When playwright Neil LaBute broke through in the film world with his 1997 low-budget hit “In the Company of Men,” here’s how the business worked: Studios sought out new talent and would work these filmmakers into their plans.
Now, as LaBute noted recently over lunch downtown, the process is reversed: The filmmaker is the one trying to conform to the ever-dwindling distributors’ agendas. “I’m now looking at places going, ‘Can I find stuff that they’re trying to do that I can fit into comfortably and still make the kind of movie that I’m not apologizing for?’” he said.
So while LaBute, who lives in the northwest suburbs, continues to dissect problematic males and spiky relationships in his unflinching plays, his movies have explored similar themes less directly. Case in point: “Lakeview Terrace,” a tense suspense drama about a cop (Samuel L. Jackson) who torments his new neighbors, a mixed-race couple (Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson).
The movie, which opens Friday, feels like and is being marketed as a thriller, yet it also bears the director’s fingerprints. Jackson’s Abel Turner is an intimidating antagonist whose aggression comes with a certain logic and charisma a la Aaron Eckhart in “In the Company of Men” and Jason Patric in “Your Friends & Neighbors.”
At the same time, the golden-boy looks of Wilson’s Chris Mattson mask the kind of flaws that LaBute thrives on portraying. “Chris falls firmly into the world of guys that I’ve comfortably written for 10 years, which is the guy who wants to be a nice guy but is very much a boy inside and doesn’t want to necessarily have to grow up, and he’s pushed into growing up,” said LaBute, who hired playwright Howard Korder to rewrite David Loughery’s original script before doing his own uncredited final write-through.
LaBute’s directorial duties included overseeing action sequences and incorporating special effects such as wildfires and ominous clouds bearing down on the Los Angeles hills. “Still,” he said, “as a director, a lot of the way I operate comes from how I operate in the theater. I’m always happier on a day when we have four pages of dialogue than when it’s going to be, ‘OK, we’re going to shoot the lights out on this car.’ I feel much more marginalized in that process because it just takes so many technicians, whereas when it’s two people at a table, that’s home to me.”
So unlike with David Mamet and Sam Shepard, film hasn’t diverted LaBute’s energies away from the stage. He’ll open his first play on Broadway (“Reasons To Be Pretty”) in a few months, “Fat Pig” is currently enjoying an extended run in London, and “In a Dark Dark House” will open there soon as well.
“The theater has ended up being my savior in some ways because it’s a waiting game in Hollywood,” he said. “If I didn’t have the theater, I would have a lot of screenplays sitting on my desk that I was frustrated they weren’t getting made.”
For LaBute, the two fields exercise different muscles. In the theater, he said, “there’s a kind of purpose to where I’ve been headed. I have these original stories that I want to tell, and by the time I’m done there will be 20 portraits of really pathetic men.” He laughed.
Because he has written so much for the stage, he has been more comfortable taking chances on film: adapting a novel (A.S. Byatt’s “Possession”), remaking a ‘70s cult film (“The Wicker Man”) or directing screenplays he didn’t write (“Nurse Betty,” “Lakeview Terrace”). “I’ve constantly been trying things that are slightly different for me or out of the safety zone,” LaBute said.
The most jarring of these experiments was 2006’s “The Wicker Man,” which earned LaBute his worst-ever reviews. The director thought he was taking his personal battle-of-the-sexes theme to its logical extreme by presenting “the uber male nightmare of ‘Here’s an island of women, and this is what happens when they rule the world.’” But many folks couldn’t get past Nicolas Cage in a bear suit.
“I’d been very used to polarizing people, and there would be as many benefactors as detractors, but people sort of got together on that one and said, ‘You know what? I think we’re all in agreement. We just don’t care for this,’” LaBute reflected matter-of-factly. “People went, ‘Oh, God, Nic Cage is wearing a bear suit, and he’s running around.’ It’s like, yeah, we saw him doing it. It was pretty funny when he was doing it.”
The problem, he said, was that “The Wicker Man” was sold as a straight-up horror movie even though neither it nor the original film actually was. Still, he noted, “maybe I’ll go back 10 years from now and go, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure I got that right.’”
This fall LaBute may shoot another movie based on someone else’s script (“Manuscript”), and, as a first, he may write a screenplay for another director, Taylor Hackford (“Ray”), who asked him to revisit Francois Truffaut’s “The Woman Next Door.” So LaBute bounces from theater to movies, from Los Angeles to New York to London to the Chicago suburbs. He figures he spends half of the year at home.
“It’s a very nomadic life,” he said.
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