As we sit down for coffee on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Neil LaBute immediately begins to talk shop. We discuss actors, turning in scripts to studios, his latest stint directing episodes of AMC’s Hell on Wheels. Ten minutes pass before I realize I haven’t started recording.
We all know that an artist is distinct from his or her work—that a person could, for example, write a string of dark and twisted plays populated by morose sociopaths and remain a charming, personable guy—but that doesn’t end one’s suspicion that Neil LaBute must be dark and twisted himself. Instead, he’s a gracious workaholic, someone who revels in rewriting, riffs on imaginary sequels to some of his most famous work, and admits to liking productions of his plays that are unrecognizable to him. There is nothing finished or sacred in his career; there’s simply more to be explored.
Since the early ’90s, Neil LaBute has invited controversy with plays and films that revolve around things like infanticide (Bash), infidelity (Your Friends & Neighbors), male cruelty (In the Company of Men), female cruelty (The Shape of Things), the embarrassment of dating someone who is overweight (Fat Pig), the potential for personal gain from 9/11 (The Mercy Seat), and everything else icky and hard to watch, including incest, rape, office shootings, and racism. He’s maintained a hit-or-miss career directing films: he has garnered praise and a Sundance Filmmakers Trophy, but also directed an unnoticed thriller (Lakeview Terrace) and a universally panned horror remake (The Wicker Man). Meanwhile, he has established himself as one of the most produced and popular playwrights alive.
Liking LaBute’s work is often contingent on what Joseph Conrad called the “fascination of the abomination”—the impulse to simultaneously gawk and avert your gaze. There have also been sweet and strange moments (Nurse Betty), happy endings (Reasons to Be Pretty), and singular performances from his actors, who include Aaron Eckhart, Renée Zellweger, and Stanley Tucci.
In person, his manner doesn’t match his provocateur reputation. His excitement is most piqued when we discuss actual production—such as the on-set dynamics of his latest film, Some Velvet Morning—and wanes when the subject veers to cultural or critical evaluations of his projects. He is, above all, a man concerned with story more than meaning, with concrete events, with characters in tough positions. While we were talking, I got the sense that his material treads into grim territory because that’s simply where the more propulsive story lives.
I. CONTEXT BORDER
THE BELIEVER: I read your first play, Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, and watched Some Velvet Morning in the same day. They bookend your career up until now, but there’s also a thematic similarity: men and women and the transactions around sex. I’m wondering about the differences between Neil LaBute the debut playwright and Neil LaBute the veteran filmmaker.
NEIL LaBUTE: I think you’re at least getting a glimpse of someone who was, in his twenties or so, trying to find his voice. Going, How did Mamet do that? And: What should I be doing? What do I have to say about men and women? And also testing out the waters of theater, really seeing how the monologue worked, and shifting scenes around, but not really committing to a story. I was saying, I don’t have a plot here so much as an event, people in a bar for an indiscriminate amount of time just talking. And I still love that; I still love how long I can keep people in their seats with people just talking to each other, you know? But it was films, ironically, that opened up the door for theater.
BLVR: Really? I didn’t know that.
NL: After I had done In the Company of Men, far more people were interested. “Oh, I heard you do theater.” They were interested in seeing a theater production. That theater door opened up. And so I just kicked it open and said, “I’m coming through.”
BLVR: Because you always wanted to be primarily a playwright?
NL: I always loved the movies, but I didn’t really fancy making movies, just because, you know, it’s an expensive medium. I didn’t grow up with a camera in my hands, so theater always made the most sense to me in terms of both what I enjoyed and what I could do, what was available. It has a beginning, middle, and end, whereas the first day you shoot a movie is meant to be as good as the last day you shoot. The idea of building a play, building it step-by-step—“Here’s the groundwork, now we’re gonna do the table-read, now we’re gonna do it on our feet, and now we’re gonna rehearse”—that all makes sense to me.
BLVR: What about on the writing level? Because I noticed what you were saying about Filthy Talk being sort of plotless, and then Some Velvet Morning is actually about plot; it’s about people making plots for themselves, without giving too much away. Do you still start with a monologue or scene when you sit down to write?
NL: It’s so different all the time. Rarely is it a theme. Rarely am I like, I must write about race, you know? Or: I haven’t really talked about the government. That’s just not me.
BLVR: I wonder sometimes if people assume that about you.
NL: Oh yeah, because things always seem to end up having themes. That’s just the way it goes. You start to talk about characters, and they start to talk about things they care about, and suddenly there’s a theme there. You go, Yeah, I’m gonna do a thing about a man and a woman, and they have some trouble… And pretty soon you have a battle of the sexes. But it’s certainly not the place that I sit down and start from. It’ll be a character, or sometimes it’s a title. It’s all about crafting. I don’t understand people who don’t like to rewrite, because it’s just part of the process to me. It’s just making it better and better—and that’s every take, making it better. You wanna try something else? Might as well, we’re here. It’s gonna be more expensive to come back later, so let’s just do it.
BLVR: So you like improvisation?
NL: I have no problem with a good line someone throws out or whatever, but I also don’t really cop to the notion of “OK, I spent a long time trying to make this thing work, and now here, within ten minutes, you guys are going to magically come up with an improv that’s better than that.” You have to remember that actors—most of your job is you’re creating this little cocoon that says, “Crawl through this opening. Go inside. It’s safe in there. Do that thing that we’re asking you to do.” Which is nuts, by the way. That’s what I’m here for, to do that, and then get out of your way. Get back out of the opening, close it up, and then, you know, leave one hole that they can look out of if they need you. The best actors that I’ve worked with who are so good on film, from Morgan Freeman to whoever, they use you when they need you. That guy knows what he’s doing. He shoots two takes, and then looks at you and goes, “I got it. You got it?” Walk away. But when he needs you he goes, “What do you think?” He invites you in. Because he knows what he needs.
BLVR: I was curious about that, because you’ve talked before about having a sort of combative relationship with your audience, especially in theater. You know, with The Shape of Things not having a curtain call, because you didn’t want everything to be OK. And so I was wondering if you ever find the process to be combative, with your crew and cast, or is it always about creating this safe atmosphere?
NL: It’s the complete opposite. I make conflict for a living, on the page, on the screen. That’s what I provide: a nice, healthy dose of that. I have no interest in creating it to get there. That’s the family. These people who are all together, we’re gonna make this thing, and I hate it when there’s one bad crew member or one actor who doesn’t want to be there. It’s terrible, because I love the process. In terms of the audience, when I talk about context border, that’s because I think there’s a sense of complacency in the audience. That they kind of sit back and judge this thing—in the dark, from afar, as a group—in a kind of security that I don’t think is as pleasurable a place to watch theater from. When they’re closer, they create an energy that’s more dangerous. This thing could spill off the stage. We know it won’t, but for a few minutes you occasionally get lost in it; you go, Fuck, whoa, this is not acting. I’m in somebody’s room that I shouldn’t be in. That’s gold. That’s what we do this for: to have that happen, to have an audience not have those safety valves that they’re used to.
II. QUAINT AS CHEKHOV
BLVR: There’s certainly a lot of criticism that’s been lobbed at you, for being misogynistic, or homophobic, or racist. But then I wonder, have you ever run into somebody who’s a fan of that voice?
NL: You do run into that occasionally. I can remember both sides of that from when we did In the Company of Men. Aaron Eckhart became sort of the flagship of bad ’90s behavior; he was the face of that. Some women thought he was cute. And others were like, “I hate that guy.” A woman came up to him and smacked him on the arm. On one side of that you go, Wow, great, it worked. But then by extension, of course, I was the one who wrote that and thought of those things, and what came out of that movie in particular was “You’re a misogynist.” I was like, That guy? You can call him a sociopath, even a misanthropist; you can say whatever you want, but he is not interested in hating just women. He hates everybody. So I don’t know why they got on that track so strong, but they did, and you spend really the rest of your career living that down.
BLVR: I did notice, though, that in a lot of your earlier work, the villain—for the characters, not necessarily the villain of the play—is a female executive, or a woman entering the workplace. You were writing at the same time as men’s movements started springing up. Did you ever consciously study feminism or different men’s movements, or were you just writing the stories that came?
NL: A little of both. I was aware of what was happening out there and found it interesting. I don’t think it’s fueling the fire but reacting to the times. I’m just one generation removed from a really delineated sense of family and work. My mom got married at eighteen. My dad worked, and my mom didn’t. Suddenly she wanted to get a job, and he didn’t know how he felt about that. And so all of those things were happening as they were happening to the country. I’ve always been an observer of that and found it fascinating. What would make a man so reactive to that idea? Someone wants to get out there and bring more money into the family: why does that reproach your manhood? Why has that been instilled so deeply, that you’re the provider? That it’s an affront to you to have someone do the same kind of job you do? I see men and women so equally, and yet the footing for so long has been off-kilter. To watch that right itself, a hundred years from now, it’ll probably be as quaint as Chekhov and yet completely universal. We’ll go, Oh yeah, people went through that, but isn’t it funny to watch people struggle with identity and inequality and all that? At one point, yes, color was an issue. The fact that these people wanted to marry each other and they were not a man and a woman was a big thing, and people will be like, Oh, what? No! I guess we always live in turbulent times. It’s just a matter of what the particular turbulence is.
BLVR: If there’s a standard line about your work, it’s that it goes to a dark place, and that there’s an ironic twist of some sort. I was reading The Distance From Here, which starts sort of slice-of-life—it almost felt like Richard Linklater—but then there’s a kidnapped baby. Do you feel like you have to fight that reputation? Do you feel pressure when you’re writing to live up to that, or does it not occur to you at all?
NL: Didn’t occur to me. [The Distance From Here] was more like, Oh god, another baby is going to die, you know, because Bash had been around. But you start to think, OK, no twist is the twist. Or you know that people may go in feeling like, whatever I see at the beginning of his play, that’s not going to be the real picture. So I thought, how do I write this honestly if I just want to tell the story of two people? What if I want a happy ending? What if this one feels like a happy ending? Are people gonna feel cheated, or are they gonna be happy? Then you start thinking about your audience too much.
III. MONSTERS AND COWARDS
BLVR: There’s a sense of social injustice in a lot of stuff you write. Beautiful, aggressive sociopaths end up winning, and well-intentioned smart people get screwed. I can’t help but assume that, growing up, you were a sensitive kid, maybe you even got bullied. But then on the other hand, you’ve been successful for more than half of your life. So do you draw on a personal sense of injustice, from your childhood, or is it always abstract?
NL: It’s a mix. I don’t consider myself a person who draws on life. And yet funny things happen. When my mom first saw In the Company of Men, she watched the movie, and—outside of “God, I wish you didn’t swear so much”—she said, “It’s funny, you’ve got your dad exactly right.” I was like, “What do you mean?” And she said, “That blond [Aaron Eckhart’s] character, that was very much him.” Charming and yet sort of lethal. It couldn’t have been on the outside: this character is blond, my father has dark good looks. My father was a teamster, this guy’s white-collar. So with all of the trappings, I think I’m writing a guy completely different. And yet the core is the thing Mom saw. That almost sociopathic, narcissistic person who only really cares for himself—that’s what she looked at and said, “Oh, look, your father.” So some part of you has to spill over. But the things that interest me—the human frailties in people, like the guy in Fat Pig. Because I don’t hate him at all. I feel sorry for him because it’s hard to be weak. It’s hard to find those things out about yourself. It’s hard to be a coward. And when you can publicly admit to somebody, “I’m a coward. I want to be this, I’ve been taught to be this, and I’m not, I can’t do it.” That’s an interesting person to me. And as fun as it was to write the guy in In the Company of Men, he’s probably the least interesting to me—he’s a creature I don’t really know. He’s the most frightening kind of unknowable, because he doesn’t have any emotions. He’s constantly looking at people, going, “How does that feel? I don’t fucking have feelings, so you get hurt. What does that feel like? Because I’d like to remember what that even looks like.” So those are monsters, to me. But I don’t write too many of those. Mostly they’re angry or scared or refuse to grow up. I’m the chronicler of men struggling to become men, but mostly remaining boys. Some people are interested in politics, or sports—I’m interested in people who want to try and live together but find every reason in the world not to, because they’re human and they struggle with being, and caring, and loving. If they didn’t, then I wouldn’t have a story to tell.
BLVR: A lot of press has been made about your Mormonism, from the perspective of surprise, you know, “Can you believe he’s a Mormon?” To me it’s way more surprising that so many Mormons write science fiction or fantasy. When I read or see your stuff, it actually seems there’s not a story unless there’s a moral component. Even the Bash plays are about people trying to do what they think of as the right or religious thing, but it’s just coming out in awful ways. And the audience enjoys the plays only if they have a strong sense of right and wrong. Have you ever thought of yourself as a moralist?
NL: No. No, and I know that component is probably always there, because those are the questions that interest me. Really simple ones: what is good, what is bad, what is sin? I guess that’s the reason I’m drawn toward Greek drama and things like that. It’s just the story I end up telling is about somebody trying to do this, and they can’t fumble their way there fast enough, or ever. And how hard is it to actually stand up for yourself? When a gun’s pointed in your face, you know, I get it—but when it’s office politics, why is it such a hard thing? I know it’s hard, but why is it hard? Why is it hard for us to just say, you know, “Fuck off ” to another person? “I know we’re going to be sharing desks, but if that’s the way you’re going to be, I’m done with you.” Why are we so susceptible to the pressures of our surroundings?
IV. THE STRATEGY (NICOLAS CAGE IN A BEAR SUIT)
BLVR: You have an incredibly diverse set of films that you’ve made. Your have your own material, you’ve done other people’s scripts, like Nurse Betty, but then you also have remakes, like Death at a Funeral and The Wicker Man. Is there a strategy, or are you just trying to keep working in a crazy, shifting landscape?
NL: A little bit of both. I’ve made the decision that in my writing I’m going to continue this very linear path, you know? You can go from Filthy Talk to Some Velvet Morning and see continuity and a voice there that makes complete sense. As a director of films, I thought, again, since I’d never really set out to do this, I didn’t really have a plan, and so my plan began to be: You know what, I’d like to just try things. I’ll do things that come my way, that I find interesting.
BLVR: In terms of box-office success, something like The Wicker Man didn’t do very well, and yet more people probably saw that film than will ever see any of your plays. Do you ever feel like you’re preaching to the choir in terms of class or education?
NL: No. I love that nature of theater, that there’s such a personalized sense to it: it’s in one theater in one city in the world. And then maybe it will have a life and go out and be unique in that there will be twenty-five productions of it. But that movie is just one testament. People will say, “Yeah, I saw his new play, but don’t forget, he did that movie.” They’ll never forget. So again, I have to look at that and go, I had a great time making it. It was a good example of making sure you’re all making the same movie. Because you can tip something one direction so easily and so quickly. I mean, were we aware that Nic Cage in a bear suit would be funny? Yeah. But we knew that we were still going to kill him in the end. That balance of laughs and horror is always interesting, but sometimes we don’t get it right.
BLVR: Now you’ve been doing DirecTV stuff. The idea of on-demand television is sort of the exact opposite of going to a play. I can watch this show on a binge…
NL: And the things that I’ve done for them have been very theatrical. It’s this constant ice-floe-shifting game of jumping from floe to floe. And then you move on to the next place and try and sell your wares. I think that’s a lot of what we do. We push this wagon around and say, “Hey, look at this shiny pot over here,” and we hope someone buys.
BLVR: Where’s theater at now? I mean, where’s it going?
NL: It’s going where it has always been going, which is forward, slowly. It’s a big, vast, thousands-of-years-old institution that is so unique that I don’t think it will ever be replaced. Because once you have the experience of going and seeing something live, and having a story told to you that way, whether you love it or not, you realize that there is a quality there that is unlike anything else that you’ve been a part of. Except perhaps the Ice Capades.
BLVR: You’re not cynical, then? About the commercialization of theater, Broadway?
NL: No. I mean, if we were talking sixty years ago, Broadway would have been the only place that you and I could have been slaving away to get a play up. Now there are so many places. People go, “Fuck it, I’m going to put my play on YouTube.” I came up as a person who, if I couldn’t find a venue to do a play, I made my own venue. I’m still kind of doing that. I’m still rooting out my own work. I’m making it easy on my agents. I’ve never been one to kind of sit back and bemoan things: I just try and go change it, or make it after my own sensibilities. I’ve been lucky. To have as many plays performed or published or done as I’ve done, or to have made that many movies: how can I afford to be cynical? I don’t have the time.