Neil LaBute: Turning to Love

Neil LaBute, who directed the bitter but wonderfully biting In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, and the offbeat comedy Nurse Betty, has gotten into a romantic mood for Possession. Here he explains why and touches on the chemistry between the film's stars, Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart.

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Neil LaBute is probably about to shock the hell out of any number of people who thought they knew what his work was all about. Those are the people who associate this writer and director with the first two movies he made, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors. In his debut film, LaBute raised an uproar with his tale of casually predatory white-collar sharks who seduce and emotionally pillage an attractive deaf secretary just for sport. In his follow-up, he failed to reassure anyone shaken by his first film when he presented his mordantly funny tale of soulless couples. But LaBute's third film should have warned everyone who had pigeonholed him as some kind of cynical enfant terrible of indie film. Nurse Betty, a small movie with big ambitions and fairly big star Renee Zellweger, started out as a quirky small-town tale of domestic violence and blossomed into a surreal and often sweet comedy of the blurred line between soap opera and real life. Here LaBute took on for the first time material not his own, but gave it auteurist authority that expanded the material's possibilities as well as his own.

With his latest film, Possession, LaBute is positively shredding expectations. Working with an adaptation of A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel, he is dealing with a complicated romance set in England, where a relationship develops between a pair of researchers who unearth a tragic love affair between the 19th-century poets they are studying. Moving back and forth between present and past (Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart play the moderns; Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam are the Victorians), Possession turns out to be romantic, witty, civilized and lush enough to challenge anyone who thought he knew what Neil LaBute was about. It gives us a notably reigned-in LaBute. And beyond its content, the film represents a budget and scale that are new to its director.

The 39-year-old LaBute, who is Mormon and lives with his family in suburban Chicago, has, from the beginning, been so completely not of Hollywood that nothing he does in Hollywood can avoid defying expectations. At Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, he wrote stage works that often starred his Mormon classmate Aaron Eckhart, who's since starred in each of LaBute's movies. The moral universe that exists in all LaBute's work (and which seems to go unnoticed by those who would deem him cynical) was there at the start in his plays. LaBute's bad characters are bad not because he offers a simplistic world where good and bad are set off in neon, but because in his world of doubt, one must at least take moral and ethical matters seriously and these characters don't. LaBute's first film was an adaptation of his play Lepers, which he took to the Sundance Institute's Playwrights Lab. Borrowing money from friends who'd survived a car crash and won an insurance claim, he self-produced In the Company of Men, which, in addition to causing a firestorm, won the 1997 Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance. His film-directing career was set in motion. LaBute did not, however, leave theater behind. In the same way that he's continued to wear plaid shirts and nonfashionable curly locks, a convenient beard and academic-nerd glasses, he's continued to write plays. His critically praised The Shape of Things, which starred Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller in both London and off-Broadway productions, will be his next film and will star the same cast.

STEPHEN REBELLO: Was the casting of Gwyneth Paltrow a given when you became involved with Possession because she both looks like she could be an academic and she's adept at using a British accent?

NEIL LABUTE: Gwyneth became an absolute given from the first time she was spoken about because I knew she could absolutely do it and knock it out of the park.

Q: What adjustments did it require from you to work with an actress who gets so much press?

A: On the first day I was working with Gwyneth, we were hit with the press because a college professor had revealed we were going to be shooting at the railway station in Lincoln, England. That first day was a mob scene of press and townspeople. Security could kind of keep it at bay because we were working on a small railway platform, but coming out of a car to a wall of flashing flashbulbs is a hard way to start a movie. Gwyneth has been given such celebrity because she's been in relationships that are high-profile and she comes from an entertainment family. When you start getting equated with royalty, being compared to Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, it's tough. There's this mantle of fame and celebrity she's had to carry whether or not she wants to. Only knowing her in this short period, it's amazing how unassuming, focused and graceful she can be despite how much focus there is on "What belt is she wearing today?" and how every hairstyle, every relationship gets scrutinized. The temperature changes on her every time Us magazine comes out, yet she still has to come to a set focused.

Q: How did you two work together?

A: She comes to you only when she needs you. She's got a clean, laser-like precision when she works, comes in really prepared and is bang-on from the first take. I remember her in rehearsal saying, "This is the first place my character is going to smile." That's a real pleasure because here's someone who's read the script more than once and has made decisions. She can hit almost word-perfect any take she did previously, which makes her an editor's dream. She's a good mimic, a bright person and she doesn't sit in her trailer weeping and wailing. She's an actor in the best, most classic sense of the word.

Q: Did she have any trepidation about working with you?

A: I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd wondered, based on In the Company of Men or Your Friends & Neighbors. She could well have thought, "The Possession script is sweeping, it's England, there's the Victorian period involved. Will Neil be able to help me?" That's really what actors are looking for. They all want to know on a base level that they'll constantly have that support if they need it.

Q: Do you think you'll take a hit for altering the reticent, colorless Brit male researcher, played by Aaron Eckhart, into an American?

A: A.S. Byatt took in stride the Englishman's becoming an American. Being, myself, an American who had done a little schooling in England, I could better understand the guy being an "outsider" and, as a writer and director, I could approach it more realistically.

Q: Some might speculate you turned the male lead character into an American so you could cast Eckhart, who has starred in three of your previous movies.

A: The change from Englishman to American came long before the ability to cast Aaron. I didn't "Americanize" the character for American audiences, either. Having one American in that story is not going to bring droves of people into the theaters, is it? The American thing was just another way to create conflict, which is what that couple needed.

Q: Did the studio lobby for a better-known actor than Eckhart to play opposite Paltrow?

A: There were a number of hoops to jump through because we were working with Warner Bros., a well-defined studio. When conversations about other actors came up, I had to act like all 300 Spartans, digging in with our shields over our heads. My position was, "You can show me somebody who makes more money and who could be equally good, but until you show me somebody better, I'm going to hold out for Aaron." You know the names of the usual suspects who came up. They're all good, but I thought this was a part that would viably work for Aaron.

Q: What do you and he bring out in each other?

A: Working with him is a pleasure because he's good. He's not only fearless about his acting, he's also pretty sure an audience will go with him as long as he's good. He doesn't feel he's there to warrant an action figure or for you to want to see him in a sequel. Better than anyone else I know, Aaron knows how to speak in the strange rhythms that I write. I tend to break up my sentences, to reroute my thoughts and Aaron picks up on the "ahs" and "urns." I've done four movies with Aaron, I knew him in college and I've seen his work in various ways. Aaron is like Tang--mix with water and he dissolves, leaving that gritty bit down at the bottom of the glass that remains Tang. He turns into whatever you need him to be. He loves the clothes of a character. As soon as he can get the boots he's going to wear and can wander around in them for weeks, he's happy and starts physically feeling the character. This guy in Possession came much the same way. He started thinking, What does this guy read? And pretty soon he was keeping his own notebooks of poetry. As an actor, Aaron is a questioner, in the best sense. It's never quite good enough. He will shoot until he himself is sure. You will say, "I think we've got it," and he will say, "I think I've got one more in me."

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