Who's Afraid of Neil LaBute?
Who is this nice, Mormon boy from BYU who makes shocking movies like "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors"?
By Mary Dickson
SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: He's a man whom friends describe as compassionate and "nice" a Brigham Young University graduate, a devout Mormon, a husband and father of two who lives with his family in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he teaches and works in theater. Paradoxically, he's also the man who created the controversial and critically acclaimed film In the Company of Men, a savage indictment of how co-workers undermine each other, and most recently Your Friends & Neighbors, which moves from the boardroom to the bedroom for an incendiary look at modern relationships. Wait a minute. How can a nice Mormon boy from BYU have created two such unflinchingly cynical looks at the dark side of humanity?
The 35-year-old Neil LaBute is a man of many contradictions. A native of Detroit, he moved to Washington State as a boy. He wasn't a Mormon, but his high school guidance counselor was, and steered him to BYU when he graduated. "I didn't choose BYU, I like to think it chose me," he said in an interview with City Weekly after the Los Angeles screening of Your Friends & Neighbors. "It's quite flukey in its own way that I'd go to a place so one- sided."
He received what he calls a "non-Mormon scholarship" to the school and moved to the land of milk and honey where everyone looks like they stepped out of a J. Crew catalogue. For reasons he doesn't discuss, he converted to Mormonism while at BYU, where he got involved in theater and authored several plays.
His unique vision upset some administrators and fellow students. "There's a mindset of a certain kind at BYU that they don't want to expose themselves to that kind of material," LaBute said.
Longtime friend and collaborator Aaron Eckhart, who appeared in several of LaBute's plays at BYU, joked that his plays would be rehearsed for lengthy amounts of time and then be performed only once, usually in the morning. "He was loved and hated, revered and reviled," said Eckhart, who met LaBute in an ethics class at BYU and has starred in both of his films.
Love it or hate it, they had to admit that LaBute's work showed exceptional talent. If the BYU set was upset with his plays, they hadn't seen anything yet. To folks raised in the culture of niceness, where unpleasantries are seldom exchanged, LaBute's films were even more shocking. Bruce Kirkland, a Vancouver critic who took a Mormon friend with him to the Los Angeles screening of Your Friends & Neighbors, said the woman was upset by the film. "She hated it," Kirkland told LaBute after the screening. "She said, 'I can't believe a nice Mormon boy from the Y did this.'"
"Where'd she read I was a nice Mormon boy?" LaBute rejoined with an enigmatic smile. A paunchy man with dark curly hair, glasses and the distinct air of an intellectual, he exudes a serenity, seriousness and thoughtfulness that belies the nastiness of the provocative characters he creates.
He's a man with a clear vision whom Eckhart described as calm and even-tempered, which is completely unlike the characters in his plays and films. LaBute isn't interested in pleasing audiences or making his characters palatable, and many people find his brand of raw honesty jarring.
Catherine Keener, an actress who plays an outspoken woman disgusted with her relationship in Your Friends & Neighbors admires LaBute for stripping off the layer of diplomacy under which most people operate. "There's a lot of niceness you have to put up with when you'd rather be saying something else," she said. "His characters say the something else. It's refreshing to hear them being so honest, saying things we all could say but for some reason don't."
His writing is sharp and funny, but what LaBute's characters say to each other often amounts to verbal assault. In Your Friends & Neighbors, Keener screams at her boyfriend to shut up while they're having sex. Jason Patric evicerates a woman for starting her period on his new sheets and viciously humiliates another woman who won't have coffee with him. A woman cuts her lover down to size with a jab about his inability to perform.
"We humans are a fairly barbarous bunch," LaBute said. "We abuse people through words. We shred each other with what we say."
As LaBute sees it, he's not creating reprehensible characters, he's merely giving voice to the unspoken. He takes those unflattering qualities we all share but somehow manage to suppress, amplifies them, and spreads them large as life across the screen. Revenge is something most of us fantasize about when someone has done us wrong, but LaBute's characters exact their revenge in the cruelest ways. The scheming Chad played by Eckhart in In the Company of Men takes his revenge against a girlfriend who dumped him by seducing an innocent, deaf girl in his office, making her fall in love with him, then unceremoniously dumping her. He betrays everyone and laughs about it. In Your Friends & Neighbors, Jason Patric gets back at a woman who wronged him by stealing hospital letterhead and sending her notification that she has tested positive for AIDS.
It's not surprising that Jean Luc Godard's film Contempt is one of LaBute's inspirations.
Contempt is a theme that courses through his works, whether it be the contempt of a worker for his co-worker, a wife for her husband or a woman for her lover. He named his Los Angeles-based production company, appropriately enough, Contemptible Entertainment.
If you watched his films and never met him, you'd think LaBute was an embittered, cynical man. He claimed he's not. In fact, he used one word to describe his worldview: "Despair." "It's skepticism, not cynicism," he said, getting at the heart of what motivates him. "I'm a wide-eyed realist, but there's still a sense of hopefulness there. I'm more than open to hope, but I think men and women have a difficult time dealing with each other and often take the low road."
Eckhart, who forbids his Mormon family from seeing the films he's made with LaBute, described LaBute's work as realistically capturing heightened moments between people. "If we really look at each other closely and listen to what we say to each other in tense moments, we can be really cruel," he said. "If we put the camera on ourselves, our friends and neighbors, we'll come up with some scary stuff."
Eckhart said he himself has never asked his friend what's behind his work. "In school, he wouldn't explain his work. He doesn't feel the need to give any justification as an artist. No one can deny he's extremely talented. His vision is incorruptible. He won't compromise. You can't do his material any other way. No matter how much money someone pumps into it, it will still be a nasty film."
Is it LaBute's reaction to all the surface niceness and all the suppressed anger he encountered in his adopted culture, which he may see more clearly as an outsider, that leads him to rebel by wallowing in the corrosive, uglier side of human nature? It's a possibility he is willing to consider, though not concede. But he does like taking what's smoldering beneath the surface and bringing it right out in the open. While at BYU, he wrote a play called Gaggle of Saints, which dealt with Mormon subjects. "I got the idea from the beauty of a flock of geese, " he said. "When you see them from afar in a field, they look great, but if you go out in the field, it's covered with shit. The geese are looking at that shit saying, ‘where did that come from?' There is a lot of absurdity sometimes, not just in Mormonism but often in other religions that want to pretend that no bad happens in their church, rather than taking care of what bad does happen. I think there has to be that willingness to say, 'Hey, that's our mess. Now what can we do with it.' They're just people."
Observing the human condition, shit and all, is what LaBute is about. He, like Eckhart, has been shaped by his religion, though neither shy away from confronting harsh realities. "I would say the most conflict comes out of religion, guilt and angst and this idea of right and wrong," said Eckhart, a California native whose family members are still practicing Mormons. "Neil and I are caught in a little bit of a civil war inside ourselves. Religion and philosophy are idealistic, and no one meets those ideals. I believe in Mormonism as an ideal, but I don't think anyone can live up to it. I think this stuff is worth saying. We need to make films that show the conflict, that show the pain. Neil has a lot to say about relationships and intimacy, resentment, revenge and self-hatred."
LaBute's most disturbing work is a play he wrote while at BYU, called Bash, which he subtitled "a remembrance of hatred and longing." On stage are two characters a young Mormon couple sitting apart from each other telling the story of their big weekend in New York City. On the surface they're beautiful and good. But as the play unfolds, the layer of rot underneath all that sparkling niceness is horrifically revealed. As the girl rambles on inanely about her lovely dress and the lavish hotel, the young man tells the story of what happened when he and his two friends, one his former missionary companion, saw two gay men coming out of the bushes in Central Park. These three nice Mormon boys followed the older man into the restroom and end up savagely beating him to death.
It's an unsettling play, which not surprisingly was never staged at LaBute's alma mater. The play was, however, read for a University of Utah playwrighting class taught by noted playwright David Kranes. "David was a great catalyst for me," said LaBute. "He's an insightful man and a wonderful teacher."
At the encouragement of Kranes, LaBute attended the Sundance Institute's Playwrights Lab, which Kranes then headed. If attending BYU had been a fluke, so was becoming a filmmaker. At Sundance, LaBute was workshopping a play called Lepers, which someone suggested he adapt as a screenplay. That screenplay was In the Company of Men, about an amoral cad who cruelly conspires with a co-worker to make a girl fall in love with them so they can dump her.
Dealing with the insanity of funding an independent film was something the playwright and director found trying. Taking a cue from Ed Burns and other independent filmmakers who had used credit cards to fund their films, LaBute produced his film by borrowing insurance claim money that a couple of his friends were rewarded after they were in a car crash. "Everyone has a story," he said. "It's almost become a mandatory part of your credentials."
The controversial In the Company of Men, which starred his BYU pal Eckhardt, was an immediate success, winning the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the New York Film Critics Circle's Award for Best First Feature. It went on to become a hit with critics and generate many heated discussions with audiences when it opened in theaters. One of the film's fans was actor Jason Patric, who had started his own production company and was interested in shepherding a promising young filmmaker through the often arduous process of making a film. He contacted LaBute, and after reading the script for Your Friends & Neighbors, knew he had found his filmmaker.
"I read it and it screamed out to me," said Patric, who produced the film and also plays its most despicable character. "It was so wickedly funny. I make movies I want to see. I wanted to make this movie. I thought this film was more audacious and more important than In the Company of Men."
LaBute knows his films aren't for everyone. But he's not trying to appeal to a wide audience. "People have perhaps gotten to the point where for the most part movies are a just bit of escape," he said. He prefers to take audiences out of their comfort zone, to make them re-evaluate themselves, their relationships and their lives. "If we don't continually evaluate and re- evaluate ourselves, we fall into patterns and believe that what we're doing is right. You fall into movements where no one questions the company line That's how fascism began. We have to constantly look at the ways we deal with each other."
That kind of self-examination, however, is too painful for most people. Even in casting Your Friends & Neighbors, a voyeuristic film dwelling on the dark side of intimate relationships, LaBute found that some actors were too uncomfortable with the material to accept the roles. "They'd say, ‘I'm already in a relationship like this. I can't do it everyday and then go home to live with it,'" said LaBute. The actors who signed on, also found that the film kicked up a lot of their own insecurities about their own personal interactions.
His own wife, he said, thought the film peers over the line, every so often "taking a step into the dark abyss." Some people have ventured that his exploration of modern relationships may be autobiographical. Eckhart said he has observed LaBute in parts of all his characters. "He wrote it, it has to be part of him," he said. But LaBute claimed the film is just another example of the way people undermine each other. "If you've been in a relationship, you know those people," he said. "You've thought those things. There is a degree of reality there. Relationships in general make people a bit nervous. It's about trust. Do I trust you enough to go there?"
LaBute was surprised that preview audiences found Your Friends & Neighbors more brutal than In the Company of Men. "It's not as vicious," he said, "But they're cannibalizing each other, so it makes it seem more emotionally violent." The film invites comparison to Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf, but LaBute said he was shooting for something like Carnal Knowledge, a film he required the cast members to watch before shooting because he admired that film's honest approach to men and women at their most intimate, dealing with the longings and fears we all have.
Under their harsh bluntness, LaBute's characters, too, are people seeking the most basic human contact. They want to connect, they want their needs met, but they don't necessarily want to do the work involved. When things get tough, they change partners, always asking, "Is it me?" without ever really seeing themselves as at fault. "If you look at the way the characters interact with each other," he said, "they're likely to take the easy path. We live in a disposable society. It's easier to throw things out than to fix them. We even give it a name we call it recycling. Especially as relationships go, we're too quick to say the easiest way is to end it because we don't want to do the work."
In the end, LaBute is a sort of moralist and his films and plays modern parables. In the Mormon culture, stories are meant to be inspiring, to show the path to righteousness. But LaBute takes the opposite approach. He shows the dark side, the path not to follow. "If you like what you see, it's a training film. If not, it's cautionary."
How does he reconcile his Mormonism with his art? "They look at me and think, ‘What kind of Mormon is he?' Many think I need more practice," he said. "I have a healthy view of what one can do with art. They're looking at good examples for their audiences. The idea that you can show something bad and the end result can be good is hard for them to accept."
Where does he go next? What dark forces churning beneath the surface will he unearth? He isn't looking at a next film, though he's been offered a David Mamet script and an update of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit ("What about In the Company of Men would make someone think I'd be right for Blithe Spirit?")
But his first love is theater and what he'd really like to do next is a stage production of Bash. The play has been performed in Los Angeles, Chicago and London, and Jason Patric has expressed interest in playing the male lead in a New York production. But LaBute would like to see the play performed in Utah. He has sent the Salt Lake Acting Company, whose productions have impressed him, a script of Bash for consideration.
Wherever it is performed, it, like his thought-provoking films, will shock and even disgust, prompting people once again to wonder aloud, "how could a nice Mormon boy from the Y have written this?" Because, he's Neil LaBute, an uncompromising artist who delivers his own brand of the truth, that's why.
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