F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. But you could argue that Neil LaBute is beginning the fourth act of his career. He burst on the scene, most famously, with his controversial 1997 debut, In the Company of Men. He followed that up with the equally strong but less well-received Your Friends and Neighbors.
That’s when his career went into two simultaneous but separate acts, like some experimental Soderberg film. He kept making films, usually from others’ stories, though the quality of the films was decidedly mixed and none of them made any real popular or critical headway. Meanwhile, he was establishing himself as one of the most intelligent and provocative playwrights on the current American scene. This month’s excellent Some Velvet Morning is the first non-adapted feature film that he’s both written and directed in 15 years.
So had the last act of his career run its course, or did he need a break? “Actually, a little bit of both,” LaBute confides. “It did seem intentional, but it also felt like it was time, so I was consciously looking for what’s the next thing to do. And this felt like the right piece. It was something I could control. It was very much the way I felt on In the Company of Men, that this was something I could do and control and make something interesting out of, and people would have to kind of accept it for what it is. It wasn’t a play that got turned into a movie; it was just a script that we filmed. Certainly I had a good return to theater after I had made a couple of movies, with a lot of scripts that I could have tried to make movies out of, and maybe some of them I’d still be trying to make movies out of. Because subject-wise, I don’t know if you’d ever get the money together. But I found that many doors opened when I explored putting them on stage. At the same time, very flatteringly, people were approaching me about adapting a lot of things, and even asking what books I’d ever wanted to do. So you get caught up in all of that. So I let my director’s side free to do all those things, and as a writer, I kept exploring things on stage.”
“And then,” he continues, “you make movies for 10 years in a particular way, and then you look back and say, ‘I don’t know if any of those were as satisfying as going off somewhere with your own script for 10 days and filming it.’ That was probably the most satisfying and accurate depiction of what you want to accomplish, so go do that. Right or wrong, it’s what you set out to do. There’s no one to the side saying, ‘What about this? Wouldn’t this be funnier? I think more people will come and see it if you do this.’ It’s just ‘We trust you—go make a movie.’ More like people entrust you when you go make a play, actually. Someone likes your play, puts you in a room with some actors, likes what they hear, and says, ‘Okay, we’ll see you in four weeks.’ They’re not there watching every move. There’s more of a trust.”
In the interim, several of LaBute’s scripts had been adapted into short films, by himself and others. Were those baby steps toward penning a feature again? “Yes, they were,” he says. “There were a couple of times during the last few years that people came to me looking for scripts they could make. And I either had something and/or wrote something for them. And then there were a couple where I said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go make a short film. It’s going to cost me next to nothing. I can make it in black and white because nobody cares. I can cast who I want.’ So I did a couple of those, and it was really great. And I’m sure that helped open the door to say, ‘let’s do that on a bigger scale.’”
Trust was also a key component of making Some Velvet Morning, since the emotions are so naked on screen and the shoot so short (eight days). It helped that LaBute had some previous collaborators on board. “It’s just like friendships. I don’t think you go in there planning on making friends; in fact, you kind of have to not go in thinking that. Just like friends who live together suddenly have a different relationship, when people feel passionately about something, there can be a real flash, and you wonder if it’s affecting your friendship. In the best case, it doesn’t, because your friendship is large enough to encompass that. I’ve found that I’ve been relatively faithful to a lot of people on both sides of the camera or stage. I’ve had the same editor for eight or so projects, and this DP for four, and a variety of actors that I’ve worked with more than once. It’s such a vagabond life, such a gypsy experience going from one thing to another, and creating really tight-knit families, and then dispersing the day it’s over. There’s no goodbye. It’s ‘Gotta go, got a flight tonight,’ and boom, you’re off. It’s really strange. So I sort of welcome those opportunities, when it’s been a fruitful relationship, to say ‘yeah, let’s work together again.’”
He had also worked with Alice Eve before, in one of his stage productions. “I already know Alice’s demeanor,” he explains, “and how she thinks. And that’s a pleasure. If you work with people that are talented enough, and agreeable enough to be around, it’s hard to think of reasons not to work with them again. It really helps. It’s not like having to start new relationships from the ground level. And also, there’s the time constraint. You only have a couple of days with them before you start. And with someone you already know, you’re done with the niceties and you can just say ‘Great to see you again! Let’s get to work.’ And that trust is something actors do thrive on. It’s such a naked highwire act, to expose themselves in that way. And they have to kind of have a little cocoon of trust, to be able to say ‘Okay, I feel okay shed my clothes.’ Sometimes literally. ‘I’m okay with these people. I’m not looking across the room and seeing anyone who would much rather be at lunch. Or is just here to see me naked. They’re here because they want to make something good.’ And when they feel that, they can let go.”
In the Company of Men was a mixed blessing for LaBute. It established him and made his career possible, to be sure. But it also got him branded a misogynist, or even a misanthropist. The criticism is unwarranted, but LaBute is philosophical about it all. “I understand where it comes from,” he says. “People want to be able to put a label on you, to have a shorthand for saying, ‘That’s who that person is.’ But that’s really dangerous, to do that without knowing the person or knowing the intent. Even for someone like von Trier, it’s dangerous. I would agree with your assessment that he seems that way. And I’ve heard him in conversations where you can start to draw some conclusions, because it’s not fictional characters. It’s just you in a news conference. No one made you say this or that. And you can start to build a portrait. But without those things, to just say, ‘Based on these five movies, here’s who you are’... and for me, in the beginning of my career, for most intents and purposes, no one had seen anything except In the Company of Men. So they decided I’m a misogynist. Really? And then that’s the label that you’re going to have hung around your neck for the rest of your career. They just judge each new thing by ‘is it more or less than that.’ And after a while, you just realize that you only have so much time, and so much you can do, and it’s probably not worth defending that or worrying about that. There are other things you should be doing. The work speaks for itself.”
And that’s part of the danger in taking on large issues seriously. “Those are some of the big questions that are interesting to me,” he says. “I was raised in a community church, a non-denominational church, that sort of asked those big questions—what is sin, and good and evil, and all those things. And they’re very interesting to me, without making too much judgment about them. And so you depict that sometimes, and people decide you are that thing that you’re depicting. If your mind could go there, you are that. That’s the risk you run.”