Playing the game

Neil Labute, director of "In the Company of Men," discusses his controversial new film about corporate and sexual cruelty.

By Jennie Yabroff
Published August 10, 1997 2:36PM (EDT)

"let's hurt somebody." Neil LaBute heard that line in his head, and from there dreamed up two of the most evil movie villains of the summer -- Howard and Chad, the despicable antiheroes of his first film, "In the Company of Men." Hyped as "the most controversial film of the year," LaBute's debut is a minimalist portrait of the tyranny of corporate culture, and two men so out of touch with their own humanity they can only relate to their world through pain.

LaBute, a graduate of Brigham Young University, was a playwright before turning to directing, and the theatrical influences on his film are strong. His characters deliver Mamet-esque soliloquies about the savageness of business and the importance of maintaining control. LaBute's two main characters, Chad and Howard, devise a crude game of torture to vent their frustrations with work and relationships, but the stakes soon get raised, and their victim, a deaf woman named Christine, becomes all but irrelevant. Perhaps the most interesting question the film leaves unanswered is Chad and Howard's motivation. To the end, we never know why they behave as monstrously as they do.

LaBute spoke with Salon about the nature of men, women, how he wrote the film and why a comedian should never laugh at his own jokes.

What are you trying to do with this film?

I was trying to make a feel-good summer hit (laughs). I'm just trying to tell a story that people haven't seen before. You start as an audience member and create a world you're interested in, and then you move into the telling of those stories, bringing what has interested you as an audience member. I wanted to tell a story that interested me as much in the telling as in the watching.

Your film starts out being about the cruelty of the two men toward the woman, but then changes to be more about the relationship between the men. Did you know the film would take this twist when you were writing it?

The premise came all at once, and I wrote it in a burst of energy. But writing is so solitary, and if it doesn't remain intriguing, if you as the writer aren't the first audience saying, "Gosh what's going to happen next?" it doesn't work. So I tried to constantly surprise myself as I was writing it, to keep myself engaged. The intern scene (where Chad forces a young intern to lower his pants), for instance, doesn't really propel the plot, but it adds a certain life. I didn't plan it being in the script, but I'm glad it's there.

This film is being hyped as very controversial, and very much about the relationships between women and men, which is actually a bit misleading. What do you think of the way it's being promoted?

I worry about the danger of hype -- I've been a victim as a viewer. I get to a place where I hear so much, especially if you read reviews before the films come to your town. I grew up in small towns that were not the epicenter of culture, and I would read reviews. I knew what was winning awards at Cannes and Sundance, and it was months later that I would see the film. There was a letdown -- you hear the hype, and you go and see 'Trainspotting," thinking its going to be the second coming. I hope people go into this film understanding that this is a very small story about three people -- it doesn't have this huge social fabric, it's not trying to make sweeping statements. People get confused by the premise -- that's it's only about these two men doing something to this woman. But I think that's one of the strengths as well, that you go in thinking the film's about one thing, and leave thinking it's about something else.

A lot of the criticism this film has received centers on how despicable your two main characters are. Do you identify with them at all?

Sure, they have to be identifiable. The film is meant to be a bit of a cautionary tale. I hope people don't identify with it to the point of seeing it as a taking-off place. But you've got to identify. Chad is a fascinating case to me. What makes him tick? I don't show what I suspect, because I want the audience to finish off the profile themselves. Chad is pretty evil, or ultimately results in that, but more than evil, he's a cipher. Is he so damaged he's just doing bad, or is he just bad? You don't know, and I didn't really want to know. I think Aaron (Eckhart) did a great job of leaving that open. I think the more the actor lets you know what he thinks of the character, the less the audience cares -- like a comedian who laughs at his own jokes.

Are Chad and Howard indicative of all men, or just a certain white-collar, frat-boy type?

I think they're not only indicative of all men, but of all people. Everyone has a little bit of Howard and Chad in them. I think there's Christine in all men as well. There's maybe a particularly male streak in the gamesmanship that Chad and Howard display, how everything becomes a contest to them. But all of us have been hurt, and have hurt people, hopefully not as maliciously or intentionally as Chad and Howard do. I think Christine and Chad are on the opposite extremes of the spectrum. Christine is a model victim, and Chad is a model perpetrator, and Howard is closer to the middle. In a way the viewer detests Howard more because they identify with him more, and he continues this perpetual cycle of having really bad dealings with women. What people tend to overlook is that the film opens with Howard being hit by a woman, and we never find out why. He says he just asked her for the time, but I've asked plenty of women the time and never been hit -- what's going on there? Howard seems doomed to fail, and I think everybody has felt that, has gotten into a situation over their head, and instead of cutting things off, worsened the situation. I have all those traits, and so does everybody else.

There's no real character development in "In the Company of Men." We meet Chad and Howard in the beginning and wonder how they will change, or our understanding of them will change, and we leave thinking pretty much the same thing about them, except we like them less. Do you think your characters are capable of change?

Of course -- I think Christine changes. In a way she learns from Chad. She learns to take what she has, which is her deafness, and use it to her advantage. All she has to do is turn away to be unaffected by what these guys are saying to her. Howard hasn't learned his lesson, and that's his problem. He's making the same mistakes over and over. Chad is a bit more of a mystery. He's this phantom who we're not sure where he started from and where he's going. I think ultimately Chad is doomed to fail on a human level. In some ways, he's got that classic abused personality.

There's an exciting scene we don't see, that I wrote into the first draft, where Chad offhandedly refers to an abusive incident he had with his mother. I wanted to allude to that, but not tell you. Chad now identifies totally with the abuser. No one wants to be abused; it's a much safer place to have the attributes of the abuser, so here's a person who must dominate every situation, like the scene with the intern. Chad pushes it to the edge of the envelope. He takes risks. And that's a collision course with trouble, and I think ultimately he'll find his comeuppance. Things may not come to fruition until 10 years later, they may come to fruition the next day, but either way, I'm not going to show that. You're left to fulfill the equation.


Jennie Yabroff

Jennie Yabroff is a regular contributor to Salon.

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