Actor Clark Gregg, who’s had roles in such films as “Magnolia,” “We Were Soldiers,” “In Good Company” and “Iron Man,” is also a writer—the Harrison Ford thriller “What Lies Beneath” is among his credits. Now he’s making his directorial debut with “Choke,” which he also adapted from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk about a sex addict who works as a historical re-enactor at a cheesy colonial theme park. The guy, played by Sam Rockwell, also supplements his income to support his mother’s (Anjelica Huston) stay in a nursing home by pretending to choke in restaurants so that the people who “save” him will feel an obligation to continue supporting him with cash afterward.
“I started working as a screenwriter because I wanted to direct something,” Gregg explained in a Dallas interview. “I’d directed theatre and acted in a couple of independent movies, and I felt it was something I really wanted to try to do. And I was brought this book to adapt, and I went nuts for it. It was like nothing I’d ever read, kind of the darkest romantic comedy in history, and maybe the naughtiest as well. I also felt like it was…like nothing I’d ever seen. I’d never seen a movie like that, that blended a really hard-to-look-at, sad, honest examination of sexual addiction with some really wacky, funny stuff about love and families. And later I came to feel that it wasn’t just its exoticism that attracted me, but that what it reminded me of was a lot of my favorite, kind of crazy movies from the seventies, like ‘Harold and Maude,’ ‘Shampoo’ and ‘Being There.’”
And there was the Palahniuk connection. “I’d read ‘Fight Club,’ and I was a fan,” Gregg said. “I was a fan of Kurt Vonnegut and satirical American novelists, and I felt he was an heir to that….It was about six months before it was published. There was nothing in place. There was a book about to be published that had not been snapped up, the option had not been snapped up. And the people who sent it to me also didn’t own the option—they just thought it might be a book I’d be interested in. And they got the call from me they didn’t want to get, which was me saying I’m only going to write this if I can direct it. And if you don’t want to snap it up, then I’m going to. And they said, okay, okay. So I put them with a producer I’d been dying to work with, and he bought the option within a couple of days, and stuck with it, because it took about three years to really get the adaptation right between other jobs.
“Adaptation’s very tricky. There were so many funny things and so many great characters that I felt that it would be an easy adaptation, and yet in a way those are the hardest. They’re deceptive. You think you can pretty much take the things you like and put them in screenplay format and it will work. But it’s kind of like changing something from a solid to a gas. It’s got to go through some alchemy and become its own new form. And though I was determined, despite the admonitions to the contrary from Chuck Palahniuk, to be super-faithful, while I still think it’s very faithful, at a certain point I had to let it be the movie version of the book in a way that really let it breathe in that new form. The most rabid fans of the book are very happy to point out to me which of their favorite moments aren’t in there. And I feel bad, but then I ignore them.”
But the writing wasn’t the only hard part—so was the directing. “From the beginning I knew it would only work if you can get this tone right,” Gregg recalled. “It’s the tone that allows you to make the quick turns that the book and hopefully the movie make…you’ve got to have a tone that will allow those shifts and encompass it all.”
Gregg also has a role in the picture, as the supercilious town head at the colonial theme park, a guy called Lord High Charlie who refuses ever to step out of character. “I thought it would be a terrible idea to be in it, and I was right,” he said with a chuckle, “because I knew that what would happen, would happen, which is that I would be at the end of the first week of production, the crew just beginning to listen to anything I said, and there I would be dressed up like this jackass who ran a colonial theme park and who can’t stop saying everything in ‘thees’ and ‘thous.’ And then I would turn to the crew to ask them to do something, and they would just laugh at me and walk away. I didn’t want to do it, but it’s similar to other jackasses I’ve played in other movies, so I was on the list anyway. And I also felt that of all the jackasses I’ve played, I wanted to play the Lord High Charlie—I just felt that’s a name I wanted on my bio. And I had such great actors, I just wanted to get in there and mix it up with them. It was three or four days, some of the most fun and most stress I had on the movie. And luckily I had people around who were smart enough to say, ‘You didn’t see what you just did, but trust me, you want to do another take.’”
For all the problems, though, Gregg’s very satisfied with the result. “I was surprised how much I felt that at the end of it, for all the difficulties, I had absolutely gotten to make the movie I wanted to make, with a cast I couldn’t have aimed higher than. There’s nobody I would have had in their place. I didn’t have to compromise on the important stuff, and I didn’t have to compromise the material. So whatever I suffered in those twenty-five days was worth it.”
Asked what he thinks the general audience reaction will be to such edgy fare, Gregg replied, “I think it definitely tackles the subject matter in an unflinching, sometimes slightly shocking way, but I think it’s a movie, like the book, that has a big heart. And it’s not trying to shock anybody. I think that people will walk out of it and feel that they’ve definitely gone on a bit of a wild ride and yet I think they’ll be hard-pressed to think of anything that was truly offensive.”
“Choke” is a Fox Searchlight release.