Neil LaBute by Jon Robin Baitz

BOMB 83 Spring 2003
BOMB 083
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Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, 2002, Focus Features. Rachel Weisz (Evelyn), Paul Rudd (Adam). Photo by Bruce Birmelin. Courtesy of Focus Features.

In a letter to Mrs. Patrick Campbell, written in November 1912, George Bernard Shaw cleverly described himself as follows: “He will fill his fountain pen with your heart’s blood, and sell your most sacred emotions on the stage. He is a mass of imagination with no heart. He is a writing and talking machine that has worked for nearly 40 years until its skill is devilish…. All his goods are in the shop window, and he’ll steal your goods and put them there too.” Neil LaBute, like Mr. Shaw, has, of course, a very big heart. (I think he would disagree.) Both are fierce moralists with gimlet eyes and lots of questions. Both are troublemakers, both tortured by questions of sex, virtue and goodness (is there such a thing in his world?). And one of them is still young enough to do a lot of damage for a very long time. For like Mr. Shaw, Mr. LaBute has been given (has stolen?) secret passkeys and is slowly, methodically looting everything in sight. Also, both are chronic seducers of audiences. I find this very pleasing.

But enough about Shaw. What to make of LaBute? Some notes to describe him: His work thus far induces tremendous agitation. Audiences get provoked, and then they get pissy. Or exhilarated. Hardly ever anything in between. Is this because of, or in spite of, the sly and gentle viciousness running through his uncertain and blustery cast of characters? There are subversives and terrorists all over the place. There are people who are, to quote Lady Caroline Lamb on Byron, “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” There are bullies everywhere. But like most bullies, LaBute’s are scared, fucked-up little children out to fight old wars long forgotten. It is no accident that Neil is attracted to the paintings of Alex Katz. The flattened longing in those pictures of affectless people, surrounded by a kind of blankness, is almost exactly the same temperature as that of Neil’s work, as it were.

We did this interview by email, which makes it easier for two slightly cautious men to open up to each other. After this email conversation was finished, we found ourselves face to face at the overexcitable Sundance Film Festival. His film The Shape of Things, adapted surgically and precisely from the play of the same name, was premiering, as was People I Know , a picture for which I wrote the screenplay. I came up to Neil after his screening, following a question-and-answer period that he handled with grace and a certain cool and ruthless relentlessness, politely deflecting dumb questions and honoring serious ones. It was over, I got to him, there were flashbulbs and teenagers, and Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz and Gretchen Mol and Fred Weller were fending off a mini Day of the Locust onslaught. Neil and I backed away from the crowd. We looked at each other, both awkward, and both unhappy about the push, the throng and the exposed work. He smiled. We only spoke for 30 seconds. I told him all the things I felt about the movie, which is filled with liars and schemes and desperate delusions, but I said all of it in shorthand. (Men talking to other men.) Because it wasn’t email, it was real life, and there were Other People Around. Then there was a party for his picture, one with vodka and movie stars and hangers-on, and I couldn’t find him anywhere. I think he’d left.

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Neil LaBute, 2002.

Jon Robin Baitz Neil, would you say it’s fair to describe your worldview as Hobbesian? (As in Thomas Hobbes’s marvelous line from Leviathan about life being “nasty, brutish and short.”)

Neil LaBute I think we’re stuck in a Hobbesian world if we let ourselves be. The world is as awful or as wonderful as we allow it to be. Now, that’s not completely true, but don’t expect me to ever say anything that’s completely true. Jesus, I hardly know you!

Also, I personally feel that “nasty, brutish and short” gets a bum rap. That’s how I like my fiction, anyway. And the 24-hour flu. In fact, that’s the saving grace of the stomach flu, that it’s mercifully short and we can always see the light at the end of the tunnel. The moment we feel that kind of sickness coming on, we slip into a duality of sorts—knowing that we’re in for a lousy few hours, but that it’ll all be over soon. And there’s nothing quite like the amazing state that comes the moment after you throw up—a serenity, a kind of peace, almost, that falls over you after the most violent kind of expunging from the body. Does that state of divinity exist only in relief to what’s come before or is it always there and we just rarely achieve it, or even notice it? Do we find our way to bliss only through the extremes of illness, death, tragedy, etc.? I think so, very often, anyway. Most of the time we plod along through life so wretchedly removed from our real feelings that we miss everything going on around us. However, as I said before, life is often what we make it. I’m a firm believer in “make your own fun.” I’m that way with work and rest and play. Not that things can’t conspire to bring us down, but we’re so good at doing it ourselves that they usually don’t have to. I think humans find it so easy to just slide by, to take the road that’s slightly easier, to make the choice that’s just a bit more selfish or self-serving, that we end up creating our own Hobbesian universe.

JRB This is a lovely way to get to know someone. By the way—not that it matters—where are you please? Scene: Int. LaBute. House? Hotel room? Office? Are you sitting at your computer—where? Are you sipping tea or coffee, or water? What are you looking at, and why? This is helpful, to place you in some physical context.

NL I’m sitting in front of my computer, which is where I often find myself these days. Which room? Which desk? They seem so interchangeable. Hotel, home. See, much harder to get me to talk about “me.” Sorry. No coffee or tea, just a Diet Pepsi.

JRB Two things. Re the value of the extremes of illness and death, in our little talk about Hobbesian worldviews: I have lately realized that as far as I can tell, the only actual cure for narcissism (the national disease?) is actual tragedy. (Except in politics, where farce gets repeated over and over, regardless of the prior tragedy.) But in real life—internal life—something happens in the face of the cataclysmic. I had open-heart surgery a few years ago, and then my dad died very slowly, in Peckinpah-like slow motion in fact, before my eyes, and I think I hear clocks ticking louder now, and I’m aware of the value of making your own fun. But also of a dark angel hovering and grinning and sometimes—lately—is it my imagination or is the dark angel a little impatient? Grinning? I wonder if now we are inching toward a final catastrophe also of our own making. And is your work, in some way, in some places, a little passion play, a cautionary tale, a probing of modes of failure? Sort of what the very smart film critic David Thomson said about you examining the shape of things, with “an unwillingness to scold malice, wickedness or unkindness, and with the subsequent, quite casual suggestion that we sort it out”?

And re Hobbes and us: Yes. We do create our own Hobbesian universe. We do. Hesitant about where it begins and ends. I’m not sure that, say, the Iraqi citizens or residents of Afghanistan would concur about it being self-created, but in the sense of America right now being in so many respects the absolute epicenter, the sine qua non of an almost cosmic failure to connect on so many levels, yes, in that respect, it feels handmade and tailored—as they say on TV, “American made and American built.”

NL Yes, of course, I’m speaking from an American perspective because that’s all I really know, have been allowed or allowed myself to know. We allow anybody to live here, as long as they’ll live like everybody else. As soon as they start wearing their fez (what’s the plural of “fez,” for God’s sake? Or is that Allah’s sake?) to the local McDonald’s, though, it’s open season. Ridicule, suspicion or outright violence. We want to like everyone in America, but being everybody’s buddy is tough—maybe too much work in the end. And nobody likes too much work. Look what happened to Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining. It is that wide berth we give ourselves in this country, that extra bit of slack on the moral and social rope that gets us sometimes. We tried to touch on that in Possession, too, the idea that all the sexual independence we have today doesn’t necessarily make us happier or better at it or more well-adjusted. Sometimes we get caught in the moral headlights or retreat from being burned so many times because of the availability, accessibility and irresponsibility that come with absolute freedom. So, do I believe in absolute freedom, then? Absolutely. I’m just saying, “That shit is tricky,” freedom. Unfortunately it’s always seemed a little better than no freedom, so we pick democracy up, throw it over our shoulders and march off to jam it down somebody’s throat. Well, the Crusaders did the same thing, and sometimes they made themselves a village full of good Christians, and other times they killed everybody in the village. And then, every so often, they got themselves killed in the process. I understand the fervor, the zealousness of it all, but frankly, I don’t care much for the odds.

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Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, 2002, Focus Features. Gretchen Mol (Jenny), Paul Rudd (Adam). Photo by Bruce Birmelin. Courtesy of Focus Features.

JRB I think of your work and I think of tests, making trouble with them. Your unblinking hardness feels like a test. So many tests! In The Mercy Seat the characters seem determined to expose one another’s (by now intolerably self-serving and mostly unconscious) hypocrisies; in The Shape of Things there is a surgical appraisal of the ease with which one may redact oneself for “love” or “acceptance.” Bash does some of the same, while also working slyly on the audience’s affection for distance and judgment. In Your Friends and Neighbors, as in much of the LaBute world, a test of intimacy does not lead to greater closeness but rather to an even deeper isolation. And so quite often what I feel happening strongly in your work is a hilarious and unflinching Old Testament challenge to audiences. “These people,” you command, “are not to be looked down upon by us.” Tests. Biopsies. Exploratory surgeries. So many tests. Of humanness, of trying to quantify the state of numbness in America now, tests of temperature. I think I wanted to ask you about tests of faith, God, religion and sorrow. I don’t think such questions have answers, certainly not pristine ones. And certainly not ones that consider exploring the different perspectives of failure hard-wired deep within us. Still, I ask, What is it that you might be testing? (And I think I mean this in the ecclesiastical sense.)

NL If I’m testing anything or anyone, it’s me. At least in the end. Yes, I throw all sorts of shit at my characters and sit back to see what happens, but that’s just drama. Give these people something or someone to overcome, and then see if they do or not. It’s conflict and that’s about all. But mixed up inside it all, yes, there probably is a kind of testing, a probing of what it is to be “good” or “bad” or, more likely, something safely in between. I’m confused and amused by the choices we make, literally dozens of them daily, that form the whole of who we are. Not just what street to take to work, but why. What place we slip into to buy our coffee, or where we get the paper. Do we give that guy on the corner some change or not—and why? Guilt, or simply because today I have some and yesterday I didn’t? I’m not much for staring in the mirror. Once I tipped 200 pounds, I pretty much put that behind me. That sort of physical examination of the self that so many go through every day does nothing for me. Am I getting heavier, older, grayer around the temples? Yes, of course I am, no need to even look. But I love to push and probe and mess around on the page. To create a set of fictional characters who can stand in for me or you or whomever and put them to the test. The constant test of being human. What little victories and failures make up who we are? Why do we as individuals or a group or a country support one cause but not some other? Pretty fascinating stuff, at least to me. I think we live in a time that is completely accommodating to our many whims, be they good or bad. I mean, things like the Internet are given lip service like “Look how close it’s brought the world together!” Well, yes, I can now speak to someone in Belgium in an instant, but we’re both alone, sitting in the dark, off in some corner of our respective houses, and when we become bored, we don’t even have to go through the formalities of saying good-bye. We just click a button and this person disappears. Even in a barroom setting, we’d have to make up an excuse, find a humane way out of the physical situation, but not with technology of this high an order. It’s like carpet-bombing Hanoi from 30,000 feet. It’s a whole lot easier when there are no faces to contend with. We all sit around waiting for AOL to come up with 8.0, but we hardly ever walk the eight feet across a lobby to help someone who has slipped on a wet patch of linoleum. And I guess that’s the failure I see around us today: the failure to connect. We’re making things faster, easier, better. But nothing that brings us any closer. I can send you a picture of me over the Internet or even to your phone now, but do I call you up when I’m in town so we can see each other? Less and less, I’m afraid. We keep trying to find ways that make it appear that we are nice and that we care, without really being nice or caring. Or, hey, maybe it’s just me. I ask questions about God and faith and religion and sorrow because I myself have questions about them. I often don’t answer those questions in my work because I still haven’t found any answers, even after writing that particular play or screenplay or short story. Our job is to ask questions, make the inquiry, open up the conversation. We’re like the guy at a party who says, “Hey, did anybody notice that…?” and people look over at us and either smile or laugh or say to themselves, “Who the hell invited that dude?” It’s better than being the boring uncle with the slide show, but just barely. I consider faith because that’s an awfully fascinating topic, and I’m constantly wondering if I have any. About anything. I’m sure I do, but you have to keep testing the water. Often.

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Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat, 2002, MCC Theater, New York. Liev Schreiber (Ben Harcourt), Sigourney Weaver (Abby Prescott). Photo by Joan Marcu

JRB Within the first few pages of The Mercy Seat—which I have read again and again, and which I think is a very very big play—you feel, “Oh, yeah, this is exactly this time, this is American life now.” Which of course makes it an intensely political play, political theater. The rage feels like it has gone well beyond a sexual dialectic, well past the immediate situation at hand, and exists as a snapshot of what we are.

NL There are those who would argue that everything is political, and therefore, all theater is political theater. I’m not sure where I fall on that issue, but I know that I refer to this play in the printed introduction as a kind of emotional terrorism that we wage on those we profess to love. I never feel myself picking up a particular political mantle and saying, I must speak out on this or that; I must be heard on this issue. Nothing like that. Shit just appears, it pops up as you’re going along and it surprises you or not and you leave it in or you take it out. I guess I’m more political by instinct than I am by design. Maybe that’s it. Or just lazy. It’s funny, though, how this play came together. You know my work, a little bit, anyway, and I’m not exactly known for specificity or timeliness, as in finger-on-the-pulse-of-the-country stuff. I usually write about these people at this company in this city and then see what happens to them. So this play sort of came out of nowhere. Suddenly, the idea was there—someone using 9/11 for personal gain—and I was off. These people had full names and they were in NYC and the date and time were specific and it happened all in one big scene. Quite different for me. True, they still work in one of those companies that I love, the kind with little definition about what they actually do, but here I was being quite particular about a lot of details. Not that it was my response to 9/11, mind you, not at all. If it was, it was damn late in coming, six months after the fact. Plus, I’m not a New Yorker, nor was I there on that day, so I’ve never felt the need or the right to talk about those events in that way. The play came, it’s there, and that’s that. It tries to grapple with certain “big” ideas but it also pays much tribute to my favorite themes: men and women, betrayal, sex, who we are vs. who we say we are, etc. Maybe that’s all I can say about that, for now, anyway.

And you’re right, there is rage there, and probably plenty of it, but that seems to be me as well. I tend to write from a pretty stern place, equal parts indignation, sorrow, hatred and hope.

JRB A snapshot of America today, right now, taken with some sort of magnificent Polaroid Land camera, one that captured mood and taste and fear and hunger. If you were to take that shot, what would you expect to see in it? What would you expect not to see?

NL If your magic Land camera existed—and I love Polaroids, love them to death, because nothing looks quite like a Polaroid, and it also has a finite quality about it, much more so than standard photography. They have a kind of half-life, which is pretty great. Like theater: see it now or miss it. Very simple. Easy. And difficult at the same time. But if your camera existed, I’m sure I’d just see a bigger chunk of what’s already around me. Beauty and hope and prosperity and tragedy and Burger King and the Yankees and pain and stupidity and desire and glorious, god-awful, stunning life. And that might all be on a single face. It’s an amazing country, this one, but then most countries are. Most people, too. I think we’re shit-scared and incredibly optimistic right now—which is about like always, but maybe a little more so. It’s not a cop-out, it’s just that we’ve got so much, just, stuff around us that it’s easy to insulate or expose or hide in plain sight. We’re slowly drowning in stuff. Some good, some lousy, but tons and tons and tons of stuff. That’s what I’d see: stuff. Like at the end of Citizen Kane when Welles pulls back to show all the gatherings of a single life and suddenly it looks as if you’re soaring over a city, some spectacular cityscape, but you’re not, it’s just all the beautiful junk this selfish, brilliant, lovable asshole bought for himself, when all he really wanted was somebody to pull him along on that damn sled.

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Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat, 2002, MCC Theater, New York. Liev Schreiber (Ben Harcourt), Sigourney Weaver (Abby Prescott). Photo by Joan Marcus.

JRB Hello, dear Neil. I wonder if we can shift gears. I have to go to Sundance tomorrow, which I dread, as my odd little film (well, I wrote it), People I Know, is going to go straight into a mustard-gas attack and be mowed down, and I must preside decorously over the proceedings, rather like Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory.

Playwriting and filmmaking. Like David Hare (I think his films of the ’80s, in particular Wetherby, are very much alive, in fact something of a vital document of Thatcherite England), you have been able to shift your weight from one to the other. I came to film late. I always adored it. But you see, as a playwright, some 16 years ago, there was this subtle indoctrination—“Don’t write movies, or if you do, just take the money and go back to the boards or else you’ll be lost forever.” The theater was a sort of watery priesthood, and you were expected to do one of two things: Sell out, whatever that means, or have contempt. And you forget that you love certain things, Diary of a Country Priest, Altman’s Long GoodbyeSunday Bloody Sunday, to name a few. I came at it, for a decade, like a crook. An East Coast snob for hire. Deeply ashamed of that. Contempt, inculcated from the theater, with all the warnings you get as a young playwright. I would dip in for years, doing high-toned and somewhat tentative adaptations of literary novels. Most recently Tender Is the Night for Searchlight. (Expensive to make, sad ending, no director, what was I thinking?) It’s taken me years to figure it out, the pace of certain stories—the way the story tells you what form it should take. So I have given myself this ideological debriefing, which means not being scared of lenses and that not everything needs to be done in a master shot, which is what the theater does most of the time. Not having a subtle, defeatist contempt for the entire thing of it. But we have a very damaged film industry here. Abdication, development, testing, fretful executives, depleted and short-term thinkers, children. Very damaged. You, Neil, seem to manage to work through it, navigating it deftly. (Is this true?) You’re private, self-protective, somewhat sly, and you keep your own counsel, I think. You love actors. (Me too. It gives me so much joy, the way they invent and propel and hide and show. When they’re very good, they do it with modesty and certitude at the same time.) Playwrighting and filmmaking. I drift toward concluding that I must direct next time, keep it small, and work with friends. Grow. You did this. From In the Company of Men to Your Friends and Neighbors to Nurse Betty (which, with its loopy hegira across the country and its exquisite mix of brutality and gentleness, was totally wiggy and wonderful). But I also feel that you love the theater. Perhaps more than moviemaking. You love it. It gives you room to pause and fix.

Do you think about some of the same things I do? For example: Shrinking (and aging) audiences, high prices, somewhat on the fringes of the culture, and so on. Do you ever wonder why so few people do it or care about it? Do you care?

NL Funny you should mention David Hare; I dedicated The Mercy Seat to him in the printed version. I like his stuff a great deal. Straightforward, thoughtful, probing work. All the time. He just keeps at it. Maybe that’s what I like about playwrights, in the end: their mostly dogged determination to just do the thing. The fact that “wright” is part of the word is not lost on me. We’re like shipwrights or wheelwrights or something, just putting the pieces together, part of the process, but a hugely integral part of it. It’s just a wheel, after all, but most things with wheels aren’t going anywhere without them. In the theater, though, the word (and by extension, I suppose, the writer) is still respected. Film is a much trickier medium to deal with—not just to make, because I’m not sure it is that, but simply to deal with the business side of it. We’re treated well enough until the script is delivered, but after that it’s often, “Okay, see you at the premiere.” They seem to think that you are no longer a necessary and vital part of the process and any problems can be fixed by hiring a new writer to “punch it up,” yet a year later all the reviews cry out for a better, less doctored script. I remember running into David Rabe in a Blockbuster once (an ironic tale already) and I introduced myself, years before I’d had any significant success, and he was happily surprised to be recognized. We spoke for a bit and, in parting, he said, “This was good. We need to stick together, because we’re like buffalo. A dying breed.” I always liked that. And I think it’s true. Those who love the theater flock to it; we watch it and work in it because we love it. Not because we get rich or we can see real people laughing or crying or clapping at the end (none of those things suck, by the way, but it’s not the reason I do it), but because I couldn’t imagine a time or a world in which I couldn’t partake of the theater or actively work in it.

I’ve been lucky lately, to work in both film and theater, damn lucky, but luck hardly ever lasts. Not long enough, anyway. Someday, someone is probably going to politely ask me to stop doing one or the other. Or, more likely, they’ll just stop paying for it and that’ll put an end to it quickly. The filmmaking, at least. I don’t see myself running around with a little digital camera and cutting the footage together on two VCRs and then inviting friends over. People do it all the time, but I don’t see it in my future. But stop paying for one of my plays being produced and I’ll move all the furniture in my living room into the kitchen and put aluminum foil over the windows and invite a few friends over to watch me work. Sure, it’s hard to get the word out and to build an audience and to find the right space and to make a connection, a real connection, with an audience. But I’ll never stop trying. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to keep at the filmmaking for as long as they’ll let me, but without palpable hits to my name, it gets harder each time out. I’m very much an Andy Hardy sort of theater guy, as in “My dad’s got a barn, let’s put on a show!” Film is the same, except somebody’s dad (or mom; better not be sexist, I get busted for that enough as it is) had better also have 30,000 bucks to throw in the pot. Film just costs more to make, and maybe that’s why so many people watch over your shoulder while you’re doing it. They want to make a good film, sure, but they’re protecting their investment. Well, I’m not a banker; I don’t want to make investments, I want to make movies, I want to make theater. Good, solid entertainment, but not because they might make money. I want to make them because they’re worth making.

I love theater because there’s a clear distinction between process and product. You know you’re going to show it to people, but the process is clearly defined. In film, they’re intertwined. The first day of shooting needs to be as strong as the last. And once it’s shot and you’ve moved on, that’s it. Maybe an expensive reshoot, or get ready to beg for mercy or blame someone on the director’s commentary on the DVD. In the theater, however, even after opening night you can tinker with a piece. Or in another production. Because you’re a fussbudget or a perfectionist? Maybe, but for me it’s just because the chance is there, the possibility, and I like that.

PS: You should direct. Do it.


—Jon Robin Baitz is a playwright, director and screenwriter. His plays include Mizlansky/Zilinsky, The Film Society, The Substance of Fire, A Fair Country, Ten Unknowns and an adaptation of Ibsen’s , which ran on Broadway last season. He wrote the screen play for People I Know, which is scheduled to be released in April, and has two new plays opening this fall: The Paris Letter, which will premiere at The Huntington in Boston, andChinese Friends, opening at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle. Baitz is a recipient of NEA, Guggenheim and American Academy fellowships, as well as a Humanitas Award for the PBS production of Three Hotels, which he also directed. He is a founding member of Naked Angels, an off-Broadway theater company.

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BOMB 83, Spring 2003

Featuring interviews with Paul Pfeiffer, Pat Steir, Tom Sachs, Marie Ponsot, Steven Millhauser, Meshell Ndegeocelo, David Greenspan, and Neil Labute.

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