Neil LaBute: Turning to Love
You don’t hear much from writer-director Neil LaBute anymore. In the late 90’s, the playwright became an indie sensation by adapting his play In the Company of Men into a movie. He followed that movie up with the equally buzzy Your Friends & Neighbors and went slightly mainstream with the comedy Nurse Betty. But LaBute’s upward trajectory didn’t continue. In 2006, he would hit the skids with the infamous remake of The Wicker Man. In between his early career highs and eventual lows, LaBute made the 2002 drama Possession starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. Stephen Rebello interviewed the director for the May 2002 issue of Movieline magazine.
Neil LaBute is probably about to shock the hell out of any number of people who thought they knew what his work was all about. Those are the people who associate this writer and director with the first two movies he made, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors. In his debut film, LaBute raised an uproar with his tale of casually predatory white-collar sharks who seduce and emotionally pillage an attractive deaf secretary just for sport. In his follow-up, he failed to reassure anyone shaken by his first film when he presented his mordantly funny tale of soulless couples. But LaBute’s third film should have warned everyone who had pigeonholed him as some kind of cynical enfant terrible of indie film. Nurse Betty, a small movie with big ambitions and fairly big star Renee Zellweger, started out as a quirky small-town tale of domestic violence and blossomed into a surreal and often sweet comedy of the blurred line between soap opera and real life. Here LaBute took on for the first time material not his own, but gave it auteurist authority that expanded the material’s possibilities as well as his own.
With his latest film, Possession, LaBute is positively shredding expectations. Working with an adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel, he is dealing with a complicated romance set in England, where a relationship develops between a pair of researchers who unearth a tragic love affair between the 19th-century poets they are studying. Moving back and forth between present and past (Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart play the moderns; Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam are the Victorians), Possession turns out to be romantic, witty, civilized and lush enough to challenge anyone who thought he knew what Neil LaBute was about. It gives us a notably reigned-in LaBute. And beyond its content, the film represents a budget and scale that are new to its director.
The 39-year-old LaBute, who is Mormon and lives with his family in suburban Chicago, has, from the beginning, been so completely not of Hollywood that nothing he does in Hollywood can avoid defying expectations. At Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, he wrote stage works that often starred his Mormon classmate Aaron Eckhart, who’s since starred in each of LaBute’s movies. The moral universe that exists in all LaBute’s work (and which seems to go unnoticed by those who would deem him cynical) was there at the start in his plays. LaBute’s bad characters are bad not because he offers a simplistic world where good and bad are set off in neon, but because in his world of doubt, one must at least take moral and ethical matters seriously and these characters don’t. LaBute’s first film was an adaptation of his play Lepers, which he took to the Sundance Institute’s Playwrights Lab. Borrowing money from friends who’d survived a car crash and won an insurance claim, he self-produced In the Company of Men, which, in addition to causing a firestorm, won the 1997 Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance. His film-directing career was set in motion. LaBute did not, however, leave theater behind. In the same way that he’s continued to wear plaid shirts and nonfashionable curly locks, a convenient beard and academic-nerd glasses, he’s continued to write plays. His critically praised The Shape of Things, which starred Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller in both London and off-Broadway productions, will be his next film and will star the same cast.
STEPHEN REBELLO: Was the casting of Gwyneth Paltrow a given when you became involved with Possession because she both looks like she could be an academic and she’s adept at using a British accent?
NEIL LABUTE: Gwyneth became an absolute given from the first time she was spoken about because I knew she could absolutely do it and knock it out of the park.
Q: What adjustments did it require from you to work with an actress who gets so much press?
A: On the first day I was working with Gwyneth, we were hit with the press because a college professor had revealed we were going to be shooting at the railway station in Lincoln, England. That first day was a mob scene of press and townspeople. Security could kind of keep it at bay because we were working on a small railway platform, but coming out of a car to a wall of flashing flashbulbs is a hard way to start a movie. Gwyneth has been given such celebrity because she’s been in relationships that are high-profile and she comes from an entertainment family. When you start getting equated with royalty, being compared to Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, it’s tough. There’s this mantle of fame and celebrity she’s had to carry whether or not she wants to. Only knowing her in this short period, it’s amazing how unassuming, focused and graceful she can be despite how much focus there is on “What belt is she wearing today?” and how every hairstyle, every relationship gets scrutinized. The temperature changes on her every time Us magazine comes out, yet she still has to come to a set focused.
Q: How did you two work together?
A: She comes to you only when she needs you. She’s got a clean, laser-like precision when she works, comes in really prepared and is bang-on from the first take. I remember her in rehearsal saying, “This is the first place my character is going to smile.” That’s a real pleasure because here’s someone who’s read the script more than once and has made decisions. She can hit almost word-perfect any take she did previously, which makes her an editor’s dream. She’s a good mimic, a bright person and she doesn’t sit in her trailer weeping and wailing. She’s an actor in the best, most classic sense of the word.
Q: Did she have any trepidation about working with you?
A: I wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d wondered, based on In the Company of Men or Your Friends & Neighbors. She could well have thought, “The Possession script is sweeping, it’s England, there’s the Victorian period involved. Will Neil be able to help me?” That’s really what actors are looking for. They all want to know on a base level that they’ll constantly have that support if they need it.
Q: Do you think you’ll take a hit for altering the reticent, colorless Brit male researcher, played by Aaron Eckhart, into an American?
A: A.S. Byatt took in stride the Englishman’s becoming an American. Being, myself, an American who had done a little schooling in England, I could better understand the guy being an “outsider” and, as a writer and director, I could approach it more realistically.
Q: Some might speculate you turned the male lead character into an American so you could cast Eckhart, who has starred in three of your previous movies.
A: The change from Englishman to American came long before the ability to cast Aaron. I didn’t “Americanize” the character for American audiences, either. Having one American in that story is not going to bring droves of people into the theaters, is it? The American thing was just another way to create conflict, which is what that couple needed.
Q: Did the studio lobby for a better-known actor than Eckhart to play opposite Paltrow?
A: There were a number of hoops to jump through because we were working with Warner Bros., a well-defined studio. When conversations about other actors came up, I had to act like all 300 Spartans, digging in with our shields over our heads. My position was, “You can show me somebody who makes more money and who could be equally good, but until you show me somebody better, I’m going to hold out for Aaron.” You know the names of the usual suspects who came up. They’re all good, but I thought this was a part that would viably work for Aaron.
Q: What do you and he bring out in each other?
A: Working with him is a pleasure because he’s good. He’s not only fearless about his acting, he’s also pretty sure an audience will go with him as long as he’s good. He doesn’t feel he’s there to warrant an action figure or for you to want to see him in a sequel. Better than anyone else I know, Aaron knows how to speak in the strange rhythms that I write. I tend to break up my sentences, to reroute my thoughts and Aaron picks up on the “ahs” and “urns.” I’ve done four movies with Aaron, I knew him in college and I’ve seen his work in various ways. Aaron is like Tang–mix with water and he dissolves, leaving that gritty bit down at the bottom of the glass that remains Tang. He turns into whatever you need him to be. He loves the clothes of a character. As soon as he can get the boots he’s going to wear and can wander around in them for weeks, he’s happy and starts physically feeling the character. This guy in Possession came much the same way. He started thinking, What does this guy read? And pretty soon he was keeping his own notebooks of poetry. As an actor, Aaron is a questioner, in the best sense. It’s never quite good enough. He will shoot until he himself is sure. You will say, “I think we’ve got it,” and he will say, “I think I’ve got one more in me.”
Q: How did you figure out that Eckhart and Paltrow might have chemistry?
A: Aaron was always trying to figure out how to do that and, boy, there’s just no recipe for that. It either clicks on-screen or not. You can put two of the most beautiful people together on-screen and it’s like Stonehenge. Two rocks. I knew what Gwyneth and Aaron had separately and so it made sense in my head. That’s what I went with, an intellectual and visceral response I could feel working. He could shoot all day on a scene and still not walk away happy because he thinks he’s got one more in him.
Q: Did their difference in working methods become a problem?
A: You’re shooting a scene with two people like them and, on the first two, three takes, one of them gives you everything you could ever imagine and the other one is just still feeling their way. How do you keep them both focused and interested? That’s what my job is. You have to be open to somebody else’s process. If somebody stands on their head and hums or they turn it on like a light switch, it’s none of my business. Whatever magic you stir up, the alchemy is fine as long as you meet the goal.
Q: I found the story of the Victorian lovers, played by Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam, one of the most compelling things in the film. That’s probably not entirely fair to Paltrow and Eckhart, I know, because Ehle and Northam don’t have to propel the story forward. A: That’s right. All Jennifer and Jeremy have to do is fall in love and have tragic things happen to them. Even though there’s a certain amount of tragedy, I like the idea of how messy these Victorians allowed their lives to be. Jennifer, with that amazing face, her cape and hood is, quite unavoidably a don’t-fight-it homage to The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She is a force to reckon with–as good an actress as I know. Her only fault is that she doesn’t work enough, by personal choice. Jeremy is so warm and just carries the weight with such dignity, there’s no moral judgment made when his character, who’s married, falls in love with Jennifer’s character. He conveys so beautifully his character’s sense of knowing he’s doing something wrong by society’s standards, yet he can’t do anything to help himself.
Q: When you read the Byatt novel, did you see it first as a romance?
A: Yes, and I thought it was odd how few people were willing to talk about it as an unabashedly romantic novel. They kept saying, “It’s romance, but it’s quite lively. It’s a road picture,” which I thought was shocking. I also thought it might be a shocking movie for me to make. Once I started working on it, though, there were many times when I thought, “Damn, I should have remained an admirer of the book.”
Q: Just as in the book, it’s fascinating how oddly chilly and self-involved the contemporary characters seem by comparison.
A: They’re modern-day characters with the ability to have anything they want in a very permissive society and are kind of shocked by the Victorians. Because they’ve tasted things too soon or had too much freedom, they’re very hesitant to reach out to somebody else. The weight was pretty great on the present-day characters to both uncover the mystery, let alone to find enough time to look at each other and fall in love.
Q: Since Possession is based on a best-selling novel, did you have fans e-mailing you suggestions about how to make the film?
A: Very early on, I started getting notes from fans of the book asking, “Why are you shooting in this location when, in the book, it takes place in so-and-so?” And, “Why is this person’s hair this color when in the book…?” I thought, This is unwinnable. This will be my Vietnam. But I just loved A.S. Byatt’s novel. It’s one of the few books in recent memory in which both pistons–intellectual and emotional–are firing.
Q: Did you do much research for Possession?
A: A certain amount of fear generated the research. Not only was I going to be doing “period” but I’d also be going “in country” to do it. I was also surrounding myself with English-trained actors and an actress who, though Gwyneth Paltrow has done it a number of times, is doing a dialect. I was a babe in the woods when it came to period Victorian detail. The movie wasn’t supposed to be a documentary of that time but we had to deal with questions like, How did people sit at a table in those times? Should everyone be wearing a hat, when that was what the research supported?
Q: What movies did you call for help?
A: The entire canon of Merchant-Ivory, of course The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and what Ang Lee did with Sense and Sensibility became a real template. He just seems to march into any genre and period and, no matter what characters are wearing, no matter what their mode of transportation, it’s all about relationships.
Q: When did you get most tense on the set?
A: The most damning thing is to wait hours and hours for weather or for lighting, but then feel under pressure when shooting. The travel, going to all those locations, was difficult. We were just ahead of the floods, just ahead of the cremation of all those animals because of mad cow disease. I don’t have real peaks and valleys in my personality. I tend to be pretty even-tempered and like people who are the same way. I get my most testy when I feel the crew getting restless after six or seven takes, like, “So when do we get the million-dollar performance?” It’s like, “We’ve been shooting for 15 minutes. You took three hours to light. So, until we come up to the time that you spent, I wouldn’t get worried. Go have a cup of coffee.” My focus, no matter how long it takes, is to get that thing, that magic an actor does.
Q: Was it all worth it?
A: I’m quite happy. I was worried about getting the period right, about telling the two stories, but I liked those challenges. I don’t just want the process to be pleasant, I want the product to be something people will think is worth investing two hours of their Jives in. It’s been a real pleasure seeing it with preview audiences. It gets more laughs than people expected but you aren’t shortchanged in the romantic aspects, either.
Q: If Aaron Eckhart is apparently your ideal one-man “stock company” in movie after movie you make, who might be your ideal one-woman “stock company”?
A: Oh, that’s hard. Lists are so arbitrary. Certainly, though, working this last time with Jennifer Ehle, I’m pretty knocked out by what she does. But I can honestly say I’ve never worked with anyone I wouldn’t want to work with again.
Q: Your high regard for actors really shows.
A: Acting for movies is a crazy job, absolutely schizophrenic. You get them crying for a scene, then say things like, “We have to break for lunch. Can you go eat some English food,” which could get anyone crying, “then come back and cry after lunch?”
Q: You live with your wife and children in Chicago. Is there any pressure to move to Los Angeles or New York?
A: I make good wares. I’m not a good peddler of my wares. I don’t pal around at parties. I didn’t knock on doors and make friends who will maybe get me access to making a movie. I’m not particularly good at that and have no particular interest in it.
Q: Because of your plays and movies, do people meeting you for the first time expect you to be acerbic, tortured, glib, enraged, misanthropic?
A: [Laughs] If I ever met George Lucas, I wouldn’t expect him to have antennae or be able to fly.
Q: You write daily?
A: I’m not one to push it. The times I’ve tried to force myself to write daily, I’ve wound up throwing it away. As you know, it’s far more the sense of craft than of sprinkling the dust and the genie appears. The more you write, the better you get. It doesn’t come out of the pen as scripture. It’s a lot of plain toil. But I like that toil.
Q: Why have you gone back to the theater?
A: It’s a place where I really love to be just to watch and to practice the craft of it. As exciting as movies are, there’s a lot more stress to it. People think you can shoot forever until you get that exact performance when in fact you’re constantly being asked to move on or you’re losing the sun or you’re losing the location. Onstage, you can plunk down people in just about any space and, if the words and acting are good, people are very forgiving.
Q: What’s next?
A: After I do a film version of the play The Shape of Things, I’d like to do some remakes, like Leave Her to Heaven.
Q: That’s one of my favorites, a ’40s melodrama featuring Gene Tierney as one of the most destructive and self-destructive characters of all time.
A: I love the movie too, yet I feel it’s not one that’s so hallowed that it couldn’t be well-done again. Of course, there’s nothing quite like the face of Gene Tierney and she tore that role up.
Q: You don’t seem to concern yourself much with making the right moves in Hollywood.
A: I don’t think in terms of career trajectory or what’s the “right” thing to do. I just sit down with a blank page and if I’m lucky enough for something to come out of it, I don’t question it too much.
Q: How do you next plan to expand people’s perceptions of you?
A: I’m a big fan of real horror movies. I’ve done emotional horror movies. But to really scare people is really interesting. What they were trying to do with The Others, creating a real sense of dread, was fascinating. I was unnerved, which is a great feeling to sustain. I’m also a big fan of Westerns and would love to do one anywhere near as good as what Marlon Brando did with One-Eyed Jacks. I’m also flat-out funnier than some would give me credit for. I want to do a real comedy, the quintessential one being, for me, The Apartment–great characters, very funny, dark and as good a screenplay as was ever written.
Q: So, what’s it all about for you?
A: Waking up every day and facing the blank page, the blank screen and just writing. You see I’m carrying around cards I’ve been scribbling on. The beauty of writing is that, in the end, no one can stop you from doing it. You can go to prison, to sea, you can work at Wal-Mart–which are all roughly the same thing–and still find 10 minutes to write.
Stephen Rebello interviewed Michelle Pfeiffer for the April issue of Movieline.