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In the Company of Men: Neil LaBute and John Lahr

Filed under: The Catbird Seat: Friends & Guests   Tagged: , , , , ,

Continuous reports from the 2007 New Yorker Festival, by the Emdashes staff and special guest correspondents.

Into a venue filled with avid Neil LaBute fans, I committed the grievous sin of arriving late. Thankfully, Neil LaBute doesn’t have a Catholic bone in his body, so, I wasn’t punished by being sent to Limbo and denied access to his chat with John Lahr.

Mormon, misogynistic, misanthropic, male: the first three words are wrongly used when reviews or interviews are written and comments made about the playwright/screenwriter/director. Only the last is true.

LaBute opened the discussion by saying his time on stage with Lahr was better than therapy, and all of his issues should be worked out by the time they were done. He was easygoing, with an affable manner tinged with the sharp wit that is found in his writing—some of which moved past his audience’s heads, then boomeranged back to catch them after a beat or two. He has gimlet eyes that hold down the person he is directing his answers toward and a grin that belies the gaze.

The subject was Men. And there was 90 minutes to discuss it with the man who has created some of the most vile male characters ever seen in film or on stage. For LaBute, the discussion started with the father. His own was a distant man, a hard man, someone who was not easy to grow up with or around—a man frustrated in his own life, who displayed the proper emotions and actions to the world but changed when the doors were shut and the curtains closed. His older brother emulated their father, something LaBute couldn’t do; he says he paid a price for that decision. He said the atmosphere in his home was Pintersque, quiet yet volatile. He had no control there; things there “shifted with the breeze.”

Lahr asked, “When you show us in your work how we are, does it go to the silence of your life?” LaBute’s answer: “I never felt it was my work to draw from that dark place.”

While LaBute grew up in a home that didn’t nurture a playwright, he says, his parents were filmgoers. These days, his mother sees his work in motherly terms; she mentions the language on occasion, and “wishes I’d write more comedies.” He started writing monologues for himself to see if he could fool his teachers into believing they were actual monologues that he’d discovered. Once he put pen to paper, he said, he didn’t stop. Writing gave him something he didn’t have elsewhere: control.

“Wow. I’m really feeling better. How much do I have to pay for this session?” he asked Lahr. Laughter again.

Attendance at B.Y.U, mandated one thing; students signed a paper agreeing to its terms. By the time LaBute had become a graduate student, the love affair between his brilliance and the strict doctrines taught weren’t exactly bound for marriage. They blocked his stage time, and closed theaters to him. In order to stage Lepers, which later became Your Friends and Neighbors, he gave a one-hour exam, then quickly staged the play for its one-time performance. A director friend of mine was part of that audience, his theater experience after returning from his two-year Mormon mission. It’s theater he still talks about, in all of the right ways.

The discussion moved on to the film In the Company of Men. Lahr asked, “Do you feel Restoration comedy and its entertainment and the society of the 1990’s, when you were writing this, had parallels?” LaBute: “I saw the more privileged groups who were taunting me [the audience laughed], but I just couldn’t hear them.”

Clips were shown from the film, starting with the scene where Chad (Aaron Eckhardt) admits to Christine (Stacy Edwards) that, yes, she’d been set up. He is harsh, stinging in the delivery of his words, and you can hear the wind howling in the wound he leaves behind. Apparently, according to LaBute, you were also close to hearing the film as it ran out in the camera.

LaBute said he felt uncomfortable watching the scene, and then went on to discuss the ascetics of the creative process behind the making of a film that got to the pinnacle for all independent filmmakers: the winner of the 1997 Sundance Filmmakers Trophy. On his first film, ever.

“This film isn’t an editor’s film,” he said. “This is an actor’s movie. We didn’t do any cutting back and forth between faces. We did it in one long take. Aaron was starting to worry because he knew we only had a little bit of film left in the camera.” He calls this particular scene, “a textbook of male behavior—lies, charm, and ‘fuck it; it’s too much work. I’m leaving.’”

“On a first film, you stand around and (moves his hands) and say, ‘Oh, fuck.’ Thing is, there are other people standing around saying, ‘Oh, fuck.’ So, you have to have some authority—and you [moved his hands firmly] and say, ‘OH, FUCK!’”

The next scene discussed at length was the steam room scene in Your Friends and Neighbors. The intensity of dialogue is matched by Jason Patric’s delivery when he describes the best sex he ever had, with a young schoolmate, Timmy, who is gang-raped in the showers at school. It, too, was shot in one long sequence, with pick up shots taken afterwards of Aaron Eckhardt and Ben Stiller’s reactions to this revelation.

Lahr: “Something about all of your plays is a passion for ignorance. Pinter hears pauses. You hear something else.”LaBute: “I hear a self-regard. We spin circles in life—back on ourselves. ‘Whatever’ is an example. When people use the word ‘honestly’ a lot, they aren’t being honest at all. We want to connect, but, the cost is too great. We ask people for things we aren’t willing to give. It’s too much. It’s more important to sound interested than to be that way. We ask, ‘How was your day?’ And, when they start to answer, we roll our eyes and think, ‘Oh, fuck.’ “

The floor opened up for Q & A’s. One young man said he’d started to laugh a third of the way though In the Company of Men when he first saw it.

Q: “What does it take for a man to move from the lying and the way they present themselves?”

LB: A good hour with Mr. Lahr (laughter). I don’t know, really. It’s human behavior. We are good at it. An armour created from youth on. Be strong. Don’t be weak. It’s our culture to come out on top. It that’s our nature…to lose a bit of yourself. To push to come out on top. It’s hard to shed that. You become one with that kind of ethic. I don’t the answers. It’s hard for people to let their guard down.

Q: What’s up with Wicker Man? I didn’t see you at all in the film.

LB: I got into the project because I loved the original. I was asked to give it a go. I kept the concept of a cop, and I took them to a zenith, to a world run by women. The producers wanted something different than I wanted to make.

Q: What is the film rehearsal process and how do you feel about the word “like”?

LB: Like is a serviceable word, and I use it on the page. I like rehearsals. I understand them, the process. I like the process in the theater. You can follow the process in theater, you move from start to finish in a smooth line. In film, what you start out with has to remain that strong seven weeks later. You don’t get the full rehearsal process. Rehearsal is the method along with [at this point, he started discussing yoga, natural foods and this reporter started to laugh. Loudly. Alone. Thankfully, others joined in]. What is going to go on stage…if it’s repeated, will prove if it’s strong or weak with the repeating. Ultimately, when working on a piece we are going to present working on a scene is what it is all about.

Q: How do you work?

LB: No particular clothing or process or food or time of day. I tend to not want to write until I want to write. I tried that, to be disciplined and I threw it all away. I wander around with plots and characters in my head and play devil’s advocate. You look for reasons not to see it through. If they stay with me, if after a year, I still have them in my head, I suddenly start writing dialogue in a hurried frenzy—I don’t do breakdowns of plot—I write. Sometimes, you get to page 50, and think, “There really should be a plot by now.” It’s the most exciting way I’ve found to write and by transference, a way to excite the audience.

Time was up, we all exited, leaving me with a wealth of my own questions, and a greater respect for an artist who produces amazing work. I wish we’d had another few minutes, which would lead to a few more and a few more, and the man would never get another thing done. But, he’d have his issues worked out thanks to John Lahr, I’d be entertained, and in the end, it’s really all about me. Or so I’d like to think.

—Quin Browne (Read more about Quin.)


I think this might have been more fellow-feeling for a critic than Neil LaBute has had in his entire career.

Okay, Quin, you’ve convinced me.
I’d like to begin exploring Mr. LaBute’s works, now.
Thank you!

hurrah, peter.

it’s time well spent.

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree