In Features, Issues

GAME BOYS
Ray Pride talks with In the Company of Men's Neil LaBute. A shorter version originally appeared in Filmmaker.

I'm at Sundance, sitting in the front row of the Park City Library Center at the first showing of In the Company of Men. No one in the audience knows, for better or worse, what this movie might be like. The night is snowy, the print's only just come back from the lab, and all anyone has to go on is the blurb in the catalog: "A black comedy examining the male ego run amok...takes on such timely issues as office politics, female empowerment, and sexual harassment, all wrapped up in a tightly constructed package of emotional espionage." Uh-huh. We've all read blurbs like that before, and how many films live up to them?

The film begins--junior execs Chad and Howard are caught in a kind of white-collar hell at a layover in an anonymous modern airport; they're on their way from the home office to a branch office in a distant city for six weeks. Chad (Aaron Eckhart) is a tall, handsome frat-boy type, Howard (Matt Malloy) a more anonymous, or just mousy-looking kind of corporate wonk. As they talk over more than a few drinks, the general lack of control in their lives comes to be represented by their failed relationships with women. Chad proposes a plan: the two will find a woman in that distant city whom they can both flirt with, woo, date, then leave bereft at the end of their stay. Something to remember when they're old, Chad says, eyes agleam with malice.

Writer/director Neil LaBute's control of this simple scenario, the film's pacing and his actors' performances keep the Sundance crowd rooted to their seats. The audience seems to be holding its collective breath, dearly hoping that they are watching a dissection of misogyny and not just a backlash tract.

On screen, the amoral duo soon find their ideal candidate: a beautiful, deaf temp, Christine (Stacy Edwards). The waters grow cooler, darker, deeper. The theater-trained LaBute attacks his subject with a playwright's vigor--think of British theater after the Angry Young Men, playwrights such as Edward Bond or Caryl Chruchill--but with a filmmaker's eye, aware of what the camera should or should not show, and how to achieve those effects in the time and space afforded by an 11-day shoot and a slim 4:1 shooting ratio.

For that first Sundance audience, the real shock of In the Company of Men lies not in the film's storyline but in the furious economy of its visual style, the simple symmetries of its script, and, ultimately, in its deeply moral take on the most corrupt and humiliating aspects of the corporate world: how men treat not only women and each other, but themselves. LaBute's world is not an uplifting one, but it's a gratifying one. His satire is uncompromising, yet its bleak view of contemporary society and the use and abuse of power, language and love in our time is somehow elating. If a comedy this stern can make it to the marketplace, it seems that all is still possible. The film would go on to win the Filmmakers' Award for Best Dramatic Feature.

LaBute, 34, grew up in a Mormon family in Spokane, Washington, residing in the same house for 17 years. He lives with his wife Lisa, 33, a mental health therapist, and two children, 9 and 5, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana where they have a backyard and a cul-de-sac. "Stability is important to me," the amiable, articulate writer-director says. "It was good and grounding for me to grow up in the same place, having the same sort of friends and swimming in the same lake and running the same hills all my life." LaBute got a scholarship to study theater at Brigham Young University, and soon became a "school brat," studying at various schools including NYU and eventually winding up in Chicago, where several of his plays had successful productions. But in the interest of a saner, more comfortable lifestyle, LaBute and his family moved to the city of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, which became the location for In the Company of Men.

Filmmaker: With all the indiefilm trends you were tracking before making your debut, you even had your own small city to claim as your own.

LaBute: Yes, Ft. Wayne was very accommodating in the sense that people wanted to be in the movie, and not just get location fees out of you. But still, I don't use Ft. Wayne as a travelogue kind of setting.

Filmmaker: It looks like an anonymous city center, yet there's some older character to it as well, some Deco along the edges. It isn't Scottsdale, Arizona, some new Western town with an anonymous corporate campus setting.

LaBute: That's astute. I wanted a little feel that you can't quite put a year on it. Ultimately, the city doesn't look bad even though Chad always belittles how it looks, can you believe this shit where they send us? It made for a nice contrast between a city and town feel in the movie. It's a portion of America that people haven't seen.

Filmmaker: The language of the characters' anger and longings is precise--you're dealing with the deracination of language itself. Sometimes these guys are just blabbering, whether it's the indecipherable work they're doing or the obscene abuse they're hurling at the world. Can you talk a little about the siege mentality of your take on corporate-speak?

LaBute: We almost considered it as a kind of hyperreality, this kind of language that I've admired in certain playwrights where it sounds exactly like [the way] people talk, yet nothing like people talk. It's this in-between place. The ums and ahhs are there, but when [the characters] talk about the business, it's just babble that the guys kept adding to. They're saying nothing. We kept adding things, enhancing this nonsense. It tended to be an extension of the faceless Habitrail world that the corporate world creates for itself.

Filmmaker: With the building always under construction, their offices even look like an animal warren.

LaBute: Visually, that's an extension of what's there in the script. We don't know last names, we don't know the work they're doing, we don't know where they are. It was also very important to have the men never working. Chad is always sitting or reading or playing golf and Howard is impotently wandering around with papers he needs to get copied or shipped out. It was important that when we did pass a woman, she was carrying a load of papers or typing while these guys wandered the wasteland trying to look important.

Filmmaker: The most obvious way they try to make themselves look important is in targeting Christine. The symbolism of the deaf woman being someone who simply can't hear their incessant jabber of corporate jargon and insensitive remarks is pretty clear. But how do you react to someone who, without having seen the film, would find the portrayal of a deaf person as a pawn in their game as an insensitive or inappropriate metaphor?

LaBute: That certainly never came into the mix to me. That's of far less interest to me than does she serve a dramatic purpose? Nothing is sacred in that sense that anyone can't be examined in the context of a dramatic situation. It was important to me more for me, from a standpoint of it serving as a perfect sort of sounding board for these characters, the extension of themselves through their verbal language. Language is a weapon. [The men] use their words as battering rams and then we have a character who is completely susceptible to their verbal attacks. She could literally be talked about behind her back, in front of her, just by turning their heads. She was the natural dramatic foil to these two characters. So therefore I never thought, "Is this a sacred cow we're treading on here?" I ultimately only saw her as a means to an end. I never saw the film as a misogynist tale or a tale about someone who's handicapped being belittled. Ultimately, I look at her and still find Christine a solid character. She has a sense of humor, a certain goodness and a resilience. Stacy approached the role almost as a dialect exercise rather than as a character has a handicap or a flaw. It was simply an acting challenge. For her, it was, can I represent realistically how this character would speak and act on a daily basis. She spent time with students in California and worked with an ASL teacher in Ft. Wayne. With the kind of constraints we had, an actor strives for complete believability, but as the director I had to make sure that the speech was comprehensible, particularly considering our limitations of money and no chance of looping. At the end of the day, an audience has to understand you.

Filmmaker: You got the seed money for In the Company of Men in an unusual way.

LaBute: It was a force majeure squared. These two friends of mine, Toby Gaff and Mark Hart, were in a car wreck. It was this total act of God. We didn't say, if you build it they will come, we said, if you wreck it, if you survive, we can make a film. One of them was actively looking to help me put the film together. By a freak collision, we were put into a place where we had the funds to make the movie. He went through physical therapy, both of these friends received settlements, and after realizing they were going to be fine, I went right for the jugular like an ambulance chaser. "As long as you're going to be all right, can I have your money?" They both acquiesced, and we ultimately had the money to shoot.

Filmmaker: When people ask just what an executive producer does, you have a new answer.

LaBute: Exactly. On regular films or on my films? On my films they run the risk of never walking again.

Filmmaker: I know that Billy Wilder's The Apartment is a film that appealed to you for both its visual restraint and its moral tone, and you've spoken of a number of seventies movies. What other influences are there for the use of ambiguity in your storytelling?

LaBute: There are a lot of British playwrights I admire. There's Woody Allen, who I'm just a slavish fan of. A film like Manhattan is very much a postcard to New York, but I find very appealing that it's a film that luxuriates in stillness. It doesn't go out of its way to rove around the city. It sets up beautiful little scenarios, lets scenes play out within them. That's very appealing to me. I thinks some of the distance that I use in this film I get from people like Rohmer, Woody Allen and Kubrick, that sense of being very observational, just sitting back and watching. There were a couple of times in the picture, I had to question myself. There are two scenes, what we would almost consider dates that the guys are going on with Christine, I go for long takes [from some distance]. In the zoo scene, Howard and Christine are riding in the [jungle-ride] car. And up on the roof at night, when Chad is with her, the first time they kiss. These are shots where I tried to translate the idea that we had to listen, as an audience, to what she's saying, because we couldn't see her. We're so used to watching people's mouths move, and that being part of our information-gathering. We almost are put into her context. And again, we had to use our powers of listening, like hers is watching people. I almost put a little more distance than someone might want in a scene that's romantic like that. But it seemed important to back off.

Filmmaker: That's an intellectual solution yet it embodies your essential points with some subtlety. You don't move the camera very often, but one of the earliest times you do, after one of the characters may or may not be lying, the shot takes in a strip of caution tape roping off an office under construction.

LaBute: You kind of catch yourself. You think, are people going to be distanced from this? But that's really part of the point. For the characters, [their game is] almost an intellectual exercise. These guys are Leopold and Loeb-ish. It's like a little scientific exercise in pain. "Women are from Venus, Men are from Hell." When you have limited resources, there's this domino effect. When you took this very formalist approach, I feel you are bound by a certain set of laws. My editor in New York who did the final cut, Joel Plotch, had a lot of really key observations about the film. There wasn't much he could do about the story because I was so precise with its layout but he made some keen observations the way that scenes might play. He helped to preserve places an editor might want to say, this is the end of a scene, let's just clip out here. He tended to help preserve the ends of scenes where someone might sit for a while, wipe their mouth with a napkin.

When we talked to the actors about these characters, Chad and Howard become sort of the ego and id of one person. The opening, the first time we see them for any length, Howard walks across the airport toward Chad...

Filmmaker: There's the handsome man you think you are, the quivering toad you really are?

LaBute: Yeah. They sit down in this kind of low angle shot and they're flopped down, bemoaning their state. Their ties, the color is exactly the same, but Howard's is this series of straight lines, very Frank Lloyd Wright-ish pattern and Chad's is the absolute antithesis, a whirling dervish of the same colors, like this horrible id. We tried to mirror that a lot. The script has them both bring her flowers, that kind of thing.

Filmmaker: So it's a matter of the parallels being built in a way that don't distract if you don't notice the detail? The shot you described of Chad and Christine's first kiss on that rooftop is still quite handsome, with the perspective of the night-lit dome behind them.

LaBute: It even goes to the shooting of the two hotel room scenes between Christine and Chad. They're shot exactly the same way. They're a shot outside the door, outside the suite door, then we shot a formal two shot and then a shot from up above them The first time they go to bed together and the last time they see each other, exactly the same pattern. If you're a formalist like that, you're locked into shots, depending on what you shot earlier. But it's also a nice way to have some sense of style on a relatively low budget. An audience ultimately walks away, one hopes, saying, it seems to have a particular vision about it. That's instead of just putting out every technique you know yet having to do it in a half-ass way.

Filmmaker: There are directors who say that if you had an unlimited schedule, and unlimited budget, they wouldn't get out of bed in the morning.

LaBute: Yeah. I suppose that's true. You hopefully do it in a way that as many people as possible look at it and they will say, well even if he had a $4 million budget, he really wouldn't have shot it differently. That's just the shots he chose. That's the horrible trick that you get in, trying to make every economic decision look artistic and hope that everybody goes along for the ride. Ultimately, critically, people look at things and say they're doing these things for an economic reason. but I'd hope it works well enough that you forgive that. We shot this in eleven days with a weekend break between two short weeks. It was very well-structured. [Line producer] Lisa Bartels and [producer] Mark Archer were incredibly adept at setting up a schedule that was practical. I don't think we ever shot more than a ten-hour day.

Filmmaker: The scads of dialogue counts as a production value, it's like you've said before, "Language is free." It seems to go hand-in-hand with Ingmar Bergman insisting that the most cinematic image he knows is a close-up of the human face.

LaBute: I like the idea that you sit two people down and have them talk, and the cost is that of the film running through the camera. It doesn't require more than that. It gets back to the Peter Brook empty-space connection: all I need is an empty space, some actors and an audience. If anything, we kind of pushed that theory into the film. Because we felt we had an interesting story that we would just serve it simply. I knew that my forte was not going to be trying to do reverse zooms badly. It was really going to be about photographing the story. I knew what I could probably best supply was the script. I thought it had interesting things to say. Working with actors, rehearsing the piece, which I had spent a great deal of time doing, was really going to present me far better than finding ways to shoot around a mediocre scene.

Filmmaker: It makes me think of an old Russian axiom that theater is a meeting of church and circus. Here you have this bitter, bilious farce that's cruel to everyone, but underneath very moral issues are being taken on.

LaBute: Oh yeah. I think I'm a regular Philistine. Quite honestly, it's very Old Testament. It's like, you sin, you pay. That's all I show. There's barely any thought of redemption. It's like if you followed that cycle through, there very well would be a chance for that, but I wasn't interested in showing that. I was very much into that kind of bird's-eye look down. I don't think Company of Men is a Greek sort of [tragedy], whimsically flicking these characters around the table, but a dispassionate looking-down on them. I think ultimately I feel for these people, but no one's forced them to do what they do. So one watches a bit dispassionately and says let the chips fall where they may.

Filmmaker: Was there a point of panic? You'd never made a film before, wanted to for ages, then tumbled right into a cheap, rapidly-paced shoot. Did you have a point where you were saying, "Oh Christ, what am I doing here? Will this work?"

LaBute: Just when you're awake. [Laughs] That's the only time you're panicking. But I guess that's selling your sleep short, since you're usually having the director's nightmare or the actor's nightmare in your dreams. Yeah, of course. It's controlled panic the whole shoot. The whole thing that seems different for film is that you have pre-production, but when you shoot, you almost hear a clock ticking all the time. I had that very much with knowing exactly when the actors were going to fly out, what day, what time. We never got into a situation where I felt that the production was out of hand or behind.

We had one night shoot [where] we got into the airport in Ft. Wayne for about six hours. US Air pulled a plane aside for 45 minutes and was very helpful. We shot our footage on the airplane, terribly rushed. Then we got in to shoot our stuff inside [the airport] and we ultimately walked away without our first four minutes of the movie. We constantly had problems with body mikes. Always the bane of independent filmmakers! These body mikes you get that don't work for some reason or other. Finally at the last minute they let us stay a little bit over and we got one really strong take and the guy looked up and said, no good, the sound was bad. It was Saturday, people were leaving on Monday, we had Sunday and a couple of shots to pick up. So at 6 in the morning, I'm wandering out to the car with another filmmaker who was running our sound, Guy Camara, really good guy who can't be praised too little. Matt Malloy tracked him down when our sound man dropped out at the eleventh hour. We canvassed the whole country for somebody, places that we knew, people. Guy knew Matt in school in New York, and happened to be living in Indiana and he's an hour an half away and had just finished a shoot and had two weeks vacation. We were walking out of there and I was feeling incredibly low. I mean, you'd think the first few minutes of the movie would be fairly important!

We started talking about the possibilities, what were we going to do? Then I thought about Lincoln Tower, the office building we were shooting in. The offices were similar to those we shot against at the airport. we knew the long shot was fine. We got back to my theatrical roots, the put-on-a show thing. When Sears opened the next day, we bought a set of vertical blinds to simulate the blinds that were behind them at the airport. We taped them up to this window and we pressed in. This was a total Kubrick homage. I said, you know the only way that I can fake this is if to go down to the ground with the camera. And again, aesthetically, it made sense. We suddenly show these guys in a power position, sitting there on top of us. But ultimately, it was simply the only way to make these two shots match. Tony [Hettinger] got down on the ground with his camera. We took two desk chairs and swathed them in black so you couldn't see that they didn't match the shot. These two guys crunched together and played the scene. It ultimately matched well enough that nobody ever notices. But a moment like that, those are the kind of places where you realize you have almost no margin for error. This was our last day and that was the last shot that we got before [the actors] packed up and went home.

Filmmaker: Let's talk about the five-minute take where the two are on the roof, Howard's trying to switch the tables on Chad, and both actors do a great thing--both Aaron and Matt bobble a line at different points, yet manage to stay in character. Matt told me with some pride that it was the only take you got, as well.

LaBute: It was the only clean take. What you don't often see in movies is real life happening. In real life, I go back over my sentences and have trouble with words and usually that's all edited out. This is really the only scene where we see Chad momentarily at a loss for words. He's created a little monster, suddenly Howard is a step ahead of him, saying, I'm going to send you back over the fourth of July holiday and I'll stay here with Christine. That's the only moment where you see him trip over a word or two. But that's the only take we got all the way through. There's a moment right after we all cut-in the dailies you can see them both jumping; up in the air and cheering. Aaron said he had never been more scared. You can almost see his eyes widen behind his sunglasses even, when he's almost there, just three more lines! The emotions run high. Up on the roof, we had the middle of a good take where the sound tape ran out and Guy was so upset, I didn't want to even say anything. I just wanted to jump off the roof. What I found out ultimately is that you're not doing yourself any favors by choosing the aesthetic of long takes.

With the kind of money that we had, nothing was more exciting than being on the set and hearing the camera whirring. But it became the most terrifying sound as well because it sounded like a money- counting machine where dollars are going through. You realize after three takes of five minutes that get blown at the fourth minute, you're not doing yourself any favors. It's just thousands of feet of film running through. It didn't save us anything in terms of money. It became a testament to how good my actors were. And I think actors are very pleased with that kind of shooting because you get the chance to look at your character in several-minute chunks rather than worrying about worrying how high the water level was in a glass. We didn't even have anyone watching continuity full time. The film's relatively good on continuity.

Filmmaker: When I talked to David Cronenberg about Crash, he joked that he found the only way to do a bedroom scene with a woman with long flowing hair was in a single master because you'll never, ever be able to match it.

LaBute: That's very true. I remember getting myself into a pinch when we were shooting the bar scene where Chad first unfurls his plan. At one point, Aaron looked at me, he says, how many other horrible ideas can you have? There was a cigarette, a glass of Scotch, beers all around him. "Why don't you just start a fire as well so we have to match the height of the flames in the next take?" We had every possible bad continuity situation in a single scene.

Filmmaker: For a very low-budget film, you still managed to shoot on 35.

LaBute: Mark Archer, the producer along with Steven Pevner, was canvassing the country, looking for enough stock, short ends, whatever he could find to make the picture. We had set out looking for Super 16, anything we could find with the money we had. But this deal was so good, when we found this supply of a stock that was no longer being made, it didn't take much talking when he explained the inherent cost of switching from 16 to 35. Tony was aching to shoot 35. The stock was color, and we would be doing ourselves a real favor. From a number of standpoints, it made sense.

Filmmaker: Tell me about your statement, "You can only kill someone once but you can hurt them every day of the week."

LaBute: From a theater history standpoint, I have this interest in always finding an interesting device. I've always been a fan of words and wit. It's back to Restoration comedy, with all the horrible barbs they hurl at one another. [Patrice Leconte's] Ridicule has that same feel to it. You're only as good as your wit. I found that a very approachable kind of aesthetic for me. I knew I could do that well as a writer. Then the whole idea of cruelty, it's sustaining the pain. Shoot a character on screen, it's over in a couple of minutes, but to mete it out slowly, you see how much an audience can take. How much tension can one keep ratcheting up from your premise and how cruel can you continue to be and still keep the audience with you? I think a lot of the credit goes here, in terms of the cruel side, to someone like Aaron, who I found to be one of these actors, who appeared in Europe in the sixties, like Delon or Belmondo, who, because of the sort of menacing charm, they're able to do almost unspeakable things. We don't root for them so much as, not that we want them to get away with it...

Filmmaker: It's what you expect from such a creature?

LaBute: Yeah, it's almost an admiration for the audacity of the character. When you watch Purple Noon, you're actually worrying that Delon is going to get caught. It was interesting for me to see how far you could push that and still keep an audience interested. The audience's inherent goodness is spilling over into the character. People just want Chad to be better than he is.

Filmmaker: How do you raise the emotional and intellectual stakes when you're writing? "Always go for the more painful choice," you've said, "If you're going to get an idea out there, you should go all the way. " When you go for a more painful choice, how do you turn off the censor in your head?

LaBute: It should come from artistic distance. I can't become as emotionally involved as you hope your audience becomes. You're fashioning this whole world, so you're trying to answer critics, because an audience is essentially a critical mass. The review that is most damaging and painful to me is somebody who after a year of your work on something says, "That was good. Let's go get something to eat." And they never talk about or even think about your film again. The most painful critical words to me are "different" and "interesting." "That was different, that was interesting." That connotes nothing good. It's just a way people find to dismiss something they don't want to deal with. Love it or hate it is what I would prefer, to have some sort of visceral response to it. And I guess that's the game, right there in a nutshell, it's eliciting a visceral response from something that's wholly intellectual. It's not that you don't feel for the characters along the way or put emotion into it. You hear stories of Eugene O'Neill thrashing behind the closed door as he wrote Long Day's Journey, but I wasn't spilling out my life story. There's not that kind of attachment. It was finding a way to artistically find a way to have someone have a visceral response to your work, that's what most interests me.

Filmmaker: There's a broad range of intellectual and anecdotal wealth about both film and theater when we've talked, but how do you distill that when you write? Do you have a lot of half-finished stuff you return to when a theme becomes clearer? What is your method both physically and emotionally so that you keep at bay the intellectual, critical voice that dissects your impulses and cross-references all these movies and stories you know about, as you write?

LaBute: The thing that has probably worked the best for me--that can also be incredibly damning to some work--is that I will often just set out with an idea, a set of characters. I'm not a person to put the little yellow Post-its all across one wall of my bedroom and plot out a story. I tend to like to see where the road will lead, which can lead to a lot of backtracking, revisions. But I'm not afraid of that. I welcome it. My biggest maxim is probably, "Whatever works".

Filmmaker: Duke Ellington said, "It sounds good, it is good."

LaBute: Right. My other maxim is, "Art is anything I can't do." In a museum, if I can say, "I could do that," then it's not art. I've always had the idea that if any actor has to do yoga and talk to themselves for an hour before they do something, or if they just jump in and flick that switch, I could care less. If they can get to that place where I've seen them and create the character, that's what important. It's a scary position to be placed in the director's position of autocratic power. You do have to live or die by your decisions. But I would prefer having someone say before shooting, even publicly in front of other people as you're about to shoot it, that this doesn't work, than to see it on the page written by critics, when there's nothing I can do to fix it except the laser disc! But just as a writer, I tend to write off of instinct, quickly and a lot, into the night. You can't quite stop. When I was younger, I almost balked at writing anything but one act plays. I knew I could finish a one-act play in one sitting. I didn't, I couldn't walk away from something. It became almost a phobia, I had to keep working on something until it was done. I finally got past that, but for a while I was thought I would wind up writing for "Saturday Night Live," I could do a sketch in an hour and there'd be an end to the work.

Filmmaker: What was behind this completion anxiety, a fear something would require more application?

LaBute: Yes, just the idea that I would leave something hanging. How absurd to think that now I'm going to go eat or watch a movie while that world is just sitting there unfinished. At some point, you start doing exercises to get over that. But now I still tend to write in very long, long bursts. But I'll let a thing gestate for a much longer time, I won't commit it to paper, I'll just keep mulling it over and not try and storyboard it out. I want to be as excited as someone seeing it for the first time. The great hook in writing is for an audience to say what happens next, to continually say that from beginning to end. And I want that to happen to me as well. To be surprised. That's the thing when we were editing it, I would get anybody I could to look at the film and I would ask them, does it have any punch to it? You've heard every joke, you know the surprises, I could never get the perspective on whether it had any oomph to it. I've never seen In the Company of Men for the first time. You hear someone come out of a screening and say, "Whoa! That was scary!" and I want to ask, "Well, what about In the Company of Men?" You never feel like they're talking about your movie. You can't get to that place.

Filmmaker: How did you become involved with your producer and agent Steven Pevner? With a list of clients that has included Richard Linklater, Gregg Araki, Guinevere Turner and Todd Solondz, it seems like he must be an interesting collaborator. And how were your decisions made about what kind of distribution deal to seek? You apparently weighed the marketing particulars of several offers.

LaBute: I met Steven when I first went to NYU. He had a friend on the selection committee and had read some of my stuff that had been submitted with my application. Steven was a literary agent at the time and he called me and said I admire your stuff and would like to be your agent. We've had this loose working relationship for a number of years. He's a very savvy guide through a lot of what can be tricky ground for a writer. He always seemed to have tastes similar to mine. He was never trying to push me toward doing something more commercial, so much as finding the right outlet for what I was writing. In this case, I started out doing the movie in such a way that he didn't even know I was doing it. I said, I'm just going to do it and not let anyone talk me out of it. He called like the day after we finished shooting, he asks, "what've you been up to?" "Well, I just filmed In the Company of Men." "What do you mean, you just filmed In the Company of Men?" "Yeah, I just finished shooting the film. How'd you know to call?" And he said, "Aw, it's part of my genius." Then he saw the rough cut and said, "I have to be involved with this, I want to see it through to the end." That was a place where we knew we had to solicit more funds to get it from in the can to on the screen. He was invaluable at doing that. The Faber & Faber [deal for publishing the script] came from Steven's literary roots. He felt like the script was, in and of itself something that would be interesting to people.

Filmmaker: You met Matt when you had talked to Good Machine about working with them on projects. Were you impatient with development even on that level?

LaBute: From my background, being so much "let's put on a play in my living room," the idea of even settling in with a company that makes good product in a relatively short period of time, seemed interminable to me. Not in the sense that I don't like rewriting, but relatively minor things and the turnaround time of having it re-read, the development process seemed unending to me. I had met Matt through them, we talked on the phone abut doing a project together, but ultimately it was by default I wound up doing the whole film. Whether I had all the right equipment to do the film, only having enough money to just shoot it and then sit on it a while. At least I would get that done, jump-start the process. I wasn't pushed into doing it, but the idea of doing it myself became more palatable. Simply from just not wanting to extend any option periods. The thing that I both love and bemoan about theater is the ephemeral quality. In the end, you just have a bunch of production stills. It's a beautiful thing that nobody else is going to see it, but ultimately it's a hard way when you're living it a distant city, to capitalize on any success, when the move of a show from Chicago to New York, that was in the hands of someone else. I always envisioned going from Chicago to New York the way Mamet did with "Sexual Perversity." But that's very hard to do. But to make a film, because of the way the independent movement has gone in the last few years, everything seemed right. Films were allowed to be more talky. Good dialogue became fashionable again. People were doing films out of their homes that cost relatively small sums. And Sundance continues to build and being this kind this great microscope under which filmmakers could be looked at and then move on to onto other circles. The planets were aligned, y'know.

Filmmaker: How do you balance family and career? Writing must be easier.

LaBute: It was very important to me that the film didn't disrupt the lives of my kids. Doing the film in the way that we did, not only would I not be able to give them the attention, but I was going to be taking even the furniture that they live on while we were making the film. So they went up to Chicago with their aunt for a kind of impromptu summer camp. That's how she got the credit "Best Girl."

Filmmaker: Was there an impulse to leap at a deal for the most money? Did you genuinely have a fear or a even a nonchalance about North American distribution? When the film didn't get picked up at Sundance, I figured, oh-oh, this one's giving everyone the willies. No one can figure out how to keep it from being the anti-date movie of the century. What gave everyone involved the calm and reserve to say to potential distributors, we want to see what your plans are, we want to talk about how to adequately sell this, we don't want it just thrown on the screen and have it dismissed as "different!" "Interesting!"

LaBute: It was hard. I feel for anybody who's out there with a film trying to find distribution. It's such a buyer's market. Although they're looking for good product and I think that goodness rises to the top. It's not just that which is good aesthetically in the end. It's what has also some market potential. All these horrible things you wish didn't factor into it but ultimately do. There were dark days. I can only speak for myself. You feel things have gone about as right as they could. And yet things had not immediately happened at Sundance. It was having the reserve to say that we have several people here, both big and small, in terms of distributors. Are we going to take the first money or hold out for the person who has the same passion about the film that we do? That's what happened. I think we got the best marriage. Sony Classics is a company that releases a relatively small number of films a year. They seem to really care about them. They are able to keep films in theaters. I think what's ultimately going to be the death or life of In the Company of Men is the fact that it has the time to build an audience. The two-line death sentence that we have right now is that two guys on a lark decide to destroy a deaf woman. You can feel people going, "Doh! You want my money? I don't want to be a party to this!" Then ultimately, the women who have initially balked at the synopsis are its strongest advocates once they've seen the film.

No matter if this does exceedingly well or fails miserably, I'll still never believe people aren't smart enough to get it. At some point, it's the old adage of pleasing yourself first and then you try to believe that you're not a mutant, that there are other people who have similar tastes and the box office proves to you at some point whether you're a mutant or not. By Labor Day, I should know.

Ray Pride is the film critic of Chicago's arts and news weekly, NewCity, and is also one of its editors. He is a screenwriter, and writes about movies, food and culture for a number of other publications and online services. He naps when he can.



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