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The Shape of Things - Neil LaBute Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

SPOILER WARNING: The following interview contains plot revelations - do not read if you are intending to see the film

Q. Reflecting on the film, was In the Company of Men the impetus?
A.
It's certainly in there. I think one of the grains of this story came from a journalist somewhere, along the way, who asked if I could imagine that story told with two women perpetrating that set up that the men did.
And while I didn't imagine the two women could be as deceptive as that, I imagined it to be more of a case that someone would be singular.
Men tend to have that kind of pack mentality. I didn't immediately go and write something about it, but that was in my head when I came upon the idea of an art student who used a person; that seemed like a nice place to join those two ideas.

Q. Are we supposed to come away from the film reflecting on artists, or a particular type of artist who's willing to sacrifice everything for their art?
A.
Well, I suppose I've done a lousy job if you don't. In some way, there's a difficulty inherent in the piece when you're trying to talk about art, that you're having to try and load everything into the far end of the screenplay, or the play, because you don't want to tip your hand.
You really want to fool the audience, as much as Adam is being fooled, into believing its about a relationship and that she happens to be an artist and not that he happens to be her work.
So you end up in a kind of moment towards the end of the picture when you can really discuss the morality of what you've done because you don't want to reveal it too early.
So that bit that is earlier in the picture, when they talk about a performance artist that they've seen together, was I way that I found to coax some of that material into it.
In fact, that wasn't in the play originally in Kings Cross, I added that.
I thought you could get a little more of that, without tipping my hand too much.

Q. Can we infer what sort of artist you are?
A.
I know who Evelyn (Weisz) is, I understand her. In fact, quite easily you could look at the piece and imagine it's as much about writers as it is about fine artists, because writers, in general, are fairly canibalistic, are vampiric, are looking to take from some other source, so I see that in myself.
So I can use a situation in the paper, or a conversation with a loved one, and feel it emotionally, but also be looking from the point of view of, 'boy I'd love to poach a portion of that and feed it into my work'.

Q. You mentioned the play, any major changes?
A.
There's a few, but I didn't really have to open it up. I got a lucky break in that way. I was afforded by two companies - Working Title and Focus Features - they split the cost of the film, and they really just enjoyed the experience of the play and knew we wanted to make it for a small amount of money, but the hitch was that we really didn't want to do the traditional opening up of the play and trying to fool the audience into thing that it's something other than it is.
They said, feel free to present it the way it is on stage.
There were ten scenes on stage, there were essentially 10 scenes in the film.
I set, I guess, one more of the scenes out of doors … there was two, now there are three … but other than that, and moving it to somewhere in California .. that was simply because of necessity.
The company of actors who started in London had gone to New York … by the time the were done in New York, it was February and rather than filming in the Midwest, where it was set, we switched it to California to make it amenable to shooting.
But it was a very cosmetic change, because the heart of the thing is obviously theatrical, and I couldn't be happier with that.
It's a film by virtue of being on film, but it has very theatrical sets and the movement is limited within the frame.

Q. How crucial was it to get the original actors?
A.
Hugely important. The notion of it began, not as a money-making scheme, but as a kind … well it grew from the enjoyment of the rehearsal room.
So the play hadn't opened or been received in any way, it was simply working with actors, who it was fun to be with, rehearsing the play and wanting to extend that feeling and knowing that the run had an end to it.
So we sort of bantered around the idea of making a film of it ourselves just very, very cheaply, but no one, ultimately, took their credit card out of their pocket, so it wasn't until Working Title, whom Rachel had been working with on About A Boy, that it got realistic and someone said 'yes, I would be happy to help you'.
So it really came out of having to work with those people, so, therefore, I couldn't imagine replacing one of them.
It was weird doing a movie without Aaron Eckhart, and the only way to get him in there was on the cover of a magazine. Other than that, I had no desire to work with any other actors.

Q. Were you inspired by the movie Vertigo, or is the idea of James Stewart remoulding Kim Novak into the woman he wants a whole different ball game?
A.
Well, since you picked a movie that was good, it would be silly of me to say no. I wouldn't say that's a very apt model, because I didn't go into it thinking that, but that kind of sense certainly is in there.
There's less of the beautiful mood that's evoked in that. This is very dialogue heavy, so there isn't the silence that he uses in that movie.
But yeah, if you want to compare with that, in print, that would be great.
But yes, I think there is something of that Pygmalion sensibility in that desire to mould something.
But while Pygmalion is driven by a kind of love, there's far less of that here, ultimately because … well perhaps I shouldn't qualify it … but love is something other than the figure that's being moulded. It's the work that she does.

Q. Why do the only people who object to what Evelyn's doing are the people most directly affected by it. Wouldn't more people be upset by it?
A.
Quite possibly, quite possibly. It was important to put it in that kind of town, basically a college town, that has a kind of conservative face to it.
That said, I think the notion of it is so particular and so peculiar to them, for me, as long as it was in the realm of possibility and that the idea was they're in that moment … not even Adam really … has much time to react to it.
He doesn't go and start throwing things around; he's kind of stunned into silence, except for getting up and leaving and finally thawing a little and confronting her. And you could easily go that way.
And also, trying to capture a little bit of the theatrical experience. When that scene happens in the play, the fourth wall is abandoned and the actors go and sit in the theatre and her audience for her exhibit, becomes the audience who's watching the show … and I don't remember any audience members leaving … so there was that sense of that same thing happening, that it was really just Jenny and Phil and Adam who left.
The most difficult thing was to capture some sense of that, and I started paring down her dialogue in that scene.
You couldn't get that same sense of her walking on different people in the auditorium, as she was delivering that little moment at the end, where she puts the audience, was well chosen by me as the right kind of moment .. but also to simulate some sense of have Evelyn look you in the eye and confront you.
That also was a kind of comparison to what happened in the theatre. But had another director done that, it would be completely valid as well.
I was big on the sound of what was going on … you could here people who were disquieted by it, but no one actually stands up …
It's like the same way people leave in a theatre - there's kind of an implicit silent partnership that I can sit on stage and talk to you, and say 'look this is why I'm a murderer and we're all murderers, but I know what's in your heart and people can stop looking at me or look away' - but they rarely talk back to her, knowing it's a live performance. I think people are too nice to make too big a thing about it.

Q. Compared to audiences - American audiences can be quite vociferous...
A.
I think, vocally, in film they can be - in the theatre there's a contract they make.

Q. What sort of response do you get?
A.
In this particular case? With this film, I think, it was about what I imagined.
Somewhat polarising, but not always along gender lines. I think everybody gets what she's doing and some people just reject it.
I think the interesting part of what she's done is that Adam's there to look at, and most people are torn by what the result is.
Yes, that was a naughty thing to do, but you did get to sleep with her, and you look pretty good. So, yes, it's a strange thing to go, 'I'm not saying that emotionally that was right, but there's something nagging at me that says you've come out of this okay, and you're young and there's a lot of things on the side of this isn't a great tragedy, it's just a shitty thing that's happened'.

Q. It's sounds like an argument against reality TV?
A.
Not a bad argument, yeah.

Q. Would you define what Evelyn does as art?
A.
Sure I would. I would define it as art because she's defined it as that. I wouldn't disagree with her, that it's art. Do I think it's good art? Or useful art?
But was it worth doing? I suppose that would be the big question for me. I don't devalue it as her work and if she believes it .. . it's such a fine, subjective line.
I certainly believe in that side of the argument, that it's so subjective that they can both be right. He can see it as shit and she can see it as art, and neither one has to be wrong about that, so whether I see it as art is different to whether I would do it.

Q. Do you think that because it's a small town that nobody can confront the piece of art?
A.
Well, at that moment perhaps. But, again, I think there's that moment of recognition, and there's the time that you take to process it. So there's not the aesthetic distance that one who's experiencing that might need to process it.
Adam, himself, is still trying to process it, so we don't see enough to make that conscious choice.
But is that an American trait? Certainly, we've cornered the market on that. We're good at it.
Truth is such an elusive thing. As soon as I start to tell you something, it's been altered, because of my perception.
When I mention In the Company of Men in this, I think the lead character in that precipitates this kind of idea of let's hurt something.
I think he's a character who lies throughout the movie. I think he lies to every single character he runs into, whereas I think Evelyn, I consider her to be a very truthful person, in fact, she tells the truth when you don't necessarily want to hear it.
But I knew within the parameters of what she was doing, she would have to lie.

Q. Do you think it's a good way of making film, to do a play first?
A.
It was great in this particular case, because it had a really well rehearsed cast.
It allowed me to make it quickly, in an 18-day shoot … I've made them quicker … but it was about as quick as I've done.
In the Company of Men was 11 days, because we didn't have much money, and had to do it that quickly. But all the rehearsal alowed them to really sustain long, long takes.
You go into the ADR lounge, and can do huge chunks instead of one line at a time.
They could match their delivery. That said, I didn't want it to be an exact replication of the stage play, and I wanted them to change their performance, and be aware of what they were doing, and not just be a repeat of this is what I did on stage.
So when we were getting ready, I went back and removed certain lines, which forced them to go back and rethink it.
In terms of shooting, it was very strange for them to be in certain settings, with a stage and audience, and now not to have any laughs to play for, or the energy of an audience to play with.
To actually have someone near you, who might hear what you're talking about. So you have to be aware of all these things.
Somewhat cosmetic. It all still hinged on those relationships. There wasn't a huge change, and because of the way I shot it quite economically, really it was about gtting down to the heart of the acting and the script.
Is it a good way to start? I'm not terribly sure, it's just the one time I've done it. I would do it again, but it's not for me like a great marketing tool; like I can really stretch my visibility, like I'll do a play and turn it into a movie that way, and in that way, I'l l at least be busy for the rest of my life.
It was just something that happened to this particular time.

Q. Why did you use Elvis Costello?
A.
I used, on stage, the Smashing Pumpkins, which worked very well for me. I loved that sound, that collegiate American sound.
But I also used it for a very particular reason. I think the energy of it, not having an intermission on stage, and just the harsh sonic attack of the music, was great. It didn't allow the audience to think about it on stage.
And the reason the audience can think about it more on the film is because the film is sort of perpetual. On stage, every time there's a scene change, those actors must physically go back and change their costumes, so the scene changes are what, 30 seconds, a minute.
And a Smashing Pumpins song sometimes takes that long to get going.
So the fury of it just washed over the audience, and didn't give them a moment to contemplate it. And I liked that on stage.
Whereas, on film, you can do the next scene, and not have that bridge. So I really needed something that was the antithesis of what I had on stage, which was Elvis Costello - because he writes such sharp, pointed, catchy hooks on songs that he's a master craftsman.
And he's written so much material that he could kind of paint each of the settings very quickly and vividly.
And so because of the craft of editing, I needed something that was different from what I had used before.
I think he writes very lucidly about relationships and, frankly, I just like 'em. It was a good excuse to meet him.

Q. Evelyn's art at the end. The more beautiful he is, the more morally ambiguous he becomes…
A.
She does say that, yes.

Q. Then she says, if you look in a magazine, this is what you see. Is this meant to be your comment on the culture of beauty and celebrity? Basically, the more physically handsome you are, the more you can get away with...
A.
I think in this particular case, I believe in the notion that opportunity goes hand in hand with those aspects.
I don't think it's just American culture, but I think it's certainly there in our culture - a willingness to give those whom … and I don't mean it just to hang it on those with physical beauty … but have the attributes that we enjoy or wish to have for ourselves: money, power, fame, looks, youth.
Those things intrigue us and we want to be part of that circle, so we afford them a greater sense of metaphorical rope.
We give them more room in which to maneouvre, and I think that's part of what she's putting forward, that I didn't see this necessarily when I started this, but the more conventionally attractive he became, the more opportunity he was afforded, and the greater chance he had of stumbling and, in fact, stumble he did.
She sees it happening in her experiment, but I don't think it's a crazy notion to say that we are driven, in American culture, by a lot of those things.

Q. The film concentrates on a process of creating the art, rather than the art being a human subject. Is this representative of film work: how the film is presented to you while you watch it? Because we're concentrating on how people are created, what characters and afterwards, nothing, there is no reality as it were. Is it reflecting art itself?
A.
I wasn't, but that sounds so smart I'm going to jump on the band wagon. I have no choice but to agree. I hope that was what I was doing, that leaves me some wiggle room.
I do think that one of the great differences between theatre and film is that there's a definite delineation between process and product, and I think, in film, the emphasis is so much on product that the commodity of it … so many films are created by a company that is part of a larger company …. What they're making is a package that sells.
It would be lovely to make something that's good, but I want to make something that sells. I think, for me, that's the wrong way to go about crafting something. And I do ultimately love the process of theatre, more so than making the process of film.
Much as I enjoy making films, I'm new to it, and so I'm continually delighted by it … although I probably shouldn't use the word delighted, that will paint me in a wrong light.
I'm happy doing it. However, it's a strange marriage. As you're doing the process, you're creating something every day that is part of the product.
Whereas there's an obvious growth process for me that is different from the product.
I think by film having that nature, I'm less comfortable with it.

Q. Is there an underlying cynicism in having a woman manipulating a man?
A
. No, that was more a documentary feel [laughs]. No, I don't know why that would be more cynical, than a man manipulating a woman. It just happens to be someone manipulating another person.
I don't see her as inherently cynical. My views, I don't think, are inherently cynical on relationships for women or anything … at worst, probably, sceptical; I think that human nature is such that we have a great capacity to do both good and bad.
And that we're often easily led to making a less worthy choice.
The fact that Evelyn is female doesn't, to me, signify anything more to me that what her gender is. I think Jenny is quite the opposite of that.
Although, seemingly, benign, she proves herself to be wilful.
And so I don't' see it as being aggressive, I see it as being an assertive person. She's the first one to stand up and say, 'as far as I'm concerned this is wrong'.

Q. Do you triangulating the real emotion by choosing extremes?
A.
Yeah, in the end I'm writing fiction, I'm creating an entertainment.
Hopefully, I'm entertaining. Every so often, I'll run into someone who's seen something of mine, and they'll say, 'I enjoyed it, well I can't say enjoy'… And I'll say, 'why not, why not enjoy whatever it is?
Entertaining me means whether it was good , I sat through it, I was compelled, whatever. I'm trying to tell a story, but I'm also trying to keep the character engaged.
I don't care if they like the character, so much as they find them interesting, and want to know what happens next.
That's my ultimate job, to keep asking that question over and over until the end … I think extremes, you're looking to create conflict, I'm not a documentarian.
I don't lift directly from life. I just had a play open here yesterday, that is as close to writing something in the moment of incident. As I often do, it often takes place in an undefined geography.
But I think those extremes help to create a better battleground.
A place to have everything that's in between played out by having the two ends of the continuum there, so, yeah, I do look out for what will create friction from the beginning.

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