Most of us heard the name Neil LaBute for the first time five years ago. It was August 1997; “In the Company of Men,” his first feature film, opened; and suddenly the new director was thrust into our consciousness. LaBute was labeled a misogynist, a man with a cruel and dark (and, perhaps, accurate) take on the capacity of men to be downright evil. And he was a Mormon, no less, a fact that added a bit of mystery and confusion, but, mostly, we made up our minds about LaBute: He was a creative brute likely to be in favor of polygamy.
His next film brought further affirmation. The lineup of despicable characters in “Your Friends and Neighbors” differed from “In the Company of Men” only in number (more of them), and gender (some nasty women were thrown in for good measure). But then, along came “Nurse Betty,” a comedy, albeit a very dark one. It had moments of downright giddiness, and we had to wonder: “Is Neil LaBute going soft on us?”
Could be. LaBute’s newest film is the recently released adaption of British writer A.S. Byatt’s 1990 novel “Possession.” It is a romance, a poignant one, and a period film, to boot. Critics of the film have focused on LaBute’s surprising “departure,” but the director says it is he who is surprised — by the world’s insistence on defining his interests based on two or three films. “Possession,” he says, clearly connects to the main focus of all his work — relationships.
“It’s about two sets of people who are in love and in relationships, at least, and things happen to them where they’re emotionally tested,” he says. “I have always written about that, not just as a filmmaker, but as a playwright, and now, as a sometimes short story writer.”
LaBute was in New York recently on the eve of his film’s release and one month before his short play, “Land of the Dead,” was to be performed as part of the commemorative program “Brave New World,” a three-day marathon of readings and performances about the aftermath of Sept. 11. He talked about overcoming the assumptions of his audience, as well as movie executives — about his interests, his abilities and his religious beliefs, which, he points out, do not include polygamy.
Are you surprised by some of the reaction to this new film, that the one thing people say is how much of a departure it is for you? How do you deal with it?
It’s sort of a you-can’t-win situation. I don’t know if I’m comfortable with it, but I’m comfortable knowing it. It’s difficult to think of “Possession” as a departure when I’ve done so few films. The first two were so steadfastly one way. “Nurse Betty” was different from the first two, and that was surprising. This one is a surprising move away from that again. I guess it shows the breadth of my interests, that it’s wide-ranging in terms of what I might do as a director. The writing I’ve done and continue to do remains pretty constant. I guess it’s more surprising to people from a directing sense.
Why did you want to make this particular film?
I read the book and I loved it. I enjoyed the twin engines that it worked on, and in a very intellectual way. I thought it was well-written, and emotionally I felt very satisfied. It had a great ending, which is often the thing you carry around. Endings are hard to do, in books, films, whatever it is — they’re hard to get right. When you do see one that works for you, you often think of the book on those terms.
At some point, during a relatively brief career, I asked my agent about who held the rights to it. I’ve been an Anglophile for a long time, and I’ve been both a student and a teacher, so most of the elements of the book were appealing to me. I hadn’t done anything in period — I had onstage — but I hadn’t done anything on film that would test me that way. And I’m always looking for a test, a risk.
Was it a good risk?
Sure, it paid off in the sense that I feel like what I set out to do was accomplished. Tackling the period from two points of view, that is a very immediate thing to me. It’s not precious. These people don’t know they’re in a period film, they’re just alive, and feeling these emotions. You want to get the manners and the mores right — the look of the hat, all of those things — but it would be a pretty hollow exercise if that’s all you cared about, was to get the carriages going in the right direction. You have to make the emotional points. That’s what really interested me. And the two separate relationships.
And that’s the through line, that’s the line I used to sell myself to Warner Brothers initially: “Look, I may not be the obvious choice for this material, but I think I’m a good one because it’s about two sets of people who are in love and in relationships at least, and things happen to them where they’re emotionally tested. And I have continued to write about that, not just as a filmmaker, but as a playwright, sometimes as a short story writer.”
You can always hire people to do the rest. You can hire a costume designer. But believe me, you don’t want just costumes. You really want to believe in the predicaments of these people. [Warner Bros.] seemed to believe that and I set about doing it. Also, there are a couple of highly questionable nasty boys along the way, who seem to fit my interests. Not that I look for stories with just bad men — they just happen to show up.
How much convincing did it take with the studio?
It took a bit of dancing and singing, and I don’t sing and dance well. It was the volume, I think, of singing and dancing. It really exponentially grows from the kind of project it is, to how much money the project is going to cost. Had this been a little small endeavor, relatively small compared to a studio’s thinking, there probably wouldn’t be as much hand-wringing about it as for, say, something that’s $25 million.
It’s a bigger investment, so there’s more curiosity, more interest about it. It either happens or it doesn’t. You just hope for the best. In this case, Warner Bros. said yes, but they wanted to work with another studio and split the costs. That was their safety valve. Another safety valve, I’m sure, was the casting of Gwyneth Paltrow. That made complete sense to them. On all the fronts we could come up with — period film, romantic film, someone who’s done a dialect, someone who’s had success at the box office, has personal success — all of those things were green lights.
What was it like adapting a book for film?
It was hard. At the base of it, it was a book I respected as a fan. And you have a living author that you don’t want to let down. I didn’t want her to look at it and go, “Well what was it about it that you loved? Because you decimated it. I recognize the title.”
The book had been optioned about 10 years before I started at Warner Bros. We had the benefit of where everybody else had gone before. But the key was seeing this series of notes, from A.S. Byatt, in response to earlier drafts of other writers. For someone who doesn’t write screenplays, she seemed to really know what a movie was. She was able to say, “Look, it can’t be like the book; Roland cannot be the same kind of character that he was on the page of the book.”
We wanted to be, not reverential, but certainly respectful of the book. And yet we knew there were great episodes that would be lost and characters who would not exist any longer. The mandate was sort of to get the spirit of the thing. Of course you just want to make a good movie that people enjoy, but for that next layer of people who have read the novel, you want them to say, “Yeah, they got it.” That’s pretty key.
There are such rabid fans of the book, that even during production, I was getting e-mails (how they got my e-mail I don’t know; it speaks to their tenacity) questioning my choices. It becomes a bit of a bible to them. So if it’s different than on the page, they say it’s wrong. Whereas A.S. Byatt was much more open to changes.
When it comes to working in theater and film, do you have a preference? Do you feel more comfortable in one than the other?
I don’t tend to get bored with one and then do the other; it’s just that I like them both. I always liked movies but never studied them or how to do it. I always imagined myself doing theater. I think film, which I haven’t done for very long, has afforded me the chance to go back and do theater. I like that so much that I can’t imagine a time where I would not want to do it. Whereas the pressure of film, I can see where people take periods of time away from it, because there are just so many other demands on you, beyond the elements that you really like. I like working on the script, I like working with the actors. There are so many technical demands that I am just still learning about and the less you know the harder it is to keep up.
The big difference between theater and film for me, and what makes theater so attractive, is the very clean delineation of purpose. In the theater there is a very delineated time in which the process takes place, and in the end of that, it’s all culminating in the product. So you know the pressure of, “We’re opening six weeks from now, so we need to do X.” It’s all very concentrated on the elements that I handle. Like, “Let’s sit around and rehearse the script.” Then we add on the costumes and all. You’ve got just the last few days to deal with that, costumes and lighting.
In film, there is no such demarcation. The first day of the film you’re filming. You may have a little rehearsal and preproduction, but that’s not the process, that’s part of it. When you go to work, and you’re setting up the lighting and all of that, then at some point during the day you have to film and that’s the product. That raw footage you took on day one is going to end up in the film. So you have to be as good on day one as you are on day 60. That’s a little more pressure, I think, for everyone. It’s like, “I know this is a really hard scene, but we have to film it today because we lose so and so on Thursday. Even though it’s kind of the climax of your relationship, we’re going to have to film that right away, and so off you go.” I find that a little more daunting.
The stakes are higher in film?
Not the personal stakes. But the stakes are made to feel higher because there’s more money involved. So more people are constantly around watching their investment. There’s no question about that. Even if it’s not hands-on, you just feel the presence of people watching what you’re doing, which I completely understand. If I were making an investment like that I would be a little curious as well. They’re not going to say, “What the hell, let’s just give you $20 million and see what comes of it.” That is just not the way it is handled.
When you’re in the theater, you’re talking about thousands of dollars usually. I don’t believe it’s just monetary, but I can’t imagine it’s just a trust issue either. Because the theater people that I’ve worked with I don’t know any better than the film people, but they tend to stay away and come to previews.
When you talk about yourself as a filmmaker, you speak as though you’re a novice.
There are so many elements in film — I’m a quick learner, but I think I’m constantly learning technical things that you never face in the theater. You don’t edit, you don’t do sound mixes, you don’t do computer-generated effects. For the most part they’re very different disciplines. Do I think I’m any better at one than the other? Not necessarily.
I’m probably more comfortable as a writer than as a director, because I’ve done it longer. I feel more comfortable at it, just the experience of it. I imagine myself capable of any number of things. I don’t think most people would have expected this film to come from me, just in terms of scope, the fact that it’s period.
You’ve said about your work — in theater and film — that you try to challenge people’s sensibilities. Does that involve challenging your own sensibilities?
I think I’m the first audience, so I challenge myself by extension of openly challenging others. When I write and I don’t know where I’m going and it surprises me when it comes out — I look back on a few pages I’ve written and go, “Yeah, strange monologue to come up with” — that’s a really pleasing thing. An audience is pleased in the same way. They can look at something and say, “Wow, I had no idea where that story was going.”
The positive responses to a film like, say, “Nurse Betty,” were more geared in that direction. There are so many elements to that screenplay and the way that film was made. You can recognize it as a road picture, satire and soap opera, and it’s got philosophical killers — but I never knew exactly where it was going to end up.
The surprise of the journey is important to me. In the same way that the pleasure of the process is important to me. It’s sort of a buyer’s market in casting people and in hiring crew — there are so many people with talent at a certain level, that you can kind of pick really carefully. But I’m very curious about and interested in getting people who I think will be a pleasure to work with. It’s not worth it to say, “Well, we made a great film, but it was just hell.” I’m not so into suffering that it just doesn’t matter if I suffer personally for a year as long as the movie is good. I think one can do both; they can enjoy the process and make a substantial product.
Audiences, and critics, consider personal details, like the fact that you’re a Mormon, when evaluating your work. Is that fair?
I don’t know why it should be an issue. I can say that obviously, being a Mormon has an influence, as much influence as being a man or being of the political persuasion that I am, or being born in this part of the century. It does not have undue influence on me.
I do find [people's fascination] curious. It’s often writers. Often with the writer it’s the first thing they’ve considered about me. “Well, this is what a Mormon is supposed to be, and yet this guy is writing this and he calls himself a Mormon and that seems like an odd thing.” So they just want to not even justify it but make sense of it to themselves. But the end result of that is me getting asked that a lot. And me getting over it.
You’re a practicing Mormon?
Well, yeah. I need more practice, apparently. I’m still a Mormon. I had some difficulty with a play I wrote called “Bash,” and I was dis-fellowshipped from the church because of that play, which is not like being excommunicated. One is still in the church, and can go to services, but can’t take the sacrament — there’s a certain set of things that come with that. As long as I don’t write bad things again, I might get back into their good graces.
Maybe we’re just curious about it because we don’t really understand what it means to be Mormon. What do you think we misunderstand about it?
I guess the polygamy question, which I still get. Someone just asked that question this weekend, like, “Can you have more wives if you wanted, do you still endorse that?” So sure, there’s a certain, not even mystique, there’s a mysteriousness with the church. It is probably the only American religion that was founded in America, that I’m aware of. That may be the case.
I think the questions have less to do with Mormonism than [the fact that] I’m meant to be part of an organization that is supposed to be sort of righteous and all of this, and then I write fairly unrighteous characters. So how do I rectify that, how does the church feel about that?
Will you continue to look at relationships, the dynamics of relationships in your work?
I would be hard-pressed to say that I ever plan to get away from the examination of relationships. One of my favorite filmmakers is Eric Rohmer. The way things go in and out of style, he’s incredibly constant about the way in which he shoots, what he’s interested in. For the most part, his films are very simple meditations on the kind of quiet craziness that men and women have toward one another.
I quite firmly believe that he imagines, no matter how many films he makes about that, he’ll never get it completely — not right, but he’ll just never corner the market on what there is to say about that. I have been able to find plenty of reasons to continue writing about that. There are a couple of projects out there that are certainly different on the surface, but my inherent interest remains very much rooted in how people deal with one another.