Interview: Neil LaBute Returns To His Theatrical Cinematic Roots
The past few years have been strange for Neil LaBute. Not personally speaking, unless TMZ covers LaBute’s life and I missed something, but his filmography took a turn with 2006’s The Wicker Man. He went from directing The Shape of Things to Nicolas Cage in a bear suit screaming about bees. He followed that YouTube sensation with Lakeview Terrace and Death at a Funeral. He was trying his hand at new material, which in today’s world, is seen as strange.
But LaBute has returned to directing his own material, where the border between the stage and film is broken down. Some Velvet Morning is set in one location with two characters, Fred (Stanley Tucci) and Velvet (Alice Eve), working out their feelings with explosive results. For LaBute, this film is a return to his roots.
We got to talk to LaBute about his writing process, what makes something cinematic and why he likely wouldn’t adapt “Fat Pig.”
The last time we spoke you said how Some Velvet Morning was, from a creative standpoint, a project that came together at the right time. Why is that?
I did a couple of films like this early on my career, but then the doors to the theater opened again. The opportunity came to work with other people’s material over the years, and while I still feel like I’ve been consistent in what I want to do as a writer over the past few years, I also thought this would be a great way to experiment as a director. After doing someone else’s material, making a remake, and taking on a novel for 10 years or so, I felt I had gotten away from what I started out doing: making movies. Ultimately, it felt like a good time to do something that was my own, very controlled, and, for better or worse, be able to say, “This is what I set out to do.”
Having only one location is bound to draw the criticism that it doesn’t feel like a movie, but a play. What’s your take on that response?
Well, I don’t think it’s a criticism. I think it just means it’s a kind of cinema they don’t enjoy. There’s plenty of people out there who make those kind of films, and I took a look at a number of them before making this film. I’ve always enjoyed those kind films. There are kinds of movies about the story and not taking you on the cinematic equivalent of a joyride, where the camera feels more like a calm recorder device. With that said, you still look for ways to make it look interesting with the color palette.
If you watched this in a theater, there wouldn’t be that intimacy. Even if you were sitting in the front row, you’d never be able to look at Alice’s or Stanley’s face. You get to see what’s happening there. A part of cinema is being able to get into a place where theater often can’t. The ability it has to get close to the subject is something that even theater, which is known for its realism, pales in comparison.
When you get an idea, how do you know whether it’s suited for a film or the stage?
Sometimes I don’t know. This is a perfect case in point, where I wasn’t writing this for anyone. I didn’t have to send it out or was writing this as a commission. I just sat down, had an idea, and just started writing. When I had the text I thought, “Am I going to do this as a play? Well, this seems like something I could actually film.” Having gone the other route and adapted my own plays, which people accept as a filmed version of another medium, they instead have to engage with this on its own merits. Whether it’s a film they like or not, there’s no way around calling it a film.
When you sit down and start writing, do you begin with an outline or just let the words flow?
It’s much more the second side of that. I often know beginnings or endings, and not really how I’m going to get there. For me, that’s the best kind of writing. The danger is that you write yourself into a corner, because if you have an outline and an ending, you can end up in a place where you go, “Wow. Nothing is happening. This isn’t very dramatic, because people keep talking.” That can happen, but at its best, that kind of writing suggests something mysterious. You know, the journey unfolds before you as a writer, but also as a viewer. You may watch the story and not know where it’s going to go, and I hope that’s the case here. The best writing over the course of 20 years is the unexpected quality. I know for me not having a surprise ending is the surprise ending, but you have to keep doing your thing. That’s been the recipe for me, especially if I’m writing for myself.
What are some other endings that you had in mind from the start?
Certainly The Shape of Things. I knew that the notion of what was going on in that relationship was built on pretense: she’s using him as an art piece. I’m trying to think of anything else…I wouldn’t say I knew for In The Company of Men, but I had a general idea for that ending. I’m not sure I knew that exact final piece. It’s not always there. Sometimes you just start with a title or a character. What I tend not to do is write in themes. I tend not to think, “I must write something about race! I must write something about capitalism! I must write something about love!” [Laughs] I don’t think in those terms.
I’m curious about one of your love stories, “Fat Pig.” Have you ever considered adapting that into a film?
I have certainly talked about that, actually. The original actor from it, Jeremy Piven, has talked several times about wanting to do it. I can see how that could work, but it’d have to be a very different animal, and excuse that bad pun.
[Laughs] It’s a good pun.
It’s not bad, actually. It’s something that’s very theatrical. It works as its own creature, because there’s the lead couple and then the friend and female co-worker, and that friend and co-worker represent the entire company and world. If you were to make the movie, you’d be in real places, so you’d have to have the whole company there, to see their reactions. I think it would have to be a much more straightforward romantic comedy. Although it ends kind of sadly, it would have to have a more regular structure to it. It’d have to take some adapting, which I don’t know if I’m actually interested in doing. I think the story would lend itself easily to a film.
One adaptation that shifted nicely to film is Your Friends and Neighbors. The one scene that seems to stick with most people is when they’re all in the sauna together and share “the best they ever had.” Was that an easy shoot or did it take a while get?
It did take a while to shoot, but not in terms of Jason Patric’s performance. That was the best movie experience had when it came to rehearsals, because I had the most rehearsal time for it. The actors spent a lot of time working with each other and bonding. That was the one scene Jason and I didn’t talk a whole lot about, but we did talk about how I wanted to film it. Beyond that, we didn’t really go into it that much. We built one set for that scene, so we could control the steam and all that. We used smoke to get the people wet, and using smoke makes you not fog the camera either. The set up itself with the slow creep in, which we did because we didn’t want to breakup his performance, was the time consuming part.
Jason produced the movie, so he was worried about everything. Once we got the smoke levels right and all that, he plopped down on that seat and fired off three or four takes of that. I was smart enough to say, “We got it. Let’s just walkaway.”
Some Velvet Morning is now in limited release and available to download.