Neil LaBute adjusts focus

KU grad braves new controversy with 'Possession' adaptation

Neil LaBute is a magnet for outrage.

But these days it's a different kind of outrage.

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Special to the Journal-World

Filmmaker Neil LaBute, left, a graduate of Kansas University, works with actors Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow on the set of "Possession."

LaBute's adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel "Possession" finds the writer-director caught in a balancing act. He's alternately keeping fans of the romantic detective story appeased, despite major plot changes, and his own diehard enthusiasts interested in a period piece that features bonnets and sonnets.

The KU master's graduate (1986-89) in Theatre and Film first established a reputation for caustic dialogue and amoral individuals with 1997's "In the Company of Men." The revenge ditty centered on two corporate middle managers as they conspired to break the heart of a deaf secretary. The unforgettable effort took home prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and Sundance Film Festival, and LaBute was hailed as a modern master of literary venom.

He followed that with the similar "Your Friends & Neighbors," which brought the ruthless battle between men and women into the realm of matrimony.

Then LaBute appeared to shift focus. He directed the black comedy "Nurse Betty," which tracked a disoriented Kansas gal (Ren�e Zellweger) who sought the affection of a soap opera character she believed to be real. Though the product was hardly without an edge (hit men and scalpings anyone?), it seemed to deviate from his initial endeavors � one of the major reasons being that he didn't write the screenplay.

"Possession" marks LaBute's first foray into a setting foreign in both place and time. And while he does share writing credits on the script, he is shackled to source material that is being treated by many readers and film critics as sacrosanct.

Now living in Chicago with his psychologist wife and two children (one of whom was born in Lawrence), the 39-year-old Mormon is dealing with the publicity chores associated with "Possession." Then he goes back to putting the finishing touches on the film adaptation of his play "The Shape of Things," staring KU pal Paul Rudd, Gretchen Mol and Rachel Weisz.

The virulent project signals the return to the kind of work for which he is best known. And it's bound to find a fresh approach for getting moviegoers all riled up again.

What was more enjoyable to direct: the modern sections of "Possession" or the period sections?

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Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam star in the period scenes.

"I hate to have to choose, because I enjoyed both of them very much for different reasons. Not really different reasons, because both of them you're trying to get right. You're trying to get them truthful and the relationships to be right. In the end that's what it's about, whether they're wearing corsets or cords. Because those people in the period scenes don't KNOW they're in a period movie, they're just living life moment to moment. So you want those to be as believable and vital as possible. It shouldn't look like a painting."

There have been some complaints from fans of the novel that you turned the Roland character into an American. Have there been any other changes to the adaptation that have caused controversy?

"Just every single one. I think critically there's been a certain outcry. I think Aaron's taken a little bit of that himself. Some people really like the change and like him in the role, and others don't like it. I'd be interested to find out ultimately how many people were aware of the change if I hadn't mentioned them in the (press) notes. How many critics actually had read the book or would go back and find that out if we hadn't trumpeted it from the beginning? But I've had questions and e-mails from virtually the time I was hired like, 'Why is Christabel's hair color different than it is in the book?' Every choice that isn't absolutely faithful is negative as far as purists are concerned."

Have audiences had problems buying into the fact that these supposed historical researchers look like movie stars?

"I don't think any more so than Bonnie and Clyde looking like movie stars or Butch Cassidy looking like a movie star. That's the nature of entertainment, of going to the movies: They're just like us, but better (laughs)."

What did you learn about the process of writing or filmmaking during your time at KU?

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Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart star in the modern scenes.

"I learned a lot about directing. I'm very much a sponge. I've always loved education; I loved teaching and being a student. So I learned a little something from everybody. It's funny, I can probably think of more teachers by name from KU than just about any other college I went to (which includes Brigham Young and NYU) ... I learned a great deal about directing from Glenn Pierce and Jack Wright. I learned a real love of costumes, which I haven't lost, from Delores Ringer. I learned a really healthy sense of criticism from John Gronbeck-Tedesco. Bob Findlay was one of the most influential teachers I ever had, he taught me theatre history. I found a real love of that and have maintained it this whole time ... One other thing was finding opportunities at KU. At KU I was probably at my most inventive period in terms of taking material and staging it in interesting places or in interesting ways. That was a really fruitful experience."

What are some of your favorite memories about living in Lawrence?

"I loved probably all the traditional things. I loved Liberty Hall and the video store that was right there. That's where I used to get all my foreign films and independent films. (Movie actor and former KU student) Paul Rudd and I laugh all the time about The Glass Onion and Yello Sub, because we loved the food there. And there was a pizza place up there as well. Rudy's? Great pizza. I remember that vividly. It's funny, Paul and I just did the play and the film of 'The Shape of Things.' We started that in London then went to New York and then filmed it in California. And we did a little teaser which was interviews with the characters. It was like a recruiting film for this college that they're supposed to be going to. I could hear in his material a lot of stuff from KU, like talking about the sub place on Mass. I was going, 'Oh, I know that.' And I'm the only guy standing around and smiling."

If your wife were to psychoanalyze you, what would be her professional conclusions?

"I need help. But it might not be worth the good money spent (laughs). I'm as carefree and troubled as the next person, I luckily have a job that affords me a sort of outlet for all my creativity, all my turmoil, all my thoughts. I can feed it into my work and have it come to fruition in front of me. Anything I'm interested in or troubled by or whatever, I can say, 'How can I deal with that in terms of a script?'"

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Special to the Journal-World

Neil LaBute, right, instructs actors Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle during the Victorian scenes of the "Possession." The film was shot entirely in England.

What is the quintessential Neil LaBute moment from any of your films?

"Probably for me, it's a nice long take like the scene in 'In the Company of Men' where Aaron's character Chad reveals to Christine, this girl he's been dating, that everything has been a ruse up to that point. I love that scene because it's such a long take where it's just kind of pure dialogue and actors. I also love the ending of that film where the guy is screaming in silence. That's kind of a beautiful mix of visuals and smart idea."

You've made two pictures in a row now that aren't "morally controversial." Does that in any way make the process of promoting the movie more comfortable?

"No, because people are constantly asking why have I gotten soft or is this purposely trying to change directions. You establish one course very rigorously, then you have to either defend it or explain why you're going a different way ... The first two (films) were so of a piece. They were so harsh that people thought either that's all I ever wanted to do or they made such a point with people that they constantly will judge things from that place. For 'The Shape of Things,' I certainly return to that kind of tight, forceful cinema. It will be interesting to have people now go back the other way saying, 'I thought you were going to be romantic and now you're being a bastard. Which way do you want to be?'"

Maybe you're a romantic bastard?

"I'm a romantic bastard. You're exactly right."


internet enhanced
Audio excerpts from Entertainment Editor Jon Niccum's interview with Neil LaBute

What was more enjoyable to direct: The modern sections of "Possesion" or the period sections?audio play

You've done two films that you've written and two that you haven't. Which do you prefer? audio play

What did you learn about the process of writing or filmaking during your time at KU? audio play

What are some of your favorite memories about living in Lawrence?audio play

You've made two pictures in a row now that aren't "morally controversial". Does that, in any way, make the process of promoting the movie more comfortable?audio play

You really assembled an appealing cast on "Possessed". How much easier does that make your job as a director? audio play

If your wife were to psychoanalyze you, what would be her professional conclusions? audio play

What is the quintessential Neil LaBute moment from any of your films? audio play

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