Neil LaBute: Rules Are For Breaking
The dry-humoured scribe of In The Company of Men and next year's Wicker Man on screenwriting.
In an industry where people often take themselves too seriously, Neil LaBute's self-deprecating humour comes as a breath of fresh air. The burly writer-director and playwright has been lavished with critical praise for his edgy, disconcerting screenplays ever since he made a splash with his low-budget debut In The Company of Men in 1997. However, speaking at the Vancouver International Film Festival Trade Forum earlier this month he quickly put that all aside.
"I've absolutely no qualms in saying that I'm a lucky son of a bitch to get where I am," he said. "The village idiot made a movie and it did well."
LaBute, who was shooting the Wicker Man in Vancouver, was billed to give "A Masterclass in Screenwriting." If that sounds like he would be deconstructing plot structure and dipping in and out of narrative theory, well, it was nothing like that.
LaBute has around a decade of production experience (including as director of Nurse Betty, The Shape of Things, Possession). He originally trained in theatre and he continues to write for the stage, his primary artistic passion. LaBute could write the book on screenwriting, but he is not one for rule-setting ("The most I can be is a cheerleader"). So LaBute, centrestage in an armchair, led an informal Q&A.
He started by offering one simple reason why he wanted to get into writing: "Unlike an actor I didn't have to be there" and tried to elaborate on the kind of qualities a screenwriter should be equipped with. Drive, ambition and luck were in there, but he also talked about the importance of balancing self-assertiveness with openness in creative relationships.
"One of my better qualities, endearing would be putting too fine a point on it, is saying I don't know," he said, adding, "You have to have ego - it's hugely important in an industry that really wants to take the best part of you and utilise it, shape it to the most common denominator... Be careful to know that you know something that other people don't know... But noone knows..." He left the Goldman quotation hanging.
It was a session of twisty wisdom and a spattering of pithy one-liners.
The most compelling starting point for LaBute is "What if". The script for In The Company of Men began as the line "Let's Hurt Somebody" and he elaborated from there.
How does he decide if he is writing a play or film? "I just write and then if people go to a grocery store it's a movie."
When is a script ready? "When it's ready. There is no roadmap."
What makes good screenwriting? "A story that transports you." LaBute likes to be constantly surprised. He likes international cinema because he doesn't know the actors.
On the danger of being uninteresting: "It's not about the $9. It's about the two hours. Some time, in an iron lung, I'm gonna go, "(inhaling deeply) Shhhhhhhh...tha' f**ker!"
And on rules. "If someone tells me a rule, then I want to break it. That's my nature. So maybe I have a mood disorder."
He explained that in Your Friends and Neighbours he deliberately avoided having establishing shots because they served little purpose. "It's like: 'You have to be this tall (making a cut-off sign with his hand) to get on the ride.' 'You have to be this intelligent (still holding his hand) to watch this movie. Can't remember that these people are in that building or the couch is in this position: then you can't watch the movie!'"
Wicker Man II
LaBute was asked how he pitched the remake of 1997 cult Wicker Man, due out next year.
In the film, a sheriff investigating the disappearance of a young girl from a small island discovers there's a larger mystery to solve among the island's secretive, neo-pagan community.
He didn't pitch it, he explained. When he first saw the movie, he felt it was a "strange kind of creepy thing" and said in an interview that it could bear being remade, but people who like it "are occultists." Word got to Nic Cage and producer Joanne Sellar, who also wanted to remake it. They found the rights were available and so went ahead, with LaBute writing and directing. "I wrote God knows how many drafts and then someone else took over." (Robin Hardy is the other credited writer).
What does he like about the original? "Not the songs: they went. And the strange half-naked girl. The story and the ending really works," he said.
By the time he got to the subject of directing, it was no surprise that most important to him are the script and the actors. "Those are the parts that interest me," he said. "My job is to create an environment that the actors feel safe in. If we have to do a big hysterical scene... making a place where everyone can function at their highest level of creativity. And then getting the hell out of the way."
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