Monday, October 8, 2007

Neil LaBute is not a bastard. Nor is Neil LaBute a misanthrope, a misogynist or a malcontent.

Despite the repellent nature of the characters and scenarios he's conjured for stage and screen, LaBute-over the phone, anyway-is a pretty likable guy. He's not one of the soulless, woman-hating corporate assholes from is breakout film "In the Company of Men." He isn't a manipulative, callow prick like the cretins who populate his play and movie, "The Shape of Things."

He's none of these things-but he's eerily good at creating these convincingly awful people and placing them in a morally repugnant fictional world. His acidic body of work also includes "Your Friends and Neighbors" and "Nurse Betty" for film, along with "Fat Pig" and "In A Dark Dark House" for theater.

LaBute, in fact, is so unlike one of his sociopathic douchebags that he will be returning to KU-where he received a masters degree in theater and film in 1989-to kindly deliver a lecture on his work called "Life Onstage and on Film." Also uncocksuckerlike of him, LaBute took time out of finishing his upcoming film, "Lakeview Terrace" (with Samuel L. Jackson,) to chat with little ol' He spoke with us from his editing suite in Los Angeles about revisiting Lawrence, conspiracy theories surrounding his work, and having his own adjective.

Podcast episode


In the Company of Mensch

Neil LaBute is not a bastard. Nor is Neil LaBute a misanthrope, a misogynist or a malcontent. Despite the repellent nature of the characters and scenarios he's conjured for stage and screen, LaBute-over the phone, anyway-is a pretty likable guy. He's not one of the soulless, woman-hating corporate assholes from ...

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No-fi highlights from the podcast How surreal is it to speak at KU, your old college, as a sort of returning hero?

LaBute: It is a bit surreal. It's nice to be asked-I can't say that all of the colleges I attended have asked me back, so it's a pleasure. I had actually been asked back for Alums Come Home previously, so that was nice. I've always liked Lawrence just as a community, so it's nice to come back. It is strange to go from being a student and attending lectures and talks to giving the actual talk. I think attending is actually easier than giving the talk, so now I'm wishing I was on that end again. Now I have to stand up there and seem as if I have some sense of what I want to say.

Are you living out every student's petty dream of grandeur?

Certainly. I count myself one of the lucky few. I'm not sure of the specifics, but there are those kinds of urban legends-not even legends, you can call the Screen Actor's Guild and it's a frightening number, somewhere in the 10 percentile of people actively working in the entertainment industry. So to be able to come back and talk about the work I've done since I was at KU is a real pleasure.

Did you focus primarily on theater or film while you were at KU?

I took a couple of film classes, but I don't think that the film program was as strongly under way as it is now. I took some classes with Chuck Berg, saw some films that I had never seen before and really loved. Really, that was my approach to film up until I made my first film-I was always a film lover, but never really set out to make them. I always had hoped to get into the theater, and while I was at KU I certainly did more theater than I did film work. I watched a lot of movies, I've always done that, but in terms of actually practically applying myself to something, it was in the theater. And it was all over campus, not just in the Inge Theater-not even in Murphy Hall. I was all up and down the campus. I was probably more of a nuisance than anything, doing shows underneath the stairs at the Natural History Museum and out in the open. I constantly was kind of dipping my hands into the theater world.

Past Event

Lecture: Filmmaker Neil LaBute

  • Friday, October 12, 2007, 7 p.m.
  • Woodruff Auditorium, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence
  • All ages / Free - $5


Being a film buff, who are some filmmakers that you admire?

Oh many, many. I'm not stingy with my praise. Sometimes you only hear people say, "Well, I love Bergman and I love D.W. Griffith"-these big people that existed years and years before them. There are a lot of people out there right now who I'm looking forward to their next film. I can't say that every film Sean Penn has made has been successful, yet I'm looking forward to "Into the Wild." I look forward to the next Paul Thomas Anderson, and I'm sure I'll go see the next Wes Anderson. Anything by someone named Anderson, apparently, I like. The next Coen Brothers-gosh, there's such a list. I'm not a fair-weather fan. I'm someone who spends much more time out of my life watching movies than I do making them. I'm glad that people are out there making them and not just me.

It seems that you prefer doing theater over film. Did you come to this preference after making a few films and being exposed to the less-than-romantic realities of film making? Is it kind of like finding out how sausage or legislation is made?

I don't know if that's the case. From making the smallest of movies with the most limited of budgets to bigger ones with many millions of dollars at stake, the headaches are about the same. They just grow exponentially with the amount of money you're spending. There's a kind of pressure that comes with filmmaking that I don't necessarily feel doing theater, but my feelings towards one or the other generally come from questions like yours. "Well, if you had to choose:" I'm hoping always that I never have to choose. I certainly love doing both, but I guess because I started out in the theater and I now just barely consider myself a writer-I feel like I can now write that on forms and not get laughed at-some side of me does feel most comfortable working in a theater.

Speaking of filmmaking, you're currently wrapping up "Lakeview Terrace" with Samuel L. Jackson. What can you tell us about that?

I'm in the throes of making what's called "the director's cut," which is the 10 weeks you usually have after you've finished shooting the film to give your version of it. "Lakeview Terrace" was a script that wasn't written by myself. I worked with another writer since I became involved and took a pass at it myself, but ultimately it was somebody else's story. It deals with race in Los Angeles, but not a wide, sweeping look at race like "Crash" where there are more characters involved. The perspective is coming from the Sam Jackson character, who's a black policeman living in a suburban neighborhood, and he takes issue with a mixed race couple who moves into the cul-de-sac he lives in. He begins a campaign to kind of move them out, and I thought that triangle of tension between he and the young couple was really interesting. It was a piece that I thought I could do something with.

Will we be seeing any more film adaptations of your theatrical work, or do you now prefer to keep your theatrical work separate?

I did a play a couple of years ago that seems to have a lot of life in it, and gets a lot of productions here and elsewhere, called "Fat Pig." Hopefully it may go to Broadway and it's in line to go to London. That's a piece that I've heard a number of people say, "That looks like that would make a great movie." That's something I've thought about but haven't really done a lot to address it. One of the original cast members, Jeremy Piven, continues to get more and more famous from "Entourage" and he's a guy I really loved in the piece. We've talked about "Fat Pig" as a film. In terms of keeping those two things distanced, sometimes a piece just feels-especially since my work seems to bridge that fuzzy gap-that it would work relatively well in both mediums. That isn't always the case. I did a play about a year ago with Ed Harris called "Wrecks," and he stood up and talked to you for 70 minutes or so-not something that I could imagine filming and would expect to be at the local Cineplex.

You did adapt "The Shape of Things" for the screen, a film and play about unpleasant goings on in a small, liberal arts college town. Being conceited townies, can we assume that Lawrence was the basis?

You really are conceited-but you're correct in this particular case. Correct not because that's the only kind of college town I've been to in my life, I've been to a few, but it sort of fit the bill quite perfectly. What made it even more accessible to me as a touchstone for the play and subsequent film was that Paul Rudd, one of the leads, also went to KU for a brief time and we crossed paths there. We had a language we could touch on when we talked about Lawrence. "Oh, remember the museum?" or "If this happened on campus:" or "If this happened down on Massachusetts:", we could kind of think of it in those terms. The other three actors would look at us like, "What are you talking about?" For the two of us, it was easy to reference that and run with it as a visual metaphor. Lawrence was at the forefront of our imaginations when we were talking about the play in particular.

I saw "The Shape of Things" during its original run in London and was very pleased by your use of The Smashing Pumpkins as a soundtrack. Does music play heavily into your creative process, or are you just a big fan of The Smashing Pumpkins?

"Yes" is the answer to that in a variety of ways. I'm happy you saw that production-that was one of the happiest periods in my creative life. I really enjoyed that year that I spent with those guys in the various guises that the play and the film took. The one in London was particularly pleasing because of the venue we were at, and the material was fresh and new, and they were all so good to work with. The music became a very integral part of the play. The main reason being that on stage there was a physical amount of time that people could change clothing and get the stage cleared and reset, so there was about a minute between each scene change.

The Smashing Pumpkins songs helped to not just cover that because they're so loud, but they really gave a sense of America and youth. I've always been a really big fan of Smashing Pumpkins and I've often liked doing a show with a complete set of songs by one group rather than an eclectic number of songs. Also, I just wanted to hear it really, really loud. We brought in technicians to check and see how loud we could play it without getting in trouble in a public space. We really just hammered that music and it was kind of like going to a concert for free. That was a pleasant thing for at least me, not necessarily for the audience and the actors. I think there was a period where they were like "Oh my God, I hate this music." Half the audience was bobbing their heads in approval while the other half was literally covering their ears.

It's now possible to stumble across the term "LaButean" in articles about your work. How does it feel to have your own adjective?

It doesn't suck. It's strange and I'm not sure it completely applies, but who am I to say "no" to something like that? I've heard worse and I'm sure worse will still be thrown my way, so if something like that gets made up or tossed around, I'm fine with it.