Clark Gregg does pretty much everything but handle the catering with Choke, a racy comedy/drama based on the popular book by Chuck Palahniuk. Gregg not only adapted the screenplay and took on the supporting role of Lord High Charlie, he also made his feature film directorial debut with this film which Fox Searchlight snatched up after its debut at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Choke follows Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a medical school dropout who works at a colonial theme park. Victor's a quirky dude. He's a sex addict who chokes in restaurants in order to get sympathy - and ultimately money - from the strangers who save him. That money helps him keep his mother, a woman who was definitely off-balance even before she was stricken with Alzheimers, in an expensive hospital.
During one visit with his ailing mother (Anjelica Huston), Victor discovers she's been hiding a secret about his father's identity. Together with Dr Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald) and his best friend, Denny (Brad William Henke), Victor tries to unravel the truth behind his birth.
Exclusive Interview with Clark Gregg
This seems like a strange project to choose to make your directorial debut with. Why did you pick Choke?
"So I’m told, so I’m told. As I read it I just felt like I could see it. And later, much, much later, my agent said, 'You know, I never thought you were going to manage to make a movie out of it. I didn’t see what the movie was there.' I was thinking, 'You know, you could have mentioned that to me two or three years earlier...' But I felt like I could see it so that means I was the right person to kind of grab it and champion it. A lot of people have said that they thought it was an odd choice, but to me it felt like exactly the right choice."
Did you work on adapting it knowing all along you wanted to also direct it?
"I was brought into simply adapt it by some people who were looking to kind of get a screenwriter attached and tie it up. And I read it and I said, 'No, I will only do this if I can do everything, if it could become like an ego-paloosa. I can write and direct and act in it.' And they kind of looked at me funny. And then they didn’t really own the option until I paired them up with someone who could get money and I made it happen, so they kind of had no choice."
How tough was it to get financing for this because it is such an unusual book?
"You know, all along everyone said, 'You're spending a lot of time on this,' because it took about six years to adapt - six years from when I read the book to get the script ready. Five and a half, really. And then they said, 'You spend an awful lot of time on this when it seems like such a crap shoot, because it’s really edgy material and it deals kind of frankly with sexuality and sexual dysfunction.' And, you know, during the present administration it didn’t feel like necessarily the kind of mood for kind of a sex addict comedy where the possibility is raised that one of the characters may be kind of cloned from stem cell tissue from the foreskin of Jesus Christ. That didn’t feel like it was necessarily going to find a receptive welcome in the present environment. But I just felt like it was something, it was a story that hadn’t been seen. It had to be told. And so we kept going at it and by the time the script worked and I was free from a TV show to do it, I got Sam Rockwell to do it and Anjelica Huston signed up, and within a week we had a very small amount of money to make it but enough that we could basically pull it off."
Did it take a lot of different forms over that six-year period or was this, the story that’s on the screen now, pretty close to how you envisioned it when you first read the book?
"No. I mean I love so many bits, so many funny things and lines in the book. I used a lot of them. It’s very, very faithful but it was basically kind of the book on screen at first, you know? I just couldn’t let go of anything and it didn’t really work, and it was clear that it didn’t work. So it took me a while to let go. You know, somebody told me there's a quote maybe from, I may get the director wrong, from a great director who said, 'You almost always have to cut your favorite scene from the movie.' And this, I had a lot of favorite things I had to cut to kind of make the movie work and it was hard as a fan of his and as a fan of the book."
And you talked to the author Chuck Palahniuk throughout the process. Was he instrumental in helping you?
"You know, he was kind of amazingly supportive and yet he really gave me a lot of distance. And I took it, I was happy to have some distance because I found his voice really loud in my head and at a certain point I needed to kind of let the characters’ voices be as loud, the kind of film characters. The kind of movie version of Victor had to be able to speak as loud as the book version of Victor. And then once the script was starting to work, I showed it to him and he just became this kind of great ally and he's become a real champion of the film. He’s been traveling with us and kind of supporting the movie."
He's happy all the way around with the casting choices?
"He was very excited by the casting of Sam and Anjelica."
How could you not be though? Those two are fantastic.
"Yeah. I mean, I don't know. There were websites where the kind of the Chuck Army kind of speculated on who the ideal choices would be and they were really a little more focused on people like… They're so in love with Fight Club they thought that Brad Pitt and Ed Norton should be in Choke. So I didn't know. I didn't how he would respond or how people would respond. He’s got really good taste, so he got what was great about Sam for this role."