July 19, 2013

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 Clubthe 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When the book's galleys (unpublished manuscripts that circulate around Hollywood) had been passed on by almost everyone in town, Pitt and Fincher, having previously worked together a few years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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHBvz8fFaDU

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!

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6 Comments

I don't outline either but I do have a rough plot line in mind. After the first draft, you begin to correct the inconsistencies in the flow and the dialogue, add and delete scenes but also spot the ideas that might have been discarded prior if you went strictly from the outline. That way, even if you stick with the original story arc, you end up with different, deeper, more developed characters.

July 19, 2013 at 2:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

I finally realized the meaning of visual language after seeing this film. I loved the way it was told, and it did hone in on the building millennial tension of the era.

July 19, 2013 at 3:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Marc B

I thought the book was god awful boring and flat. I'm amazed that anyone saw the potential in it. I adored the movie and was impressed how much they fleshed it out that it's almost unrecognizable from the book. The filmmakers deserve major kudos making such a shining, kinetic and rebellious film from a book which was pretty thin.

July 20, 2013 at 2:24AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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earnestreply

As far as palahnuik's books go I think it was one of my least favorites (at least till rant came out) I didn't think it was god awful, but I do remember fight club being one of those rare instance where I thought the movie was much better then the book, choke in the other hand was a huge disappointment.

July 22, 2013 at 6:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Nick Hiltgen

The interviewing your character advise is a gem! I did some 'job interviews' as some of my characters today and was genuinely surprised what they would lie about. I also did some online personality tests pretending to be my main characters and got really interesting results. It also helped me tweak where my character's arc needed to take them. Great stuff!

July 20, 2013 at 2:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dan

I am a director. I always find it difficult to putting things on screen exactly the way I read the script and it always happens to me. It all depends on the way the director reads a script after the script writer has finished his draft and how should that skill be improved?

July 26, 2013 at 12:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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SMONY