Watch: Screenwriter Jim Uhls on Adapting 'Fight Club' for the Big Screen
When Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club was making the rounds in Hollywood, it didn't seem like a very promising book to be adapted for the screen. But then Brad Pitt got involved; add David Fincher and Ed Norton, and you've got a 90s' classic film -- a perfect pre-millenium tension piece that captured the weird pre-Y2K mood in America. Over at Cinephilia and Beyond, they've got a great collection of information on Fight Club, including an interview with the screenwriter, Jim Uhls, as well as behind the scenes production footage. Click below to learn the first rule of writing about Fight Club.
Fight Club, the novel, arose out of a real fight Palahniuk had on a camping trip:
Though he was bruised and swollen, his co-workers avoided asking him what had happened on the camping trip. Their reluctance to know what happened in his private life inspired the writing of Fight Club.
He finished the book, but had trouble finding a publisher. Upon publication, it became a cult classic almost right away, aided by public readings at which the author would read stories so intense that people would literally faint. He attributed the book's appeal partly to the fact that:
...bookstores were full of books like The Joy Luck Club and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood...these were all novels that presented a social model for women to be together. But there was no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives.
When the book's galleys (unpublished manuscripts that circulate around Hollywood) had been passed on by almost everyone in town, Pitt and Fincher, having previously worked together a few years before on the hit Se7en, brought on screenwriter Jim Uhls and worked with Fox to make the 1999 film.
Originally a playwright, Uhls deadpans below that he was brought to screenwriting by "money," but he was unsure of himself at first, as he tells in this wonderful interview at The Dialogue, a YouTube channel that has dozens of lessons with different masters of screenwriting. The screenplay for Fight Club can be read here, as well as the most in-depth article on the making of the film.
Uhls' advice for beginning screenwriters? Read as many screenplays as possible. Surprisingly, he doesn't outline, in fact "despises them," an interesting departure from most conventional wisdom on screenwriting, which holds that The Outline is the thing. Uhls thinks it leads to "slavish devotion" which prevents creativity from sprouting.
His process: stream of consciousness notes, sometimes "interviewing" the characters on the page, even antagonizing them, until they start talking to him.
On writing different characters in different voices: "If there's two leads -- I bled over some syntax and I can catch that early and start developing a different one -- " This proved especially useful in Fight Club, with the two characters of Norton and Pitt so related and yet different.
On adapting the novel:
Any novel has the advantage of describing internal/external behavior as well as exposition -- screenplays involve watching external behavior -- even if you're faithful to a novel -- if it works on screen, you have made changes to it, because you're not using an internal narrative -- we used voice-over really for an ironic commentary, as sparingly as possible -- it's not helpful to the audience, it's just there -- you have to work as hard as you do on an original script -- at the end of the day, people want a workable screenplay --
According to Uhls, when Palahniuk would visit the set, "We would ask him, 'Why did you do this?' and he would just stare at us blankly and say, 'I have no idea.' We would get essences of ideas from him."
Cinephilia and Beyond also links to a great video of pre-production footage of Fincher discussing how the film should be shot, as well as a few other goodies, like audio commentary with Fincher, Pitt, Norton and Helena Bonham Carter:
What do you think of Jim Uhls, and his adaptation? Do you think his advice is helpful to the beginning screenwriter, or do you think everyone has their own methods and all roads lead to Rome? Let us know!