Hungry For a Big Break, Australian Producer Ross Grayson Bell Comes Up With a Bunch of Knuckle Sandwiches.
It starts with a cabaret off Sydney’s Oxford Street. It ends up – so far anyway – with Fight Club, David Fincher’s brutal new film about an underground network of bare-knuckle boxers.
Or maybe it starts later – driving Julie Christie around while she is in Australia for a mini-series about the drug traffickers Barlow and Chambers. Or later still, sleeping overnight in the legendary indie film-maker Roger Corman’s office.
Or even later, when Ross Grayson Bell, debts mounting after two years without an income, realises he has to bypass the Hollywood system to sell a film to 20th Century Fox. So he organises some actors and recording equipment and turns the film that would become Fight Club into a kind of radio play.
Wherever it starts, Bell’s unlikely story leads to the controversial film that opens here next week. A dark, subversive comedy from the director of Seven and Alien, and starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club has become a lightning rod for international critical debate about screen violence and morality.
First rule of Fight Club: you do not talk about Fight Club. Second rule of Fight Club: you do not talk about Fight Club.
Contravening that catch line from the film, Bell does a lot of talking about Fight Club these days. The film follows an Ikea-fixated office worker (Norton) whose sad, emasculated life changes when he discovers the testosterone challenge of boxing in car parks and basements. That takes him into the world of urban terrorism.
Fight Club hit the headlines when Fox pulled all its advertising from The Hollywood Reporter because of a savage attack on the film’s morality. That was just part of the critical tirade. When Bell says, “You’ve never seen this movie”, he’s right. But you’ve rarely seen such critical venom as well. Kenneth Turan from the Los Angeles Times called it a “witless mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophising and bone crunching violence”. The New York Observer’s Rex Reed said it was “a load of rancid depressing swill from start to finish”. The Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker declared that it was “not only anti-capitalism but anti-society and, indeed, anti-God”.
The Hollywood Reporter’s editor, Anita Busch, condemned its makers and said Fight Club would become Washington’s poster child for what was wrong with Hollywood. “And Washington, for once, will be right. The film is exactly the kind of product that lawmakers should target for being socially irresponsible in a nation that has deteriorated to the point of Columbine.”
Other critics saw it as a satire rather than endorsement , but the debate spiked up the film’s American opening.
Bell, who packaged the film after reading Chuck Palahniuk’s novel in galley proofs, leapt into the fray, likening the film to a brutally honest confession and AA meeting — “an unapologetic revelation of the frustration of living in a world reduced to sound bites and media buys and semi-disposable Swedish furniture”.
Trading words over a film on top of the American box office charts shows how far Bell has come since organising the cabaret off Oxford Street with a group of university friends, an experience that sparked his interest in making films.
“I realised that to do theatre you have to reinvent it each night. With a movie, you put those ideas on celluloid and it’s in the can and everybody in the world has a chance to see it.”
Bell was an ambitious third assistant director on Michael Jenkins’s film Sweet Talker when an American visitor wondered what he was doing making coffee and stopping traffic. Bell thought he would see what Los Angeles offered before returning for a Tom Selleck film.
“I came with every intention of coming back to work in Sydney on Quigley Down Under, but my agent called me up while I was in Los Angeles and said, “we can’t get you the job of third assistant director, but you can be Tom Selleck’s driver.”
Bell decided to stay put. Not because he was above driving Selleck around — he had already been Julie Christie’s driver — but there was nothing in the job that would help his film career.
As Bell’s L.A. Story started, he began an internship with Corman. “I didn’t have anywhere to stay so I used to sleep in his office. He found me asleep there one morning because I’d overslept; I usually got up before he arrived.
He said ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m Ross Bell. I work here and you don’t pay me.’ He said, ‘That’d be right. Go wash your face and come in and talk to me.'” Corman, recognising his cut rate and employee was dedicated to getting ahead, asked him to watch a new film called Lethal Weapon and explain why it worked.
“He said, ‘ I want a facsimile of this movie,’ which is what he does. When Jaws comes out, he does Piranha. So I wrote him this treatment he sold that day to a video distributor and then said, ‘Why don’t you write me the screenplay?'”
Corman sponsored Bell for a green card and six months later To Die Standing was made. If you missed it, it starred Cliff de Young and Robert Beltran and was apparently surprisingly reminiscent of Lethal Weapon.
“I realised this doesn’t happen in Australia,” says Bell. “I don’t want to say it’s the land of opportunity blah, blah, blah. But you can come to America and because there is such a breadth of industry, there are all these opportunities that you can make use of in building a career.”
Flash forward to a difficult time. Bell had been trying to put films together for two years without an income when he was sent a copy of Palahniuk’s novel. He was knocked out by it.
“The guy spoke to my generation, guys in their thirties, about the frustration of living in this culture where everything meaningful has been turned into some catchphrase or bumper sticker.” Bell knew Fox’s readers considered the material disturbing and had recommended against making the film. He had to find a way to sell it directly to the Fox chief Laura Ziskin. So he set to work on the book, organising actors for a read through in cutting it into shape, turning interior thoughts into dialogue, giving in a film like structure. He added to his credit card debt by hiring sound equipment and recording another read through.
Disappointed with the results, Bell hung on to the tape for a week before realising he had nothing to lose. When he sent it to Ziskin, she played it in her car over the weekend. “The next day she called to say we had a deal.”
Packaging such a film is an art in itself. “ I knew Brad Pitt would be right for Fight Club and David Fincher would get me Brad Pitt,” Bell says. He maintains Fight Club is a moral film once viewers get past the brutality of some of the fights.
“There’s a lot of truth in Fight Club, a lot, and our responsibility is sometimes to tell the truth no matter how painful that is.”
Bell rejects the view that violent films are bringing society undone, saying the kids at Columbine would still be alive but for the way guns are used to solve problems.
Having bought Fight Club to the screen, Bell plans to film an adaptation of Marele Day’s Lambs of God, to be directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Winona Ryder, in Ireland next year. And in tropical Queensland, he wants to make Friend of Dorothy, an adaptation of John Lonie short story about a carefree 16-year-old boy whose eyes are open to the world of culture, music and sex by a female teacher. Michael Edwards would direct with Jeanie Drynan is the teacher.
– Gary Maddox, The Sydney Morning Herald