The Director's Chair Interviews

Writer-director Neil LaBute attracts acclaim and animosity with his controversial debut film, In the Company of Men
by Scott Roesch

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Neil Labute leans forward in his chair in a Seattle hotel suite and makes a startling claim: In the Company of Men, he says, will be "the feel-good hit of the summer." Well, it's true that LaBute feels good about the response to his low-budget debut feature, and it's also true that the movie is a hard-hitting affair that's entering theaters in late summer. But if you've heard anything about this film--even a passing mention--you're well aware that LaBute is joking. Forget feel-good, forget warm and fuzzy; a better label for In the Company of Men might be "the date movie for people who never want to date again."

 LaBute's pitch-black comedy has been widely hailed as the most controversial American independent film of the year, and one of the best. The story is not for the faint of heart: Two young male executives are frustrated by stagnation in the workplace and rejections by women, and they devise a plan that will allow them to flex their masculine power. During a six-week business trip, they find a hearing-impaired woman who's given up hope for a romantic relationship; they simultaneously (and separately) lure her into a false feeling of love . . . and then crush her. LaBute's inspiration for the script was one short line of dialogue: "Let's hurt somebody."

Hence the controversy. Responses seem split between viewers who thrill to the brutal realism of the events--Premiere calls the film "a Kubrickian examination of depravity"--and those who are furious that the perpetrators receive no comeuppance. At a party after Men's first screening at the Sundance Film Festival in January, a young woman told LaBute's formerly unknown star, Aaron Eckhart, that she hated him--not his vicious character Chad, but him. A Hollywood production executive told LaBute's agent that she hated the film, and couldn't understand why he'd asked her to see it. (She's since changed her mind, grudgingly admitting that she perceives feminist undercurrents in the story.)

All this attention is new to LaBute, an accomplished playwright who resides in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He entered the Sundance Film Festival in January with a film financed largely on an auto-insurance settlement, and left with a Filmmaker's Trophy, a distribution deal, and a new career. He plans to use the momentum to take baby steps toward Hollywood, directing his own material with bigger budgets and possibly some name actors. But it's already clear that there will be no commercial sellout here; no feel-good studio schmaltz. The filmmaker notes, "People in California, they aren't looking at that movie and going, 'He's perfect for Casper 2.' You just don't see that happening."

This is a tough movie for a lot of people to deal with, emotionally speaking. What sort of reactions have you gotten?

Well, I can't say it's run the gamut, because it's been very polarized. It's usually love it or hate it--there hasn't been too much middle ground. What's been kind of interesting to me is how much of that has happened woman-wise. I found it harder to get them into it, because if you hear just the premise--you can see where it stems, this "misogynist" label, you know: "Here are men hurting a woman." You can see where they would grab onto that, and say that's the film. It's not, of course. If you can get them in somehow, if you can get women into the movie--that, I think, will be the trick of selling it across the country. Will women go and see it? I don't know. Actually, women seem to have become our biggest advocates. I've seen screening after screening where the women are coming out looking around, you know, and the men are kind of going, "What have you done? You gave out the secrets!" Either that, or they're kind of going, "Hmmm. Not a bad idea."

Have you had any confrontations with people who actually attribute the attitudes we see in the movie to you, personally?

I wouldn't say "confrontations." I think ultimately, verbally you end up getting more of the people who want to express a like of it, or maybe have a question. You don't often get, "Hey, that's a piece of shit! Thanks a lot for taking my time and part of my life." You don't usually get that. You read it in a review, or you hear, "Oh, I heard about a couple of people who hated it."

I think more than anyone, Aaron [Eckhart, one of the film's stars] has been getting it. He doesn't bring any baggage to the movie. You don't know him as the kid from Flipper. You don't know him. You know, it's not Tom Cruise, who I think would have made a great Chad. I mean, he would have been a tremendous Chad. But [reactions] would always be, "Gee, Tom Cruise is a real bastard in that." It's still Tom Cruise. With Aaron it was like, "Who the hell is this guy?" I remember specifically at a party in Park City [where the Sundance Film Festival is held] this woman kind of half-drunkenly came up to him and said, "I hate you." And he said, "Ah, no, you don't hate me, you hate Chad, the character, actually." She said, "No. I hate you!" I think it's very strange for him to have this be his first really visual role in a movie, and to have people not give that aesthetic distance.

That's an odd situation to be in. We all know people who are like Chad in some ways, but--

I'm glad you said that. I agree, and a lot of people I've talked to are like--not that they think he's science fiction, that he doesn't exist--but it's like, "He's way out there." I mean, I have it within me. Maybe not maliciously, but . . . I mean, you may not go to the degree of setting up elaborate ruses on loved ones, but everybody has hurt someone. No relationship is perfectly balanced, unfortunately, and ultimately just by saying, "Hey, I think we should be friends," you've crushed someone. You've been crushed. Ultimately you look at it and you kind of go, "Well, maybe if I was a better person I'd let this continue, this relationship and stuff. But her crying is pathetic and really at this point I don't care about her as much as I do this new person I'm going out with, so I'm gonna have a bad scene here for about another hour. Then I'm just gonna leave, you know, we'll start letting the phone calls taper off, and that'll be it." You don't want it to be painful, but it gets to a point where you can't get out of it, and so you let it go and you know you're up for one more painful evening instead of two and a half months of pain. And so you do that. I think everybody kind of brings that into the movie. They carry in their own baggage.

I think there are a lot more Chads than we imagine. Just because it's life. They don't even go the expense of being charming. They're just in a position of being able to do it, and ultimately they're like, "Well, fuck you. I'm gonna do this, and I don't really care."

There aren't too many surprises in the movie. It's a slow, brutal progression toward a vicious conclusion. Did you have any inclination, either when you were writing the movie or after you sold it to Sony Classics, to add some sort of redemption to the story?

Boy, not from my end. If Sony did, they certainly haven't said anything. I think they came in and bought the film at a point where it had at least started to be accepted critically. They felt like they had a horse there that they could race, that way. I never heard a great deal about Sony; you know, you hear the [Miramax co-chairman Harvey] Weinstein stories . . .

That would be Harvey Scissorhands, who, by reputation, can't resist imposing his own cuts on the films he buys?

Yeah. I didn't know if I had that exactly right, but I think that's what I had heard. But, I mean, I have no idea. I just actually met him for the first time, at Cannes.

Did Miramax bid on your movie before Sony picked it up?

They looked it over, and they all loved it, right up until Harvey. You know, they live and die by his decisions. And it was, "No, I don't know how to sell it." I think they've gotten to a place where it's too much work. They need to know immediately what they're going to do with something. And I think they're much more, kind of "user-friendly" now, with Disney [which owns Miramax]. I think it's very much about "Gee, they're happy," and winning Best Picture [for The English Patient], and making money and so be it. I mean, that's cool.

He [Weinstein] was a very imposing figure. I enjoyed talking to him because he was just so, so honest. He said, "It was a f-ckin' great movie. It just wasn't for us. I didn't know how to sell it. I can't take everything that I like anymore. But you guys were good." He talked to Aaron and me.

You really made a name for yourself at Sundance. Talk about that experience.

We came out there without the film having been seen by anyone. I think that made us intriguing to a number of people. One day--I started logging how many calls I got--I got seventy calls. And some are family and all of that, but in one day . . . there were a whole lot of business calls, and they mostly were just people saying, "Can I get a tape?"

When was it that you knew you had a hot property?

I was happy to finally see it with an audience [at Sundance] and hear people laughing. In the dark I could tell that there was something good there. After the first screening it was hard to tell how people felt. There were plenty of people who were like, "Duh, what is this thing?" But just throughout the week, you started to feel. More and more people wanting to get into screenings, and then people coming up to you, and you'd just start to slowly get the feeling that things are working. There wasn't a moment of epiphany, but it was just a general swell of "the film is getting noticed."

And then you were invited to Cannes. Give a few impressions on Cannes from the perspective of a first-time filmmaker from Indiana.

Well, I remember walking up the stairs to the Grand Palais with Aaron. We were so cool and calm about it. I don't think it had even struck me. We'd just met Gary Oldman and we're talking to David Thewlis. It was like--it was just surreal, in a sense. And the atmosphere certainly adds to that. Here are these incredible people from cinema, everybody's walking around like they were born in tuxedos except you, and you're pretty sure you look goofy. Then you go down the street and there are people with their hair on fire. And they're given equal weight: as many people are watching them as are watching the stars walk. You're like, "This is just, just . . . really right off the radar from what I'm used to." You're sure that you're the one standing out by the end, because you're the only one who's actually not supposed to be here.

Did you ever check your own hair to see if it was on fire?

Yeah! You're like, "Maybe I should set it on fire." Cannes was a really great thing to see.

At Sundance, you raised some eyebrows during a post-screening Q&A session by saying something like, "I think deaf people are funny." That didn't go over so well, did it?

Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah, I've tried that joke a couple of more times, just to see if I can actually get a laugh from it. So far, no good. I've finally given that one up. I just ultimately realized that, "These people don't know you. This movie has been your representative so far." And when I said that, it was the very first thing I said. Then I thought, "I think now they're sure it's a documentary." It's like, "This movie about these jerks is about you." So now I've been more safe than that.

Let's talk about the funding for the movie. I understand that a chunk of the money came from a car-accident insurance settlement?

It was a significant part of our funding. These guys I'd been talking to--I'd been looking for independent resources--got in an accident. I didn't think much of it, other than that they were okay. They went through physical therapy for a number of months, and they ultimately got a settlement. When I heard that, and I knew they were fine, I was very . . . like a good comforting friend: "Give it to me!" They were communications majors in college, so they like movies, and they said, "Well that's not a half-bad idea." That made up a significant portion of our shooting budget.

What are you going to do next?

Offers are strange for me, because this is such an atypical kind of movie. People in California, where they tend to do more offering, they aren't looking at that movie and going, "He's perfect for Casper 2." You don't see that happening.

But there's one piece called Lepers that I'm interested in doing. Jason Patric is interested in it, and there's the possibility of doing it with a studio, which I can't name. But there's a certain number of fishhooks that come with that money, that aren't as attractive. Jason Patric's attractive because he's so right for the role. And there's a certain calming influence in knowing that in a way it's a one-stop-shopping situation. You know the film is going to get distributed, you know all of that is going to get taken care of. But it's no nicer of a film. And you worry about--even in a relatively small studio situation--are they going to want that ending that I've got?

Have you met Kevin Smith? He's had plenty of experience with that very situation.

Yeah, I met Kevin Smith--funny guy. Yeah, he made no bones about saying that there's a real maze trying to get through the studios that you work for. He was still in it, because he was doing the Superman script at that time. It's such a give and take. To the degree which you get, you give up something. I don't know how willing I am to do that, with the scripts that I have. Ultimately, if I got signed on to Casper 2 . . . you kind of know ahead of time what you're getting into. I don't think I'd try and make Casper darker, you know what I mean? You go along with that ride. In my case, I don't want specifically to give up what I like about these other scripts. There's a tendency to say, "Well, we did it the first time, I think that we can probably do it again." You just kind of wait for the next car wreck, I guess.

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