Director's Cut: Neil LaBute ('Some Velvet Morning')

large_SOME_VELVET_MORNING_1_pubs

Neil LaBute's newest film “Some Velvet Morning” kicked my ass when I saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year (read my full review here).

This movie is basically Alice Eve and Stanley Tucci speaking (and yelling and eventually getting non-verbal) at one another in a Brooklyn (probably) townhouse for an hour and a half. Some might call it a “filmed play,” but that's dismissing its rather cagey use of camera placement. For God's sake, Alice Eve wears a red dress and walks up and down a staircase. You can do a lot with that, cinematically.

Neil LaBute, whose career began with indie hits like “In The Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors” (and who also has a very active life as a playwright) seems not unaware that his film career has gone in an . . .unexpected direction. It started with “the bees.” In 2006 he released the Nic Cage remake of “The Wicker Man,” one of the most mocked films of the last decade. Follow-ups “Lakeview Terrace” and the Chris Rock-produced remake of the recent British film “Death At A Funeral” didn't make too much of an impact.

With “Some Velvet Morning” he has returned to his roots: dark, nasty dramas that pick at the scab of gender roles and sexual politics.

In my discussion with LaBute we quickly do away with talking around certain plot revelations. If you are a spoiler wuss, bookmark this page and come back. Don't say “you'll come back” and not bookmark, though, 'cause you'll forget. So, really, don't be a jerk, bookmark the page. You want to read what we have to say. I'm checking to make sure you do.

FILM.COM: You work in both theater and film. This movie could have easily been a play. Was a movie from story conception?

NEIL LABUTE: It easily could have gone either way. I could have passed it off to a theater company or worked on it myself in that capacity. I didn't write it for anybody. I still do that all the time – write something without a home and then find a home for it. But I knew I wanted to get back into making a film like the ones I did when I first started out. It had been a while. “In The Company Of Men” was the same way.

If I did it on stage first people would say “oh, it's a film of a play.” If I did it as a movie first, whether you liked it or not, it had to be taken as it was – as a film.

Since much of the movie seems like – for lack of a better phrase – a filmed play, the moments that exploit what cinema can do really pop. Here and there you do things that you just can't do on a stage: close ups, or lingering on a reaction shot or a face. With this restraint, these instances have a lot of impact. Was this economy of cinematic technique something you kept close tabs on?

When you make the jump and say “let's make a movie” you have to think in those terms. Film is so broad, so elastic – from the biggest special effects spectacle to something so intimate and even smaller than this like, you know, Ryan Reynolds in a coffin. But you're right about things like close ups.

In a live experience, even in “the best seats in the house,” you wouldn't get as close to Alice Eve's face in the same way, it's an ability only cinema has. So, yes, with a movie you have to use that. I use the camera as a recorder, not about moves the camera makes throughout the picture. When it does, you have an important effect. You have to choose your camera angles carefully, particularly if you only have a few of them.

The movie is very present tense, and you are constantly rooting around for more information about these characters. It felt to me that another bread crumb would come just at the perfect moment, just when you think you've started to figure things out . . .then there's another turn. How mathematical are you in your writing? Do you say “oh, it's been X amount of minutes, we're due for the next one?”

It's a mix. And at this point, for me, while you are always learning and perfecting, there is an instinctual clock that says “it's about time for something” and then weirdly it's “we're 30 minutes in, we're 60 minutes in, we're at the climax now.” That may just be from working in this way for a certain amount of years.

But it is also where the story leads you. I'm more often than not creating a scenario aware of what the ending will be, but not sure how we're going to get there. So you surprise yourself as you go along. A healthy mix of calculation and surprise.

It's very hard to talk about this movie without addressing the ending. So, you know, SPOILER ALERT as they say. Here's the deal: people go to see this movie at a theater or on VOD, and there's a power blackout just three minutes before the end – or whenever that final reveal is. After Tucci leaves.

If someone says “eh, we got the whole movie, that was the last scene, after that was probably just gonna be credits,” what type of experience would those audience members have? How important is that final twist to really understanding the characters?

It's hugely important. It wouldn't be there otherwise. That said, I hope those other 85 minutes are highly enjoyable, and if they were taken at face value they would still be on an honest and emotional ride. Even though it is a dishonest emotional ride, eventually, it is certainly meant to feel like an honest one for all that time. So we were working to create the same feeling.

There are very few moments where we wink to the camera to imply “there's something going on here.” We did manufacture some along the way, but they are precious few because there's a tipping point there. So it's like a good magic trick – you get people to look at one thing while you are doing something on the other corner of the screen.

I would say this hypothetical audience has gone on a quite valid ride, but they missed one loop-the-loop.

neil_labute

Maybe I'm just a sucker and fell for it too hard, but even though I know it was just a put on I can't believe those characters' “personas” don't have part of them in there.

I think you're right. She, certainly in the last moments of the piece, has looks on her face that you can't help but read as having an emotional weight beyond what is being described.

I'd like to think so, or else it's a totally nihilistic world we live in.

[Laughs]

So, here's what happened to me. I saw this during the Tribeca Film Festival, a very busy time running around doing all sorts of things. This movie is on my schedule and, honestly, I had no idea what it was other than LaBute, Tucci and Alice Eve. I'm there by myself. When it ended, I didn't see any friends or colleagues around me so I did what a man has to do: I took to Twitter. I took to Twitter and tweeted a mighty tweet. I called you out! I basically said “Screw you, Neil LaBute!”. People thought it was because I disliked your film. Which I didn't. I've grown to really admire it. But at the time – I was merely shellshocked.

Now, I know this is kinda silly to say, but – I really felt violated by this twist. Here was a character who had just been raped, and while that was happening I was just devastated because I cared about her. Then when it turned out to be phony, I felt – I don't want to say “I felt raped” because that's asinine – but I felt violated in a way. So . . . job well done? Is that what you wanted to hear?

Yes, actually. There is that intent – that the audience is the most in the dark of anyone. The characters ultimately had a connection and a currency between them that you wouldn't know about. If we did it right.

I knew that reaction could exist. And it's a reaction that could run all the way around to call the movie a shell-game or a piece of shit! You run that risk. But it's a risk worth taking.

Well, when I stewed on it, I realized it was the right way to go. I'm gonna hit you with my interpretation.

It's the only way to go to get you in the head of Alice Eve's character because she is someone who plays these games for work – ostensibly by choice – but it is taking its toll on her. You see it on her face. She pretends to be an in-control sex worker at the end, but it's getting to her. And there are a thousand movies about that topic, but to get you, the audience, to feel exhausted and violated in the way that she is, you have to use shock and awe tactics.

'Cause all you can think is, “Oh, my God, she has to go through all that again for her 4 o'clock?” That's my end run interpretation.

I applaud your end run. We'll leave it at that.

Years ago I saw you on the “Charlie Rose Show” shilling for “Your Friends And Neighbors.” You jokingly said that after “In The Company Of Men” everyone called you a misogynist but hopefully after this one they'll graduate you to full-blown misanthrope. I'm paraphrasing from a memory over a decade old, but the remark stayed with me.

Some people might call “Some Velvet Morning” as misanthropic. I see two people desperate to connect to one another, but can't.

It's darkly comic, but that desire for them is . . . well . . .If we believe the last few moments, and Alice's performance brings it to a whole other level of deception – but there is the desire, within this exchange, to connect. She's interested in the next time he's coming. Now, is that just because she wants to get paid? Or because she has formed a bond with him? And he, outside of the family he talks about, he needs something other than he has?

I don't see that as cynical. It looks at life in a humanist way. It says people are vastly complex – and who am I to judge what they consider love or affection within the bonds of acceptable adult behavior? At the end of the day, this movie holds up a mirror and says “this happened. Now what do you think?”

“Some Velvet Morning” is available via VOD and iTunes on December 10th and plays select (and unusually varied) cities starting December 13th.