Interview with Choke Director Clark Gregg

Choke Interview

The production notes for the big screen adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk‘s Choke includes an extensive interview with director/screenwriter/co-star Clark Gregg. Read the interview below. Check back tomorrow for my exclusive interview with Chuck.

Adapting Choke

What exactly drew you to the book?

When I was given the book I was aware of Chuck.  I had loved Fight Club.  When I read Choke, I couldn’t put my finger on it.  My mother is not Ida and I never worked in a colonial village, but there was something about it that felt painfully familiar and really unusual in the way it represented sexuality as another thing — that is a consumer obsession in this country — and it worked for me on those political levels.   At the same time I found it to be a really heartbreaking story about how people recover from emotional trauma in their lives and that makes them able to give and receive love.  I think in retrospect I didn’t realize how difficult a balancing act it would be to adapt something and make it work on those trenchant dramatic levels and still have it be funny, because the other main thing that I loved about it was I never read anything that I found so painful and yet also so funny.  I think this guy’s got more clever, brilliant, satirical ideas and his finger on the pulse of what works and doesn’t work in this country.  There is something about the compassion in his disaffected voice that really strikes a chord for a lot of people.



Once you fell in love with the book then what?

Morning came and I had actually read the book cover to cover.  It’s not very often that that chord gets hit where you think, “I’ve got to make this. I don’t think anyone’s really going to want to let me do this but I’ve got to find a way.”  I immediately went to Gary Ventimiglia, who had brought it to me, and sought to find out if it was tied up, if there was anything I could do to try to make this happen.  Gary was open to the idea but didn’t have the resources to tie the book up and Beau Flynn had seen stuff I had done as a theater director and said, “When you figure out what you want to make bring it to me.” A lot of producers say that because it’s cheap.  It doesn’t cost anything to say that.  I had dinner with him two nights later and I said, “See this book? This is what I want to make.” I don’t think it was forty-eight hours later and he had bought the rights and that was seven years ago.  I don’t think anyone else would have stuck with this sketchy material, you know, really risky.  “You’re not going to get this made,” is what I kept hearing, for that long.  At the same time having someone demonstrate that faith and stick with it really pushed me through the tough parts of the adaptation and the process. If someone puts a lot of faith in you it really makes you want to deserve it.

Tell me about Chuck Palahniuk.

I had a couple of conversations with Chuck where I said, “I don’t know maybe I’m crazy and I may blow this whole deal right now but I think this is your romantic comedy.”  Because he’s really thought of as this dark, nihilistic writer and I didn’t feel that in this.  I felt this was very damaged and hopeful and romantic in its own perverse, post-modern way.  That worked for him and enough that he said, “Great, good luck with it,” and was very patient because it took me a year and a half, two years maybe and a couple of drafts before I could really get a handle on taking this surreal, satirical world from the page to the more three-dimensional world of a movie.  It takes a lot of risks as a narrative and Chuck, like a lot of the smartest novelists I know, is really aware that for a movie adaptation to work, at a certain point,  you’ve got to just put the book away and he let me do that.  I really had to do that because there was so much brilliant stuff in Victor’s voice that I could have just made my own book on tape.  And it was tempting with the voice-over and I wanted to keep the fact that this is a person watching himself go through his life, especially in the early parts of the book but I knew at a certain point that would stop us from being too engaged with the guy and it would have to fade out and really become dramatized.

Did you use any music while you were writing?

Yes.  Different parts I wrote with different music.  One of the things that drew me to the material was how it managed to have scenes that I found hysterically funny in a black comedy vein and then two minutes later a really heartbreaking exchange that felt like Chekhov.  The days when I was working on those scenes I would be in moody, Radiohead world and when Chuck came he told me he wrote the book while listening to “Creep” which I thought was funny.  Then other times, the world of Choke can feel dark when you’re in it, when you’re writing it and I wanted to – I think what’s great about the book is the way the main character and other people respond to this stuff in an irreverent way, with a sense of humor, so I wrote to stuff that I thought was funny.  I wrote to The Shins album, which had just come out.

Casting

Beau and I made a decision very early on that it was really a cast-driven movie; it was about getting the actors and getting the right actors.  We teamed up with another friend who we both admire, Mary Vernieu, a great casting director and she came aboard I think a year and a half before we started shooting and really became our third partner.  She loved the script and helped us try to put a cast together.  That was an odd process to find out who was exactly right for this.  It took longer than we thought.

Tell me about Sam Rockwell.

From the minute I considered Sam as Victor it just felt right to me.  I don’t think there is anyone working in movies in America today who’s able to do this blend of fully committed drama that’s absolutely real that can veer into fully real, absolutely committed absurdist comedy.  We had done a play together years ago, many years ago and so I’ve always fondly watched him keep unfolding layers of himself to everyone’s amazement.  He’s kind of everybody’s favorite actor.  I watched specifically in Galaxy Quest where he plays this guy who is on a Star Trek like show who doesn’t have a name and as they go down to the planet’s surface he thinks this can portend only his doom.  It’s a funny scene and yet he played it so that it broke your heart and you kind of felt, “Oh my god he is going to die and this is horrible.  He’s a real person even if he doesn’t have a name on the show.” It felt exactly right for Choke because Choke takes some stylistic chances in terms of the reality of the world and I needed someone who could play that so that you didn’t doubt it for a minute.  From the first time he started reading I got to relax and go, “That part of my job is done.  I’ve found the absolutely perfect guy to play this.”

And what about Kelly Macdonald?

I had always been a big fan of Kelly’s ever since Trainspotting and I watched her in Gosford Park and I loved this movie she did with Bill Nighy, The Girl in the Café, a couple of years ago.  I brought her up a couple of times but on our budget people just assumed she was in Europe and that we wouldn’t be able to fly her over and we wouldn’t be able to afford her or get a visa and so I kind of let myself get temporarily talked out of her.  Then Sam said, “You know who I keep thinking about?  Did you ever see Trainspotting?” and I said, “Well, Sam I thought about her but she’s – I don’t know that we can get her here,” and he said “Oh, no, she’s here.  She’s been doing this Coen brothers movie.  No Country for Old Men.”  Two days later, the same day I met with Anjelica and she signed up, I met with Kelly and she was here and had a work visa that we were somehow able to extend and I thought she was perfect for it.  Her acting is invisible and the one thing the movie hinges on is you buying that that woman is who she says she is and that she’s not like the other people in his world, she’s not like the other women he’s been dealing with.  I also think Kelly has a volcanic reservoir of silent strength and that’s the kind of person Victor needs to have there to challenge him to break free of his past.

From what I understand it was a pretty interesting first meeting with Kelly.

Yeah we met at Shutters, this fancy place by the beach in Los Angeles, and I was meant to go directly from the meeting to New York to start pre-production.  Right before the meeting I received a phone call saying that pre-production had been pushed because they were having a little trouble getting the funds squared away and there I was with my luggage and no need to go to the airport, and Kelly ended up giving me a ride.  I looked like a homeless person but she still agreed to do the movie and I thought I had really blown all credibility by having to be taken with my little suitcase in her rental car to Brentwood.  She thought it was a test.  It wasn’t, I just needed a ride.

Tell me about Brad Henke.  Was he Mary Vernieu’s selection?

I wanted Denny to be big.  I loved the idea of Denny as this gentle giant accompanying the smaller Victor everywhere.  I liked that big visual image but I wasn’t going to stick to it if I couldn’t find the right actor who could form that bond and keep up with Sam.  Mary Vernieu from the first time she read the script said, “This is the guy.”  I believe she had cast him in at least two movies.  I had seen him in Me and You and Everyone We Know and I thought he was terrific but when I saw him in Sherrybaby he was the guy for me.  Brad Henke was the guy for me, he was Denny.  So we had a meeting set up and he came with his script and he had already figured out Denny’s journey, how it was Denny: From Disciple to Mentor, and he was just as gentle and sincere as I wanted Denny to be. He talked about how in the book Denny’s rock house that he builds is torn down by the mob who are actually mad at Victor and that from his perspective, as tragic as that was, he felt Denny had learned in his first building of that structure that the rebuild was going to far surpass it.  That so captured the half-full element of Denny.  Denny’s a key character in the movie because he seems like this gentle, chronic-masturbating village idiot who is just someone for Victor to bounce his crazy ideas off of — but he really becomes the trailblazer and grows past Victor quickly.  If it wasn’t for the loss of his dysfunctional running partner, I don’t know that Victor would have been able to take the steps necessary to show up for Dr. Marshall.  Denny’s version of this central theme of finding a way to give and receive love through his damage is that he is so lonely at the beginning.  I think the whole metaphor of a chronic-masturbator, you know, someone who is so wrapped up in themselves, in Denny’s case, it carries with it the suggestion that he doesn’t think anyone else will really have any interest in him.  Even his parents are trying to rent out his room and get rid of him.  So when he draws this picture of Cherry Daquiri I never show it because I think it’s remarkable to her.  I think it captures something magnificent about her, very real and very honest in a way that I think maybe she falls in love with him the minute she looks at that drawing.  I want to leave that in the audience’s imagination.  Also when I see a drawing in a movie I think, “Who drew that?”  He must feel like, “What did I do to deserve this fantastic person?” This person who is suddenly there and completely engaged and who turns out to be quite a soulmate and yet I don’t think it is an accident.  From Denny’s point of view it just seems like one of those things that drops out of the sky but I don’t think it’s an accident that she showed up when he had already gotten some sober time.  Even though Victor’s ridiculing him about it, he’s taking the steps to make himself available to that and I think it’s an important part of the story.

Pre-Production 

Tell me about the financing.  Was that a challenge?  Was it an uphill battle?

Once we landed on Sam as being the best idea and Sam signed up, pretty soon after that Anjelica signed up.   It was a lot of waiting.  We had to wait around my schedule.  We were ready to go a year earlier but a sitcom I act on got picked up and all of a sudden we had to postpone a year.  So we waited and waited and waited and then Sam signed up and then Anjelica and we had this window before I had to go back to work.  We went from a standing start to being fully cast and seeking financing in about six weeks.  When ATO Pictures’, Johnathan Dorfman and Temple Fennell came aboard as co-producers, from the time we first spoke to them it was maybe two and half or three months until our first day of pre-production.  It was terrifying because it kept falling apart and coming back together and I thought I was going to lose my mind.  It’s surprising that it even did come together because the window was so tight.  We were shooting July ninth and I hadn’t met those guys in April.

You’re a first time director, technically.  I mean you’ve been involved in film a long time and know a lot about it but this is the first time you’ve done that (direct).  So what’s it like?

That’s like saying you’ve flown on a lot of planes before but this is the first time you’ve flown one.  There’s no amount of stewardessing or passengering that really prepares you for stepping into the cockpit.  It was remarkable.  It defied expectations at every turn.  A lot of things were as I thought they might be, having watched stuff be filmed and having written stuff that was filmed, and other things were completely different.  Beforehand it was a lot of wondering what I didn’t know.  I felt there were certain things you could study and prepare for both with specific regard to this story and this script but also in terms of taking whatever skill set I had as an actor or theater director or screenwriter and augmenting them with whatever visual acumen I might need.  It’s hard to know what you don’t know and the people that you talk to who have directed a movie.  I had lunch with friends who were writers who had directed movies and actors who had directed movies and I thought that they were withholding a little bit because no one had a formula, “Oh this is what you need to do,” and I realized that it’s very specific to any given project what you need to know and it’s very specific to any given person where you are going to feel unprepared.

How was it working under the constraints of a small budget?

I found the budgetary constraints really interesting because on the one hand I was getting to make the movie exactly as I imagined it.  It’s very risky material.  It deals with sexuality and compulsion and addiction in a very forthright way and I was always very wary that in the present day and age where those things are, I don’t want to say being censored but it is difficult to bring controversial ideas into the present political climate. I was worried about censorship and that the producers would be nervous because it deals very frankly with sexuality and compulsion and addiction and one of the reasons I think Chuck is so popular is he doesn’t pull any punches with regard to that.  If anything he leans into being starkly open about things that people still, in this country, tend to couch.

When I got there and I was in pre-production it was interesting to see that really the only thing that was diminishing the unfettered voice of the book and the script was the money.  One of the most stressful things about pre-production was figuring out, “Can we do this water scene without water? Is there any way to do this night scene so it isn’t night?”  That can really be jarring because you feel like you’re chipping away at the integrity of the movie but I learned a lot about writing and directing from running the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.  We had the same problems with every production.  “You can’t possibly do this play with this amount of money.”  For the most part those financial restrictions just force you to be more creative.  There are some times that you can’t think your way around those problems but generally they’re going to push you into something more creative – there is usually another way.  I found that by and large most of the really difficult, unmanageable dilemmas led us to some really interesting creative solutions. That said we were able to make the movie that I wrote and was true to Chuck’s book I think.

The Shoot

What are the differences between acting in something and directing it or actually directing yourself, which you did in this as well?

As an actor you’re generally hanging out in some degree of a trailer for a number of hours and trying to kind of keep yourself in a place where when it’s time for your scene you can show up and be playful and get to the place that the scene requires and not have had your energy sapped in the four-banger or the two-banger or the no-banger if you’re higher up on the food chain, and that’s not the problem for the director.  You’re there and engaged from the moment you get out of the car in the morning ’til the next morning when you’re getting back into the car.  I found that in some ways it was easier than trying to kind of get involved and then rest for a long time and then get involved.  There’s nothing that can prepare anybody for directing themselves in a movie.  Luckily I only had three or four days, that was the upside.  The downside was I had to direct while wearing knickers and a frilly colonial shirt and try to get people to take me seriously while I was directing and I don’t wish that on anybody.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as editing myself.  I found that difficult.

So what was the biggest challenge in directing with the actors?

I’d say the biggest challenge in directing actors is that all actors are different.   They all have a different way of approaching their work.  They also are each having a different experience on this job than they’ve had on any other job because they’re playing a different character that taps into them in different ways, in some ways that they’re aware of, in other ways that they’re not aware of.  So it’s like a Phil Jackson kind of thing.  What it takes to motivate Kobe and help him play his maximum game is probably very different than what it takes to motivate their new, young, big guy, Andrew Bynum.  I’m really using a basketball thing.  I already took a left turn.  Yeah, everybody needs something different and figuring out how to give them that and I always think knowing when to shut up and let them find it even if you don’t think they’re in exactly the right channel right off the bat, it’s deeper if they can find it themselves.  So a lot of times your challenge is to keep your mouth shut and give them a little room and then be attentive enough so that you can notice when they’re sending up an S.O.S. that they actually want some help.

What’s it like working with Anjelica?

Working with Anjelica was kind of magnificent in that she is someone who has earned kind of legendary status from really an incredible body of work and there was an affinity she had with the character that was very brave from early on because in some ways, you know, Ida’s a bit of a monster and Anjelica never shied away from any of those aspects of Ida.  At the same time she found a very strong center of the person as having this overwhelming love for her son, played by Jonah Bobo, when he’s younger and Sam Rockwell when he’s older, just expressed through the prism of her damage.  I think the movie is very much about people trying to figure out how to get their damage worked out so that they can give and receive love and she really made Ida a facet of that core theme which I hadn’t really seen.

She brought some new ideas to the table.

She brought a tremendous intellectual rigor to the process, to the rehearsal process.  She was from the first day I gathered her and Sam Rockwell and Brad Henke, who played Denny, around a table, when we got through with her scenes she wanted to stay and read various hookers and sex addicts just to be in the process, just to connect to the world.  There wasn’t a lot of diva stuff.

You’re happy with Sam?

I’m very – I can’t imagine going through this process – because it was a fast, dirty shoot.  Really dirty.  July, August in Central New Jersey mostly in a mental institution with sketchy air conditioning that always had to be turned off.  If the heat didn’t kill him I thought the choking scenes would.  He would do these choking scenes and I would have to hold the producers back because everyone wanted to rush in and give him a Heimlich and I was the only one who knew that the tuna was watermelon that looked like tuna.

An added bonus was the generosity of spirit and commitment that Sam brings is like no actor I’ve seen on any job of any kind.  He never complains.  He works harder than anybody else on the movie.  He would listen to Chuck Palahniuk, the novelist, reading the book on tape.  It was on an endless loop.  I think he’s the last guy in America who owns a walkman.  And you could find him at four in the morning listening to Chuck read the book over and over again.  A lot of time when we were doing scenes he would say, “What about this line?” and I didn’t think anybody knew the book as well as I did because I’d studied it but Sam would remind me of sections from the book, great lines from the book and would, you know, request that we do one take that had that.  So if I gave them a little room to improvise at the top because he likes to get into it that way, later in editing I would look at his improvs and I would realize that he improvised the book, everything in the improv was lines from the book that he’d been saving up and wanting to use in different places.

Post-Production

How is editing?  Have you been having to compromise?  Have there been any challenges in the cutting room so far?

I was both nervous and excited about editing.  I was excited because I felt like we got some fantastic performances and that our D.P. was great, Tim Orr was fantastic, and the production designer, Roshelle Berliner, had done such a fantastic job creating this lush world in which this kind of story could happen and I couldn’t wait to get there and put the pieces together.  I just had a feeling that would be something I was going to enjoy.  At the same time we’d been so rushed.  My joke with Tim Orr was that after the movie was finished I was going to come back here and lie on my couch and try to figure out how to get from there to the refrigerator in less shots.  So often we’d have a three page scene and an hour and a half to shoot it and we’d go down our shot list and it was already at least a week of pre-production figuring out how to chop it down to the bare minimum and we’d try and figure out how to do it in two.  I was afraid when we got in there that I’d run into some tough brick walls about just not having the coverage to really cut it together to tell the story the way that I wanted to.  There are a few places where it got a little sticky but the way Tim Orr uses the camera and the way he moves it around and sneaks these two shots and singles into these moving masters, we kept finding that we had a way out  He gave me a lot of options.  I was worried, because we’d chopped our shotlist down just to preserve the schedule and to get all the scenes in the movie, that when we got there we would run into some brick wall with regard to how we were able to tell the scene.  So many times we’d think, “Okay, now we’re dead.  Now we’re dead.” And we’d go back through the coverage and piece things together.  I think because of Tim Orr we managed to cut the movie.

It’s funny, if there was one overall lesson that kept coming up it was at every step of the process I was challenged to let go of whatever I had figured out up until then.  Whatever I understood about the book I had to let it no longer be a book and be a screenplay, and let that be a different entity and to cook up scenes or characters or whatever I needed to do to realize what I felt was the essential idea of it.  Then once the script was done and we started to shoot I realized these people are different, they have something to offer, I’ve got to let it stop being a script and let it start being a movie which is happening in front of me with breathing people and a real mental hospital and let it adapt to that form.  Then when I got into editing I realized here is an entirely new place where I can’t be attached to what I intended when I shot it, I have to literally look at the pieces of information that are represented in these two-dimensional images and realize what story they wanted to tell.

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