The production designer for the 1999 film Fight Club was Alex McDowell, one of my three chosen practitioners. The house on ‘Paper Street’ is the main location in Fight Club. It is the headquarters of Project Mayhem and also the home of the two main characters. This set was therefore required to provide a lot of the atmosphere of the film, which I think it was very successful at.
The video below shows a fan-made horror recut of the trailer using mostly the Paper Street setting to influence the feel of the video.
The video below shows scenes of graphic violence and my not be suitable viewing for everyone.
Before designing the house, the director, David Fincher, and the production designer, Alex McDowell, wanted to make sure the house was exactly right for the film. A short story was written about the origin of the house, architects were consulted and then the design was mocked up using Previz (the process of using 3D models to do mock ups of sets, props, blocking camera movement). The exterior was built from scratch on location in Wilmington, CA. There were around 70 locations used for the film. You can read more about them here.
The building then had to be aged to look like an abandoned house squatters might be living in.
The interior of the ‘Paper Street’ setting was built to match the exterior on a sound stage so that the lighting could be carefully controlled during filming. On the DVD extras, you can watch a quick walkthrough of the construction and listen to a conversation between David Fincher and Alex McDowell over a white card model of the set.
Fight Club was the first film Alex McDowell worked with Previz to assist his designs. In his interview with Bill Desowitz for AWN (Animation World Network) he talks about these early days.
‘It was extremely dense,’ McDowell suggests, ‘and everything was planned and composited together with these different buildings from different parts of L.A. So we started setting up the camera angle to inform the 3D, but it all had to be put together in 3D…flattened but made into a Photoshop image that we could translate from. Previs was the only available tool. All told, we worked with half a dozen different sequences involving a few shots that were prevised. Our turnaround time was a day…so we could show Fincher something in the morning and then get comments from him at the end of the day’ (Desowitz, 2003).
One of the most impressive parts of this set design for me are the textures used. When the narrator first steps into the house and looks around, we are with him, questioning ‘could we really live here’ and if not, why? What are we holding onto? The set itself is so much a part of the ‘lifestyle’ of the film.
This isn’t a place you can feel comfortable in, the peeling walls and dark stains give the impression that the entire building is damp, soft and about to fall down. This sense of a flimsy, temporary living space is very different from the apartment the narrator begins the film in, which is closer to a catalogue than a home, ven down to the floating descriptions of his furniture.
The layout of the condo at the beginning of the film is apparently based on an apartment the director himself used to live in. The script refers to it as a ‘filing cabinet’.
Home was a condo on the fifteenth floor of a filing cabinet for widows and young professionals. The walls were solid concrete. A foot of concrete is important when your next-door neighbor lets their hearing aid go and have to watch game-shows at full volume. Or when a volcanic blast of debris that used to be your furniture and personal effects blows out of your floor-to-ceiling windows and sails flaming into the night. I suppose these things happen.
The Paper Street set is weirdly beautiful on film. Mossy greens, earthy browns and soft blues make up most of the palate. The film’s message and plot is so strong and controversial that’s it difficult to find any discussion on anything else in the film. Though the film would not have the same impact if the world it was set in didn’t match it.
The director, David Fincher, talks about where some of the ideas of the style of the film came from in his interview with Gavin Smith.
‘Lurid was definitely one of the things we wanted to do. We didn’t want to be afraid of color, we wanted to control the color palette. You go into 7-Eleven in the middle of the night and there’s all that green-fluorescent. And like what green light does to cellophane packages, we wanted to make people sort of shiny. Helena wears this opalescent makeup so she always has this smack-fiend patina, like a corpse. Because she is a truly romantic nihilistic.’
‘[Cinematographer] Jeff Cronenweth and I taked about Haskell Wexler’s American Graffiti and how that looked, how the nighttime exteriors have this sort of mundane look, but it still has a lot of different colors but they all seem very true, they don’t seem hyperstylized. And we talked about making it a dirty-looking movie, kind of grainy. When we processed it, we stretched the contrast to make it kind of ugly, a little bit of underexposure, a little bit resilvering, and using new high-contrast print socks and stepping all over it so it has a dirty patina’ (Smith, G. 1999).
Images from Fight Club, 1999. [DVD] David Fincher, United States: 20th Century Fox Home Ent..