David Fincher showcases his music video aesthetics in Fight Club (1999), heightening its visuals and offering a subjective look into the life of the Narrator (Edward Norton). The film spends much of its time inside the Narrator’s mind, as we see his surrounding world from his perspective, and using a secondary character, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a fabrication of his imagination, as a way of exploring his hidden inner emotions.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, Alex McDowell, production designer of Fight Club, discusses his feature film collaboration with David Fincher. “I started working with David Fincher when he was directing for Propaganda, doing many music videos – Madonna's ‘Oh Father,’ Aerosmith’s ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ and Don Henley’s award-winning ‘The End of the Innocence.’ I also worked on his earliest commercials. This was a solid year of seven-day weeks with David at the start of being the most sought-after director in the business, where we were overlapping projects, and I was running two or three art crews in rotation.” This was at the start of Alex McDowell’s career, as he notes, “I’d not built any large sets, but David always had an expectation of cinematic scale, and I learnt a lot very fast trying to work to his expectations!” Their extensive collaboration in music videos and commercials carried over into the feature film world. Alex McDowell notes that by the time Fight Club came around, shorthand existed between them.
In regards to their work together, he also points out that David Fincher is “a filmmaker who could if he wished do better work than all of his keys in their respective fields – he’s a good artist and can visualize and sketch exactly what he is imagining.” In addition, his collaboration with the process is individualized. David Fincher “compartmentalizes his direction for each part of the process – so when he was speaking with me, he’d be addressing only the specific information that I would need at that moment as production designer.” This information would include details about the overall context – lighting, blocking – but would be focused on the design elements. “I like working with this degree of specificity because it really allows me to put all my attention to the core design, with minimum extraneous noise, and very little energy wasted in multiple alternates.
Fight Club is a film that establishes a world – one that exists primarily in the mind of its characters – therefore locations have a significant role in the film. “The tone and scope of the film come from the real world constraints, but David Fincher had great influence on the selection of locations.” In the course of the film, David Fincher searched for a delicate balance within the locations – “a nameless unidentifiable city (several cities really) extracted from Los Angeles.” In this sense, we have an understanding of how several cities are pieced together as a collage in an effort to create one specific look. Alex McDowell also notes that on location, David Fincher would always have a clear idea of how he would film a scene – “the blocking of the actors, the direction and quality of light, exactly where to lay the track, what lens he would use – even months before the actual shoot day.”
In our analysis, we focused on a scene in which both the Narrator and Tyler battle each other. The Narrator, after losing his belongings in a fire, unsuccessfully calls Tyler from a payphone. There is no answer and he hangs up; when a call comes in, David Fincher’s camera pushes onto the phone. The barely legible sign reads, “No Incoming Calls Allowed.” If an incoming call is impossible, this highlights the fact that Tyler doesn’t exist in this world.
The following image is of a wide shot of Lou’s Tavern, a location that is prominently used over the course of the film. The characters exchange dialogue before exiting from the rear of the bar. They walk outside the back doors and are positioned in the center of the frame. Edward Norton stands on the right with a dumpster further to the right of the frame. Brad Pitt stands on the left with piled up garbage bags to the left side of the frame. There are doors directly behind them, which separate them within the frame, further establishing a sense that both characters are mirror images of one another. It’s interesting to note that the first thing we see Tyler do here is check the payphone for quarters; in the previous scene, the Narrator had placed a quarter in a payphone (a shot that David Fincher shows us with an extreme close-up) and called Tyler.
Tyler demands that the Narrator punch him; after debating his intentions, we freeze onto an image of Tyler, as we receive some initial background information on him, seeing him in his workplace, splicing individual frames into feature films and serving food as a waiter. In these moments, David Fincher takes us out of the action for side notes within the narrative.
Tyler edges him on and remarks, “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” This becomes a clear example of the Narrator speaking with himself, having inner conflicts. The camera then focuses on two empty beer bottles that Tyler places on the ground beside him. In the distance, on top of a payphone, we clearly see a single beer bottle. Tyler, of course, exists only within the Narrator’s mind; by focusing on the beer bottles, we’re constantly questioning the notion of doubles.
The duo then breaks into an altercation. The camera, which had been previously centered on the characters, slightly moves and follows their movements while maintaining a balance in terms of hierarchy. The level of detail in this scene is also noteworthy – after cutting onto the two wide shots of the characters fighting, both bottles are still in position, despite the change in camera setups.
The diagram indicates the actual fight between both characters. The numbers focus on various moments during their altercation – (1) Tyler asks the Narrator to punch him, (2) the Narrator hits him and (3) Tyler hits back. This indicates the escalation of their altercation, as the movement lines track the characters from leaving the bar to the end of the scene. In addition, the Narrator is presented in black whereas Tyler is in an outline.
The location of this key scene is noteworthy because Lou’s Tavern is where these characters interact in depth for the first time. It’s also here where we learn about the differences between both characters. The Narrator’s life revolves around his materialistic possessions, whereas Tyler is more carefree. This scene between both characters is also referenced over the course of the film. In a later scene, when both characters enter Lou’s Tavern for their first fight club meeting, the gentleman standing by the door nods only to the Narrator, once again emphasizing that Tyler doesn’t exist. In addition, when the Narrator punches himself in his boss’s office, we freeze on him, as he notes that he is reminded of his first fight with Tyler. This alludes to the fact that he was fighting with himself then, as he is now. In the course of the film, after the reveal has been made, a flashback takes us back to the scene at the bar. In a new angle, we now see the altercation; from their perspective, we see the Narrator fighting with himself. This provides us with an objective look at the same scene. David Fincher switches from a subjective perspective onto an objective perspective after the reveal has been made.
Lou’s Tavern is also significant because it’s where the rules of fight club are established; the basement that was used for production, however, was constructed in 20th Century Fox Studios. Shipwreck Joey’s, a former topless bar, which had closed in July 1990, served as the location for Lou’s Tavern. The bar was located at the northeast corner of Figueroa Street and Harry Bridges Boulevard in Wilmington, California. The location had been an abandoned auto repair shop that had been covered from the bar. The establishment, which was displayed prominently in the area, was demolished soon after filming.
The production searched in and around San Pedro in search of a “compelling interior/exterior location that would be desolate, working class, with great looking exterior views based on an anonymous look and context - adjacent freeway, desolate industrial landscape and docks, no residential character - and a good interior layout.”
Alex McDowell notes that, in that sense, the location was a “remarkable combination of industrial layers and faded glamour.” In addition, the production picked up on some of the evidence of color from its strip club days, which added to the overall texture. In this sense, much of their work was “stripping away the clutter and revealing the bones.” Alex McDowell notes, “I remember trying largely to leave it alone and let it work for us. The textures and layers of history that a natural location can deliver are often more compelling than anything we might add, so that location was a balance and tension between the existing value and David Fincher and film’s needs.”
In discussing this scene, Alex McDowell, notes that the production “replaced a roll-up door at the front of the building with the two black doors centered in a set wall. David Fincher was very clear on his shots, and our energies were focused on ensuring that his blocking of the actors was supported by the set elements that we brought to the location. David would have expectation that anything needed was achievable, and we would go to whatever lengths necessary to adapt locations and build sets to his specific needs so that the machinery of the shooting would deliver the images in his head.”
In terms of architecture, Fight Club balances the late Twentieth Century banal and the historic. David Fincher searched for an Art Deco historical aesthetic, which Alex McDowell balanced with a more Victorian industrial Detroit influence. In speaking of the visual look of the film, Alex McDowell notes, the film is a “nuanced exploration into the subtle degrees of colorless, vapid corporate architecture that nevertheless provided an aesthetic beautifully lit contrast to the texture of the Paper Street house, Lou’s Tavern and the richness of Tyler’s world.”
Alex McDowell notes that this influence, as well as the Paper Street House, “derived as a combination of my research and scouting in Detroit (individual houses left standing on city blocks after Devil’s Night culling) and my late-seventies experience in London as an art student when I lived in a conjoined squat with holes cut in the dividing walls between buildings so that occupants could escape police raids on one building by slipping into the next, and a shared back yard that very much resembled the Paper Street house exterior.” In the design of their “nameless city,” the production team researched such locations in an effort to create their own world.
In addition, after the production dived into the banality of Los Angeles, the crew spring boarded off that to corporate architecture for residential housing. Alex McDowell points out that a key phrase in their minds for the look of the Narrator’s life was “file-cabinets for young professional – placing the Narrator in a soulless box that gave him nothing back.”
The locations were a reflection of the characteristics of each individual. The exterior of the Narrator’s apartment, a bland example of corporate housing, was found in Downtown Los Angeles and the interior space was then constructed based on that appearance. Alex McDowell notes that “the IKEA element was a crucial metaphor for this catalogue mediated life, and it was also designed to resemble a catalogue interior, and dressed accordingly – nothing in it that wasn’t devoid of personality or identity.”
Alex McDowell notes that, “as a (British) alien to Los Angeles, I’ve always found the city fascinating and eternally appealing, and a large part of that lies in its remove from any European architectural tradition, its human economic driven organic growth, and the intricate layers of subtly different but repetitive forms, and typologies. Fight Club was the perfect expression of that, an amazing opportunity to explore banality and vacuity as a legitimate artistic exercise. It’s the film that got me inside the fabric of a city, in a richer way than any since, while allowing me to develop an eye for threading a fictional design narrative across and through real space.”
The collaboration with David Fincher proved invaluable, as he notes that he remains “the most stimulating collaborator whose demands pushed our work in a way that drove many of our careers from that time on.” Fight Club, for him, is a special project, which resulted in an unforgettable experience. “It also remains one of my favorite film regardless of having designed it.”
Interview with Alex McDowell
Alex McDowell is the founder and creative director of 5D | Global Studio, an interdisciplinary, multi-platform, and cross-media design studio. In his career, he has served as a production designer on films such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Minority Report (2002), The Terminal (2004), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Watchmen (2009), In Time (2011), Upside Down (2012) and Man of Steel (2013). Alex McDowell is the production designer of Fight Club (1999).