It’s a metaphor,” says Norton, who plays the film’s nameless narrator. “It’s off the charts. It’s not a photograph; it’s an El Greco, lurid and crazy. For me it’s always about, Have I seen this before? And I’d definitely never seen this before. Nobody’s ever seen this before.”

The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club. The problem is, Pitt and Norton wanted to apply those rules to this interview.

It’s 10 p.m on a Sunday in April. I’m in Pitt’s impeccably vacuumed trailer, parked beside a soundstage on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in L.A; aptly, the place is deserted, spooky. Pitt has been here-there’s an empty McDonald’s bag on the counter and the smell of French fries in the air-but he has temporarily dematerialized. Pitt is good at that.

Norton is on his way. He’s having a quick shower. I’d just seen him on another part of the lot, running for his life down an anonymous urban street, over and over again. Clutched in his fists were the two icons of modern manhood, a file folder and a gun. He was wearing a trench coat, underwear, dress shoes, and a lot of sweat. (The make-up department had freshened his armpits for each take.) It was not his best look. His stand-in was luckier, he got to wear pants.

Finally Pitt and Norton arrive, dressed for combat I nearly identical T-shirts, cargo pants, and boots. They’re both medium-tall and skinny as ferrets. Their hair is a mess. Norton looks like the coolest guy in the math club, his sharp nose and chin offset by soft eyes and a way with words. Pitt looks like…well, like the guy on the posters, only better, because he’s here in the room. He looks like a small, blond sun.

When Norton speaks, which is often, he fiddles. He fiddles with the label on his water bottle. He fiddles with the handles on the drawers of the cabinet behind him. He fiddles with his sentences, going backward and forward within an idea, like a seamstress edging a burronhole. On the other hand, when Pitt speaks, which is rarely, he is completely still. He kind of exhales a few words in your direction. But the two are friends. They share a year’s worth of dirty jokes, a fierce commitment to their privacy, and a streak of chuckle-headedness. Interviewing them together is a bit like asking teenage potheads to describe precisely what they did the night before.

“I remember being excited going into this movie-just, ‘Let’s see what happens,’” Pitt says. “It was one of those [projects], where it wasn’t so laid out. It was finding the tone for these…these…scenes.”

Pitt looks at Norton and they burst out laughing. I watch them. For a while. I ask questions. They resist. Eventually they tell me that, yes, they’re here to talk about Fight Club-but they don’t actually want to talk about it. “There are things that when you name them, when you go through a process of reductiveness on them, it just misses, and you know it missed,” Norton says. “We feel that way about Fight Club. It feels cheesy to talk about it.”

“Like you can’t do it justice,” Pitt says.

“And that’s not to say, ‘Oh it’s this great, grand thing.’” Norton says.

“Hey, I think it’s got its merits,” Pitt says.

“Yes, but they’re not worth talking about,” Norton says. (Oh, I get it-in the subversive spirit of Fight Club, they’ve decided to deconstruct the magazine interview.)

“It’s not a secrecy thing,” Norton says. “It’s just, there are things that speak for themselves so much better than we’re ever going to talk about them.”

“Listen,” Pitt says finally, “You tell us what it’s about.”

Okay, Fight Club is: the story of an insomniac (Norton) who does everything he’s supposed to do-graduate college, get a job, buy a couch-yet feels connected to none of it. He hooks up with a charismatic anarchist named Tyler Durden (Pitt), a waiter who pees in rich folks’ soup. Together they start Fight Club, which leads to social insurrection and the massing of an army of followers who shave their heads and call themselves Space Monkeys.

Along the way, the two fall in love with the same woman, Marla Singer, a chain smoking support-group junkie (played by Helena Bonham Carter), whose inspiration was Judy Garland in her latter sadder days). Bonham Carter was the last sign on to the film. “I thought it could be very dangerous-provocative for provocative’s sake,” she says. “About how men who feel emasculated need to prove themselves violently, physically, which I’ve always found faintly pathetic.” She did not want Marla to be “Ms. Victim, or just a bitch. She had to be powerful in her own right, and not just used and abused. I think Marla is somebody who might just use and abuse herself, but it’s her choice.” She quotes T.S. Elliot’s line about Webster: “’Webster was much possessed by death, and saw the skull beneath the skin.’ That’s Marla, She’s still just the girlfriend. But as a girlfriend, it’s a pretty great one.”

Eventually, everyone in Fight Club ends up on the roof of a skyscraper that they’ve rigged to explode. The movie is tar-dark and very funny. There are ribbons of liposuctioned fat in it, and abortion joke, bits of porn films. And there are four single-frame shots of Pitt, inserted for a subliminal effect-the film will jump, but the audience won’t quite know what it has seen.

Laura Ziskin, head of Fox 2000, which is releasing Fight Club, acquired the book when it was still in manuscript form. It’s full of lines like, “This is your life, and it’s ending one hour at a time,” and, “We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t.” And “Under and behind and inside everything I took for granted, something horrible had been growing.” Understandably, Ziskin didn’t share it with her bosses until she had a finished script (by newcomer Jim Uhls) and a director attached: David Fincher, the hotshot 37-year old who had cut his teeth on commercials for Nike, Coke, and Chanel, and videos for Aerosmith, Madonna and the Rolling Stones (he turned Mick and Keith into giants standing over New York City skyscrapers).

“’There were so many things the book’s narrator said where I went,’ God, I’ve thought that and never told anyone.’” Says Fincher, who is partial to baseball caps and big cotton sweaters, and resembles a young Richard Dreyfuss. “For men today, there’s an arid wasteland of information about how to live. Am I supposed to cry? Supposed to fucking break something? Somebody just give me a hint.”

“Fight Club has a generational energy to it, a protest,” says Norton, who turns 30 this month. “So much of what’s been represented about my generation has been done by the baby boomers. They dismiss us: the word slacker, the oversimplification of the Gen-X mentality as one of hesitancy or negativity. It isn’t just aimlessness we feel; it’s deep skepticism. It’s not slackerdom; it’s profound, cynicism, even despair, even paralysis, in the face of an onslaught of information and technology. We’re much more intensely informed at a much younger age than our parents were.”

Pitt is a little older, 35, but he nods in agreement. “I grew up with a lot of structures-my high school, the church, whatever club was going on-and I certainly never felt like I belonged to any of ‘em,” he says. “I never felt part of those who seemed to exuberant about it all.”

Norton gave the script to his father, a former federal prosecutor who’s now involved in historic preservation. His response was, “Interesting,” “It’s the first thing I’ve chosen to work on that my father-who is a very, very smart man-said that about,” Norton says. “And yet, every friend I gave it to went, “Mmm. Yeah! That’s us,’ More than any film I’ve made, I pulled directly from my own experience for this. I’m not saying nobody over 45 is going to understand it. But it won’t surprise me if a great many people go, ‘Huh?’”

“It’s get caught in the morality net. We’re gonna get hammered,” Pitt says happily. “The week that Seven came out, Kathie Lee Gifford said on her show, ‘It is your moral imperative to avoid this movie.’ If we don’t get that on this one, then we’ve done something wrong.”

David Fincher is huddled over a camera in a tiny clearing in the center of a vast soundstage. He’s shooting a bar of soap. Now, soap is pivotal to Fight Club. The hardcover book jacket features a pink bar of it on a black background. (Fincher wanted this image to be the movie’s poster, too, but he lost that one-a $68 million Brad Pitt film without Brad Pitt on the poster?) Tyler Durden makes soap and sells it for $20 a bar. The ingredients that make soap, you see, also makes bombs. For authenticity, Pitt and Norton even took soap-making classes from a woman named Auntie Godmother, who runs a boutique company.

“It’s a real craft,” Norton says. “There’s all this room for creativity and invention around the basic formula.”

“We made a lovely mint glycerin soap,” Pitt says dreamily.

“You can burn yourself badly, though,” Norton adds.

“Yeah, you’re handling lye,” Pitt says.

“You gotta respect the soap.”

It’s Monday night, 9 p.m. Fincher and a skeleton crew have been shooting this pink glistening bar of soap for 40 minutes. They have to keep wetting it down and wiping it off again. “What are we waiting for?” Fincher bellows. “Let’s go let’s go let’s go!” A crewmember scrubs furiously with a towel.

“Action!” Fincher yells, eyes glued on the monitor. Bucky Moore, who has worked on two of Fincher’s previous films, slams the soap onto a silver dish. “Cut! Too far to the left! Again!” Fincher yells.

At the next call for “Action!” Bucky slams down the soap. It slides out of the frame. “Cut!” Fincher yells. “Again!”

“Cut!” Too much oozing. I don’t want suds all down the sides like that.”

“Cut! Now it’s not wet enough! More dripping: I need more drips.”

On the next take, the soap never even comes into the frame. “Shit!” exclaim the five burly men huddled around the camera. “We dropped it boss,” Bucky says sheepishly.

“If Bucky is behind you in the shower, do not pick up the soap,” Fincher barks, as if he’s on a P.A. system. “Kick it into the next stall.”

“Very funny,” Bucky says.

The crew continues to shoot the soap for 40 more minutes. Fincher slaps his forehead. “I should have used fake soap,” he says.

“Fincher’s mediocrity is everybody else’s perfection,” says Bonham Carter. “But he wasn’t at all the person I’d expected to meet. He’s got a very feminine side to him. He isn’t always trying to prove himself-he’s too whole a human being. And he’ll hate me for saying it, but he’s pretty well-adjusted.”

“I don’t think there’s anybody else in our generation who could have made this movie,” Norton enthuses. “Fincher is the only one who knows as much about narrative and intention as he does about gels and f-stops and the latest CGI stuff. I think he’s-“

“Picking up where Kubrick left off,” Pitt chimes in. “I’m gonna leave that one up to the scholars, but that’s what I think.”

Who else would shoot a sex scene between Pitt and Bonham Carter as a special effect? The actors, completely naked, were covered with white dots, which a computer read as they assumed different positions of the Kama-Sutra.

Bonham Carter had done love scenes before, “but none quite as technical as this, Or quite as weird,” she says. “And very frustrating-to be underneath Brad Pitt for twelve hours and not to be able to enjoy it.”

For a pivotal road-accident scene, Fincher mounted a camera on a car’s hood, put the car up on a rotisserie-like contraption, put Pitt and Norton inside, and rolled them upside down, over and over. “It was such a laugh,” Pitt says. “Crazy. But not so crazy insofar as we’ve seen many cars flip. But how many show what it’s like inside the car?”

“Onscreen it will be this incredibly intense crash,” Norton says, “but the doing of it was a riot. They kept firing off these air bags. They kept going, ‘firing!’ Then, Boof! And we were like, Wha-ha-ha, laughing. And they had these big piles of rubber glass. And we were laughing, and the rubber glass was going in our mouths.”

“At three in the morning,” Pitt says.

I ask if they ever rolled a car in real life. Mistake. It pulls them out of their manic reverie. There’s a long pause.

“No,” Norton says.

“No,” says Pitt.

Another pause. Norton turns back to Pitt. “I think your getting whacked by a car in Meet Joe Black was about the best car hit I’ve seen,” he says. “Fincher and I watched that on video together about ten times.”

“Hyeh-heh-heh,” Pitt says.

Brad Pitt and Edward Norton have some things in common. They were raised just outside major cities, in suburbs they both itched to leave: Pitt near Springfield, Missouri; Norton near Columbia, Maryland. “We both have the Heavy Metal parking Lot public-school background,” Norton says. (Heavy Metal Parking Lot is a 1986 documentary, filmed outside the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland, before a Judas Priest show. Norton calls it “anthropological genius.”) Unlike the characters in Fight Club, who consider themselves part of a generation unwanted by their fathers and raised by women, Pitt and Norton had caring, attentive fathers (Pitt’s worked for a trucking company). And both-get this-are comfortable discussing Nietzsche.

But their complementary strengths are more…obvious. It’s hard not to think of Redford and Newman in The Sting, or Redford and Hoffman in All the President’s Men (“Yeah, I get that Hoffman thing a lot,” Pitt says.) What I think of is that old line about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: He gives her class; she gives him sex-appeal.

Fight Club is only Norton’s sixth film (“I was gob-smacked about that,” Bonham Carter says. “I just could never measure up the six-movie experience with what he can do. Or what he can say about it”). Norton was a Best Supporting Actor nominee for his first one, 1996’s Primal Fear, and a Best Actor Oscar nominee last year for his fifth, American History X. He’s worked with Milos Forman and Woody Allan. His roles, though wildly diverse, have in common an uncommon intelligence. Before Hollywood, he went to Yale; his grandfather is a famous urban planner. He reeks of class.

And Pitt? Well, he’s the Sexiest Man Alive, right? He’s the guy who abandoned the University of Missouri just two credits shy of graduating, then drove to L.A. and stumbled onto the Hollywood A list. After only fifteen minutes (half of them shirtless) in Thelma & Louise, he became the boyfriend in a billion dreams. “He is about the most modest individual, given what he’s been given, that I’ve ever met,” Bonham Carter says. He is female desire made flesh.

“Brad can say anything, and no matter what it is, you go, ‘Yeah, there’s some truth to that,’” Fincher says. “It’s not a power trip; it’s more like, ‘This is how I see it-but hey, you do what you like.’ Which is a great way of getting people to do what you want.” Fincher laughs.

The perception out there is that Pitt needs a hit-that because his recent films Meet Joe Black and Seven Years in Tibet tanked at the box office, perhaps he’s not the golden boy anymore. This idea has traveled far and wide: Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk lives in a house in the woods (complete with chickens) outside Portland, hasn’t owned a television in eight years, and rarely glances at magazines, and even he has heard about Pitt.

This perception cracks me up. What-one day Hollywood is going to stop hiring Brad Pitt? He’s going to express interest in a film, and a studio head is going to say, “Pitt? Nah, no thanks.” Get real. Pitt sees more scripts than Kinko’s (name an actor who can take his place.) He lives in a breathtaking, lovingly restored Craftsman home. He dates breathtaking, lovingly maintained Jennifer Aniston. Brad Pitt has the world on a key chain on his belt loop, and he twirls it as he pleases.

“listen, after what we paid him, I can tell you he doesn’t need a hit,” Fincher says. (Pitt’s asking price is $20 million.) “The great thing about Brad is, he will never arrive. He will do stuff that people maybe will not like; he will do things that people think fit him like a glove. But he’s never going to be one of these guys where you know exactly what you’re going to get. He’s never going to say, ‘What do they want to see me in?’”

“My baggage worked for Fight Club,” Pitt says simply. “Meaning, at this point you think can go into the grocery store and know what aisle to go to find me. I feel this out there. I’m perverting that expectation in this one. There’s freedom in that.”

Norton enthusiastically agrees. “I wasn’t going to say that, but I’m glad you feel that way,” he says to Pitt. “In Fight Club, there is a great subversive inversion of the expectations that are loaded onto Brad. There’s this great perversion of the notion of the person who other people wish they were like.”

“Or hate,” Pitt says, grinning.

“It reveals the absurdity, the ultimate bankruptcy and emptiness of letting someone else become iconic for you,” Norton says.

“You say icon, I say baggage,” Pitt says. “But whatever it is, it works.”

“Perception, persona…” Norton says.

“Projection, assumption, bullsheet mon,” Pitt finishes.

At a critical juncture in Fight Club, Pitt’s character says to Norton’s, “I looks the way you want to look; I fuck the way you want to fuck.” Said by Brad Pitt, this line is eminently believable. But I wonder how it made Norton feel? If Pitt’s persona is smartened up by appearing alongside Norton, isn’t Norton’s sexed up by Pitt?

“You can’t be in the business that we’re in and be blind to the way external reductive perceptions come into it,” Norton answers. “But I never make my choices, ever, just to confound those expectations.”

Later, however, Norton breaks a small piece of news to Pitt: He did one thing during the shoot that Pitt never picked up on. When they first started working together, Norton saw what kind of car Pitt drives-a giant black truck-and asked the producers to rent him one. He drove it around awhile and waited to see if Pitt would notice. He never did.

Pitt guffaws for a good long time at this. “I can’t believe I never saw it,” he says.

“I didn’t get exactly the same truck as you,” Norton tells him. “I couldn’t get one as big.”

Fight Club is: A response to the detritus of our common culture, “What’s been sold and pushed down your throat that you actually abhor,” Pitt says. Starbucks, olestra, Rogaine, and Prozac all take hits in the movie. An all-IKEA-furnished apartment is blown to bits. A reissued Volkswagen Beetle suffers a memorable hate; it was a personal target of Norton’s,” vis-à-vis the baby boomers’ repackaging their youth culture and selling it to my generation,” he sneers. And Pitt gets to utter the line, “Fuck Martha Stewart.”

“Take Viagra,” Pitt says. “Someone made billions here, I’m sure it’s helped many men. But you can’t tell me all of the men who bought it had medical problems. So much of it was psychological. It’s a Band-Aid over a wound, but you don’t get at the problem that caused the wound.”

In these days of hyper product placement in films-Tommy Hilfiger presents: The Faculty!-it’s a pretty audacious move to take on consumerism, especially since Fox has its finger in more than a few pop-culture pies. (The first trailers for Fight Club appeared with the new Star Wars.) Is the studio nervous?

“Every movie you take on makes you nervous,” Fox 2000’s Ziskin says diplomatically. “But if you’re really going to examine society, you can’t be bogus; you’ve got to be authentic.”

There are two trailers for Fight Club, however, that audience will probably never see. Both were shot in the deadpan style of public service announcements. The first features Norton, scrubbed shiny, standing in a theatre, talking directly to the audience. He asks them to turn of their cell phones and not converse during the show. Then he says, cheerily, “And remember, don’t ever let strangers touch you in the bathing-suit area.” In the second, Pitt gives a similar pep talk about emergency exits, and then eyeballs the camera and says, juicily, “Did you know urine is sterile? You can drink it.” Fincher’s dream is to send the trailers to theatres without explanation

Fight Club is: Chuck Palahniuk (pronounced paula-nick). “The first person I want to please with this movie is myself,” Fincher says. “The second one is Chuck Palahniuk.”

“I read scripts weekly,” Pitt says. “After a while, you just start seeing the same thing, and you start hearing the same voice. And out of nowhere comes this voice. Which is Chuck Palahniuk.”

Chuck Palahniuk, 37, was a service researcher for Freightliner-he would repair trucks that didn’t need fixing, time himself, then jot down the procedure for the manual. He hated it. He joined a writer’s group, a bunch of friends who’d meet Tuesday nights to critique each other’s work, and Fight Club poured out in three months. He wrote everywhere: underneath trucks, at the Laundromat, at the gym. “It was more like dictation than writing,” he says. “It sort of wrote itself.”

Six of his friends became characters in the book. “Tyler” is a carpenter with a penchant for trespassing; he leads forays into condemned buildings to salvage marble and fixtures. “He’s one of those neoromantic people who think if the Y2K bug happens, we’ll all be better off,” Palahniuk says. “Marla” had only one request: If Palahniuk ever got famous, she wanted to meet Brad Pitt. (She got her wish: Last summer, Palahniuk took all six friends to the Fight Club set for two weeks. “So I was able to say, “Tyler, this is Tyler’: ‘Marla, this is Marla,’ and everyone was really fascinated by one another,” he says.)

Palahniuk quit his Freightliner job. His second novel, Survivor, about an accidental messiah, has been optioned by Fox; his third, about a beautiful woman disfigured by a drive-by shooting, is due out this month.

Like the characters in Fight Club, Palahniuk looks for ways to test himself. “I volunteer at a homeless shelter because I’m terrified of the homeless,” he says. “I work at a hospice taking care of dying patients because they scare the crap out of me. And a friend took me to her med-school lab so I could dissect cadavers. Until I walked into that room with those three dead bodies and cut their heads off, I was just terrified at the idea. By doing these things, I’m afraid of so much less.”

At readings, men and even some women (“You’d be really surprised at the number of women,” Palahniuk says) beg him to take them to real Fight Clubs. “I’ll be like, ‘No, it’s made up; it’s fake.’ It just breaks people’s hearts,” he says. He’s heard rumors that such clubs actually exist in such places as New Jersey and London. “If there wasn’t a need, people wouldn’t do it,” Palahniuk says. “And I’d rather have them beating the crap out of each other than walking into McDonald’s with a sawed-off shotgun.”

Fight Club is not: about people who know how to box. It’s more about getting hit, taking hits. (Fincher, Pitt, and Norton have all been in fights, but not so many, and not since high school.) It’s about putting yourself in the ring, seeing how you do. And the release, the clarity, and the bonding that follow.

So Pitt and Norton worked with a trainer, but not so that they would look good. They trained to get into getting hit. "I clipped you once, didn't I?" Pitt asks Norton. "In the face. Just enough to wake you up."

"I cracked my thumb on Brad one time,' Norton says. "On his stomach." (This is too good to be true. Have you seen Pitt's stomach?)

"And we both caught knees in the chest," Norton continues. "Cracked ribs. Just had the wind knocked out."

"That's how cool we are," Pitt says.

"You obviously can't cut loose," Norton says. "But we shot some things wide enough that there was no way to fake it. That's when it got a bit..."

"Unchoreographed," Pitt finishes gleefully.

I ask them why men fight. Why some find a transcendence, a kind of happiness, in violence.

"What is heaven supposed to be?" Pitt shoots back. "Where no one says anything bad about each other? Where everyone's helpful? You're basicallytalking about boredom."

"You don't generate as much energy if you don't have conflict," Norton agrees. "In Buddhism there's Nirvana, and then there's Samsara, the world of confusion and disharmony. That world is our testing ground, where we have experiences that help us become enlightened. I'm not saying Fight Club is The Book of Living and Dying, but it was kind of that idea: Your challenging yourself to break out of the world."

"Aw, here we go," Pitt says, thumbing his goatee. "The point is, don't pacify yourself."

Have humans truely reached the point where the only way to make ourselves feel something is through pain? Because the Space Monkeys in Fight Club are not exhilarated by, say, painting a picture or writing a symphony.

"Would you be?" Pitt asks.

Um, I'd like it more than getting hit.

"Wait. You have to be careful not to say, 'Fight Club is about the appeal of nihilism, or the cleansing efffect of violence or pain," Norton says. "Because that's not what the movie's about. that's what Brad's character is suggesting to mine."

"As an option," Pitt says.

"As an option," Norton says.

"As an option," Pitt says.

In the end, Fight Club is: what you make it, more or less. Norton sits up in his chair and smiles his first full smile of the night. "For a while, we were describing it as" - here he adopts a glib, oily voice -"a story about two friends who start an amateur boxing club for disadvantaged young men..."

"...and the woman who comes between them," Pitt finishes. "Which is the best explanation I've heard."