In fact, LaBute has had a pretty smooth ride in Hollywood, although initially his bankability was not helped by some of the more severe reactions to In the Company of Men. “It was hard, after being labelled a misogynist, to get women into the cinema,” he says, remembering the reviews. The film, which was made for just $25,000, told the brutal story of two young men who conceive a horrific plot: to make a sweet young office worker, who also happens to be a deaf-mute, believe they have fallen in love with her, just so that they can then have the pleasure of dumping her. “Trust me, she’ll be reaching for the pills in a week,” says Chad, the character played by Aaron Eckhart (a LaBute regular) and the originator of the scheme. “And we’ll be laughing about this till we are very old men.”
“I think women felt, `Why would I spend money to be hurt when it happens to me every day?’” says LaBute. “In fact, I’m much more severe on men than I am on women. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy, so I’m on to us. I know the breadth of deceit we’re capable of.”
Considering the eviscerating nature of his work, almost everyone who meets Neil LaBute is thrown by how agreeable — even somewhat formal and softly spoken — he is. “Ah, that must be the Mormon in him,” you think. LaBute — perhaps appropriately, given his acute sense of the evil at play in human affairs — is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I am pretty non-confrontational,” he admits a bit sheepishly, as if he wishes he could actually say some of the more cutting and outrageous things that emerge from the mouths of his characters himself. Take Catherine Keener’s retort to Ben Stiller in LaBute’s second film, Your Friends and Neighbours, in which Stiller plays her acting-professor boyfriend who can’t stop talking during sex. “Do you think you can just shut the fuck up?” demands Keener, exasperated, while they’re doing it.
Your Friends and Neighbours placed LaBute at the forefront of the industry — part of a younger generation of American filmmakers, which includes Todd Solondz and Wes Anderson, whose cinematic territory consists of dark satires on dysfunctional modern relationships (Woody Aliens for a generation much more cynical about sex and love). But it’s clear that LaBute also wanted a career that was not limited to directing his own material. Uniquely in Hollywood today, he has found a way of straddling very different worlds: he writes and directs his own idiosyncratic, very personal theatre work, some of which ends up on the big screen, but he has also taken to working as a Hollywood director-for-hire on films like Nurse Betty, which starred Renee Zellweger, and Possession.
“I loved the book,” says LaBute of the latter, “because of the idea that these Victorian lovers, who should have been so guarded and restricted by their times, took a chance and just threw everything in the air and let their passions rule them. Whereas,” he continues, “the characters in the present day, for whom there should be no limit to what they can do because of the freedoms they have, are frozen by that freedom. At the core of it, I saw this really interesting story about men and women.”
But he admits that he found the experience of directing Possession tougher than he had anticipated. He was working with a much larger budget than he was used to (around $25 million), on a partly period film, with actors he hadn’t worked with before and in country (England) he had not shot in before — a country with, of all things, weather! “It was fine when we’d go from town to town,” he says, “but if you tried to stay in the same place for two days and wanted the weather to match, it was almost impossible.”