"Who with?" asks the other, in a tone that suggests she wants an immediate answer. The interviewer responds that the man sitting to his left is Neil LaBute, director of In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, Nurse Betty, Possession and the brand-new The Shape of Things.
"Nurse Betty I've heard of," says one woman to the other, as they disappear back into the bar, satisfied with the answer but not entirely impressed by it, either.
"Yeah," the playwright-filmmaker says softly but not bitterly. "They've heard of the one with the girl," by which he means Renée Zellweger, who played a traumatized waitress who believed Greg Kinnear was a soap-opera doctor and not merely an actor playing a part. Nurse Betty, released in 2000, was not LaBute's most profitable film--that would be his 1997 debut In the Company of Men, which cost $25,000 and made almost $3 mil--but his most popular, because it felt like a comedy and left audiences smiling as they headed for the exits. Usually, LaBute's films will punch you in the gut and knock you to the ground and spit on your crumpled heap. They are movies so dark you can't see the writer-director's hand in front of your face till it's socking you in the nose. The multiplex ma-and-pa audience doesn't much go for what LaBute's got; the only thing they want dark when they go to the movies is the theater.
But for a particular audience--the masochistic, the misanthropic, the moviegoer who likes to wash down the arsenic with a shot of Drano--LaBute's morality tales provide a particular brand of catharsis. (This does not include Nurse Betty, which he did not write, and last year's adaptation of A.S. Byatt's novel Possession, with Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow stalking Victorian lovers through ancient love letters.) His films overflow with the very worst people imaginable doing the very worst things to each other; they lie to each other, cheat on each other, manipulate each other, screw with and screw over each other until all that's left are corpses devastated by the bomb blasts of human behavior.
In his debut, In the Company of Men, two businessmen (LaBute regular Eckhart and Matt Malloy) exact their revenge on an entire gender by toying with a beautiful and kind deaf woman. Eckhart's Chad is defined by what he tells Malloy's Howard: Inside, women are "all the same--meat and gristle and hatred just simmering." A year later, Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener, Amy Brenneman, Jason Patric and Eckhart were the kind of Friends & Neighbors who hate-fucked each other till they became but stains on a sheet. The film's most horrific moment would occur when Patric, drenched in sauna-sweat, bragged to Stiller and Eckhart about the time he raped a boy in high school. Every time you laughed at those movies you also could taste a little vomit in the back of your throat.
It's the same response elicited by LaBute's 2001 play-turned-film The Shape of Things, in which art student Evelyn (About a Boy's Rachel Weisz) gives frumpy collegian Adam (Clueless' Paul Rudd) a makeover of epic proportions, simply using the power of suggestion. She gets him to lose weight, eat better, fix his hair, lose his dowdy jacket, even go in for plastic surgery. But her improvements are not for reasons altogether altruistic, as Adam and his friends discover by film's end. So hideous, but not entirely unexpected, is LaBute's twist you might leave the theater feeling in need of a Silkwood shower.
LaBute, the 40-year-old Detroit-born Brigham Young grad who is this close to getting his ass excommunicated from the Mormon Church, resists the theory that his characters are grotesqueries and that the situations in which he places them are hyperbole. He does not agree when the theory is put before him that the three films he's written and directed lay bare the worst aspects of humanity in order to draw out the best in his audience, which may recognize and want to exorcise bits and pieces of themselves revealed on screen.
"I think you're totally off," he says, kidding but not really through a barely perceptible grin. "No, I do think [my work] does try to walk a line, because I don't want it to be like science fiction, that you look at everybody and go, 'I don't recognize anything as human behavior.' But there's always, like, a ringer; there's a guy out there who you think, 'This is so beyond anything. I may think this, but I'm never going to say this out loud.' It's always somewhere safely in the middle where I look. I look at a person like Adam or Howard in In the Company of Men or Ben Stiller's character...and they're much closer to the center of who I think we are, and they're the guys who are actually a little more responsible. The outlandish characters, you kind of go, they're kind of interesting and crazy, but it's the guy who thinks he has a kind of moral superiority and yet continues to make these kind of horrible choices in his life that I'm more interested in."
At least LaBute has this much going for him: He doesn't make anything you react to with a limp whatever. Half the audience found In the Company of Men misogynistic, half thought it feminist; half the audience thought Your Friends & Neighbors hysterical, half found it repugnant. And this is a man whose very first play--1991's Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, in which a straight man launches into a disturbing homophobic tirade--infuriated an audience member who felt compelled to stand up and shout, "Kill the playwright!" LaBute, then studying at New York University, was in attendance.
"That was exciting," LaBute recalls. "And equal parts frightening, because I was in the audience, but exciting, as well, because we're so trained to not respond in anything but appropriate ways--to applaud, you know, that kind of thing, but not to talk back to live actors...I often try to include the audience in a kind of silent-partner way of not just saying, 'Here are some horrible things I'm going to talk about.' The audience either takes it or, in this case, the guy goes, 'You know what? I need to let you know I don't take that, I'm not like you.' I was slightly thrilled, which says very little about my personal character and a lot about me as a writer, because I thought it was interesting...But I have no interest in stopping provoking an audience."
But merely being confrontational is not the mark of a great artist. Nor is merely using the excuse, "I am asking questions, not providing answers," which LaBute often says when trying to shield himself from explaining too much the intentions behind his work. Journalists who profile LaBute always comment on how ironic that so seemingly sweet a fellow could concoct such merciless people and cruel situations, but it's precisely that kindly exterior that allows him to get away with being such a bastard in his work: You gotta be kind to be cruel, in other words. This is, after all, a man who wrote a September 11 play, The Mercy Seat, in which a man contemplates pretending he died in the World Trade Center so he can run away with his mistress and abandon his wife and kids--hardly the stuff of heroism, so often (too often, maybe) the theme of art made in the shadow of the terrorist attacks.
The genesis of The Mercy Seat, which will likely become a made-for-Showtime production with its original stars Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber, may explain a great deal about LaBute. He was in Chicago when the planes slammed into the towers, trying to get back to Manhattan for rehearsals for The Shape of Things. What should have been a short plane trip became a 21-hour marathon.
"And there was an ugly little moment where I was in the train station in Chicago," LaBute begins, his voice tinged with rare shades of shame. "I've got my Amtrak ticket and there's a huge line, and I thought, 'Wow, I know it's terrible, but this is really inconvenient.' And it quickly goes out of your head. But instead of burying it down, I published it."
LaBute wants to be the man who says what others will not, in polite company or otherwise. To him, the Great Truth About Humanity is revealed not in our deceptions but in the things we simply choose not to say altogether. His entire artistic life is defined, it seems, by something spoken by Howard in In the Company of Men: "I get so used to saying what people want to hear I forget sometimes they might just want the truth."
At the end of The Shape of Things, Adam tells would-be artist Evelyn that there is a price to pay for her actions; she can't hide behind the excuse that her malevolent deeds were done purely in the name of art. "If I totally miss the point here, and somehow puking up your own little shitty neuroses all over people's laps is art," he tells her, "then you oughta at least realize there's a price to it all. Somebody always pays for people like you, and if you don't get that, if you can't see at least that much, then you're about two inches away from using babies to make lamp shades and calling it art." You wonder how often someone has said the very same thing to Neil LaBute.
"None, actually," he says. "Or I would've used it much earlier, because I constantly poach from what I hear--good jokes, the sorrows of people's lives. I'm listening with one ear and thinking, 'That's really horrible,' and with the other side I'm thinking, 'How long has to go by before I can change the sexes of those people and use it to make money off of it?' So no one actually said that, but I'm sure they've implied it with a withering look of, 'You're going to pay someday for being mean to those characters.' But really, in the end you have to think you're being mean to characters. They don't exist, you know? I have a pretty healthy view of, 'This is fiction, this is life.' I'm a very kind of average, well-adjusted person in terms of life. But onstage and in film, I like to have things be a little more savage."