Fight Club Producer Ross Grayson Bell
On May 23, 2002, I sat down with Fight Club producer Ross Grayson Bell at his office at Lawrence Bender's operation on Beverly Blvd.
Ross: "The job of a producer is to get the train to leave the station. While it is sitting at the platform, people can get on and off, and they will. But once it is gone, those who really want to be involved, jump on. And those who don't, get off. Or they're trapped.
"Sometimes the train leaves the station before the script is ready. There are so many factors that you have to align, maybe ten, and if you've got seven of them, then you might as well go.
"I have a company eager to make Baker Street. We're making offers to actors. But the script isn't ready.
"It's a true story about the largest bank robbery in British history. In 1971, the guys got away with 300,000 thousand pounds. The MI5 [British version of the FBI and CIA] had set them up. The robbers didn't know this. Their walky talky communications were picked up by a ham radio operator and broadcast live as they were tunneling in to this bank on the corner of Bakers Street and Marlaburn Road. The nation knew what was going on but they still couldn't find the robbers because there were so many banks in the West End of London.
"They got away with the money. The MI5 came after them. And the robbers realized that what the MI5 wanted were photographs that were in the vault of politicians and members of the Royal family having sex with prostitutes. The bank robbers blackmailed them. Let us go, we will give you back the photographs and we'll keep the money.
"There was a D-order signed. That means a total media blackout. It can only be signed by the Queen or the Prime Minister. It only happened twice last century, once during World War II and this event. Even if this story has been fictionalized, the fact is that from three days after this robbery, there was never another thing written about it. Myriad will make it for $12 million contingent on casting a star. To get that star, we have to rewrite the script to make the movie more of a star vehicle. At the moment, it is an ensemble piece."
Luke: "Did you have to secure rights?"
Ross: "Yes. One of the reporter, George Mcendoe, is in contact with the bank robbers. He's lived in exile for 27 years. Lawrence Bender is the executive producer and he brought me on to produce."
Luke: "Where did you grow up?"
Ross: "In the lower North Shore, Sydney, Australia. I went to Roseville public school and then to Shaw, a Church of England grammar school. I studied Political Economics for four years at Sydney University. I graduated in 1983 with first class honors. I backpacked around Europe for two years.
"Then I returned to Sydney and with a group of university friends, wrote and produced a cabaret in this little cafe, called Mick's Cafe on Oxford Street. Those were the best six months of my life. We put our own money in and we performed the show and we made our money back.
"Australia is a great place to grow up but it is not a great place of ideas. Ideas come from struggle. When you go through Europe, which has destroyed and rebuilt itself in 50 years. Germans traveling to Paris for an exhibition of an Italian artist. It's mind blowing. I realized that I wanted to work in the dissemination of new ideas.
"The cabaret was about my experiences and the experiences of my friends, but at the end of the night, 40 people have seen those ideas. I realized that the only way to be effective was to film something, put it in a canister and ship it. And then anyone in the world has a chance to see it.
"I moved on from the cabaret group and started as an assistant, a runner as they call them in Australia, on films. I remember graduating to third assistant whose main job was to look after the extras, stop traffic, and make sure the dogs weren't barking.
"I did this from 1986-89. This American guy came out to cut a trailer and the Australian crew were rude to him. They felt it was us vs them, bad Hollywood Vs good Australian independent films. I picked him up at the airport and showed him around. He said I should come to America.
"In 1989, four days after Tianamen Square, I came on a vacation to Los Angeles. He said I could stay with him for two weeks. I had an around-the-world ticket. I was looking for a car. I wanted to drive across America and then fly from New York to London. In the Recycler [Los Angeles classified ads paper], they had a job for a production assistant on a film shooting in Colorado Springs. These kids had $100,000 to make a film (Ice Pawn). They had never been on a set before.
"I ended up line producing the film for free. It was a terrible movie that was never released. The problems that happen on a low budget film and on a big budget film are the same. Having a lot of money doesn't solve your problems.
"I returned to Los Angeles and interned for Roger Corman [B-grade filmmaker]."
Luke: "Everyone seems to start with him."
Ross: "Because anyone willing to work for free can work for Corman. The ones that have commitment and dedication, he picks them out. I didn't have anywhere to stay, so I used to sleep in the office. I'd get up before anyone came in and no one was the wiser. One morning he came in early and found me dead asleep in my sleeping bag on his couch. He said, 'Who the fuck are you?' I said, 'I'm Ross Bell. I work here and you don't pay me.' He said, 'That'd be right. Wash your face and come in and see me.'
"So I sheepishly wash my face and go back in. I think I'm busted. And he said, 'Watch Lethal Weapon and do a scene by scene breakdown.' I did that and came back the next day. He said he wanted me to write a treatment that was a facsimile of Lethal Weapon. A buddy movie set in Peru.
"I realized that my breaking down a movie, and writing down what was happening in each scene, I learned structure. Chase, exposition, love scene.
"I went home that night, and following that structure, with a chase, explosion, love scene, I wrote up an idea. An American DEA officer who goes to Peru to help on a drug bust. The American is the Mel Gibsen character and the Danny Glover character is a Peruvian who doesn't want to be paired with the American. I came up with the title, 'To Die Standing,' from a Midnight Oil song. 'It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.'
"The idea was that the America DEA agent was ready to die standing. The guy in Lima, his wife had been killed by the drug cartel and so he was living on his knees. My first paragraph was the selling paragraph. Roger read it the next day. He read it over the phone to video distributor RCA Columbia who bought it. Corman said to me, 'I'll pay you $3000 to write me a screenplay. You've got two weeks.' So four weeks later, I hand it in a draft. He sponsors me for my greencard [permanent residency in the US as an alien]. Six months later, I was a produced screenwriter.
"I think the wardrobe mistress had a go at rewriting me. But it was an amazing opportunity that could've happened nowhere else in the world and I never went back to Australia. You don't want to be that cliched about the land of opportunity, but it is.
"It was never my intention to leave Australia to make it in Hollywood. I never liked Hollywood movies.
"In late 1989, I went to work for $300 a week for Brad Krevoy, Corman's sales guy. Brad had his own company which he sold for millions of dollars to Orion after making Dumb & Dumber.
"Brad had offices in this new building and it was $50 a month for parking. And he wouldn't pay for my parking. I couldn't afford to pay. I didn't have a car. I did have an apartment. Brad gave me a car, something that he had stored at his grandma's condo. It was a TR7 Triumph convertible, low to the ground. The reason he wanted me to have it is that I could drive under the boom gates so I didn't have to pay the $50 a month. So I drove up to the boom gate. It would hit the windshield. I'd reach out, lift the boom up, and drive underneath.
"And of course those Triumphs are terrible cars. It was always breaking down. It cost me so much money. Then someone told me about a job for a VP of Creative Affairs (Tracy Barone, now married to Paul Michael Glaser) at Ray Stark's company. I realized working for Corman and Krevoy, dedicated B moviemakers, that you can stay in that world forever. But the A list is a different circle of people. This business is about contacts and relationships. You have to jump ship. At the time, you couldn't get more A list than Ray Stark. I worked there for three years.
"I also learned that the new filmmakers I was developing relationships with, it was never going to happen with Ray. He was with Larry Gelbard, Barbara Streisand and that crowd. But I learned a lot. During that time, he did Lost in Yonkers with Neil Simon, Barbarians at the Gate for HBO, Mr. Jones... It was not a particularly successful time.
"What's the joke about producers? You can get rich as a producer but you can't make a living. You only make money when you make these things. I was talking to a writer the other day. He was bitching about all this work we were doing on a pitch. I said, 'Listen. If we sell this, you could make anywhere from $250,000 to $2 million. The producer only gets a development fee of $25,000, $12,500 upfront. If I set up four movies a year, I'm doing well as a producer. That's only $50,000.
"Since Under Suspicion, it's been two years since I've made a movie. All the successful producers are brutal. I don't want to be that kind of person. I want to live a balanced life.
"The success of Spiderman makes it more difficult for films like Fight Club to get made. I've got an uplifting 1964 Olympic drama but it is hard to get it made.
"The Economist just did a piece on the economics of Hollywood. The theatrical release of a film is only 30% of its potential revenue. And this pie is shrinking. Theatrical release is now advertising for all the ancillary markets - video, DVD, pay cable, theme park rides, merchandise, sequels... If I'm running a studio, which is a small division in a huge corporate empire, am I going to invest in Fight Club? With no sequel potential and no upside in ancillary markets. So I go buy a spec script that Roland Emmerich just wrote about the end of the world. The concept will sell. I will get B-grade actors who won't participate in gross profits.
"Of course there are going to be more Spidermans. They are doing Wonderwoman and Batgirl and reinventing Superman. They're remaking Miami Vice as a film, with Michael Mann who created it for TV. We're recycling everything.
"If there isn't potential for a sequel, it can't get my same attention if I want to make a real business out of this. That's the dilemma. Do I stay true to my ideals and make great groundbreaking movies? Now every studio wants one or two of those a year for Oscar considerations. Because Oscar nominations and wins enhance the brand of a studio.
"After September 11th, I was looking for stories about unity, but not in that cloying way with all the propaganda we were given after that event. In 1964, eight oar rowing was a sport dominated by college crews, particularly Harvard. The theory being that college kids have the resources and time to get together and train. And this year, a group of older guys, with jobs and mortgages and kids, challenge them. They had this dilapidated old shell and they beat Harvard at the trials and eventually won the Gold medal.
"These older guys had trained in pairs and singles. And after their gold medal, it was realize that this was a better way of training a crew rather than the college way of having all eight guys train together in one boat.
"One of the great scenes is after they beat Harvard, the guys turn around and row back to the starting line, passed all the college boys collapsed in their boats.
"The sport doesn't interest me. What interests me is that there is no other sport like it where eight men have to be one. It's the Dirty Dozen of rowing and the Magnificent Seven of sports movies. Disney said, 'Why would anyone, after a long week at work, pay the nanny, get in the car, drive out to see this movie?' If it has to be an event movie every time, a feel good escapist, then movies are dead. You say that and then The Rookie comes out, which does well.
"When you look at the most profitable films at the end of the year, they are usually small films made for small budgets. Crying Game, Wedding Banquet, Strictly Ballroom.
"It can be fun to work on movies that you don't care about so much. It frees you up."
Luke: "Like having sex without emotional involvement."
Ross: "I do that all the time. It's easy."
Luke: "How did you come to Fight Club?"
Ross: "I finished with Ray Stark in 1993. I built a company with Josh Donen (son of director Stanley Donner). Josh is now a CAA agent. For two years we put together movies. He produced The Great White Hype and The Quick and the Dead. We were on the Fox lot when Kevin McCormick (under Laura Ziskin at the time, now, May 2002, at Warner Brothers) sent us the novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Fox's book guy in New York, Raymond bon Giavani originally found it, flipped, and sent it over. The LA office [of Fox] was confused by it. Their coverage said, 'Don't make this movie. It is unconventional. It will make people squirm. No. No.'
"I read the book that night. Halfway through, it gets so dark, where they are burning each other with cigarettes. Then the reveal comes and it took my breath away. I felt my heart race and I couldn't wait to get to the end of each page to find out how it all wrapped up. I knew then that this was a movie I had to make.
"I called up Kevin and said that all the reasons given not to make the movie are reasons to make it. It is unconventional and it will make people squirm and you have to make it. I could hear him rolling his eyes over the phone. He didn't care about conventional. He cared about making money.
"I didn't know much then. I think that being naive allowed me to do things that I wouldn't do today. But then I was so gung ho. I got a group of actors together to do a read-through of the book. It took six hours. Over the next two months, I cut out stuff and started turning internal monologue into dialogue and making the structure more linear.
"Jim Uhls, an unproduced but fabulous screenwriter, wanted to do the script. Laura thought of Fight Club as The Graduate, a film that will define a generation. She wanted to assign it to Buck Henry, who wrote Graduate. I said that was his generation. This is a new generation experience.
"I found another script called The Sky is Falling. It is about two priests who have proof that God is dead. And the church hunts them down and kills them.
"Director David Fincher read the book and wanted to direct the movie. Then the studio rallied. The job of a producer is to give the financier the packaged movie before they have to pay for it. By packaging the director and the writer, I had made it more tangible.
"My actors' read-through was now down to 50-minutes. I rented this equipment and taped it. I sent it to Laura Ziskin on a Friday. She listened to it in her car on the way to Santa Barbara on Saturday. She called up. 'I'm making the movie. You've got yourself a deal.'
"I'd been living off my credit cards for the past two years. I was deeply in debt.
"Jim handed in his first draft of the script. The ending was off. In the book, they blow up this building so it will fall on the Natural History museum. It symbolizes how you destroy culture and civilization. I suggested that they blow up the credit card companies. And you have the scene with all the people coming out into the streets and their credit card statements are in shreds raining down. It would destroy and liberate civilization. And the people would celebrate."
Luke: "And you had your own credit card debts."
Ross: "That's where it came from. And from my own background in political economy. I realized that if all the debtor nations in the world got together and formed a cartel and refused to pay their debts, they would destroy civilization. That would be the end of Western Civilization as we know it.
"David thought we would go through many drafts and several writers before we got it right. After we made this change, the script was ready. David committed to make it as his next film. Once he committed, my other film about the priests died at Tristar.
"From book to film was two-and-a-half years. That's fast.
"Film is a director's medium. We made Fight Club quickly because David got behind it. I'm not reducing the producer's role. Fight Club exists because I said so. But David made the movie and got the stars. The film is flawed because it is a David Fincher film. And it is genius because it is a David Fincher film."
Luke: "Many reviewers lambasted the film."
Ross: "Good. Hooray. It shows they're awake. There should've been lambasting. I think Kenneth Turan had a personal agenda against violence in movies. Columbine had happened and there was a lot of debate about how films were creating a more violent society. Anita Busch, editor of the Hollywood Reporter, wrote a commentary that we were morally irresponsible to make a film like this. And I responded and she published my response.
"If you go to an AA meeting, you have someone stand up at the front of the room and talk about the horrors of drinking. It creates a catharsis. People see the horror and they recognize their lives. A burden shared is a burden halved. Imagine that this movie is David Fincher's confession to the world. Imagine the cinema as an AA meeting and the film is Fincher and me at the front. This is how we see the world.
"We're not encouraging anybody to go out and start fight clubs or do anything. We're sharing the burden. We live in a culture where we've been reduced to soundbites, where everything worth fighting for has been coopted and corporatized. We're expressing our beef with society.
"I say people go to that movie and it lets the pressure off. People have come up to me and said, 'Fuck. That was me up there. I understood that. I am now going to live my life the way I want to live it.'
"I also said to Anita in my column that the Soviet Union, in its first 70 years, also tried to create films that were socially responsible. Films that fit what the powers that be said was socially responsible to the glorious worker. And look where it got them? Complete breakdown and the emergence of freedom of speech. If Anita follows through on what she's saying, then we should all be making films that condone what Bush is doing in the war on terrorism, which is what is happening now. Bullshit! That's the death of freedom of speech.
"If movies are making a more violent society, show me the statistics. Come back to Columbine. They say they were wearing trenchcoats, like The Matrix. Those sad unfortunate guys who were so propelled to do that terrible thing, were shooting the jocks because they felt they were picked on. So I would argue that every film that has the jock as the heroic guy who gets the homecoming queen is also responsible. Look at how alienated [the Columbine killers] were feeling because they did not fit in with the buff jock image. And where is that promoted? In films and TV."
Luke: "Were you surprised by the ferocity of the reactions?"
Ross: "No. Chuck's work is all about run towards that which you are afraid of. If we stay knowing what we know, we are not going to evolve. But by embracing the unknown we evolve. The tribe in the village has to go across that mountain range and risk death to find out what's over there. That's evolution. Christ went into the wilderness for 40 days and broke himself apart. The ideas in Fight Club are fundamental to the evolution of humanity.
"There are only four real fight scenes in the movie. It is not as violent as people make out. But the ideas are confrontive and people think of that as violence.
"The marketing didn't work. Fox sold it as a fight movie. The stills that went out to reviewers showed bare-chested Brad with blood on his face, punching Ed Norton. It was one of those films that is hard to market. It was made for $70 million and the studio felt they had to market it as a big star-driven event movie and threw money into the campaign.
"Ideologically we were wrong because Tyler would've blown up Rupert Murdoch and Fox and the corporateness and inflated budget. It was untrue to what the film was saying."
Luke: "It's a low budget independent film."
Ross: "When it got greenlit, David called up and said, 'They've just greenlit a $70 million experimental movie.' The domestic box office was $38 million and it didn't do well internationally. Like every classic before it, it was misunderstood and misjudged at the time.
"Fight Club is a cultural reference point for many people while the latest Jennifer Lopez movie is not.
"After the disappointing box office, people involved with the film, agents and studio executives, all came back and said, 'We told you not to make that.' There was a rubbing of the hands and a smile on the face that said, 'You thought you were going to change the world. You didn't.' But in 15 years, they will be talking about my movie.
"I have a reputation for making challenging movies. It doesn't mean that anybody wants another one like it. Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club, introduced me to his writing teacher, Tom Spandbaum. One of Tom's novels, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, which is a sister project to Fight Club. It is difficult, challenging groundbreaking. Director Pedro Almodovar optioned the book before me but never had a screenplay written. When he let the option lapse, I optioned it with the New York playwright Craig Lucas. Craig has written a draft of the script and taken it back to Pedro.
"I describe it as a buttfucking western. It's got every permutation of sexuality you can imagine. It's an interesting commentary on the destruction of native Americans, to destroy their mystery and take away their story, which is what the missionaries did. On one level it is a profound deeply moving story about the disintegration of humans by other humans. But again reviewers will go for the juicy sex and misread it. I will die to make this movie. No one will give me the money to make it but somehow I will do it.
"I'm more interested in being known for bringing people interesting people.
"I'm trying to balance my film portfolio between risky and mainstream. I've just set up a Jamie Foxx picture at New Line. It's a broad funny comedy."
Luke: "How did you come to Under Suspicion?"
Ross: "It's a remake of a French film Garde a Vue. I brought the project to Lori McCreary. I got Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman on the phone and they committed to it. I didn't stay involved in the movie and I'm not going to talk about that.
"I think they made the fatal mistake of opening it out and trying to make it bigger. The original was basically in the one room. In the original she kills herself."
Luke: "The ending doesn't make sense. There's no payoff."
Ross: "I don't think it performs for anybody. I think it was a bigger budget ($15 million) than it should've been."
Luke: "Did working on Fight Club change you?"
Ross: "No. Who I was enabled me to see Fight Club. Interestingly, Chuck had done The Forum [formerly EST] by Landmark Education. If you're nothing, if you're not your bad hair, the fact that your mother never loved you, that you're nothing, then you can create anything. I'd done The Forum too. We were somehow in sync. Art Linson passed on the book. It was sent to him before it was sent to Josh and me. And Art's son John championed the book.
"You are the sum of your experiences. I am the sum of my political economics degree, my study of Marx and Lenin. All of that led me to an opening to receive Fight Club. And Fight Club has in turn opened me to further experiences."