Film Scouts Interviews

Neil LaBute on "In the Company of Men"

by Glenn Myrent

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Cannes, Thursday, May 15, 1997

(Ed. note: LaBute is the writer and director of "In The Company of Men" shown in the "Un Certain Regard" section of the festival)

Neil LaBute (NL): We've been here for the last five days and now we're ready to see Cannes and enjoy it. It's a wild and unbelievably chaotic festival and yet it stays on course. This crazy carnival stays on course, you think you've got a handle on it and then they bring in another carnival. I feel like such a gawker. I have the traditional head whip. It's amazing this mix of black tie and thongs.

With "In The Company of Men", the whole interest for me was in finding something different in the story. I hadn't seen this particular twist on the love triangle of sorts. I have a background in theater and was always a big fan of the restoration comedies, pieces like Les Liaisons Dangereuses - that sort of banal cool games that the rich and famous and pretty do. They have time on their hands and find it amusing. It seemed like a nice kind of context for thoughts I had on the business world and on men-and-women relationships and men-and-men relationships. The way they devise hurting a woman becomes secondary to a man who's hurting a friend. It felt like a good context for the really acidic nature of how we can be cruel to one another.

Film Scouts (FS): Knowing America's tendency to take certain things at face value when it comes to movies, are you expecting (or has this already happened?) a backlash against the movie's subject?

NL: The backlash comes, incredibly, at film festivals where people are fairly militant about their views. They have no problem being vocal if they find it offensive to their views. The trick is going to be getting women viewers into the movie theaters because on paper, a line blurb of 'two men play a cruel trick on a deaf woman,' they go, ugh (sound of distaste), and 'You want my money? Why don't you just hit me and get it over with!' Once they're in there, they're the biggest vocal supporters. They feel it's a feminist movie, that all the portraits of men are really tough and cynical towards their behavior. So I really had a strong reaction from women &emdash; and men as well &emdash; just as average movie goers. I tried to make the piece relatively timeless by not being specifically about the 90s. It's the way corporate culture has been since the post war years - fitting into a mold sort of thing -

FS: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit…

NL: Absolutely. It sucks the life out of you, the individuality out of people. And so I think people are identifying more strongly across the board, even internationally with it. We tend to scratch the surface of the story, oh, this is about a Greek king, when it's about a man and a woman ultimately. And this is about men and women relating and men and men relating or not relating as the case might be. Everybody of a certain age has had relationships and so depending on how well or badly those relations have gone, they sort of have a gut reaction to the movie on the level of: I know someone incredibly close to you and you know, I don't like them very much. They start to have the equivalent of dry heaves watching someone suffer through those kinds of things. Or, the abusers don't like to look in the mirror very long. That's an ugly guy… I know people who swear like sea captains and they see a movie and go, gee, there was a lot of swearing in that movie. But what bothered you about that? Were you trying to pick up some words? Did the characters say the swear words too fast? It's a rather odd dichotomy. I find some people who are like Chad, most like Chad, this bad guy, and they don't see themselves. That's not like anyone in the world I know, it's someone else… The truth hurts, of course, and so most people don't react to it in that way. If there wasn't some grain of truth in there, I don't think people would be reacting as well as the way they have been.

FS: It's bad enough how badly Chad treats Christine, but Howard takes it a step further. He actually falls in love with Christine.

NL: Absolutely. And Howard says things to her far more horrible than Chad ever does. I think Chad begrudgingly tells the truth about what they've done. Finally, he's backed so far against the wall that he unleashes. He knows that he can continue to do what he wants to as long as he doesn't get caught. So he doesn't want to reveal the ugly truth of the whole game unless forced to. Whereas Howard, being more human, is hurt by not being accepted and therefore says terrible things about her as a woman, about her being deaf.

FS: How about the structure of the film - the use of intertitles stating First Week, Second week, etc… did you play around with this a lot?

NL: I followed a strict 5 act structure in the original screenplay. I had a very artsy fartsy kind of idea. For example, I used painting titles from Fragonard like The Invocation to Love, The Stolen Kiss, The Pursuit, The Lover Crown, used classical music and in black and white - we shot on color but I wanted it to be in black and white. We only had originally color in Sundance because we couldn't get a true black and white print from the lab. That's the thing with Sundance, everyone is so desperate to be a part of this festival. Its premiere in America, that's the place to be seen - surrounded by your peers. Everyone marks down that they'll be ready if they get the call, - everyone's lying and then it's this mass scramble to get yourself ready. and so it was only by proxy that we ended up with the color but I liked it so much we kept it. Janet Maslin said that she watched the film and thought it was in black and white by the end. That's high praise. That's what we set out to do.

FS: The music during the intertitles is very interesting. A kind of Ornette Coleman free form disonant jazz. Who did the music for your film?

NL: Ken Williams and Karel Roessingh from Legacy sound and music in Canada. Legacy was doing the sound mix. They put a bid in. They had in-house composers who wanted to do the music. We were already up there for the sound so I said, let's hear what you got. They went through all the incarnations with us from classical on down. But at one point, there was some Elvis Costello - that's what I loved - plus I used Kyzslowski's music from Blue which I pasted on the rough cut to give a sense of this fury I wanted. We went through standard jazz, thinking about using Sinatra standards. I didn't want to be derivative even though you always end up being. My wife is very helpful in the music area because she's so eclectic in her taste. She was born in South Africa and she had some tribal music in our record collection. So we ended up going full circle to Elvis Costello who on his Trust album has this song called Lovers Walk. It's this furious chant of drums and piano - I held it up to the producer on the phone and he said, Jesus, that sounds like a car wreck ! Yeah. That's it. It's Lord of the Flies meets Wall Street. Just underneath those white shirts they're in the jungle. I held it up on the phone to these guys (in Canada) - this is what I'm looking for and they went out and ordered Trust up in Victoria because they couldn't find it on the rack. It was stripping it down to those drums - My wife said, yes, that's the song. But getting the rights to the Costello song would have cost more than the budget of the entire film. I wanted everything to be entirely original. There weren't going to be songs throughout the film. I'm very much into not pushing mood through anything except establishing a place and let the audience either come to it or fall away from it. I wanted the music to be like in Last Tango In Paris with angry saxophones. That mix is just right.

FS: There's is no incidental music in your film. Just during the intertitles.

NL: Not any. That's right. You can hear practical music like from a juke box or music in a restaurant but never an underscoring. I'm a big Eric Rohmer fan. One of things that strikes me in his films is how little he uses music and therefore effectively. As few close-ups as we use, when you get one, you realize you got something, it must mean something worthwhile. I've always been moved by his work. That's one thing I said, I'm definitely not going to say how you should feel. Nor am I going to do a great deal of editing in terms of pointing you toward what I think is significant. I'm interested in beauty - a shot that is arresting, especially if five minutes is going to go by, it should be something that is striking but to me it's only when the acting and the writing stops that you as a viewer begin to go, "this shot seems a tad long." The magic has been broken between you. That veil has been lifted - I wish they'd move the camera at some point. To me it's all about servicing the story and not trying to find places to put the camera to enhance the scene. The scene should be good on its own.

FS: This was your first feature film. Were you surprised about anything pertaining to the filmmaking process?

NL: I was surprised by the response to the film, of course. Because I had never made a film before. The process was much like I had imagined. I brought as much of my theater background as possible. I had worked with the actors in the same way.

FS: Did you rehearse a lot with the actors before shooting?

NL: Not as much as I wanted. We shot the film in 11 days. So we never had enough time to rehearse. However the actors being trained that way, came in what is called in theater "off book" - they had their lines. When they got together, it was intense just building their characters. They knew they were going to be allowed to live on screen in chunks rather than these little moments that have to be edited together.

FS: And it was shot in the same order as the story.

NL: Exactly. Yes. So they didn't have to worry about where their hands were in the last shot. It's just about overlapping lines and being very real. These guys are supposed to know one another from school and having worked together. It lives or dies by how much you believe in the characters. You're always thrown off when you realize for example, you have an hour to get a shot. We had 45 minutes to get on that plane and they were incredibly gracious. They towed the plane to the side of the airport and let us get onboard and put on the generator- you can't buy those kinds of things - you can… but they cost a lot more than we had.

This town (Ft. Wayne, Indiana) was very supportive. They had never had a film shot there. Those are the moments that come down to the crunch. It's the old Peter O"Toole, I want this shot, but you only have 45 minutes. Those moments get a little intense. They start to slip out of your hands. You can't control a location like you can control an actor or what you want from an actor.

FS: So you knew you didn't have any extra time to re-shoot some scenes if they didn't turn out o.k.

NL: Yeah. You can make films like this I firmly believe there is a bottom, There is a floor to how much you can make a film for but,…

FS: How much was the budget?

NL: I'm really not supposed to talk about it. It was low.

FS: Under $5 million ?

NL: Oh yeah.

FS: under $1 million?

NL: Oh yeah ! It's more in the spirit of Clerks. But I think it really has a strong look for the amount of money that it cost. The situation is just one where you can't afford to make mistakes. Pre-production is everything. Planning is absolutely crucial because we knew there would be no looping. There was no coming back and getting a second shot. Actors are scheduled to leave for this many days from now. We didn't see the footage until after they were gone. So you're sitting there worrying if there's a boom in the shot…

FS: What if the lab blows the development !!?

NL: Yeah. It's absolutely seat of your pants kind of filmmaking. It's exhilarating.

FS: I've got news for you, it doesn't show. That is, on the screen, it looks professional. A lot of that has to do with the story. If there are technical mistakes you don't necessarily see them.

NL: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. I've done my job then. I'm a slave to story. I shouldn't say story, it's plot driven. It's so A plot that there isn't a B plot. There isn't the comical montage of them visiting the ocean, etc. It's a laser like examination of an A plot.

FS: That would ruin it if you had more back story to each character.

NL: Right. It doesn't do it for me. It's all through dialogue. Shakespeare showed that, so did the Greeks: people blatantly stood there and blather it out to you. A thousand years of theater history &emdash; granted part of that was the dark ages and there wasn't a lot going on &emdash; but they looked at tradition and said, 'you've done a great thing with tragedy but why the hell can't we jump all over if we want to?' That's what movies have said. I can be anywhere I want to be, literally. You can also do it by what you say. And it's so much cheaper. Words are free. That's what you find as an independent film maker. This isn't going to cost me a damn thing other than film running through the camera. To talk about this and to set this up, you can take people anywhere.

FS: The sets are real locations in an office building?

NL: There was never a set built. That's not true. Certain rooms were turned into other things. We had the precursor to the Empire State Building, built in 1929 or 30, beautiful old art deco in Fort Wayne, Indiana, called The Lincoln Tower. There was a bank on the first and second floor. It had moved out the year or so previously and no one else had taken over this really vast space. They let us go in and shoot. There were no location fees. We got the business offices, the bank at the end. The president's office turned into Chad's apartment. All the stuff that takes place up on the roof, we got from the building's roof. We got 17 different locations. Howard going down the stairs and vomiting, all those things we got out of that one location, for free. Our first week spent was spent in that building. It was our own little studio. It was made of granite. You couldn't hear anything. It has that great sort of Billy Wilder look with the shades, the big glass walls…

FS: Like in "The Apartment."

NL: Exactly. Who wouldn't want that? Obviously with the money…

FS: You didn't have to hire Alexandre Trauner to do the sets.

NL: Exactly ! There's something lovely about seeing a hundred people working at typewriters. It really gives you that sense of anonymity to the story. I went back and watched The Apartment and realized how still that movie is, how little movement there is in it. I think I have three travelling shots in my movie, and I almost ended up cutting them out. There's a little one following Chad when he goes to make a phone call. In the bank there is a long tracking shot. There's one other. In retrospect, I wish I had done it without any movement. This is their world.

FS: The dialogue is so good there's no real reason to have the camera move. we're carried along by it.

NL: That's very nice to hear. Words are action to this movie. That's what's going to take you away. They're violent. I had a woman stand up in the screening here and say this is the most violent film I've seen at Cannes, in an appreciative way. There's no blood flying, it's all, you're just wounding us with what's coming out of their mouths. That's the highest praise to me.

FS: Were people upset by the scene where the black assistant comes in and is humiliated?

NL: It's the one that gets questioned most, because, I think by that point the business element has started to shift away and we've watched this really personalized story and we go back to the business and see this powerplay simply because he's got the ability to do it. It really shocks people. They've only heard the reference to the interns messing up the break room and Chad saying they really should be taught a lesson. To me it was so important to show this breath of hatred and casual arrogance with his power. It wasn't misogyny by the very sense that the person he hurts the most, is a guy most like him. He has absolutely no interest in anybody other than himself. It's important to show what he ultimately does with his power with that intern. It wasn't in the end just the line of two guys do something to a woman. She's just a means to an end, rather than the end result. He's got bigger fish to fry in the game. People keep saying that scene is so graphic, yet there's no scrotum shot, no "nigger this" hurled around…

FS: No, no. It's a complete powerplay. whether or not he's going to do it…

NL: That's what's frightening to me to watch an audience sit back and think they're not being racists when they giggle at the way a black person speaks. The Ebonics discussion gets a little bit out of hand at times. There's no right or wrong answer to the way people live. People tend to want to push their values on you in such a way to fit that into a nice container of 'this is the way it should be.' The fact that different is equal is shocking to a lot of people. There can be more than one answer to everything. It's certainly the case of what I was dealing with.

FS: Are you working on another script at the moment?

NL: I have a couple other scripts. One is more a relationship piece, a savage look at personal relationships - more of a Last Tango than a Sleepless in Seattle - no sex, no butter or anything. Again, the power of words.

FS: You might be amused to know that one of my students watching Last Tango last month remarked that she couldn't understand why a young woman would be involved with such an older man in unsafe sex !

NL: How funny ! Times have changed… there's a definite mindset although I think it's slowly curving back. People are suddenly feeling like it hasn't gotten me in the last 10 years, I guess it's starting to be safe again. It's roach-like, as soon as the lights have been off for a second, people think, I guess it's alright out there. We'll try it again and see what happens. It's a dangerous way to be but it's hard not to when you're young. People feel invincible. You tend to feel it's never going to be you."

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