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on Apr 14, 2010

In early films like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, writer-director Neil LaBute made it something of his stock in trade to examine dysfunctional relationships and uncomfortably intimate cruelties with vicious humor and a Mamet-like flair for acerbic, acid-tongued dialogue. Even later films such as Nurse Betty and The Shape of Things highlighted LaBute’s ongoing fascination with all the grotty stuff of human interaction–deceit, betrayals, hurtful candor, and hidden perversities–making for dramatic conflict poised somewhere between Greek tragedy and the visceral, skin-prickling plays of Harold Pinter. In addition to his filmography, LaBute is also an accomplished playwright and theater director whose first Broadway production, reasons to be pretty, was nominated for several Tony Awards last year. On stage and screen, LaBute’s knack for getting under the skin of an audience (he disaffiliated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when Bash, his caustic series of confessional short plays, caused a furor) has repeatedly opened him to the charge of misanthropy, but he brushes off such critical tarring as so much bluster, preferring to emphasize his range of interests. Possession was a lyrical adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s novel, and the more recent Lakeview Terrace a thriller about an interracial couple menaced by an ill-willed neighbor, played by Samuel L. Jackson. For his latest feature film, LaBute has taken another sharp turn, this time into broad humor, teaming up with comedian-producer Chris Rock for an American remake of Death at a Funeral with a largely African-American cast, including Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Zoe Saldana, and Danny Glover. Most of the action mirrors the set-up in Frank Oz’s ultra-eccentric British film, as the church service for a deceased patriarch is thrown into turmoil by petty jealousies and long-held resentments, mortuary mishaps, buffoonish antics, and accidentally imbibed hallucinogens. Peter Dinklage even reprises his role (toughened up a bit) as a mourner with a libidinous link to the family’s departed daddy.

Filmmaker spoke with LaBute about humor, religion, the art of remakes, and why funerals are funny.

Writer-director Neil LaBute. Courtesy Screen Gems.

Filmmaker: Chris Rock recently told The Onion, a propos of working with you, that “You can’t do comedies  with strangers. Your friends know the album tracks. Strangers just know the hits.”  So you’ve had a good comfort level with each other since working together on Nurse Betty, it seems.

LaBute: [Laughs] Yeah, I think so, just knowing each other and what we were both up to. Knowing he was doing the Rohmer, for instance, someone I really admired, and he’d come to see a play or two. Just an awareness and appreciation of what the other guy was doing. Chris had more than one hat here, obviously, but wanted to be in front of the cameras when they were rolling, so he thought I was somebody who would bring something to the table. I think he appreciated what we’d done before, specifically, but also looking at what I do best, you know, getting people to provide some of their better performances.

Filmmaker: How did that break down in terms of what each of you was responsible for managing?

LaBute: It was really his idea in the first place to take this on and re-do it. He went about getting the rights and getting the script done, and he was in place to play his part, all of that existed by the time I was [approached] about coming on board. The nice thing about Chris is that he’s not looking at it just as an actor. He’s got the total vision of a director and producer, someone who’s going to look beyond “what makes me look good?” That’s a producer you can trust. I’ve had that a couple of times. Jason Patric and Rachel Weisz I had a good experience with, producing and acting, in that they’re able to look beyond their own performance.  At that point you feel free to let them into the process in a complete way in that they can be there and help shape things after it’s all shot.  You get a full sense of their abilities. In the same way, I don’t like a little box around my name that says “director.” I think I get credit for what I do, but I like the collaborative side of it. I don’t hate it when people ask questions, so I think in general actors–and specifically Chris—feel that it’s an open collaboration.

Filmmaker: Did you wind up contributing much to the script in terms of ideas and comedic set-ups or character development?

LaBute: I did. Ultimately, after arbitration with the WGA, credit went back solely to Dean Craig, but I look at it in almost the same way as Nurse Betty. There was something I really liked there, and I spent time polishing the characters, the jokes, the situations—we didn’t invent any new characters. Probably the biggest situation that I added that I think people are responding to is when James Marsden’s character [Oscar] slips off the roof and gets rescued by his would-be brother-in-law. That was an extension of a comic scene but it turned the corner and went another way. So I thought, why not bring it back and get another good round of laughs?  I think all of us who knew the piece went into it feeling we can make this better. We all like the [Frank Oz] project. However, when I went back and looked at the [original] movie again, I thought there were a couple of characters who were slighted, who really didn’t have a great deal to do. I’m happy to say I think those characters also have more depth and stuff to do, in terms of the screenplay, and that’s all part of the polish.

Filmmaker: Dark humor is a part of your film work, and your theater productions as well, certainly. But what motivated you to take on a more uproarious kind of comedy project?

LaBute: I’ve always enjoyed comedies and I’ve always felt I had something to offer. And yet there wasn’t anything on the résumé that could attest to that. And that’s tricky in the world of a very expensive hobby. [Laughs] It’s hard to get people to say I trust you, $20 million worth, to try that. It’s like borrowing somebody’s rowboat because you think you can row. You’re right, I think there’s always been humor in what I do and sometimes, like in Nurse Betty, more than just lines or cutting remarks. There was a balance there along with some lethal action, and the tone shifted dramatically in that particular piece, whereas this is more straight-up comedy. But to get someone to let me do that, it really took Chris wanting that, thinking I was a good director for it, and then Screen Gems, or Clint Culpepper, who runs that division of Sony, saying I trust that. I had just done Lakeview Terrace with them, and while that was not a comedy, it was also outside the sweet spot that people tend to think of whatever I do. So I think he saw that as a successful example of me being able to navigate something else, and he took that chance. There were those qualms of “Oh gosh, it’s a remake, and it’s being remade awfully quickly,” but I did feel it could be another stretch of time before anyone takes that chance [on me] again.

Filmmaker: It also goes against the conventional wisdom for a studio because it’s a mostly African-American cast, the producer is Chris Rock, and you’re a white dude from Detroit. So that was a bit counterintuitive as well, I’d imagine, from their point of view.

LaBute: I think Clint is someone who has carved out several niches there, but he’s repeatedly gone and made pictures for and about the black audience, and I think he looked at this—as Chris did, and all of us, really—as there’s a black family at the center of the story, but now we’re trying to be representative of how mixed our feelings are with people. Zoe Saldana’s character obviously has a penchant for white boyfriends, and then Peter Dinklage comes in and reprises the same part [as the dead patriarch’s lover], but he’s a white guy as well. It’s a movie about a family, one that happens to be black, so it isn’t catering to one audience. Having me in [the director’s] seat helped to level the playing field in that way. And it seems to be working in that sense.

Filmmaker: I was also wondering, because of your longstanding interest in issues of power and shifting relationships, if tackling a comedy brought an extra appeal because you could, quite possibly, reach a much broader audience with this kind of material.

LaBute: Yeah, I think especially when I first decided—and I don’t really like the term “director for hire,” as much as “I’m free to choose what interests me”—I can jump over here and adapt this novel or look for a thriller. I’ve opened myself up as a director far more than I probably have as a writer, where I’ve kept a kind of field of vision about the things that I’m interested in writing about, especially for the theater. I did Lakeview Terrace and we brought Chris and Morgan [Freeman] in as characters into Nurse Betty, really, without talking about race. There was Morgan, this older character, interested in Renee [Zellweger], and there was a racial difference, so that added a new texture to it. I’m working with Sam Jackson now on a television series about race, so that has been an interest of mine for a while now.

Filmmaker: What are your thoughts in general on remakes, having had a go at it already with The Wicker Man?

LaBute: It’s interesting. I think The Wicker Man was sort of the opposite of how I went into this picture. I actually really liked The Wicker Man but never felt it was a terrifically made picture. I liked the story and some of the actors who were in it—loved the ending—but I never thought oh, that was so well made. And ultimately I found it was everybody’s favorite horror movie or whatever. In theater, God knows how many versions of Fat Pig I’ve been given to program. These are people’s takes on that particular play, so I’m more used to the idea of the remake, my version of your classic.

Filmmaker: And it gives you a chance to put your stamp on something that resonates with you.

LaBute: Yeah. I’ve been talking to the BBC about doing a radio version of Possession. I loved that book and thought, Gosh, I wish the movie was even longer. We cut it down too much. I’d love to do the BBC six-hour version or the radio ten-hour version, so maybe I’ll get a shot at doing that. I’ll get to redo myself in a different medium.

Filmmaker: You fell into moviemaking by accident, after studying drama and putting up $25,000 to film your play In the Company of Men. Did you ever become a cinephile?

LaBute: Oh yeah, I think it was already there, actually.  The love of cinema was always there and continues to be. I probably see more movies than I do theater. There was just never a design on making films.

Filmmaker: You wrote a really great piece for The Guardian a few years ago about why you’d rather make small plays than Hollywood blockbusters. And it was really insightful in the sense of indicating that maybe you’re not as in love with the moviemaking process as you are with theater, where there’s a long-gestation period, which allows you a lot of room to rehearse actors.

LaBute: That’s probably true and remains true. I never feel the pressure [in theater]. Now that comes with an asterisk. I’ve never directed a Broadway show, only recently have I done The West End, which is sort of the equivalent, but I’ve never felt the pressure. And some of that’s economic. When there’s so much money on the line, they’re just going to keep after you. But just the process of filming—I’m outdoors, the sun’s going down—the practicalities of it [are forbidding]. We have this venue for one day, we have this actor for two hours, those create a kind of pressure that I’ve rarely if ever felt in the theater.  That said, I probably had a more unique experience this time around. I’d never shot as much studio time as I did with this picture because we were so much in the house. We built the core of it on the set. It was much like I would imagine the old studio system was. You go to work, close the door, and never have to worry about the sun going down or airplanes going over, onlookers. You could work from 8 to 6 and go about your business. It’s a much more joyous thing as far as I’m concerned. [Laughs]

Filmmaker: A lot of what you write for stage and screen seems to draw on your past involvement with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the sense that there’s a kind of Old Testament sensibility to some of that material. It seems to be an abiding influence on your artistic vision.

LaBute: That’s quite true. In fact, it’s at the heart of my next theater project. I have a show coming up in New York in the fall called The Break of Noon, which is about a man who survives an office shooting and does so at what he believes is the hand of God. God tells him to not run—be still and you’ll be saved. And he becomes a new man. Or so he believes. He finds it hard to preach these feelings in a world where people are very cynical. They believe he’s got post-traumatic stress, that he’s using it to change his life—everything but “you saw God.” And so that journey for us as an audience is did he or didn’t he? He was not a nice guy, the more we hear about him, and in some ways might be responsible for the shooting in which 30 of his colleagues were killed. So why does God put his hand down and say I’ll save you? It’s sort of a modern telling—and this is New Testament—of the story of Saul. So it’s “we want to believe, but we don’t want to believe you.” [Laughs] It’s an interesting turn toward a man who fits in with my gallery of rogues, but it takes on religion in a more significant way than usual.

Filmmaker: What makes funerals funny?

LaBute: So much does, because they’re so serious. I think any time we’re told to feel a certain way—and I know this from having recently done a one-man theatrical show with Ed Harris called Wrecks—when you put people in that situation, they feel like they have to, even as viewers, say oh, we shouldn’t laugh at this. It’s serious. There’s a coffin up there. So we get people to see that it’s okay, there’s going to be some laughs here. I think when you have a cast like we do, that sign goes up really quickly. A lot of our humor comes instinctively and reactively. And that’s like being a child. When you’re told not to do something you can’t almost help but do it. So to laugh at a funeral is kind of an easy thing. Like laughing in church.

Filmmaker: Most artists probably consider themselves observers of human nature, but you seem to be especially focused on exploring what human nature is.

LaBute: I’m absolutely concerned with those small yet large things that we often pass over, the goods and evils, sins and what makes us make those choices.

Filmmaker: And comedy is a vehicle for coming at it on a completely different vector.

LaBute: Yeah, you know, it’s good to put your hand in the toilet every once in a while, but it’s also good not to think about those things, too. [Laughs] Watching Tracy Morgan goof off for half a day is not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

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