LOS ANGELES — Neil LaBute wasn’t exactly in a joking mood.
On the set of “Death at a Funeral” last May, the playwright and filmmaker best known for bleak tales of misanthropy and misogyny — “In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends & Neighbors,” “The Shape of Things” — was directing a slapstick gag-fest for the first time, one populated with prominent black comedians.
The finished R-rated film is poised to have the best opening of any movie in his career, proving yet again the box-office power of comedies that appeal to African-American moviegoers. But in the middle of production a year ago LaBute didn’t seem to be enjoying himself.
The scene LaBute was directing on the Sony Pictures lot — in which Elaine (Zoe Saldana) would inadvertently grab a heavy dose of a hallucinogen to give her boyfriend, Oscar (James Marsden) — plays a critical role in setting up the film’s antics, which unfold at a memorial service where everything possible goes wrong.
Closely adapted from a 2007 British film of the same name, “Death at a Funeral,” whose ensemble cast includes Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence, opens Friday, when it might gross as much in its first day of release as the original comedy collected in its entire domestic theatrical run ($8.6 million).
At first glance, LaBute would seem an unusual pick for a movie featuring explosive diarrhea, the wrong cadaver in a casket and a mysterious gay dwarf. And the very things that make LaBute an odd choice for the $21-million Screen Gems film were troubling him as Saldana prepared for the scene.
Very early that morning, nominations for the 2009 Tony Awards had been announced, and LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty” had been shortlisted for best play, lead actor and featured actress. Where some might have seen joy, LaBute saw only possible defeat (as would ultimately be true in all three categories) and lamented the poor “Reasons to Be Pretty” ticket sales. “The sobering truth is that we really have to beat the drum. We cannot get people to come see this play,” he said of “Reasons to Be Pretty,” which would run for a modest 85 performances and 21 previews on Broadway.
He has no such worries for “Funeral.” Audience tracking surveys show the film should open strongly — with a weekend gross of more than $20 million possible, likely well behind the debut of Lionsgate’s martial arts superhero story “Kick-Ass” — with some appeal for non-black moviegoers, although not as much as Screen Gems had hoped.
Some comedies with predominantly black casts draw hardly any white ticket buyers: Audiences for Tyler Perry’s movies for Lionsgate, for example, are about 80 percent black. When the “Funeral” trailer premiered before “Shutter Island,” Screen Gems President Clint Culpepper said he was deluged with e-mails and calls about how well the preview played with white audiences. In addition to being directed by a white man and costarring Marsden, “Death at a Funeral” also features Luke Wilson and Peter Dinklage (reprising his role from the first film).
Yet when audience tracking survey data came in later, interest from whites was materially below blacks — suggesting that while we might have a black president, there remain stark racial splits within popular culture. “I don’t see this movie having a core audience, except for people who love to laugh,” Culpepper said. “The trailer killed with white audiences, and yet you have to ask yourself ... why is the tracking reflecting what it is reflecting?”
Screen Gems has done well in making and marketing movies with crossover appeal (the audience for its 2009 sex thriller “Obsessed,” starring Idris Elba and Beyonce, was roughly 30 percent white), and the Sony-owned studio has been advertising “Death at a Funeral” to a broad swath of the audience. “We need to wind up (as a nation) where we have no black stories and no white stories,” Culpepper said. “There are just stories.”
Rock, who also produced the film, similarly scoffs at the idea that a film with a primarily black cast can’t appeal to all audiences.
“I would say I have as many white fans as Steve Carell or Tina Fey, and I’ve been around longer,” Rock said. “No one asks me this when I go out on tour. There’s something about doing movies where you’re always fighting not to have that label (of being a black movie). Tyler Perry makes movies for a specific audience, and that’s his intent. But the only thing that we have in common with Tyler Perry movies is the color of our skin.”
Hiring LaBute was part of Screen Gems’ effort to expand the “Death at a Funeral” audience. The original movie won several film festival awards, but distributor MGM never put it in more than 324 locations (the remake will premiere in about 2,800 locations). “People had modest expectations,” producer Bill Horberg said of the first film, “but once you put it in front of audiences, people loved it.”
LaBute had directed the race relations thriller “Lakeview Terrace” for Screen Gems in 2008 (grossing nearly $40 million domestically) and had worked with Rock on 2000’s “Nurse Betty.”
“Neil comes from the theater. He understands farce — the mechanics of how to make a story like this work,” Horberg said. “You meet Neil and he’s a big, funny, teddy bear guy. The movies he’s written for himself are acerbic. But from the first conversation about this film, it was clear that he wanted to make a big, crowd-pleasing comedy. If that works, it will afford him a lot of new opportunities.”
LaBute, who was also fighting a cold and had been working late writing a play last May, said it’s been difficult for studio executives and producers to see him as anything but that guy who makes movies about humiliation. So even though he was largely miserable, he was happy for the opportunity to show that he’s more than the labels that Hollywood has assigned to him.
“They don’t see you outside of your box — which is not comedy,” LaBute said. “As they say, comedy is hard. And I wanted to give it a try.”