CEDAR GROVE, New Jersey — It's just starting to rain as Chuck Palahniuk guides me through an abandoned mental hospital late on a Friday night. And he couldn't be more excited. Now to be fair, perhaps the euphoria is warranted. We are, after all, on location for the filming of "Choke," Palahniuk's best-selling subversive novel about a man who takes to forcing food down his gullet so as to become the beneficiary of clueless good Samaritans.
Palahniuk is an odd duck. Put it this way, about 30 minutes earlier when I first met the unassuming, 45-year-old "Fight Club" author, he opened our conversation by excitedly telling me how three crew members of the production have recently been victims of biting accidents (two involving dogs, one a disgruntled girlfriend). He says all this through a grin and with such soft-spoken gentleness I easily could have thought he was telling me a bedtime story.
That incongruity between the sweet outside and the sinister interior shouldn't be surprising given the subjects the author traffics in: sex, obsession, violence — and did I mention sex? Sam Rockwell stars in this latest book-to-film translation (due in 2008) as Victor Mancini, a colonial theme-park worker with "a lot of mommy issues" (Rockwell's words, not mine). Academy Award winner Anjelica Huston plays the formidable mother Ida Mancini, who is dying in a hospital bed throughout much of the story (the former Essex County Hospital subbing for Palahniuk's St. Anthony's).
This is the writer's fourth day on the set but he's already picked out his favorite moment of the shoot: watching Victor force-feed his mom chocolate pudding. "I watched Sam do that to Anjelica over and over, and every time she would have to spit it all out into a bucket," Palahniuk says. "When she was done, Anjelica came up to me in her hospital gown with pudding all over her face and said, 'This is all your fault.' "
There's a strange energy on the set tonight. Power failures on two occasions haven't soured spirits, nor has the increasingly crazy weather, a mix of 90-degree heat (abetted by ruthless humidity) and the occasional thunderstorm. And then there's the bizarre assembly of guests dropping by. "Choke" director Clark Gregg's wife, Jennifer Grey, has been circling the action with their 5-year-old daughter in tow (Grey's father Joel plays the head of a sex addict group in the film). And director David Gordon Green, coming off his own shoot for "The Pineapple Express" (see "Are 'Pineapple' Pair Seth Rogen, James Franco The Next Harold & Kumar?"), has been chatting with his friend, cinematographer Tim Orr. Meanwhile, "Grindhouse" star Marley Shelton sits in front of a monitor watching playback of a scene alongside her producer husband.
Then there's the gentleman standing beside us, who I point out to Palahniuk. "That's Dave Matthews?" he asks me incredulously, as I inform him that the musician is one of the backers of the film via the production company, ATO. Soon the odd pair share a moment in the sweltering gymnasium that's currently doubling as the interior of a plane. Palahniuk's editor later admits to me that he had no idea that the tall man who identified himself as David earlier was in fact Dave Matthews.
"Let's get Chuck in here," Gregg says. It's a last-minute decision for the first-time feature director (best known for his acting in "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and writing of "What Lies Beneath") to get the mastermind of the story in for a cameo. "I always wanted to get him in there and all of a sudden I had this empty airplane," he explains.
Coming off the high of his impromptu idea, Gregg takes a quick break to confide, "If I'd known how hard this was going to be tonally and thematically I would have definitely chosen something else."
The rain is really coming down now, beating the roof of the gym with a deafening power. But the sound doesn't interfere with the scene, one in which Rockwell simply has to get up from his airline seat and walk out of the frame. What we're not seeing is what goes on in the plane's lavatory — a scene that one of the film's producers has described to me as Victor's origin scene, which takes place before he has discovered he's a sex addict. Waging war with the sound of the rain is a portable stereo playing "Locomotion." Gregg tells me this was Rockwell's idea. Clearly energized by the music, Rockwell jokingly humps part of the set after he walks out of camera range on the final take. It's not quite Radiohead's "Creep" (which Palahniuk wrote the book to), but it gets Rockwell where he needs to be.
It's day 20 of the shoot ("Trying to shoot a movie like this in 25 days is crazy," says Gregg) and the last night for Rockwell. He sounds simultaneously saddened to move on and relieved. "I like Victor a lot but it's probably time to shed him," the actor says, comparing the character to a modern-day Hamlet. "It's about a guy who's going from boy to man. He's trying to let go of his mother and say goodbye to being a boy. It's very Freudian."
Which of course brings us to sex, a subject very much on Victor's mind on virtually every deliciously dirty page of the book. And the film looks to be no different. "The sexuality in it is ferocious and comedic," Rockwell says. "It's pretty wild." Gregg calls it "unapologetically edgy, thought-provoking, outspoken material." Edgy would also be the proper word for the gift that crew members are receiving courtesy of the production. Palahniuk gleefully shows off a sex toy that figures prominently in the book and film. He brags that he's gotten Rockwell to sign his.
Despite its short shooting schedule and small budget (somewhere between three and four million dollars), "Choke" is aiming high in terms of ambition. "We're aspiring to make a movie like 'Boogie Nights,' 'Punch Drunk Love' or 'The Fisher King.' Very epic films," Rockwell says. Make no mistake; this is not "Fight Club." Palahniuk says the production feels "entirely different" and that Gregg and Rockwell are getting along much better than that film's director and star (David Fincher and Edward Norton). Eschewing the famed Fincher technique of shooting dozens of takes for the simplest shots, Gregg's approach is practically run-and-gun, nearly always getting what he needs in two or three takes. "This is a very different film from 'Fight Club,' " Rockwell says. "It's much more tongue in cheek. It's a lighter film. It has a different kind of intensity."
Reverence for Palahniuk's material is evident from all involved and the production looks to be a faithful adaptation down to the author's unique first-person narration. Still, there will be differences, and Palahniuk for one is happy about them. Describing the addition of a key scene between Victor and Ida in the first act, he says, "This is like one more rewrite."
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