The novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk was published in 1996. Before its publication, a 20th Century Fox book scout sent a galley proof of the novel to creative executive Kevin McCormick. The executive assigned a studio reader to review the proof as a candidate for a film adaptation, but the reader discouraged it. McCormick then forwarded the proof to producers Lawrence Bender and Art Linson, who also rejected it. Producers Josh Donen and Ross Bell saw potential and expressed interest. They arranged unpaid screen readings with actors to determine the script's length, and an initial reading lasted six hours. The producers cut out sections to reduce the running time, and they used the shorter script to record its dialogue. Bell sent the recording to Laura Ziskin, head of the division Fox 2000, who listened to the tape and purchased the rights to Fight Club from Palahniuk for $10,000.
Ziskin initially considered hiring Buck Henry to write the adaptation, finding Fight Club similar to the 1967 film The Graduate, which Henry had adapted. When a new screenwriter, Jim Uhls, lobbied Donen and Bell for the job, the producers chose him over Henry. Bell contacted four directors to direct the film. He considered Peter Jackson the best choice, but Jackson was too busy filming the 1996 film The Frighteners in New Zealand. Bryan Singer received the book but did not read it. Danny Boyle met with Bell and read the book, but he pursued another film. David Fincher, who had read Fight Club and had tried to buy the rights himself, talked with Ziskin about directing the film. He hesitated to accept the assignment with 20th Century Fox at first because he had an unpleasant experience directing the 1992 film Alien 3 for the studio. To repair his relationship with the studio, he met with Ziskin and studio head Bill Mechanic. In August 1997, 20th Century Fox announced that Fincher would direct the film adaptation of Fight Club.
Producer Ross Bell met with actor Russell Crowe to discuss his candidacy for the role of Tyler Durden. Producer Art Linson, who joined the project late, met with Pitt regarding the same role. Linson was the senior producer of the two, so the studio sought to cast Pitt instead of Crowe. Pitt was looking for a new film after the failure (in the US market) of his 1998 film Meet Joe Black, and the studio believed Fight Club would be more commercially successful with a major star. The studio signed Pitt and offered him a US$17.5 million salary.
For the role of the unnamed narrator, the studio desired a "sexier marquee name" like Matt Damon to increase the film's commercial prospects; it also considered Sean Penn. Fincher instead considered Norton a candidate for the role, based on the actor's performance in the 1996 film The People vs. Larry Flynt. Other studios were approaching Norton for leading roles in developing films like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Man on the Moon. The actor was cast in Runaway Jury, but the film did not reach production. 20th Century Fox offered Norton a $2.5 million salary to attract him to Fight Club. Norton could not accept the offer immediately because he still owed Paramount Pictures a film; he had signed a contractual obligation with Paramount to appear in one of the studio's future films for a smaller salary (Norton later satisfied the obligation with his role in the 2003 film The Italian Job).
In January 1998, 20th Century Fox announced that Pitt and Norton were cast in the film. The actors prepared for their roles by taking lessons in boxing, taekwondo, grappling, and soapmaking. Pitt voluntarily visited a dentist to have pieces of his front teeth chipped off so his character would not have perfect teeth. The pieces were restored after filming concluded.
Fincher's first choice for the role of Marla Singer was Janeane Garofalo, who objected to the film's sexual content. The filmmakers considered Courtney Love and Winona Ryder as candidates early on. The studio wanted to cast Reese Witherspoon, but Fincher objected that she was too young for the role. He chose to cast Bonham Carter based on her performance in the 1997 film The Wings of the Dove.
Uhls started working on an early draft of the adapted screenplay, which excluded a voice-over because the industry perceived at the time that the technique was "hackneyed and trite". When Fincher joined the film, he thought that the film should have a voice-over, believing that the film's humor came from the narrator's voice. The director described the film without a voice-over as seemingly "sad and pathetic". Fincher and Uhls revised the script for six to seven months and by 1997 had a third draft that reordered the story and left out several major elements. When Pitt was cast, he was concerned that his character, Tyler Durden, was too one-dimensional. Fincher sought the advice of writer-director Cameron Crowe, who suggested giving the character more ambiguity. Fincher also hired screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker for assistance. The director invited Pitt and Norton to help revise the script, and the group drafted five revisions in the course of a year.
Palahniuk praised the faithful film adaptation of his novel and applauded how the film's plot was more streamlined than the book's. Palahniuk recalled how the writers debated if film audiences would believe the plot twist from the novel. Fincher supported including the twist, arguing, "If they accept everything up to this point, they'll accept the plot twist. If they're still in the theater, they'll stay with it." Palahniuk's novel also contained homoerotic overtones, which the director included in the film to make audiences uncomfortable and accentuate the surprise of the film's twists. The bathroom scene where Tyler Durden bathes next to the narrator is an example of the overtones; the line, "I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer we need," was meant to suggest personal responsibility rather than homosexuality. Another example is the scene at the beginning of the film in which Tyler Durden puts a gun barrel down the narrator's mouth.
The narrator finds redemption at the end of the film by rejecting Tyler Durden's dialectic, a path that diverged from the novel's ending in which the narrator is placed in a mental institution. Norton drew parallels between redemption in the film and redemption in The Graduate, indicating that the protagonists of both films find a middle ground between two divisions of self. Fincher considered the novel too infatuated with Tyler Durden and changed the ending to move away from him: "I wanted people to love Tyler, but I also wanted them to be OK with his vanquishing."
Studio executives Mechanic and Ziskin planned an initial budget of US$23 million to finance the film, but by the start of production, the budget was increased to $50 million. Half was paid by New Regency, but during filming, the projected budget escalated to US$67 million. New Regency's head and Fight Club executive producer Arnon Milchan petitioned Fincher to reduce costs by at least US$5 million. The director refused, so Milchan threatened Mechanic that New Regency would withdraw financing. Mechanic sought to restore Milchan's support by sending him tapes of dailies from Fight Club. After seeing three weeks of filming, Milchan reinstated New Regency's financial backing. The final production budget was $63 million.
The fight scenes were heavily choreographed, but the actors were required to "go full out" to capture realistic effects like having the wind knocked out of them. Makeup artist Julie Pearce, who worked for the director on the 1997 film The Game, studied mixed martial arts and pay-per-view boxing to portray the fighters accurately. She designed an extra's ear to have cartilage missing, citing as inspiration the boxing match in which Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear. Makeup artists devised two methods to create sweat on cue: spraying mineral water over a coat of Vaseline, and using the unadulterated water for "wet sweat". Meat Loaf, who plays a member of the fight club who has "bitch tits", wore a 90-pound (40 kg) fat harness that gave him large breasts for the role. He also wore eight-inch (20 cm) lifts in his scenes with Norton to be taller than him.
Filming lasted 138 days, during which Fincher shot more than 1,500 rolls of film, three times the average for a Hollywood film. The locations were in and around Los Angeles and on sets built at the studio in Century City. Production designer Alex McDowell constructed more than 70 sets. The exterior of Tyler Durden's house was built in Wilmington, California, while the interior was built on a sound stage at the studio's location. The interior was given a decayed look to illustrate the deconstructed world of the characters. Marla Singer's apartment was based on photographs of the Rosalind Apartments in downtown LA. Overall production included 300 scenes, 200 locations, and complex special effects. Fincher compared Fight Club to his succeeding and less complex film Panic Room, "I felt like I was spending all my time watching trucks being loaded and unloaded so I could shoot three lines of dialogue. There was far too much transportation going on."
Fincher used the Super 35 format to film Fight Club since it gave him maximum flexibility in composing shots. He hired Jeff Cronenweth as cinematographer; Cronenweth's father Jordan Cronenweth was the cinematographer who worked for Fincher on the 1992 film Alien 3 but left midway through its production due to Parkinson's disease. Fincher explored visual styles in his previous films Seven and The Game, and he and Cronenweth drew elements from these styles for Fight Club.
They applied a lurid style, choosing to make people "sort of shiny". The appearance of the narrator's scenes without Tyler Durden were bland and realistic. The scenes with Tyler were described by Fincher as "more hyper-real in a torn-down, deconstructed sense—a visual metaphor of what [the narrator is] heading into". The filmmakers used heavily desaturated colors in the costuming, makeup, and art direction. Bonham Carter wore opalescent makeup to portray her romantic nihilistic character with a "smack-fiend patina". Fincher and Cronenweth drew influences from the 1973 film American Graffiti, which applied a mundane look to nighttime exteriors while simultaneously including a variety of colors.
The crew took advantage of both natural and practical light at filming locations. The director sought various approaches to the lighting setups, for example choosing several urban locations for the city lights' effects on the shots' backgrounds. He and the crew also embraced fluorescent lighting at other practical locations to maintain an element of reality and to light the prostheses depicting the characters' injuries. On the other hand, Fincher also ensured that scenes were not so strongly lit so the characters' eyes were less visible, citing cinematographer Gordon Willis' technique as the influence.
Fight Club was filmed mostly at night and Fincher purposely filmed the daytime shots in shadowed locations. The crew equipped the bar's basement with inexpensive work lamps to create a background glow. Fincher avoided stylish camerawork when filming early fight scenes in the basement and instead placed the camera in a fixed position. In later fight scenes, Fincher moved the camera from the viewpoint of a distant observer to that of the fighter.
The scenes with Tyler Durden were staged to conceal that the character was a mental projection of the unnamed narrator. The character was not filmed in two shots with a group of people, nor was he shown in any over the shoulder shots in scenes where Tyler gives the narrator specific ideas to manipulate him. In scenes before the narrator meets Tyler, the filmmakers inserted Tyler's presence in single frames for subliminal effect. Tyler appears in the background and out of focus, like a "little devil on the shoulder". Fincher explained the subliminal frames: "Our hero is creating Tyler Durden in his own mind, so at this point he exists only on the periphery of the narrator's consciousness."
While Cronenweth generally rated and exposed the Kodak film stock normally on Fight Club, several other techniques were applied to change its appearance. Flashing was implemented on much of the exterior night photography, the contrast was stretched to be purposely ugly, the print was adjusted to be underexposed, Technicolor's ENR silver retention was used on a select number of prints to increase the density of the film's blacks, and high-contrast print stocks were chosen to create a "stepped-on" look on the print with a dirty patina.
Fincher hired visual effects supervisor Kevin Tod Haug, who worked for him on The Game, to create visual effects for Fight Club. Haug assigned the visual effects artists and experts to different facilities that each addressed different types of visual effects: CG modeling, animation, compositing, and scanning. Haug explained, "We selected the best people for each aspect of the effects work, then coordinated their efforts. In this way, we never had to play to a facility's weakness." Fincher visualized the narrator's perspective through a "mind's eye" view and structured a myopic framework for the film audiences. Fincher also used previsualized footage of challenging main-unit and visual effects shots as a problem-solving tool to avoid making mistakes during the actual filming.
The film's title sequence is a 90-second visual effects composition that depicts the inside of the narrator's brain at a microscopic level; the camera pulls back to the outside, starting at his fear center and following the thought processes initiated by his fear impulse. The sequence, designed in part by Fincher, was budgeted separately from the rest of the film at first, but the sequence was awarded by the studio in January 1999. Fincher hired Digital Domain and its visual effects supervisor Kevin Mack, who won an Academy Award for Visual Effects for the 1998 film What Dreams May Come, for the sequence. The company mapped the computer-generated brain using an L-system, and the design was detailed using renderings by medical illustrator Katherine Jones. The pullback sequence from within the brain to the outside of the skull included neurons, action potentials, and a hair follicle. Haug explained the artistic license that Fincher took with the shot, "While he wanted to keep the brain passage looking like electron microscope photography, that look had to be coupled with the feel of a night dive—wet, scary, and with a low depth of field." The shallow depth of field was accomplished with the ray tracing process.
Other visual effects include an early scene in which the camera flashes past city streets to survey Project Mayhem's destructive equipment lying in underground parking lots; the sequence was a three-dimensional composition of nearly 100 photographs of Los Angeles and Century City by photographer Michael Douglas Middleton. The final scene of the demolition of the credit card office buildings was designed by Richard Baily of Image Savant; Baily worked on the scene for over fourteen months.
Midway through the film, Tyler Durden points out the cue mark—nicknamed "cigarette burn" in the film—to the audience. The scene represents a turning point that foreshadows the coming rupture and inversion of the "fairly subjective reality" that existed earlier in the film. The director explained, "Suddenly it's as though the projectionist missed the changeover, the viewers have to start looking at the movie in a whole new way."
Fincher was concerned that bands experienced in writing film scores would be unable to tie the movie's themes together, so he sought a band which had never recorded for film. He pursued Radiohead, but ultimately chose the breakbeat producing duo Dust Brothers to score the film. The duo created a post-modern score that included drum loops, electronic scratches, and computerized samples. Dust Brothers performer Michael Simpson explained the setup: "Fincher wanted to break new ground with everything about the movie, and a nontraditional score helped achieve that." The film's climax and end credits feature the song "Where Is My Mind?" by the Pixies.