Analyzing Gilligan’s Island and Bear Suits with Neil LaBute

By  · Published on March 20th, 2013

Playwright, screenwriter, and filmmaker Neil LaBute’s stories aren’t for the faint of heart. They can be grueling in their dark humor, awkwardness and characters who will go as far as they have to for their own gain. Some Girl(s), which LaBute scripted from his own stage play, recently made its premiere at SXSW and sits comfortably in the gut-punching world his fans have come to love.

The lead of the film, the Man (Adam Brody), is a selfish, narcissistic writer who isn’t afraid of embarrassing others with his stories. According to LaBute, he himself isn’t that kind of man, and none of his personal life sneaks into his work. The writer and director of In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things, and others creates from his imagination, choosing not to pirate from his own life or others. When we see the protagonist of Some Girl(s) doing so, it makes for an annoyingly oblivious character, but as LaBute tells us, he never sets out to annoy the audience with his conniving.

The writer of Some Girl(s) was kind enough to speak with us at great length about those uncomfortable stories he’s famous for, how The Wickerman isn’t based on his life, and more about his process:

Did you read any of the reviews [for Some Girl(s)]?

I heard the reviews were pretty decent. I haven’t really spent a lot of time tracking things down. It’s not that I shy away from it. I’ve just been busy.

How do you feel about critics? Still feel the same way once you started writing?

I feel pretty much the same as I’ve always felt. I’m not afraid to read reviews, and I do read them. It’s great if you agree with someone, but if you don’t, you go, “Well, that’s their opinion.” I’ve had my ups and downs with the whole idea of reviews, and things like that. It’s an interesting process, you know? It can be helpful with theater because you can go back and tinker with things, but with film it’s less so. It’s so mute at that point because there’s nothing you can do now. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, really.

So you’d never see yourself re-editing a movie after the release or doing a Director’s Cut?

No. Theatrically it’s helpful, hearing something in previews, like, “Oh, people aren’t responding to that, so I’ll go back and tinker.” You hope that there’ll be many more productions, so that text can continue to live on outside from that production. With a movie, it may be remade years from now, but, no, I don’t see myself tinkering something because of a review. For better or worse, it’s something that’ll stay and people will take it for what it is.

Are you a fan of test screenings then?

It really depends. I’ve worked with studios who have done a few things like. Independently I’ve done a lot less of it, partially because of economics and I’m not sure I want to emotionally invest in that idea, meaning putting it out there in front of an audience, singling out 15 people, and changing the ending because of this and that. Most of that is an economic choice, because you think you’ll make more money by doing something else, but then you go put it in front of another audience and…oftentimes I’ve been in a situation where that is not something you can do.

Some Girl(s), while it’s not a film I directed, I’m connected to it and it didn’t play for a lot of people before it premiered. In some ways, I think that’s good. It’s good showing it to people you trust and if everyone signs off on it, then you gotta go forward with that feeling. Would we be back in the editing room if there was a terrible reaction and the movie had fallen on its face? Perhaps so. I think everyone said it was the movie we set out to make and let’s put it out there, and I feel good about that process.

It’s great to take friends and ask them to take a look. When you’re making comedy, you need that communal experience. Comedy can be so many different things to people. The same kind of thing can make people sad or scared, but comedy is weird. There’s certain things that can make everybody laugh, but when it comes down to language, nuance, and all kinds of things people laugh at different things. If you sprinkle in culture and language…it can be a difficult soil to make fertile. I think comedies would be behooved by that experience more. While I do think Some Girl(s) is comedic, it’s not a flat out comedy.

It’s funny you mention that. I just watched The Shape of Things with some people, and when I said I think it’s hilarious, they didn’t agree.

[Laughs] Yeah and then some people start judging you, like, “Oh, why does he find that hilarious?”

[Laughs] I think it also comes down to knowing people like that, and maybe them not wanting to.

That’s probably a part of it, yeah. We think we go to the movies to escape, and we use that in several ways. We only don’t want to escape back into the world we came from, so they don’t want to believe people will be as Machiavellian as that.

That film seems to acknowledge that when Rachel Weisz’s character gives the camera the middle finger.

Somewhere in that fun process ‐ which was a nice time spent with those actors, from when we did the play in London to New York to that film ‐ we suddenly realized one of the more powerful pieces of that is when Rachel turned to the theater audience, as if they were her audience at her lecture. That same connection wasn’t really possible in movies, because there had to be a physical audience there, unless she’s addressing the camera the entire time and you wouldn’t be able to see the auditorium. That would’ve felt very weird. I thought, “Oh, damn, we’re going to lose that weird and powerful connection with her audience.” I thought if we could do it somewhere in there at least once, it would be great. I thought, “Why not look at the camera in that moment?” Normally she would flip [the finger] at the audience and then turn her body 180-degrees, making sure everybody got the finger. In the movie, it was dead into the camera.

Does a moment or character like that affect your thoughts on testing a film, knowing it won’t be for everyone?

I suppose so, yeah. I don’t think that ties necessarily into testing it, but I just operate under that assumption. You’ll never please everyone. As wonderful as many directors are, you can take any film from last year and find people who say, “Yeah, that Silver Linings Playbook was whatever.” Then you find people who love it so much and it’s become their favorite movie, and it’s possibly the same [case] for Lincoln and all down the line. Some people will find Argo amazing, while others will say it was “pretty good.” It’s such a subjective thing. I know if you’re pushing people in any direction or playing with their emotions or reverse their expectations, like The Shape of Things pulling the rug out of what you thought was going on, then people will…it’s the same thing with relationships, like, when you find out your friend is totally crazy, it upsets the balance of how you think and other people.

I think that same experience happens for movies. I know some people will come in expecting mischief with me, thinking something is going to happen. They’re already on edge, have a certain framework, don’t like a certain person, or don’t want certain things to be said. That’s okay, because I never expect an entire audience will love something. If I did the most saccharine thing I can imagine, not everybody will love it. It’s just a part of the business that people like one thing but not the next thing. You gotta live with it.

Your work tends to push an audience’s buttons, but would you say that’s never the intent of your work?

I’m never trying to put a stick in their eye and say, “Oh look, I can annoy you.” You can annoy people so easily, so I don’t think you have to go through the trouble of making a movie. Look, I think that provoking people to think about things or respond to material or ideas is a great thing. It’s a part of the job, trying to stir up an interest in someone or a subject. That’s a part of storytelling. You should try new ways to tell old stories.

I know this is a sidetrack, but I’m curious, what did you think of Silver Linings Playbook?

I liked it. I think it was well-acted and I enjoyed how it was made, but I thought it had a weirdly dangerous message: as long as troubled people are cute and good-looking, they can probably find romantic comedy happiness in the end. I thought, “Yeah, it’s all well and good right up until someone stops taking their meds again, somebody says something wrong to these people and one of them is going to scratch the eyes out of somebody or punch somebody in and be dragged off.” It started out as this look at mental illness, but then it suddenly ended like Bridget Jones. It was a strange ride to go on, but it was quite well done and had good people in it.

What were your favorite movies from last year?

I really like Amour. I thought Rust and Bone was very good. I was surprised Marion Cotillard wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. In my book, she easily could have won one. That’s just the way things go, you know? She’s an extraordinary actress. He’s a good filmmaker and keeps making interesting pictures. I’m trying to think if there was anything else I loved…

What about The Master or Django Unchained?

I found The Master fascinating. I think he’s an awfully good filmmaker. Dramatically, it’s a strange movie because the two leads never change who they are. With classic dramatic structure you think one person will change the other or something will happen, but it didn’t have an easy out like that. Both characters remained extraordinary strange and difficult people. I mean, from scene to scene there was some of the most odd and enjoyable things in an American movie. If Daniel Day-Lewis hadn’t actually turned himself into Abraham Lincoln, then I don’t know how you would deny Joaquin Phoenix was about as interesting as a person can get on screen. He was just so unavoidably aggressive and wonderful in that movie. Maybe he was only matched by Philip Seymour Hoffman singing that song at the end of the picture. I think it’s a beautiful movie and does the best thing a movie can do, that things keep coming back to you beyond the few hours you spent in the theater. I appreciated that movie a lot.

Same here. In Some Girl(s), Adam Brody’s character says, “As a writer, you just can’t let shit go. You have to analyze it.” Do you agree with that?

I agree with the character in that sense. I think writers are constantly writing and listening. I don’t think they all pirate their lives. Some do, but I’m actually one who doesn’t do that. I tend to make stuff up. I do think a lot of writers, and you can certainly accuse a lot of writers, of mining their own happiness and unhappiness, and the same for the people around them, whether they know them or not. They can get it from scouring newspapers, television, or whatever it is. We’re all looking for a good story. Writers tend to have one ear cocked to, “Hey, is this material for me?” while they’re listening to your story about a hilarious adventure or tragic event in your life.

Why don’t you steal from your own life?

I don’t know why. I may not think it’s interesting enough or too closed off, thinking it’s not worth sharing. I really don’t know why, because I don’t analyze it. I’ve always been one to more prefer the creation, having a story come from your own imagination. It’s always been the way I’ve approached it. For me, it’s one of those things I don’t spend a lot of time wondering why, because I spend more time trying to “do.”

So you never look at your work too much from an objective view, like, how does this relate to that?

No, I try not to think about it in those ways, like, “Where is this coming from? How much of me is in this?” Maybe that’s for other people to look for. If I look at this play or that play or this script or that script I don’t think, “Oh, yeah, this was this summer my parents fell in love or that time I was 16.” I just don’t have a body of work like that. The Wickerman is not based on my own experiences.

[Laughs] That’s surprising to hear. Looking at that movie, your voice is there. It is a strange movie…

It is a strange movie. We tried to do something strange. I mean, it was such a crazy episode. I had a great time making it and worked with some really interesting people. We set out to do something different than what was originally there. I think there were many different expectations, and sometimes that’s very difficult to rectify in the end. I think we were very mindful of the humorous parts. The irony is, people were saying, “Oh my God, it’s so unintentionally funny!” There was no way seeing Nic [Cage] running around in a bear suit punching these women we weren’t thinking, “This is going to be funny.” In the end, we’re still going to burn the son of a bitch, and let’s see if they’re still laughing then. Unfortunately they still were, but, you know, maybe you can’t come back from wearing a bear suit, and maybe that’s what the answer is.

Maybe “horror” films…well, I don’t even like to use that word, because I don’t see the original as that or this one. Some people making it did see it as a horror movie, which made it difficult to know, “Hey, what are we making?” I don’t blame it, but some of that falls on the original. When I watch it I don’t think it’s a horror movie, it’s just one of the weirdest fucking movies I’ve ever seen. I think we made an equally weird movie. We were hoping we could somehow make the mix work, and I think more people ultimately said it didn’t work than did [Laughs]. It was a treat along the way.

Some people may be catching up. I’m sure you’ve seen all the YouTube videos.

Yes, yes, I have. You go, “Oh wow, this is never going to end.” People still want to make references to it, so you think, “This is the one people are going to keep going back to and asking, ‘What happened here?’” You know what? If you don’t swing for the fences, you’re never going to hit a home run. You gotta keep going out there. For me, it was worth the trip.

The Man in Some Girl(s) has no problem taking other people’s stories as his own, which you don’t do. He says there’s no harm as long as you change their names, but do you think that’s true?

Yeah, he had no problem with that. I’m less a person who believes that. I don’t think everybody is okay as long as you just change the names or the way Rachel Weisz appropriated someone else’s life for her art. I don’t think art at any cost is okay. I’m always mindful of the human side of things, but I’m fascinated by people who aren’t and can say, “No, my work is the most important thing to me. If someone gets hurt along the way, then that’s just collateral damage and the way it goes.” I think someone who can remove themselves in that way is a fascinating character who is worth thinking about and writing about. I’m not sure if I didn’t want to be one of those writers or just wasn’t. Along the way I just realized that wasn’t who I was.

A few years ago you said you felt like you couldn’t say everything you want to say, but that forced you to be more clever. Do you still feel that way?

I think more so now. As you get older and more confident…I think I was also probably linked to the Mormon church at some point, so it was more difficult to say whatever it was I wanted to say. I think now I’m as free as I’ve ever been to write what I want to write.

You’ve talked about that religious conflict before, saying how you may have had to choose between your church or your writing. Since you feel as free as ever, I’m guessing you went with the writing?

Ultimately, I took it in my own hands. I am no longer a part of that church. I resigned my membership, so I no longer feel that same pull or worry of doing what you’re supposed to as a member of that church. There was a tension between being a writer and that, and I no longer have that same tension.

When it comes to adapting stage plays, have you found anything that works on the stage but not quite in a movie?

There are the things you usually hear from people. With a film you want to show, while on the stage you want to tell. That’s the general rule, and I’m not sure I’ve always adhered to that. I like movies that are talky and stage-bound, being all in one room, a home, or whatever it is. I appreciate those things. There’s room for all kinds of stories. One of the things we spoke about earlier, in fact, is breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera. There are great examples of that. I mean, certainly something like Alfie and Ferris Bueller, and that can be a great convention. Occasionally, there’s a very weird one. It’s usually an aside, like, the Skipper looking at the camera on Gilligan’s Island while everyone went about their business. There’s Laurel and Hardy who did as well. There’s been a tradition of asides to the camera or a character addressing the camera.

For the most part, breaking that fourth wall is rare. One of my favorite examples is from Sunday Bloody Sunday. It’s a very realistic film and awfully well done, but in the last scene a character addresses the camera and tells the audience his story. I found it strange because it’s so different from the rest of the movie. That kind of thing is rare, but on stage it is accepted all the time. Audiences accept that and love the connection with a live performance. The more stage-bound something feels, I think people suddenly feel like it’s not a movie. I don’t know why. They only think it’s a movie if you’re out in an ocean or in a vast desert. I think there’s all kinds of movies that work for me, and hopefully for other people as well.

It’s surprising to hear Gilligan’s Island has had such an impact on your work.

[Laughs] You know, I watched a lot of it as a kid. If I could find it on the air, I still would. I watched a lot of movies and TV when I was young. It all influences you in someway. I haven’t done much TV, but who knows? Maybe I’ll end up doing my own show and make more nods to Gilligan’s Island.

Does writing for television appeal to you?

It does. The thing that interests me the most about television is the notion of telling stories about the same group of people over and over. Because I do what I’ve done, going back to writing a new script all the time and constantly turning a page in a notebook and finding a story about a new group of people. It would be interesting to find a group of people and tell multiple stories about them, and see if you can tell those in an honest way that really progressed. I think that would be a fascinating thing to make a journey with, and I don’t do anything like that on stage or in film.

A few years ago Aaron Eckhart told us you both were talking about revisiting the characters from In The Company of Men. Is that still an idea you’re interested in?

I don’t know. Who knows? You know, it’s going to be staged in Chicago this year, so you never know what can happen. Aaron and I have talked about things like that, “What happened to those people? What would it be like to see Chad 15 years later? What would he be doing?” The same goes for Your Friends and Neighbors. I haven’t really done much of that kind of thing, writing a sequel. I just wrote my first sequel to a play of mine, Reasons to be Pretty. I’m going to do a sequel called “Reasons to be Happy.” That’s the first dip into, “Hey, I wonder what’s going on with those people.”

I know they’ve done those Before Sunrise sequels and have a new one, and I love that idea. I love dropping in on some of these characters every so often, but not one I’ve done yet. I’d like to see that sequel [to In the Company of Men], so maybe I’ll do it.

SomeGirl(s) currently does not have a US release.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.