As Neil LaBute and I settled down for coffee in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the conversation quickly turned to his work – actors, submitting scripts to film studios, and his recent directing of episodes of AMC’s Hell on Wheels.
Before I knew it, ten minutes had gone by, and I hadn’t yet started recording.
It is well-known that an artist is independent from their artwork– someone who could be a friendly individual while writing plays containing cynical, antisocial characters– but this does not mean that one should assume Neil LaBute to be gloomy and disordered.
He is in fact an affable laborer, who takes pleasure in reworking, producing spin-offs of his most renowned work, and appreciates interpretations of his plays that he does not recognize. There is no closure or divine in his career; it is something to be unearthed.
Since the beginning of the ’90s, Neil LaBute has been known for his controversial works, such as plays and films which highlight topics such as infanticide (Bash), infidelity (Your Friends & Neighbors), male cruelty (In the Company of Men), female cruelty (The Shape of Things).
The awkwardness of dating someone who is overweight (Fat Pig), the possibility of profiting from 9/11 (The Mercy Seat) and other unpleasant topics including incest, rape, office shootings, and racism.
As a film director, he has had both successes and failures: he has been lauded and earned a Sundance Filmmakers Trophy, but also directed an unremarkable thriller (Lakeview Terrace) and a widely disliked horror remake (The Wicker Man).
Despite this, he is one of the most frequently performed and popular playwrights today.
It’s often said that a fondness for LaBute’s work is based on what Joseph Conrad referred to as the “fascination of the abomination”–the urge to both gander and look away.
There have been many strange and delightful moments (Nurse Betty), joyful conclusions (Reasons to Be Pretty), and remarkable performances from the actors he has worked with, such as Aaron Eckhart, Renee Zellweger, and Stanley Tucci.
When I met him in person, his demeanor did not correspond to his status as a provocateur.
He was most enthusiastic when discussing the behind-the-scenes production of his latest film, Some Velvet Morning, but was less interested when the conversation shifted to cultural or critical appraisals of his works.
He seems to be a person who values story over meaning, and is drawn to scenarios that are filled with difficult circumstances for his characters. As we talked, I gained the impression that his works often explore dark topics because that is where the most captivating stories lie.
I recently experienced your earliest work, Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, and your latest Some Velvet Morning in one day.
There was an obvious evolution in your career but there was a common thread as well; the interactions between men and women in regards to sex. I’m interested in the distinctions between the Neil LaBute of the start and the Neil LaBute of today.
When NEIL LaBUTE was in his twenties, he was trying to find his own writing style. He was influenced by David Mamet and wanted to figure out how to portray men and women in his work.
He was experimenting with monologues and creating scenes with no plot. He found that he enjoyed keeping people in their seats by having characters talk to each other. Ironically, it was his work in film that opened up the door for him to work in theater.
BLVR: Wow, that was news to me!
NL: Once I had completed In the Company of Men, a lot more people got intrigued. “Oh, I heard you do theater.” They wanted to watch a theatrical performance. That theater door opened and I took the opportunity, saying, “Here I come!”
BLVR: Was it because you had the aspiration to be a playwright?
For me, theaters have always been the most sensible choice in terms of what I could do and what I enjoyed. Movies, while I love them, were never something I felt like doing because it is such an expensive medium.
I didn’t grow up with a camera in my hands so the structure of theater made sense. It has a beginning, middle, and end, whereas with movies, the first day of shooting is meant to be as good as the last.
What resonated with me was the process of putting together a play–the groundwork, the table-read, standing up and rehearsing. That all made sense to me.
When it comes to the writing process, I noticed that you mentioned that Filthy Talk was lacking in terms of plot compared to Some Velvet Morning, which is about characters making plans for themselves.
So, when you start writing, do you begin with a monologue or a scene?
NL: Every time I write, it’s a completely different experience. I very rarely have a particular topic in mind; I don’t feel the need to make race or government a focus of my writing. That’s just not my style.
BLVR: I often ponder if people make that supposition concerning me.
NL: It’s common for themes to emerge when talking about characters and the things they care about. For example, the battle of the sexes might arise from discussing a man and a woman facing difficulties. Generally, I don’t start from a theme, but rather a character or a title.
Crafting the story is all about rewriting and improving it with each take. The idea is to make the most of the time we have and take the opportunity to try something different.
Do you have a fondness for improvisation? BLVR inquired.
NL: I don’t buy into the idea that within a few minutes a group of people can come up with an improv that is better than something worked on for a long time. An actor’s job is to create a sort of safe place for the actor to go into and do what is asked of them, which is quite a task.
That is why I am here. To provide that and then give space for the actor to act, leaving only one hole for them to look out of if they need me. The best actors I have worked with, from Morgan Freeman to anyone, use me when they need me.
He’ll shoot two takes, look at me and ask if he has it, and then walk away. But when he needs me, he’ll ask what I think and invite me in, because he knows what he needs.
BLVR: I was wondering if the process of creating is ever a bit contentious with your crew and cast, as you have been known to have a bit of an adversarial relationship with your viewers, especially on the stage.
Particularly with The Shape of Things, where you did not want things to end on a good note, and thus skipped the curtain call. So, do you find the process to be combative, or do you strive to create a secure environment?
I’m in the business of creating conflict on the page and the screen. I don’t wish to create any in the production process – that’s the family’s job. I’ve noticed that in the audience, there’s a sense of complacency and judgement from the safety of the dark.
I think it’s more pleasurable for them to be closer and experience the energy of a show that could potentially go off the rails.
That’s why I do this – to give them a few minutes where they feel like they’re in a place they shouldn’t be and get lost in it. That’s the real reward.
BLVR: You have faced a great deal of censure for appearing to be sexist, homophobic, or discriminatory. However, have you ever encountered someone who genuinely appreciates that kind of attitude?
NL: It is something we have experienced in the past; for instance, in In the Company of Men Aaron Eckhart was widely recognized for his portrayal of a bad ’90s character.
Women would either find him attractive or strongly dislike him. In one incident a female came up to him and hit him on the arm.
On the one hand, it was a sign that he had done his job well, but it also resulted in me, the writer, being labeled as a misogynist despite the fact that the character was not particularly interested in hating women more than anyone else.
This has been something I have had to deal with ever since.
BLVR: I observed that many of your earlier works featured a female executive or a woman entering the professional world as the antagonist of the protagonists, not necessarily the antagonist of the play.
This was around the same time that men’s movements began to gain traction. Did you ever deliberately analyze feminism or men’s movements or were you merely writing the stories that came to you?
I was aware of the events in the world and found them interesting. Even though I’m only a single generation removed from a very clear division between family and work roles, I have always been interested in the way people react to societal changes.
For example, why does a man feel threatened when a woman wants to bring more money into the family?
Why has the expectation that the man should be the provider been so deeply ingrained in our society? We are watching this inequality slowly being righted, and in a hundred years, our society will likely look very different.
We will think it is funny to watch people struggle with identity and inequality, just as we think it is funny to read Chekhov.
After all, at one point, the fact that two people of the same sex wanted to marry each other was a big issue, which shows that we have always been living in turbulent times, though the particular turbulence has changed.
BLVR: People often describe your work as being dark with a wry sense of irony. As I was reading The Distance From Here, it began as a seemingly ordinary situation, similar to a Richard Linklater film, only for a kidnapped baby to be thrown into the mix.
Does this preconception of your writing ever influence your work, or does it not even cross your mind?
NL: Hadn’t crossed my mind. When I wrote The Distance From Here, I was worried that another baby was going to die, like in Bash. But then I thought, “OK, no twist is the twist.” I realized people may expect something different than what they get at the beginning.
So I asked myself, “How can I write this honestly if I’m trying to tell the story of two people, and I want a happy ending? Will people feel cheated or will they be content with it?” And then I started to wonder how my audience would react.
THIRD SECTION: BEASTS AND TIMID SOULS
BLVR: A lot of your pieces have a feeling of social unfairness. Characters with a mix of good looks and bad behavior come out on top, while people with good values and smarts come out on the losing end.
I’m wondering if this idea of injustice comes from your own experiences as a kid. Were you someone who was often picked on, or is the sense of injustice in your work something that is more theoretical?
NL: It’s a complex situation. I do not think of myself as someone who uses life for inspiration. Even so, funny things do happen.
For example, when my mother saw In the Company of Men, she watched the movie and said, aside from her comment about my swearing, that “it’s funny, you got your dad exactly right.”
I was wondering what she meant, and she said that the blond character portrayed by Aaron Eckhart was very much like him in terms of being charming and yet somewhat lethal.
Although the superficial things were different—my dad was dark-haired, a teamster and the character was white-collar—I believe I was writing about a completely different person. However, my mother could identify the core of the character in my father—someone who is narcissistic and sociopathic and only cares about himself. I am particularly intrigued by humans’ frailties, like the character in Fat Pig, as I don’t hate him but feel sorry for him because it is hard to be weak, to recognize one’s own flaws and be a coward.
Even though it was entertaining to create the character in In the Company of Men, he is the least interesting to me because he has no emotions. Mostly, I write about men who are angry, scared, or refuse to grow up.
I am the one who documents those men who battle to become men but still remain boys.
Some people may be interested in politics or sports, but I am more interested in individuals who desire to live together but find all sorts of excuses not to because they are human and they have trouble being, caring, and loving. If they did not, I would not have a story to tell.
BLVR: There has been an abundance of attention paid to your Mormonism, from a perspective of astonishment, “Would you believe he’s a Mormon?”. To me, it is far more surprising that many Mormons write science fiction or fantasy.
When I read or watch your works, it appears that the story lacks a moral element, unless it is present. Even your plays such as Bash show people attempting to do something they consider to be proper or religious, but it turns out in a terrible fashion.
The audience appreciates the plays only if they have a strong sense of good and bad. Have you ever considered yourself to be a moralist?
NL: No. Absolutely not, and I’m well aware that these types of queries are always present, since they’re the ones that interest me. Very basic ones: what is good, what is bad, and what is sinful? I suppose that’s why I’m so drawn to Greek theatre and such.
The narrative I come up with is about someone attempting to do something and they can’t manage to get there quickly enough, or at all.
It appears to be such a difficult task to stand up for oneself in a situation like this when there is a gun pointed at you, I understand, but when it’s something like office politics, why is it so complicated? I’m certain it’s difficult, yet I’m asking why is it hard?
Why is it a struggle for us to just say, “No thank you” to someone else? “I’m aware we will be sharing desks, but if that’s how you’re going to behave, I’m done with you.” Why are we so prone to succumbing to the pressures of our environment?
BLVR: You have a broad array of movies you’ve produced. You have your own projects, have done scripts of other people like Nurse Betty, but then also have remakes such as Death at a Funeral and The Wicker Man. Is there a plan you have or are you just doing your best to keep up with the ever-changing movie industry?
For my writing, I opted to stay with a linear path. If you read Filthy Talk and Some Velvet Morning, you will recognize a consistent voice. As a film director, I lacked a plan and just decided to accept opportunities that I found compelling.
BLVR: Although The Wicker Man was not a major box-office hit, more people have likely watched it than have seen your plays. Does this ever make you feel like you’re talking to an already enlightened audience in terms of their level of education or social status?
No, I treasure the distinctive character of theatre: it’s only in a single theatre in one city. It could be successful and appear in twenty-five productions, but it will remain a single instance. If people talk about his new play, they will also always remember the movie.
Therefore, I enjoyed creating it and it was a great example of how to make sure everyone is working towards the same goal. It was clear that Nic Cage in a bear suit would be amusing, but we were also aware that he was going to be killed at the end.
Striking a balance between humour and terror can be tricky at times, but we don’t always achieve it.
BLVR commented that their experience with DirecTV was different from attending a play. They noted that with on-demand television, they could watch a show in one sitting.
NL: My actions towards them have been quite theatrical. It’s like I’m playing a game of jumping from one ice floe to another, while moving on to the next place and attempting to promote my services.
I consider this to be a lot of what we do. We push our wagon around, trying to attract attention to the “shiny pot” we have, and hoping someone will purchase it.
What is the current state of theater? What direction is it heading in?
NL: Despite its age, the institution is forging steadily ahead. It’s so distinct that it’s unlikely ever to be replaced as nothing compares to the experience of seeing something live and having a story told that way – not even the Ice Capades.
BLVR: So, you are not skeptical about the commercialization of theater, specifically on Broadway?
Sixty years ago, if you and I wanted to get a play up, Broadway would have been the only option. Today, however, there are so many other venues people can choose from, such as YouTube. I have always had the attitude of making something happen if I cannot find a place to perform my work. I’m lucky to have had so many of my plays and movies produced, so I don’t have the time to be cynical. Instead, I just try to make it work according to my own sensibilities.
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