Last month I was given the chance to sit down and talk with filmmaker/playwright Neil LaBute. As you might imagine given his work, that sounded pretty intense to me. Luckily though, it turned out that he couldn’t have been nicer, so we wound up having a pretty free flowing chat about a lot of things, though what you’ll see below is the transcript of the section where we pretty much focused in on his work and his new film Some Velvet Morning (my review of which can be found here). The movie just opened in theaters, so this is a good time to post this chat. Give it a look below and I hope you enjoy:
Here we go, of course starting with Neil (like just about everyone else I interview) commenting on me using an iPad as a recording device after a bit of small talk…
Joey Magidson: It’s a long story.
Neil LaBute: It’s fascinating to see how things have evolved from little recording devices to this, it’s great.
JM: Actually started life as a gift from my ex girlfriend…(I proceed to then tell him a short story, which I only mention so I can share his response)
NL: Oh shit. I could have written this!
NL: There you go.
JM: I was probably way too young, but I saw The Shape of Things when I was about 15 maybe, and it was my first movie of yours.
JM: When I first started getting into movies in a big way, and I’d “heard” of you, IMDb was around, but something drew me to it, some combination of seeing Paul Rudd in a serious movie, etc, but it was a bit of a mindfuck at that age…
JM: I mean, around then I’d had my mind blown by Chasing Amy not having a happy ending around that same time too. So from there, I backtracked and watched In the Company of Men, which made me feel horrible to be a male.
JM: Earlier this year I saw Some Girl(s), you didn’t direct it, but it’s very much your thing through and through.
JM: And I finally saw this one last night and liked it.
NL: Thank you.
JM: I really really liked that it didn’t show its whole hand in the advertisements.
NL: That’s kind of true.
JM: Like, when someone sees a movie of yours, they do kind of know what they’re going to get…
NL: In some sense, yes.
JM: But at the same time, this plays with that, while still being true to you. Someone actually sent me a question request saying that your characters always make a case against humanity…
NL: Hmm, that’s good. I don’t know if that’s true with all my work, but some do, or they make a bad showing of it, they’re a bad example of humanity.
JM: I think maybe what he was getting at was that it’s bad if you identify with these characters maybe?
NL: Yeah, I think ultimately there are very few, you do get a reputation basically, there are people who say you do this or you make these sorts of characters, but there are very few people, even in that group of men that I’ve made, that would have a direct “good” or “bad” label. I think even the character that Aaron Eckhart played in In the Company of Men, that guy, borders on the sociopathic, while a lot of the others are…
NL: Yeah, their crimes are no worse than anyone else’s that you’re walking around with. They don’t want to grow up, are cowards. It’s hard to say you’re a bad person…life is tough, you often make the wrong choice.
JM: I’ve been the devil’s advocate once or twice and said if you take some of the characters from certain movies of yours and tinkered a bit, maybe an upbeat score, you’d have a comedy.
NL: It might be.
JM: People just sometimes respond oddly to darker characters who may be closer to themselves than they’d prefer, I think.
NL: Indeed. They say they recognize that person, but it’s not me or anybody I know. You want to say that that doesn’t have anything to do with me, and I understand that. It’s not a documentary and I’m not an anthropologist or a sociologist. I’m just saying, hey I’m making some stories and these people happen to do this, but it’s not indicative of the way that everyone acts, or acts towards other people. It’s just, these three people in this situation, could this happen or not, that’s what has to pass the test for me.
JM: Awesome. On that line or thinking, what’s the spark? Plays, movies, etc, by and large you’re creating out of thin air…
NL: Certainly as a playwright, as a filmmaker I’ve definitely had a period where I said I could go off and direct other people’s stuff, but the actual creative spark, this is a perfect example of this, no one was waiting for it. There was no theater saying hey we’d like to have this, so when I had it, I didn’t know exactly what to do with it. It could have gone to the stage, it could still easily go to the stage, but I was at a crossroads and said to myself that I needed to start doing things closer to what I did at the beginning of my career, I have this script, it’s either going to go to the stage and then if I film it people will say it’s a filmed play, or you make it, people have to engage with it at that level. They may say that it looks like a play or that I hate that kind of thing, whatever, that’s their reaction, but they do at least have to come at it as a movie. Those things just came together like that, I had the resources, so it was just time to go and do it.
JM: I think what’s interesting is that you have experience with plays, so you’ve got a sense of how to keep it from just looking like a filmed play. Other movies, I won’t say which, can sometimes show the seems, where you can see the machinations keeping them in a room or something like that.
NL: Well, I’m sure there are a couple of moments here where people might feel that way, but in the moment you have to keep people in the story, saying why doesn’t she just get out of that place.
JM: The second floor made a big difference for me. In Brooklyn, I’m guessing?
NL: Park Slope, exactly. And three floors actually!
JM: With a loft apartment, it wouldn’t have worked in the same way.
NL: We looked at those kinds of places too and they felt very limiting after a while. We did need to make it feel like a movie, even a very contained movie.
JM: This is what people do too. They leave the room, while not leaving the argument.
NL: Part of that was what was on the page and happily part of that was what Stanley brought to it, he brings a lot of things to it, but he does bring a certain menace, a certain danger, that he may actually stop her from leaving. That’s why we had him break something early on, to show that he means what he’s saying, that’s not bluster like she is.
JM: Did you have him in mind specifically?
NL: I didn’t actually. There was an incarnation of this about six months before that, that Alice was involved in but he wasn’t. We had another actor but it fell apart and Stanley’s name came up the second time and I thought he had all the right stuff.
JM: He fits it so well, because you need to not dislike him for so long.
JM: Even when he’s saying some troubling things…
NL: Exactly. You see where he’s coming from. Whether you like it or not, he seems to be in love with this girl.
JM: I think it just helps too that naturally you want to like him too.
NL: Yes. I think you’re right, I think he comes in with a lot of goodwill.
JM: He’s played less than kind people before, but most people think of him in a paternalistic way overall.
JM: No offense against James Woods, but you put him in this movie and you’re just waiting for him to kill her.
NL: (Laughing hard)
JM: You see him in a movie and you know he’s going to be a villain. Even this year with White House Down…
NL: That’s funny.
JM: Ghosts of Mississippi…looks like a lizard! I’d love to see him play a romantic lead but it never happens.
NL: I’m thinking, there must be a role where he’s been a normal guy. (Thinks) The Virgin Suicides? I mean, the girls do kill themselves, but he’s a pretty normal guy, and there’s a lot of reasons why that happens.
NL: But that’s about as far as he’s gone…or Salvador maybe. He’s just sort of a regular Joe there. I’m trying to think of him as the normal guy though and can’t really.
JM: Granted, he’s on to something. Playing the nice guy all the time is probably boring.
NL: I think that’s what a lot of actors think. You hear them say that the bad guy is the fun guy.
JM: I think Adam Brody said that when I spoke to him about Some Girl(s) even.
NL: Exactly, and that’s such a different sort of guy, it’s nice for him. We did a short film together where he first got that opportunity and I think he liked it.
(We then BS’d for a while before beginning to wrap it up)
JM: This has been a good time, and again, the movie is good too.
NL: Thank you.
JM: Congratulations on this, and I’m happy to see this coming from you again, even if it’s not the happiest movie.
NL: That’s okay, someone’s gotta do it.
JM: No one better than you at this point either.
NL: (laughs) I suppose.
JM: Thank you.
So that was my chat with Neil Labute. He was a good dude, and he’s got a good new movie out there in Some Velvet Morning. Be sure to give it a look and I hope you enjoyed this interview…I certainly enjoyed conducting it.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!