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DIRECTOR NEIL LABUTE ON MOVIES, THE M-WORDS AND MORE

Blame journalists, if you must. In this case, it may be justified.

They are, according to Neil LaBute, where the idea for his new film, "The Shape of Things," came from. The film, starring Rachel Weisz, opens here this weekend. It's a very dark and revealing fable about a woman who performs the ultimate "makeover" on the man with whom she's sexually involved.

This much is certain: There is no one else in American movies even remotely like Neil LaBute.

We have other writer/directors who are just as active in theater as they are in movies, if not more so (David Mamet, for example.) But we have no one else whose view of the human race -- and its sexual enterprise in particular -- is as consistently dark, dismal and treacherous as LaBute's. The things that people do to each other in LaBute films are about as appalling as non-violent social acts can be.

And yet that's only in the movies he both writes and directs -- "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors," and now "The Shape of Things," which many see as the soul-chilling gender reversal of the sinister male sexual and business aggressions of "In the Company of Men." Let him direct a script by someone else or from a much-lauded best-selling novel and you get a wacked-out comedy such as "Nurse Betty" or a 19th century romance like "Possession," films which -- somewhere anyway -- believe in goodness and love and the beautiful possibilities of men and women together.

No one anywhere can claim, with impunity, to have LaBute "figured out." That's what makes his movies so remarkable. Who else with such a world view is a Mormon who went to Brigham Young University? Who else in current American movies could make a film like "The Shape of Things," which is just a filmed stage play in which there is no fancy camera work or editing whatsoever?

He got into moviemaking with the proceeds from an insurance settlement after a traffic accident. And he has, in very few years, become as exciting and unusual as any filmmaker we have.

A telephone conversation with LaBute and one critic who has long been dying to get some idea of what makes him tick:

Is "The Shape of Things," with its rapacious female predator, the female companion piece to "In the Company of Men?"

"The idea of this kind of woman came, in many ways, from talking to journalists about 'In the Company of Men.' People did ask, along the way, whether I thought that women could be as devious as the men in that film and I thought 'certainly, they could.' Obviously, they could just as easily betray someone but I don't think they would have done it in the same way. So in my thinking about 'What way would they do it?' I think a lot of the skeleton of Evelyn (in 'The shape of things') was born.

"She wouldn't run with the pack and tell everyone about it. She'd keep things to herself. And play people against each other. That sort of thing."

Why are the movies he writes so dark and bitter and the ones he directs from others' stories so different?

"It means there are more romantic people out there than myself. It also means that I'm quite drawn to that sort of thing (romanticism) as a person and as a director but not as a writer. My writing tends to be more focused on a certain kind of people or mind-set . . . the breadth of my interests is wider than the scope of my writing."

So, in his view, is there any hope at all for men and women together?

"I think there's always hope. There tries to be a glimmer of that in some of the things I've written. (A very long pause while he thinks.) I'm not cynical about it, I'm just skeptical. I know how hard it is for people -- of the same sex, opposite sex, whatever -- even with friendships. I know how hard relationships are to nurture.

"People are selfish enough that I think they take care of themselves to the detriment of their other relationships. While hopeful, I think I'm still a realist. Without a lot of work, I think that relationships can easily stumble. That said, it's more dramatic to write about the ones that have problems. I often write about close-knit people -- colleagues or lovers or family members -- who, for some reason, turn on one another."

How do his friends feel about such close scrutiny?

"I find it easier just not to have any friends. Then I don't ever have to be nefarious about it. (More seriously.) I think the ones that are friends are ones that have been friends for so long that they know how solid my friendship is. Or to accept knowing that they're being scrutinized. It doesn't mean their names or the direct incidents will end up on the screen but there's always the chance that a really good joke or an episode from their life will end up in something.

"My life is open season that way as well. I've never been one to have an excess of friends. Or to be one who runs to the first party that's being thrown. I'm more driven by my love of the work I do. I'd rather be with a close-knit group of three people than a group consisting of 30 people."

How about the M-word -- misanthrope -- which is so often thrown in his direction?

"I don't think I am. But I probably wouldn't be the one to know, would I? If I was, I would probably try to spin it in my favor. No, I think I like men and women just fine. If anything, I'm harder on men.

"I hear 'misogynist' as well (about my work.) I'm certainly harder toward men than I am women in the work that I do. I just have a very clear view of what life is and what my work is. On the page, it's open season: anything can be written about or any kind of situation or people. Whereas in life, I have an obvious set of rules -- morality and decorum. It's only on the page that I allow myself to be as furious as I want to."

How about that other "M" word, "moralist?"

"Sure. I think I'm driven by an idea of how one should live. Do I always live by it? Of course not. That's what makes us human. We regain ourselves and all of that."

His movies are just filmed stage plays, really. Does his steadfast avoidance of commonplace fancy cinematic technique get him in trouble with the powers-that-be in movies?

"So far, that hasn't been the case. I've tried to do those things on very small budgets that afford me the chances to do whatever I want to do. Obviously, if you see 'Nurse Betty' (starring Renee Zellweger) and 'Possession' (starring Gwyneth Paltrow), you'll see they're shot in a very different way. They're still probably more still (than other directors' movies.)

"When I get a chance to do something that comes straight out of my head and that I want to put up on screen, I prefer a very motionless aesthetic, a kind of study of what's going on. So far, I've been lucky enough to be around producers -- backing entities, the ones with the money -- that have a similar aesthetic or desire to create the same kind of thing or who just trust what I'm doing."

Who, of his filmmaking contemporaries, does he most admire?

"Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze (of 'Being John Malkovich' and 'Adaptation'). Pedro Almodovar. The Coen Brothers. Paul Thomas Anderson. Alexander Payne. David O. Russell. Mike Leigh, always. Woody Allen I generally like. Vincent Gallo -- I thought 'Buffalo '66' was fantastic, not to put in a plug for your hometown."

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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