liked it, too, wasn’t he great in it? You should get more yuppie roles
CS: But you think your character might come back for “Iron Man 2,” Clark? I mean, you did have a big role in the whole S.H.I.E.L.D. subplot.
Gregg: I was telling Sam
Rockwell: You were on “The Shield,” the TV show? Is that what you said?
Gregg: No, but in “Iron Man”
Rockwell: Oh, yeah, yeah, he’s got some of the great last lines in that film.
Gregg: I was on a plane with Robert Downey the other day, and I was saying, “Come on, now, I feel like Colson’s got to come back” so we’re open. I’m pretty sure Downey will be in the next one. I’m pretty sure Gwyneth
CS: You have to try and get Sam on your side, because Nick Fury should be able to help Colson keep his job.
Rockwell: I’ve already called my agent.
CS: I meant Sam Jackson
Gregg: Yeah, Sam Jackson’s the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Rockwell: I can be Sam Jackson.
Choke opens in roughly 400 theaters in select cities on Friday, September 26.