For months, the Hollywood rumor mill has been abuzz about the 20th Century Fox release Fight Club: Adjectives like "brutal," "irreverent," and "subversive" are being invoked with regularity as the film nears its opening date this month. This might seem like so much hype were it not for the track record of director David Fincher, who enjoyed pushing the envelope with his pitch-black 1995 thriller Seven, and whose last feature, The Game, went out of its way to alienate the audience.
The story of Fight Club, adapted from a Chuck Palahniuk novel by Jim Uhls, follows an average guy (Edward Norton) who gives up his day job after meeting magnetic nihilist Brad Pitt. Together, they romance Helena Bonham Carter, and seek meaning and connection in undercover, no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle boxing matches. As in Seven, the setting is an anonymous American city, though the film was shot entirely in Los Angeles. There's an apocalyptic car accident, explicit lovemaking, an explosive climax atop a high-rise, and a lot of rain, all of it perceived through the lowest-keyed of lighting styles.
"You may or may not like the movie, you may or may not be offended by it, but you won't forget it," says Jeff Cronenweth, who is making his feature debut as director of photography. Cronenweth is the son of and former assistant to late Blade Runner DP Jordan Cronenweth, and Fight Club has some of the visual edginess that was his hallmark. If Blade Runner was a nightmare vision of LA's smoky, congested future, in Fight Club the future has arrived. It's a hellish millennial movie, with glamour-puss Brad Pitt and his costars continually nursing cuts, bruises, and worse in the decrepit, often electricity-deprived house where they hole up.
The fight scenes may be a brief component of the movie's running time and ultimate point, but they do help set the tone. "The majority of the fights take place in the dungeon-like basement of a bar," explains Cronenweth. "They lay cardboard boxes flat on the concrete, then the guys form a crude ring around where the participants are going to have their fight. We used these lights we nicknamed 'budget busters,' little clamp-ons that you can get at Home Depot for $3, and hung about three of those in the center of the room. We had one fluorescent tube mounted in the ceiling, and I just added a couple of practicals and small sources around the perimeter so you can see slightly into the walls. There was some fluorescent toplight for the extras watching the fights, but turned way down--we never really wanted to see whothese guys were. The ring itself is the brightest area, but it too is not that bright. In the long line of David Fincher movies, it's not a bright film."
When the lights do go up in Fight Club, the filmmakers aren't afraid to let them venture into harsher realms. In the opening scenes, Norton's character is seen going about his everyday activities--working in an office cubicle, driving home, becoming lost in humdrum. "We wanted to show what these environments, which were locations we visited, look like," says Cronenweth. "We used a lot of the practical sources and fluorescent box lights in the office and let them go, with limited degrees of uncorrected colors. Our philosophy was to take the harshness or beauty that the reality of each scene gave us."
Though the DP describes the visual style as reality-driven, he partially amends that to "heightened reality" or "hyperreality." And sometimes more control had to be exerted over the locations. "We had to see how the location was lit, and find a beauty within that--not just go in and say, 'OK, we're ready to shoot,' although I think David would have loved for that to happen. The idea doesn't always come across that easily on film. So we would cheat and bring colors back to manageable areas and add lights where we had to. We shot in one of the LAX baggage terminals, about 500' [152m] long, and we actually changed out all the globes, hundreds of them. But then we would go into, say, a laundromat, and David just loved the quality of light, and it was appropriate for the story. With some slight balancing, we would control what existed and make it into this slightly deranged world that they lived in."
In some ways, the most traditionally lit environment in Fight Club is the boarded-up house the characters share--be it ever so squalid, there's no place like home. The set was built as a two-story soundstage interior and an 11,000-sq.-ft. [990 sq. m] exterior shell on a vacant lot in Long Beach. "Production designer Alex McDowell did such a great job that people would come up and express concern that a freeway was going to go right through the house we were building," Cronenweth notes, adding that the designer "allowed me a lot of opportunities to help determine where windows and practicals were placed."
Onstage, the DP argued for a practical two-story set rather than side-by-side top and bottom floors. "I referred back to one movie I worked on with my father, Final Analysis, which had many scenes that took place in a lighthouse. They built that practically, the reason being that the containment forces you to create interesting compositions and be true to the setting, giving credit to the location and the direction of light. Having lights come over the tops of walls and through muslin ceilings can be too easy, too tempting. David liked it anyway, because then he could carry shots from one room and one floor to the next more easily."
The set lights were all on dimmers, partly to expedite Fincher's virtuoso dolly and Steadicam shots encompassing four or five rooms. "The fact that it was prerigged, that we had control on the dimmer boards to adjust things very quickly, gave us the opportunity to get these shots done in the short amount of time we had," says Cronenweth. (The Fight Club script is dense with many short scenes, locations, and time-consuming makeup effects, and the decision was made early on to cut back on overtime and have a calmer, more methodical shoot by limiting days to 10 hours and adding onto the end of production. Thus, the movie ended up running to 138 shooting days.)
Day interiors in the house were mostly keyed to the numerous windows--75 or so on the whole set, the DP says. "The windows were boarded up and newspapered, so that allowed me really nice, dappled, warm, diffused areas to come through. Tea-stained newspaper is a beautiful source when you come through it." Though Cronenweth made considerable use of Kino Flos on the film, his plan to use them as a sunlight source for the house didn't work out. "We were on the set for many, many weeks, and they were too expensive," he says. "But as luck would have it, I think they would have been far too low an output source. I ended up using 2k or 5k sky pans outside all the windows. I didn't have the problem of shooting out and seeing the sources, because the windows were too diffused."
Night interiors with the electricity actually on were lit by practicals like the aforementioned clamp-on budget busters. "We'd place them in the shot, and then come off to one side or the other with perhaps a small Kino Flo with muslin diffusion and a little color," says Cronenweth. Whenever it would rain (which it did quite often, this being a David Fincher movie) the characters would throw the circuit breaker so as not to short out the whole house. "Once they did that, the house was either lit by candles or flashlights, or just very low ambiance coming through the windows. We sometimes added a tint of blue to the sky pans and brought them down in intensity. It was very careful balancing, subtle and non-directional. Maybe just a lightbulb, knocked way down and hidden behind a book, would be the key for the whole scene. It was very difficult--David wants everything real, so there's no light, but, of course, if there's no light you've got a radio show."
Another major soundstage set was the 19th floor of a glass skyscraper for the movie's explosive climactic scene. Since the building is under construction, the only practicals on the set are work lamps, which provided an interior key. It being a nighttime sequence, 11 Kino Flo Image 80s were hung outside the windows for ambiance, along with six 4' 4Banks on the ground to simulate street lights. The set also necessitated a giant translight--36' high by 128' long (11x39m)--of a nighttime composite cityscape. "The interesting part was lighting that," says Cronenweth. "We used 148 sky pans. My gaffer, Claudio Miranda, is quite the computer nut, so he scoped it out and got the perfect location for each light. When you went around to the back of the translight and looked at the pipe he rigged, it looked marvelous--it was all symmetrical, everything clean and even all the way around."
The translight was in two overlapping pieces for perspective purposes, with a diffusing bobbinet so large it could only be manufactured in Germany. "It became fully rigged and up only two days prior to shooting in there," the DP says of the translight. "I sent my gaffer down to the set to photograph it, and when we got our test back, which was the day before we were going to shoot, one section was quite a lot denser and darker than the other section, which was quite a lot bluer. That's fine for the buildings, but where the skies merged they were different colors. We made a calculated guess, and that night we had riggers come in and switch out 85 of the sky pan globes from 5k to 2k to counter the side that was too dark. Then we added gel--some 80'x40' (24x12m) of gel--to tone down the blue slightly. Some $15,000 later, we were ready to go, and fortunately, the corrections were appropriate."
Fincher is a storyboarder and planner, but even by his standards, the skyscraper sequence had to be laid out early--six weeks before shooting began on the movie, in fact. "CGI work started then," Cronenweth explains, "and the translight had to merge into what was created with the CGI overlays. When they hung it, it had to be exactly to the specs the director had anticipated. It was one of the last things we photographed, so it was interesting to start with something and then have to arrive at it."
There are other unusual, elaborate scenes in the film: a graphic lovemaking sequence between Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter, for example, covered with two still cameras set at different shutter speeds. Perhaps the wildest sequence is a car crash seen from so many different angles that the time it took to film it is out of proportion to the time it occupies on screen. "First you see Brad and Edward in the interior driving at high speed at night, in the rain, in a desolate area," the cinematographer says. "They have a confrontation, and drift off to the side of the road and rear-end a parked car. The impact is quite strong, and both cars go off a concrete embankment and roll down into a wash basin. We photographed the crash itself on three different nights, encompassing about eight pairs of cars. We shot a night of close-ups of the impact with five or six cameras. We shot mount shots right up to impact, and we cut a car in half and shot interiors of the front and back seat. Then we mounted a car on a rotisserie onstage, mounted a camera to that, and tumbled the actors in the car as they roll down the hillside. Lastly, we built a hillside that matched the location, and shot the car sliding into a landing."
Other night exteriors for the film were lit by Bebee Nightsuns and lighting balloons, but this sequence needed special treatment. "A lot of it was lighting the rain," says Cronenweth. "For the actual impact, all of the cameras were down the embankment looking up, so we had lights on the road to backlight the rain, and two Condors slightly scraping the embankment of the hillside. Then I had a small bounce source at the bottom of the hill, so the cameras that were covering the slide had a little more backlight to read into the car. The effects people rigged the glass in the car to blow out on impact, so rain and glass shards were all glowing in the backlight, and in the dust flared up by the crash."
Cronenweth is most proud of another contribution to this scene--the background plate footage for the onstage driving shots. "I think we did a really nice job of making it believable," he says. "So often it looks like what it is, with someone in the foreground in focus, the person behind him soft, and the plate shot totally crystal-clear. We had interactive light sources running down the sides of the cars, and David used a Wescam system on an arm on the car, which gives you very smooth, continuous plates. We brought the car to set during prep to figure out how we were going to cover it, and marked down the angles and covered the plate footage the same way, and always slightly out of focus."
A substantial prep period stood the DP in good stead. "I had an opportunity to test out every kind of light source I was going to encounter--whether it was copy machines or sodium vapor or mercury halide or car headlights--on every one of the practical locations," he says. He chose Eastman Kodak's 5279 500ASA stock for all night exteriors and interiors, along with 5248 for day interiors and the higher-speed 5246 for day exteriors. As on Fincher's last two movies, the format was Super 35.
One decision that remained up in the air was processing. "At the beginning, we did some experiments with Technicolor on a color/black-and-white composite," says Cronenweth. "Color is neither David's nor the subject matter's friend. There are situations shooting on location when you can't control the color elements, so there were scenes we wanted to desaturate. But as the test progressed, we weren't completely happy with it." Just prior to timing in mid-August, it looked like the film would be given the ENR treatment, a less extreme process than the silver-retention technique that provided Seven with its swampy look.
Cronenweth was camera operator on Seven, which was photographed by Darius Khondji, and he also shot some second-unit, including part of the much-praised title sequence. On The Game, shot by Harris Savides, he did all of the second-unit work. The DP's connection to Fincher goes back to his years assisting his father, who shot several music videos and commercials for the director. Starting with his father, who died in 1996, and continuing through Sven Nykvist, whom he worked with between 1992 and 1995, Cronenweth counts himself very lucky in terms of mentors. "Next year, I'll have worked 20 years in the business," says the 37-year-old. "I started college right out of high school, but when an opportunity came up to be a staff loader at a commercial company, I quit school. I worked for a year and a half, got into the union, went to USC film school, worked on various films during the summers, and graduated. I went though the normal camera steps--loader, second assistant, first assistant, camera operator. I assisted on eight movies with my father, including Peggy Sue Got Married, and did eight with Sven, including Sleepless in Seattle."
The elder Cronenweth was suffering from Parkinson's disease during much of the time his son worked with him. Consequently, "I did a lot more than the normal assistant might do," says the DP. "When I went to work for Sven, he was 68 or 69, so it was much the same, he needed a little more help, and he allowed the responsibility to be shared. When I became a cameraman, I was surprised at how much I knew from helping them so much."
When Cronenweth got the call from Fincher to work on Fight Club, he assumed it was another second-unit assignment. "I went to his house and he just went off explaining the concept and how it was going to look," he recalls. "He had so much passion and enthusiasm, I was overwhelmed. It was only the next day when the producer called and asked if I was interested in being DP that I knew what David's intentions were. Apparently, he had been recommending me to other people, and he thought, 'Wait a second--if I keep recommending him, why not use him?'" Cronenweth confesses that he "practically puked" at the prospect of shooting his first feature, but he didn't hesitate to accept.
He also subordinated himself to the sometimes bizarre point of view of the script and its director. "In my experience with my dad and Sven, they believed they were there to enhance the story, and not showboat," Cronenweth says. "So often you watch a movie and the photography doesn't have anything to do with what's happening emotionally. This being my first feature, I tried to live in the world of the film and in David's philosophy about it."