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He punked up the rom-com

September 07, 2008|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

Clark GREGG, one of those actors everyone recognizes as the strait-laced good guy -- see also: "The West Wing," "The New Adventures of Old Christine" -- was looking for his first film project to direct. Then “Choke,” the fourth novel by "Fight Club" scribe Chuck Palahniuk (rhymes with "politic") came his way: a heartwarming tale of a sex addict whose mother is lost in dementia and who, as Gregg puts it, "deliberately chokes on food so that he can form parasitic relationships with the wealthy people who Heimlich him."

Um, how nice for him.

"I got nothing but 'What are you doing?' looks for quite a while," Gregg says with his habitually ironic, thin-lipped hint of a smile. "Many, many people felt this is just too dark. Yet I feel a lot of the best comedy comes out of painful stuff. If you describe 'Little Miss Sunshine' in a couple sentences, it makes you want to go home.

" 'Choke' defies pitching, it's kind of an impossible synopsis to give. And yet that's kind of its strength."

The extent of Palahniuk's sage advice during the five-year adaptation process was, according to Gregg, "Please don't be too faithful to the book."

"I called him up and said, 'I feel like at the heart of this, it's almost like a punk romantic comedy.' And he said, 'Perfect. That's exactly right.' And that was it," says Gregg. But since the film's early showings at festivals, "He's been nothing but an advocate."

During the quest for financing for the film -- which opens Sept. 26 -- with some potentially controversial elements (see also: sexual deviation; Christ complex), Gregg heard the material was "execution-dependent" -- meaning not the sort of thing investors were happy to see a first-time director attempt. But things came together quickly after he recruited Sam Rockwell ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") for the lead, paving the way for stars such as Anjelica Huston and Kelly Macdonald ("No Country for Old Men") to come onboard.

"Sam's an actor other actors want to act with," he says. "While I know there were things about the script that Anjelica responded to, she was certainly wary about it and I really believe Sam's presence is what got her to sit down with me and talk about it."

In January at Sundance, the cast won a Special Jury Prize for Dramatic Work by an Ensemble.

So far, audiences have not rioted at screenings. But the available sample may not be representative of the mainstream filmgoer.

"The places it has shown have been Sundance -- good luck shocking somebody at Sundance -- and CineVegas -- good luck shocking anybody in Vegas -- and Comic-Con. I may be walking into a wall of public reprobation, but what are you going to do?" he asked with a mischievous grin. "It feels true to me."

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