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Doing right by the book

Director Clark Gregg wanted his first film, 'Choke,' to be good enough to appease the novel's rabid fans.

September 24, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

When actor/writer Clark Gregg first read "Choke" more than seven years ago, he felt such an immediate connection to the material that he became determined to make it his directorial debut. Written by the cult novelist Chuck Palahniuk, the book had all the shock and subversion one might expect from the author of "Fight Club," but Gregg also connected to an underlying sweetness in the pages that caught him by surprise.

"It felt like something I'd been waiting for," Gregg said in a recent interview, "mixing an equivalent of an incredibly irreverent dirty joke with something that felt like a punk, black romantic comedy."

Gregg's cinematic adaptation of the novel, which hits theaters on Friday, covers a lot of ground, chronicling the life of the character Victor Mancini (played in the film with sleazy panache and unlikely charm by Sam Rockwell) as it explores just how low one can go before finding moral redemption.

In the throes of his own sex addiction, Victor prowls 12-step groups for easy picks-ups, while also scamming money on the side bilking people who save him when he fakes choking in restaurants. His mother (Anjelica Huston) is a former political radical who is losing herself to dementia. At the facility where she is being cared for, Victor meets a pretty young doctor (Kelly Macdonald) who convinces him that his mother believed him to be fathered from the DNA of Jesus and can prove it. The story also includes a friendly but dim stripper, a kindly chronic masturbator and a historical reenactment theme park.

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Dual roles

Gregg has one of those "I know that guy" faces from his career as an actor -- he's currently on the television show "The New Adventures of Old Christine," appeared briefly in this summer's "Iron Man" and has a small role in "Choke." He made his debut as a screenwriter with his work on the Robert Zemeckis thriller "What Lies Beneath," and since then, he has toggled between work as an actor as well as a writer, though none of his subsequent screenplays has been produced.

Gregg admits that he has been "in and out" of recovery programs himself through his life, and so Victor's quest to quell his inner demons was something that resonated in a personal way. Yet it was Gregg's reading of "Choke" as a romantic comedy that convinced Palahniuk that he had found the right guy to shoot his book.

"Almost everything I do is a romantic comedy," Palahniuk said during an interview while at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where the film was picked up after its premiere by distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures. At Sundance, the film also won a special jury prize for best work by an ensemble cast.

Palahniuk noted that most of his books have been or are under some kind of option for a film adaptation but that it takes a specific sensibility and something of a strong stomach to bring his dark, subversive stories to the screen.

Gregg only had a brief telephone conversation with Palahniuk before setting off to adapt "Choke," one in which the author's only real instructions were "don't be too faithful." After many drafts over several years, writing in-between acting jobs, Gregg finally finished a script he was happy with.

Though Palahniuk spent a few days on-set while "Choke" was shooting in New Jersey, Gregg had his hands full with the film's brisk 25-day schedule, so the two didn't actually get to spend much time together until Sundance and more recently while promoting the film.

"You expect some cross between an ultimate fighter and an anarchist and Jonathan Swift," Gregg said of the well-cultivated mystique around Palahniuk. "And he's got this attitude that's insanely genuine and weirdly wise. He really sort of talks about the book as if it's something he gathered from a lot of sources, some very personal and some not at all. He wants to talk about the stuff I added and the connections I made between the characters he created. Strangely, those are his favorite parts."

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Facing the fan base

Once he finished the film, the prospect of facing Palahniuk's notoriously rabid and loyal fans, who often turn his readings into rock star events -- people frequently faint -- was an intimidating prospect for Gregg.

"At screenings there's always someone who says, 'How could you have taken out that line?' " recalls Gregg. "And I always think, 'Dude, it wasn't easy. It was painful for me too.' "

At a recent post-screening Q&A, Gregg slyly answered a question regarding the budget of "Choke" by noting that if "Fight Club" was made for $63 million, "Choke" cost about $60 million less. He hopes the distinctions between the films will be apparent.

"I don't want to get into the game of condescending to that audience," he said of the fans of the "Fight Club" movie and Palahniuk's books. "I feel like they'll understand the difference between these two books and these two movies. At the end of the day, the only obligation I had was to make a good movie out of this."

As the multi-year trip Gregg has made bringing his version of Palahniuk's "Choke" to the screen comes to an end, the filmmaker still can't quite believe it's happening.

"In the years the script was being developed," he said, "way too many people looked at it as incredibly dark and not funny. It wasn't until the first screening at Sundance, when people laughed, that I was sure that it wasn't one of those incredibly vile dirty jokes that I love and that usually clear a room."

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