KU grad brings 'The Shape of Things' to Lawrence

Filmmaker Neil LaBute screens latest as part of 'Alums Come Home'


Special to the Journal-World

Writer/Director Neil Labute, left, a KU graduate, shares a moment on the set of "The Shape of Things" with actors Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd.

Neil LaBute's film "The Shape of Things" is about a college romance that leads to manipulation and cruelty.

It's only fitting that LaBute should return to the campus that he and star Paul Rudd claim helped to inspire the story.

The filmmaker's latest feature will hold its Midwest premiere today at 7:30 p.m. at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass. (The picture opens nationally on May 9.) The event is part of Alums Come Home IV, sponsored by the Department of Theatre and Film.

"It's kind of nice to get the chance to finally screen something (in Lawrence)," says LaBute. "Especially with a piece like this, it's a natural for a college audience. It's about people in that same circumstance, going to school. Paul Rudd and I both went to KU, and the KU campus is what we visualized when were talking about it."

  • The schedule of workshops and other activities during "Alums Come Home IV" include ::Thursday, April 24
  • 10:30 a.m. - noon, "Bringing a Show to Broadway": Bill Russell, Lea Orth, and Judi Polson @ 341 Murphy
  • 1:00 - 4:00 p.m., "Stage Combat": Mark Rector Inge Theatre
  • 2:30 - 4:00 p.m., "Costumes for Television and Film": Rani Cunningham Self @ 235 Murphy
  • 3:00 - 4:30 p.m., "Training in the Academy and the Conservatory after 2000" : Michael Nash, Sally Shedd, and John Gronbeck-Tedesco @ 341 Murphy
  • 7:30 p.m., Social Gathering @ Abe & Jake's Landing
  • Friday, April 25
  • 9:00 - 10:30 a.m., Script-in-Hand Reading: Anne Trani Chapman @ Inge Theatre
  • 9:30 - 10:30 a.m., "Fundraising for the Arts": Terre Jones @ 341 Murphy
  • 10:30 a.m. - Noon, "Writing/Producing Feature Films, TV Movies and Miniseries": Ron Parker @ 341 Murphy
  • 10:30 a.m. - Noon, "Costume Designing for Television and Film": Brandt Huseby @ 235 Murphy
  • Noon - 1:30 p.m. "So, you've graduated. Now what?", Will Carpenter, Michael Moore, Scott McPhail, and Laura Zabel @ Inge Theatre
  • Noon - 1:30 p.m., "'The Magic Flute': Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Realizations": Thomas Trabitsch @ 235 Murphy
  • 1:30 - 3:00 p.m., Roundtable Discussion: "Can Theatre and Film Change Lives?": Bill Russell & Terre Jones @ Inge Theatre
  • 1:30 - 3:00 p.m., "Audition Techniques": Anne Trani Chapman @ 209 Murphy
  • 3:00 - 4:00 p.m., Cold Reading of "Pearl": Lea Orth @ 209 Murphy
  • 4:00 - 5:20 p.m., Script-in-Hand Reading of "harvesting ballads": Mat Hostetler, Neil LaBute, respondent @ Inge Theatre
  • 7:30 p.m., Film: "The Shape of Things," written & directed by Neil Labute @ Liberty Hall
  • 9:30 p..m., Open Mic Night: David Naster, emcee @ Liberty Hall
  • Saturday, April 26
  • 9:30 - 11:15 a.m., Script-in-Hand Reading: "The Dog Can Talk" by Paul Shoulberg, Ron Parker, respondent @ Inge Theatre
  • 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m., Selections from the musical "Side Show": Bill Russell @ Inge Theatre
  • 1:30 p.m - 3:30 p.m., "Acting for Shakespeare": Mark Rector @ Inge Theatre
  • 2:00 - 4:30 p.m., Film Festival: "The Good Things," "Street Service,"and "C.S.A. - The Confederate States of America", Scott McPhail, Jeff Orr, Kevin Willmott @ 100 Oldfather
  • 7:30 p.m., Opera: "The Magic Flute" @ Crafton-Preyer Theatre
  • 10:00 p.m., Dance: Michael Beers Band @ Liberty Hall

LaBute reveals there were early talks with the studio about shooting "The Shape of Things" in Kansas, but the unpredictable weather made the cost prohibitive. Ultimately, the campus drama was staged in California.

In "The Shape of Things," Rudd (seen lately as Lisa Kudrow's boyfriend on "Friends") plays Adam, a mild-mannered college student who embarks on a relationship with free-spirited artist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz, "About a Boy").

At her urging, she begins to transform Adam -- both cosmetically and emotionally -- into a more aggressive, self-confident man. His friends (Fred Weller and Gretchen Mol) are taken aback by the change, and the repercussions start to get ugly.

"Whoever said casting was 85 percent of the job was off by 15 percent," says LaBute, who earned his master's from KU's theater and film program in 1989. "The better the cast, the further you can leap."

LaBute's reputation has always helped attract big names to smaller-budgeted projects. His previous effort "Possession" starred Gwyneth Paltrow, and 2000's "Nurse Betty" boasted performers Renee Zellweger, Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock.

"I like to think that I've been able to generate some actors' lowest box office," LaBute says laughing. "But whether 'Possession' made $10 million or $50 million, it says nothing about Gwyneth Paltrow's performance. I think she did great work."

Back in shape

"The Shape of Things" marks a return to the kind of acerbic morality plays that helped establish LaBute's cinematic reputation with such films as "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors." Last year's romantic period drama "Possession" motioned a departure for the writer-director, and many consider "Shape" a retreat to his signature style.

"There are definitely people who will be happy that I've returned to what they would consider 'my roots,'" he says of the enterprise, which is based on his 2001 stage play of the same name. "There are those who were happy with the change, and there are those who probably can't stand either and are just sorry that I did another movie (laughs).

True, the 40-year-old Mormon has been called everything from a cynic to a misogynist for his often black-hearted plot lines and dagger-to-the-jugular dialogue. Are there some people who simply don't GET his work?

"I refuse to believe -- because I think it's an easy out -- to get into a place where if somebody doesn't like it, you think they don't get it," he responds. "I tend to think everybody gets it, some of them just don't LIKE what they get. They are plenty smart enough to figure it out and to know what I'm doing.


Submitted photo

Neil LaBute.

"They may take it in a way I didn't intend it, but it's valid because that's the way they take it," he adds. "Unless they were so off base, like they saw it as a science fiction movie or a western, I might go, 'You could be the one who didn't get it.' For them to go, 'It's shallow, it's talky, he's doing the same old thing.' That's absolutely what they think. So what can I say about that?"

Jayhawk migration

Surprisingly, LaBute hasn't revisited KU since he graduated. He currently makes his home in Chicago with his psychologist wife and two kids.

Despite his close association with Rudd -- who the filmmaker had seen in a play while at KU but had never actually worked with -- LaBute admits he doesn't encounter all that many people in the motion picture industry who have roots to the university.

"I don't because I don't feel like I'm 'in the industry' enough, you know, actually in L.A. enough to run into people at the store," he says. "But thinking of myself mostly as a writer, I often have a writer's habit: I isolate a lot and write. I'm not a point person you find sniffing around who's out there. But every now and then I do run into someone.

  • 'The Shape of Things' trailer
  • Related stories ::
  • Alums Come Home IV activities schedule
  • Neil LaBute adjusts focus (8-30-03)
  • Neil LaBute, KU alumnus, explores 9-11 as basis for art (9-11-02)
  • LaBute lightens up with 'Nurse Betty' (9-14-02)
  • KU alums Laura Kirk and Neil LaBute screen films at Cannes festival (5-11-02)

"Speaking of that, I was doing a junket in New York on Monday, and one of the publicists is like, 'I went to KU. Are you going out to that alumni thing?'"

LaBute isn't the only high-profile Jayhawk who will be returning for that alumni thing. Also slated to make the trek back to their alma mater are actor Jay Karnes, star of the UPN series "The Shield"; Bill Russell, Tony Award-nominated writer of Broadway's "Side Show"; and Michael Nash, Dean of the Boston Conservatory. Altogether, more than 60 former students are booked to come back for the weekend's festivities.

And, according to LaBute, Rudd may choose to make an impromptu appearance.

"He's in New York thinking about it right now," LaBute reports. "He just got married, so he's been in the throws of that. But when we were out doing some press recently he thought that would be fun. When we started talking about, 'Oh, Liberty Hall,' he was like, 'Yeah, I want to go back there.'"


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