The notoriety of Neil LaBute as a filmmaker was preceded by his growing popularity as a playwright by nearly ten years. One of his earlier plays became his first film, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (which he later revised as a play), and the world was never quite the same as LaBute unleashed film after film and play after play that looked at the horrible way we treat each other, particularly the way men and women respond to each other's weaknesses. The first film was followed by the equally powerful and icky YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, a completely original screenplay from LaBute.
Always in search of something slightly different, LaBute went on to direct other people's scripts, adaptations of other works, screen versions of his plays, and even the occasional remake (hello, WICKER MAN and DEATH AT A FUNERAL). I still think THE SHAPE OF THINGS is my favorite of LaBute's films (adapted from his play and featuring the same cast, including Rachel Weisz and arguably the best dramatic performance Paul Rudd has ever given. More recently, he has directing a couple episodes of the AMC series "Hell on Wheels" and written episodes of the DirecTV series "Full Circle."
For the first time since the beginning of his film career, LaBute has gone back to writing original screenplays. He is presently in production on the feature DIRTY WEEKEND, starring Matthew Broderick and Alice Eve; and making it's way across art house presently is his latest, SOME VELVET MORNING, a two-person piece, with Eve and Stanley Tucci, in the best performance he's had in at least 15 years. The film appears to be a conversation between two ex-lovers trying to see if they can repair the damage done and get back together. But as the their talk goes on, slivers of information are revealed, and the dynamic shifts dramatically, magnificently, and someone shockingly.
I did my best in talking with LaBute not to reveal some of the film's revelations and intricacies, and as grateful as he was for that, he didn't exactly go spoiler-free in some of his comments. So consider this entire interview a spoiler-rich zone. If you plan on seeing SOME VELVET MORNING, you may want to avoid reading this until after you have. I'll admit to being intimidated by the very idea of talking to LaBute, more because of his stature in the theatre world. Actors whom I truly love will lay themselves bare (physically and emotionally) for anything he's involved in, but especially theatre, and that terrifies me. The fact that he made a movie as perfect as NURSE BETTY is grounds enough for fear. But LaBute could not have been a nicer person and a great conversationalist, with a terrific sense of humor to boot. And I hope one day to be able to chat with him more extensively about his entire career. In the meantime, I was able to chat with him about his favorite topic: male and female relationships, which, not surprisingly, plays a big part in SOME VELVET MORNING. Please enjoy my interview with Neil LaBute…
Capone: Hi, Neil. How are you?
Neil LaBute: Hi, Steve. How are you?
NL: [pauses] I didn’t answer your question, did I? I am well. How are you? [laughs]
Capone: I'm still well, thank you. I must say before we start, one of my most vivid memories of seeing a film maybe ever is when you came to Chicago to screen IN THE COMPANY OF MEN for, I think, an IFP-Chicago conference. It wasn’t a very big crowd, but I’m pretty sure most of them hated you by the time the movie was over, and the Q&A was so brutal. I thought the movie was phenomenal but I'll admit, I loved watching this crowd go after you, and you handled it so well. I’m guessing at that point you had probably handled a few equally hostile audiences. But I’d never seen anything like it. I wanted to congratulate you on your composure. SOME VELVET MORNING was not a play beforehand, although if you showed it to 10 people, they would probably all think it had been.
NL: And if I showed it to 10 theater companies, they might ask to do it. That goes for one half of the 10; the other half might say, “I hate you.” But yes, it's a script on its own because when it existedm it was just that. It was just a script. I had written it on my own, I didn’t have a company waiting for it, certainly no film company had asked for it to be written. So it was just one of those things I had on my own, and I said, “What’s the next step with this?”
As is often the case, I still write a lot of stuff just for me and then try and figure out what’s going to happen with it, and I think the difference was that I felt like I was at a crossroads in terms of film directing, that it had been years since I had directed my own material. I’d been directing other people's stuff or adapting things or remaking, and I said, "I love going off and doing theater, and it’s been fun to direct other people’s stuff, but I loved what I started out doing, so maybe I should do that. And so the material was right there.
Capone: And this is the first original screenplay for a feature film that you’ve written since your second film. Is that correct?
NL: YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS. Yeah, that’s right.
Capone: And the film you're working on now is also an original screenplay. Did you suddenly get a burst of wanting to make original films again, ones weren’t based on your theatre work?
NL: Well, it was a step-by-step thing. Part of it is what you’re doing or what you’ve just done and how you feel about that. Now as I get older and as I’ve done various things I’ve realized I used to think, “God, Terrence Malick went so many years without making a movie.” And then you get a little older and do some other stuff and you go, “Wow. Time flies.” And so when you’re writing for the stage and you’re directing for the stage and you’re writing for people in film and you're directing films, if you do a couple of these different things, suddenly you look over and one of those things hasn’t been done for a long time. And that’s the place I got to and went, “Wow I really haven't done that thing that I really liked.” And the other step in between was I made a couple of short films. I wrote a couple of short films for people and I made a couple, and I think I had a resurgence of that sense that "Wow, this is what it feels like to control the product. For better or worse, I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do; I got to work in black and white. That was a blast. I hired who I wanted to hire." So that made me want to go, “Yeah, I want to do that again but on a feature scale.” So all of those things happened relatively close together, which made me go, “I’d like to do this thing.”
Capone: This is a very difficult film to discuss without ruining anything, and I'll do my best not to. There are many facets of the relationship that I would like to talk to you about, but the fact that part of the relationship involves Stanley Tucci's son, it’s bizarre considering how it plays out. And the fact that it’s such a focus of their discussions makes me feel like this is just a middle-aged man who is scared of younger men, and how they are sort of picking away at his younger women.
NL: Yes, well I think so. Of youth and non-youth or middle aged, because she’s certainly many years younger than him, but he also talks about his child with great distain. There’s not really one kind word that he sends out there about the kid. But for us, it was really more of a frame work that we knew that if this was really happening--if that A story was happening--then there had to be this triangular relationship there involving the son. But you only reveal this other B story at the very end of the picture, hopefully. So if people figure it out, they figure it out, but that was the idea.
So at the center of that, we knew that if you had to suddenly look at it from that set of lenses, you went, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Alright, now how long have they been doing this?" Because you couldn’t do this the first time you met somebody. It’s just too elaborate. There is too much information there. So we always imagined that they had a framework that led them to this. This is what he wants, this is what she’s supposed to deliver, and this is how long its supposed to take. And if this is one of those days that gets out of control, then so be it, but the framework is what happens.
He wants to take something from her, obviously, and she is supposed to resist that, and at the center of that--whether he plays Fred today or she plays whoever--they have these code words and a scenario that they follow. And sometimes that person might be a co-worker, sometimes it’s the son--it’s just some other guy who is probably younger, and better looking, and more virile. All of those buttons that push a man to go, “Ugh, God. I’m going to just show her something,” and lead him down to where he wants to go and then he wants to pay for that. So that was the framework of what we were working with.
Capone: It’s interesting, all those things you said are absolutely, true but I didn’t see any of them in my first viewing. During a second viewing, all of those things would be revealed because we'd understand their true dynamic.
NL: I would hope so. It’s a bit of a magic trick. You’re playing three-card monte on the street. I’m leading you to watch this, but at the same time if you look when he comes to the door and says, “Hey it’s me, Fred,” she hesitates, and she brings up Chris, and he looks at her and she says, “Chris, your son…” And he’s like, “Yeah, what about my son?” So we laid in a few of those things along the way. Some visual things as well, like when she takes her address book upstairs and ultimately sets out a time to meet with him, it frustrates him because she’s got so much going on. If you look closely at that book--hopefully you don’t because you’re listening to the two of them--but there’s nothing on the pages. We did little things like that along the way to say yes, this is a game between them.
Capone: I’ll tell you why I want looking at the pages in the book is because any time he laid a finger on her, I was watching her because she always gave him that bristly, uncomfortable reaction.
NL: It’s a spectacular reaction. She’s such a good actress; it's such a showcase for her. Stanley, whether you’ve seen him like this or not--and I think there is some new territory here--I think you expect that "Oh, I know he’s always good." But there is stuff there from her because you just don't know her as well. She's kind of amazing to watch, I think.
Capone: We do know that Tucci can do anything, even though I’ve got to admit, it was nice seeing him dig into a meaty role like this, because I don't feel like I’ve seen him do that in a while. But Alice I’ve seen in maybe three or four other films, but she doesn't bring any baggage with her, certainly in dramas. It was a joy just to watch her reactions. And I know she's in your next film too. How did you find her?
NL: I had actually known her from theater. I had worked with her on stage. I had actually worked with her father years ago. Both parents [Trevor Eve and Sharon Maughan] are actors, and so I knew him and I knew of Alice from theater, and then we worked on a project together. When this came up, her name came up and it wasn’t for an audition, but we just met and talked, and she was just so smart about the character, about the world, about what she wanted to do with it. I already knew what she could do as a person or as an actor, but I was getting this really bright take on the material.
Capone: Probably the best look that she gives in the film is at the very end, because there is a hint that the more attached person in this relationship is actually her, which might be the biggest twist of them all.
NL: Absolutely. Yeah, it brought so much more than what was on the page. In fact, there was even a slightly a different ending, which was very cycular, which writers are often wanting to commit that crime of end like you began. I was thinking, especially due to the nature of her work, I was going to have her go from the door, and lay back on the couch, put the headphones on, and then you were going to sit with her, and then you were going to hear the doorbell again. Is it him again? Is it someone new? So that was going to be there, but after seeing her standing at the door and the look on her face I was like, “Jesus, that’s it. That's the end right there.” Because the more time she had to recover, it would be less and less effective,. If she composed herself, it’s different than that look on her face of just having all of that happen to her.
Capone: Have people figured this out? I can’t even imagine that being the case. Do people claim that they have?
NL: Either that, or it wasn't worth getting there anyway. It’s like, "I don't care anyway because I hate him." [laughs] But was does happen sometimes is, in the general sense, I’ve been working long enough and done things that people will think, “Well, whatever I’m seeing right now is not the truth. There is going to be some reveal, there is going to be some twist, there is going to be some trick here.” And so they start thinking, What could it be? So unless they sit down and say, “Look, I’m here for the ride. I want you to take me somewhere. I know it’s not a documentary, I want you to just tell me a story.” If they want to spend that 90 minutes doing that rather than engaging with the characters, then there is a greater chance that the film is going to stumble upon that.
Capone: Regardless of how it ends, one of the scariest thing about the film is a that you to a degree humanize a particularly vicious act. And I realize your goal has always been to get reactions out of people. What do you want us to think about his character in that brief moment where we think something truly horrible has happened?
NL: Well, I suppose it’s been leading there for a long time. Very early on, we had him break something to show that he is capable of violence; he's not just all talk. And there is a reason that she seems to flinch. We don’t know what their history is, but he seems to be capable of something beyond just yelling at her. So we knew that we had better put something in there that shows that he is more explosive than he seems to be. I don’t think people are surprised necessarily that it ultimately leads to something physical like that but then to reverse that and say that they are both complicit in this and that what seems like a flat-out rape turns out to be something that they both agreed upon and are exchanging currency over.
Again, it tries not to judge that but to say this is something, and then those moments afterwards are really important; there's a kind of tenderness. He comes right back, and the first thing he says is, “Are you okay?” and helps her to her feet and, “Oh gosh I’m sorry for breaking that.” He does nothing but apologize. “Oh god, I can’t next week, I’m with my family.” And the kisses are tender and removed from anything sexual. He’s almost got that embarrassed like, “Oh gosh, I just want to get in the shower and go to sleep, and I’ve had sex with someone I hardly know, and this is embarrassing.” And off he’s got to go, and she seems to have this need to find out when he’ll be back. So all of that, while very short, was hugely important to create this--not troubling--but this adult, sobering take on, What is this? Is this love? Is this just a transaction? What exactly is happening with these people? It’s not exactly for me to say, "I’m sure I know." I just want to put that out there and say that people do the most elaborate things to find connections with each other.
Capone: Once it’s over, you start to think well what is his kink? What is turning him on either about the conversation? Or is it about shattering a nice moment for him? Maybe we don't need to know exactly, but what would you say is the thing that is turning him on about this?
NL: Well I suppose that is probably where I would fall. That’s his to know and not ours, and maybe something set her off, because I think it feels like perhaps the climax was supposed to be when they were upstairs, and she starts to unbuckle his belt, but something is bothering him today. She’s pushed the wrong buttons or she’s gone too far. We don’t want it to be just one of their normal encounters; it’s something that spills over and gets bigger because they’ve gotten closer. Suddenly there is this jealousy; there are weird things going on, and without spelling that out I think that he has found something lacking in the life that he is leading. I think he enjoys the bravado of pretending to be someone he’s not--this lawyer, this guy and this girl who wanted him back then, and he’s found out this thing about her--as anything else. But in the end, there is a release. He wants to have her and he want’s to be willing to pay for it and he has this desire that is not being fulfilled in the family, the work, the life that he is presently living.
Capone: I’m assuming this was a location shoot; it’s not something that was built.
NL: It is, yeah. It was a brownstone in Brooklyn.
Capone: Despite it going a couple of levels up, it looks like a really tight space--the hallways and the staircases. That certainly seems to add to her fear of being trapped with him. Tell me about shooting in that environment. You have a lot of natural light, I noticed a lot of windows, but the close confines must have had an impact.
NL: The light was beautiful. It always sounds great that you're shooting on location, and we never could have paid to build something like that, and the look is fantastic but yes, as soon as you get into a room like that, you’re like “Oh fuck, this wall doesn't move, does it? And that hallway is really, really narrow so I’m going to have to watch her walk down it from here not follow her, or do anything.” Practical locations create practical problems. You're constantly going, “Oh god, the sun’s going down. Oh, the sun comes up over here. Damn. Oh, there are people out there. I didn’t realize that these guys were working on their house next door.” It’s all those things so you have to embrace it and say it’s all or nothing in situations like that.
So part of that claustrophobic atmosphere creates a real chamber piece like this, but it can also be very difficult to shoot. But it was also like having your own little studio. Emphasis on little, but it really was totally controlled by us. We bought the family out, they went on vacation, and we had the place to ourselves, so that in itself was nice.
Capone: And were you able to shoot in sequence? That seems like that would be necessary.
NL: Yes. It is necessary. Because they haven't seen each other in a while, it was good to have that halting "here we are again," and then they very quickly warm to the past and to what’s going on. And you certainly don’t want--for that big physical moment towards the end of the piece --to say on the first day, "Okay, guess what?" Oh my god, no. That's bad enough.
Capone: Speaking of using the space, there’s a great moment you have--I think it’s the first time they go up to the top floor of her place--where he’s coming up after her but he stops and is looking through the banister, almost like he’s looking through prison bars. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but it's a great moment of slight menace at that moment.
NL: Welcome to the great eye of my Dutch cinematographer [Rogier Stoffers], who loved that shot, and I looked at it and went, “Uhhh...” Especially from the POV of someone looking though there, it’s something I wasn't doing a lot of, so it stood out to me, and when things stand out I’m like, “Oh, if I don't do it more than once, I’m not sure I wanna do it.” But he was like, “Just take a look at it. I think this is really good.” And so he did it, and we incorporated it and made more of it. I’ve worked four or five times with him; he’s got an exceptional eye for light and space.
Capone: Let me ask you about the film you’re working on now, DIRTY WEEKEND. What can you tell me about the story if anything?
NL: It’s kind of a road picture. It’s two work colleague,s and I suppose it’s the antithesis of IN THE COMPANY OF MEN,. It’s a male and female coworker who get stuck in an airport unexpectedly in a town on their route, and one of them has a past, a history connected to that town, so in the time that they are waiting to fly out, this person goes back into the town to right some wrongs. Put something in the past to rest, and the coworker goes with them. It’s like a road picture but a very short road.
Capone: Sounds good. Neil, thank you so much. it’s great to finally get to talk to you.