chat room

Neil LaBute on Some Velvet Morning, French New Wave, and Wicker Man

Filmmaker Neil LaBute attends the
Neil Labute. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Neil LaBute’s Some Velvet Morning premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, returning the writer-director to his more independent, dialogue-driven roots after a string of studio movies, including the notoriously bad Wicker Man remake, left fans scratching their heads. Velvet stars Stanley Tucci as Fred, a married man who shows up, bags packed, at the home of his former mistress (Alice Eve) four years after the two split up. It takes place entirely in one location and is another of LaBute’s remarkably dark and barbed explorations of the war between the sexes. We sat down with him to talk about the new film, his fondness for French New Wave, and, yes, Wicker Man.

You shot this in eight days. Is that the shortest time in which you’ve ever done a film?
Yeah, In the Company of Men was eleven days. Of the four films that people say would be most distinctly mine, which would be this one, In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and The Shape of Things, which came from my play — the longest was 21 days; 21, 18, 11, and 8.

So, did you go into production with a very precise idea of what you wanted?
Yes, but I was also ready to roll wherever I needed to because of that. I had a script, which I thought was in a good place. We had three days of rehearsal, and we ended up just sitting around the table and tearing the script apart, in the best sense. So we cut out twenty pages or so, from an already short script. Really ripped it down. With two people talking, an audience has to concentrate in a way that people aren’t always willing to. So we really tried to stay on task: What was the journey? From the moment that Fred arrives to the moment that Fred leaves — that was our story. Anything that felt reflective, we tried to take out.

There are still some reflective moments, though.
Stanley fought for a couple of things. He’s very smart. He’s also a director, so he sees the whole picture. He knew what he was in for with Fred. He also knew that the audience will at some point demand to know that the guy is here because he wants this girl — in a couple of different ways. On the surface, he’s saying, “I’ve always loved you. I’ve felt this incredible tug toward you, and I’ve always wanted to follow that thrill.” But we took out anything that felt like somebody was about to say, “I remember …” We had to always push forward. What is at hand here? She wants to go, and he doesn’t want her to go. He wants her in a way that she doesn’t want. What is this power dynamic that’s on the table?

Performance-wise, what does an actor have to do to keep something like this from feeling repetitive?
Technically, the film is kind of a real-time experience. And so you have to be able to let the actors live in that, and to create a sense that some conflicts are just more important than others. Sometimes, she’s a little more put off; she reminds herself that she has to leave. There is something about him that just keeps her in the room. But it was also important to escalate things. So, as soon as he throws something and breaks it, you can see her react; I don’t think she ever knew when he was going to do it.

I was impressed by how physical these performances were.
Alice was incredibly good about finding that language in herself: When she would sit with him, she would kind of flinch at times. So, they had a very physical interaction in that way. He’s not that big a guy. Right when he does break that, he’s actually smaller than her on the screen, because she’s in heels. He feels like he has to show that he still has that manly power, and that if it comes to blows, this is what’s going to happen. So those kinds of little moments along the way are important. Because when we’re working on stories about relationships, very often the audience has seen something like this before — so what’s new that you have to bring to the table? But I think there’s something satisfying in that ride if you’ve done it well — whether people figure out exactly where you’re going or if they don’t. It’s like a magic show. Good magic is sort of a win-win. You love it if you figure it out, but you also love it doubly if you haven’t figured it out.

At one point, I thought to myself, I wonder if he shot the film first without telling the actors what the ending was gonna be.
No. Not even I am that cruel.

The opening music in the film is from François Truffaut’s film The Soft Skin, which is also kind of a fantasy of adultery, and also a very confessional movie in its own way …
With scenes filmed in his own apartment. His wife wasn’t happy about that.

And you’ve talked before about your fondness for Truffaut and for Eric Rohmer and the French New Wave in general. This feels more influenced by that kind of work.
Absolutely. I’ve said before how much I love that work and how much detail you can do when you work in miniature like that, where the goal is not to tell a panoramic story. But I think more in that world where Truffaut sometimes went. Rohmer tended to fall back on his heel a bit and observe, whereas Truffaut is more of a romantic in a way, especially in films like The Soft Skin or The Woman Next Door. I didn’t expect it to actually be one of the biggest laughs in the movie, but there’s a point where Alice Eve describes all the craziness that this guy got to in the end of the first stage of their relationship, and he says, “Well, that’s what love is.” The audience laughs heartily there, but I think that’s a laugh of recognition. You’re thinking that, yeah, at some point in your life, you have had that relationship where you were being driven mad — with desire, with obsession. The French are particularly good at looking at love in that way.

This is also your return to this type of very independent, dialogue- and character-driven filmmaking. Did you feel that lack while you were doing movies like The Wicker Man or Death at a Funeral?
Absolutely so. I stretched myself in both directions, trying to work on the stage and trying to work in Los Angeles, and trying to work in New York, and trying to work in London, and trying to make movies, and you can only do so much. Movies just keep getting harder and harder to make, and finding someone who will put that kind of money on the table and say, “I’ll see that vision through.” A lot of what I would have done or started to do with the first couple movies, I immediately started filtering to the stage. It’s much easier to get these ideas onstage. If I could go off and do a dozen of these, I would be absolutely happy because this feels different. There are fewer complications, there are fewer people looking over your shoulder. It feels more like doing theater in the sense that everybody trusts everyone else, and it’s not pushing toward some other goal which is pretty much economically based.

You were pretty forthcoming about the negative response to The Wicker Man after it came out. Did you watch the various YouTube compilations and stuff like that?
Oh yeah. Some of those things are pretty hilarious. And it’s a movie that was supposed to be way out there. So it’s one of those things where you take a swing at the fence and go, “Here’s something interesting and crazy.” You can’t look at that without knowing you’re going on an adventure, and wondering, Is this gonna work or not? And I had a great time making it, I would work on it again in a heartbeat. I’d work with Nic again in a heartbeat. But hopefully the more people you have on the exact same boat, the better, because when you are working at cross purposes of what this is supposed to be, things can just go awry.

Neil LaBute on Some Velvet Morning, Wicker Man