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Arts & Culture

Choke / Interview with Writer-Director Clark Gregg

Victor Mancini has a lot on his mind.

Victor: We're not born evil sinners or perfect knockoffs of god, the world tells us if whether we're heroes or victims but we can decide for ourselves... My name's Victor.
Therapist: Sometimes the best place to start is at the beginning.

Okay, it all starts with Chuck Palahniuk's book Choke . Actor turned writer-director Clark Gregg had a very strong vision about bringing the book to the screen.


CLARK GREGG: In my mind it's a very dark comedy about a sex addict who's living in a very depressed world where he chokes himself in restaurants to support his mother in a very expensive mental hospital because he forms kind of financially and emotionally parasitic relationships with the people who save him. It's another one of those movies.

Oh you you mean one of those rare, sharply written, character driven indie films? That's right. It also stars the ever-inventive Sam Rockwell as the main character Victor. He's a con man who chokes in restaurants and then plays on his saviors' sympathies to con them out of money.

Victor: Somebody saves your life and they will love you forever... so who's it going to be tonight... there he is... you and me we're about to be friends for life

Victor uses the money to keep his mom in a mental hospital. She's suffering from dementia and he wants to find out who his father was before she loses all touch with reality. But her grasp on reality was tenuous even when Victor was a child as this flashback reveals.

Victor: The zoo? We're going to the zoo.
Mom: That's right kiddo, what do you see?
Victor: Animals.
Mom: Prisoners held captive like us in a world without struggle or risk or danger. The only difference is that they can see the bars that deny them all hope of escape.

With performers like Anjelica Huston and Sam Rockwell, Choke creates a cast of very vivid characters. Filmmaker Clark Gregg wanted to capture these characters as well as the book's unique tone.

CLARK GREGG: I had never read anything that was remotely like it, it was the strangest sort of satirical voice and yet to me really moving and painful in some parts, and then it would veer very quickly into this absurdist comedy that reminded me of Harold and Maude and my favorite 70s movies and I fell in love with it.

Actor-writer-director Clark Gregg (Fox Searchlight)

But adapting such a book -- and one with such a passionate fan base -- was no easy task. Gregg likened it to "safecracking." He told Palahniuk that he saw Choke as a "punk romantic comedy." And to his surprise, the author, agreed.

CLARK GREGG: He said no you're right that's exactly that's what it is. So go write and don't be too faithful to the book because it won't work.

One thing Gregg did remain faithful to was the main character's addiction to sex.

CLARK GREGG: There's a certain titillation factor in that that is the boundary that he's pushing at, that's the kind of uptight area in our culture that he's kind of poking a stick at and yet I don't think it's tremendously sexy... as the character says sex addiction is just another thing like drugs or gambling or shoplifting it's another addiction that you use to dull a certain pain or avoid something that you can't handle... But I really think it's about intimacy.

And it's about the odd way that Victor finds intimacy with the people he cons into saving his life.

CLARK GREGG: There's a moment where he's kind of held and treated like a baby by them that is what Chuck has referred to as a way of tricking someone into loving you and I think that's a theme that runs throughout the story that there are a lot of damaged people here finding off kilter ways to get something that feels enough like love that they don't suffocate.

Sam Rockwell tries his charms on his mom's doctor played by Kelly MacDonald in Choke (Fox Searchlight)

Choke (rated R for & strong sexual content, nudity and language) is an unconventional look at the need we all have for love and intimacy. It has the unevenness you might expect from a first time director but it also maintains a sincere humanity while displaying a very sharp and savage sense of humor.

Companion viewing: Fight Club, Box of Moonlight, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Darjeeling Limited