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More Than Master of the Feel-Bad Film

More Than Master of the Feel-Bad Film

Articles - Directing

Neil LaBute on set of Possession

Neil LaBute on the set of Possession with Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Neil LaBute’s plays and films are about people-mainly
men-behaving badly. They’re about relationships, which means men
vs. woman, where nasty people lie, cheat and betray each other.
In LaBute’s 1997 feel-bad breakout film, In the Company of Men,
a pair of sleazy yuppies (Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy) set out
to seduce and destroy a sweet, deaf secretary.

It was a hard act to follow, but Your Friends and
Neighbors
(1998) had twice as many characters doing terrible
things. LaBute’s long-time friend, Aaron Eckhart, stars as a paunchy
milquetoast husband cuckolded by his best friend, a pretentious
drama coach (Ben Stiller). Friends and lovers lie and betray each
other at every turn. Who will sink the lowest? For shock value it’s
hard to beat Jason Patric, who plays a conceited stud, smiling and
calmly describing his most satisfying sexual experience, a homosexual
gang-rape in a high school gym locker room.

A year later Neil LaBute’s play, Bash: Latter-Day
Plays
, a series of three stories (performed by Calista Flockhart,
Paul Rudd and Ron Eldard) that all begin bland and familiar and
turn sinister, opened Off Broadway. (LaBute is a Mormon and so are
three of the four characters in the play.) By comparison, his next
movie, Nurse Betty  (2000) seems warm and fuzzy. Eckhart
turns up again, this time as Betty’s no-good, drug-dealing husband.
Rene Zellweger plays Betty, a ditzy but good-hearted waitress who
falls for a conceited soap star (Greg Kinnear). The love story is
really Betty learning to fall in love with herself.

LaBute has always been popular in England, and his
next play, The Shape of Things, was a big hit at the Almeida
Theater. The play begins light and cute, with two people meeting
in an art gallery. Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), an eccentric art graduate
major, seduces Adam (Paul Rudd), a nerdy museum guard, into falling
in love with her and then she molds him like one of her sculptures.
She gets him to lose weight, stop wearing glasses and, finally,
to ditch his friends (Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller). It’s more
about power than sex, and Evelyn can more than hold her own with
any of LaBute’s alpha male monsters. When the play moved to Manhattan,
at the afterparty Rudd explained LaBute’s popularity with the English:
“The Brits really like Neil LaBute because he tends to write about
the ugly side of people and they’re all American,'” he said. American
critics gave the play mixed reviews.

Possession, LaBute’s new movie, which he also
wrote with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, is adapted from A.S.
Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning 1990 literary romance. The movie is
not stereotypically Neil LaBute material. Why the switch? Rudd comments.
“He sometimes likes to do things different just for she sake of
being different.” Instead of modern and minimal, the film moves
back and forth between lovers and centuries. Two present-day academics,
Gwyneth Paltrow (with a posh English accent yet again) and Eckhart,
who plays a brash American, fall in live while researching the love
lives of  Romantic poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash. (Don’t
bother looking the poets up, they never existed.) The 19th-century
love scenes bits are wildly romantic, with feverish lovers, costumes
and corsets, and acres of English countryside. LaBute’s little joke
is that the Romantic lovers (Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam) are
less repressed and cynical than the modern-day couple. It’s a beautiful
film visually, shot by legendary cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier.
And as for relationships, well, there’s hope.

But don’t get too cozy. LaBute’s play, The Distance
From Here
, recently opened in London and is heading for New
York. It’s about young Americans doing terrible things again. And
the movie version of The Shape of Things, starring the original
stage actors, is scheduled to open in theaters by the end of the
year.

Paula Schwartz (MM): So where does the evil
stuff in your movies and plays come from?

Neil LaBute (NL): It just comes from
a desire to do interesting work-stuff that I’m not seeing. It makes
good drama to have people who are doing unexpected things or things
that unnerve you a little. I’m interested in that as an audience
member, so I tend to do that as a writer.

MM: You have really switched gears with
your new film,
Possession, which is a romantic love story.

NL: I did quite a bit, yes.

MM: Let’s start with talking about why you
chose to make this movie?

NL: Well that’s probably as good a place
to start as any, switching gears. It wasn’t completely calculated,
but it’s one of those things I think that any writer or director
keeps in their head-that they should not ever just sort of do the
expected of them more. Luckily, I haven’t had a hit so I don’t have
to think about following something up. (laughing) I’ve been lucky
enough to just say, ‘Wow, I think this would be a really interesting
thing to do.’ My interest in Possession came from my interest-my
passion-for the book, just as a reader. I had read it a few years
ago and I just had asked my agent to see who had the rights for
it. It was at a time where they were kind of between writer-directors,
and I talked my way into taking a crack at the screenplay with another
writer, and I guess we got a good enough take because we went on
to the next level.

MM: Was it daunting to adapt this movie
from the book, considering the history of other people attempting
and failing?

NL: No. I probably didn’t know the full history.
It’s a little bit like buying a house: it’s not full disclosure.
You know how long the story’s been around, since the book was published
and people have had the rights and stuff. I slowly found out as
I was going along but, no, you still want to take a crack at it
and see if you can be the one to find the way in.

MM: Are you concerned people might think
you’ve mellowed?

NL: (Laughing) They’re going to say something.
I had even a few of those on Nurse Betty. ‘Has he lost his
bite and gone soft?’ Those kinds of things. It seems to constantly
follow. It’s easier to classify people and say `They do this. They
are this.’ Because there are so many people doing any job, so it’s
just easier to give them a handle and say that’s who they are. If
you defy any of those expectations they either kind of look at you
suspiciously or try and reassess you or see if you’re trying to
dupe them, whatever it is. But I think you do have to have some
commitment to not just be surprising, not shock by doing something
new, but keep yourself interested in the process.

MM: And then, just to give everyone whiplash,
you have another film,
The Shape of Things, coming out a
few months later.

NL: (laughing) Exactly. If they think I’ve
got a romantic streak, that should certainly cure them.

MM: You’re used to working with a small
cast. This is the largest cast and crew you’ve worked with, isn’t
it?

NL: Definitely that.

MM: And most expensive?

NL: Most expensive, yeah, and totally different
than ones I had worked with. They were all from the UK. I had worked
with the cinematographer, [Jean-Yves Escoffier]. He was the only
one I had ever shot with before. And I’d worked with Aaron Eckhart,
obviously, but it was a small group of people that I actually knew
once I got to England and got to work.

MM: Did you feel the pressure of a bigger
budget or were you able to push it out of your mind?

NL: There’s an inherent pressure anyway.
I think anytime somebody gives you that much money-to do anything-they’re
going to keep an eye on what you’re doing. And it being [made] with
two studios, there was double the amount of people that you might
have watching over a production of a film.

I think anytime you have a boss, you’re aware
of that fact. It’s not direct, constant horrible pressure by any means,
but it’s just the fact that you know you’ve got someone who is going
to watch you and how you’re arranging things. So, yeah. I think filmmaking
as a whole has a pressure I don’t feel in the theater. The daily pressure
of ‘We’ve got to get this shot. We’re losing the light. This person
can only shoot on Thursday.’ There’s just always a time factor that
I don’t feel in the same way in working in the theater.

MM: Do you prefer working in the theater, where there’s less pressure?

NL: The less pressure the better, as far as
I’m concerned. I think the difference is that in theater you have
a process where you’re working toward presenting a product. But
in film the process and product are constantly combined. You rehearse
a little bit and then you shoot something that basically will stay
the same the day you shoot it. Whatever you shoot on the first day
is much like you’ll see it when it’s projected in front of an audience.
You’ll add sound, you’ll do the color timing, but essentially what
you shot you’ll use as the stock of what you have as finished film,
so you’re constantly intertwining process and product and then moving
on. You’ll never go back to work on that again. You can present
a play and give notes after you open. You can continue to tinker
with the product.

MM: I read that you didn’t want to use any
computer technology or special effects in this film?

NL: I really did not want to do any of that.
I like the old fashioned keep people-in-the same frame and move
the camera or move the walls of the set and not do things with real
computer graphics, just cause this doesn’t really do it for me.
I just like the old fashioned way.

MM: So you don’t think you’ll fool around
with that stuff in the future?

NL: You can never say no, but I’m just not
drawn to them in the same way that I’m drawn to people. I prefer
an actor’s face over a digital screen.

MM: Very few people move from playwright
to director as you do. David Mamet is the only one who comes to
mind. Do you think of yourself mainly as a film director or as a
playwright? Or do you even think in those terms?

NL: I tend not to think about it. I think about
it when I am at the moment. But the times I have had to put down
‘occupation’ on things, I tend to put down writer. I guess just
because it’s what I’ve been doing the longest and am most comfortable
at. So I think in those terms as a writer, but I certainly have
directed for quite a while-theater and film-and love it a great
deal, so I consider myself both.

MM: In the book, the character of Roland
is English. Did your decision to make the character American have
anything to do with wanting to cast Aaron Eckhart?

NL: I’ve never felt-in all the times that I’ve
worked with Aaron-that I had to sort of find a place for him in
anything. He’s kind of such a malleable guy, in terms of what interests
him and what he’s capable of doing. He’s always sort of in the back
of my mind because he’s a great choice for whatever, but the decision
to make Roland an American just dramatically made sense to us as
we were going along. Once that choice was made, it made great sense
to me to approach Aaron to see if he liked the character and script.
But there was no real, `I’m doing this just so I can make it work
for him.’ Because there was a certain selling process of getting
Aaron. He still had to be kind of sold to the studio as leading
man material because he’d done so much kind of donning of disguises
and had to show that he could clean up and be cute and likeable.
He was very much so in Erin Brockovich I think, but he again
was under such disguise that people needed to see that he could
be just a regular, college fellow.

MM: Some people might say casting Gwyneth
Paltrow as a frosty young Englishwoman isn’t exactly a stretch.
What were the pluses in casting her?

NL: The pluses in terms of what she’d done
before was the things that I would worry about naturally, like dialect,
all of that, I knew she could do. I never met a person in England
even who said they had any problem with her dialect. She had sort
of beaten that difficulty already. She has to deal with celebrity
and being a movie star and all of those things, but she still likes
a good challenge as an actor, and I think the challenge of Maud
is to not be someone who’s immediately what an audience might think
of as likeable or loveable. She’s quite icy, she’s standoffish,
she’s very academic. She’s not that interested in making a spark
with the leading man, or who is ostensibly the leading man in the
piece.

MM: Jennifer Ehle is probably better known
as a stage actress than for her work in movies. She won a Tony several
years back for The Real Thing. She was competing against her mother,
Rosemary Harris, so of course she’s got great acting genes. But
talk about casting her and Jeremy Northam?

NL: She is just wonderful. She has an amazing
face to watch-really one of the great faces. And they had both had
done a lot of period work and again, you just know they’re going
to be able to carry the weight of that, but they made it fresh.
They made it feel like a couple from today. It wasn’t precious:
real concerns and real fears and laughter. They were great to work
with. They just kind of get the job done so there’s not a lot of
angst about acting and ‘It’s my soul!’ They are well-trained and
they’re very emotional as well, but they’re trained to find it.
Even if they can’t find it, they manufacture it.

MM: Shooting this movie was obviously complicated:
you’re dealing with two periods of time, going back and forth between
the two sets of lovers, Maud and Roland, who are academics in present-day
England; and the fictional Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and
Christabel LaMotte.

NL: It’s a pain, but it’s a nice pain. Really,
it’s a pleasure. I love set design and costumes and all that. Yeah,
the kind of stuff that I’ve done that’s come out of my own head
has been pretty spare, as is The Shape of Things. But yet
it was fun to do my first bit of period work. I had a couple of
Oscar-winning designers and just kind of let them go free and then
let Jean-Yves Escoffier shoot it in a way that was really attractive.

MM: The relationships between men and women
in your works don’t work out. The outlook is especially grim in
the upcoming
The Shape of Things, so I guess you wouldn’t
describe that as a date movie?

NL: That depends on how you feel about your
date.

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