- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

NEW YORK CITY — Neil LaBute, unlike his principal cast members, was a relatively early admirer of A.S. Byatt's novel "Possession," which he has transposed into a faithful and affecting movie 12 years after its publication.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart, a former Brigham Young University classmate who has appeared in all four movies directed by Mr. LaBute, are cast as the modern literary scholars who fall in love while investigating the clandestine love affair of Victorian writers played by Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle.
"I wasn't there right from the start," Mr. LaBute says during a press junket hosted by Focus Features at the Regency Hotel. "It was one of those things I picked up a little late, knowing that it had won the Booker Prize a couple of years before.
"It had a pretty lofty reputation by the time I did catch up with it. I was a graduate student then, which meant I was also a teacher. And an Anglophile, so I was pretty well-equipped to be impressed, and it was a great read."
Mr. LaBute, 39, is a Detroit native who majored in drama at BYU and went on to graduate studies at the University of Kansas and New York University. The author of undergraduate plays whose scabrous and provocative tendencies made him a troublesome phenomenon at the straight-laced BYU, Mr. LaBute made his film debut in 1997 with a low-budget shocker titled "In the Company of Men."
Shot on a shoestring in Fort Wayne, Ind., the movie introduced Mr. Eckhart as a junior executive who engineers a cruel practical joke while seducing a deaf office worker. Human behavior at its most degenerate remained the subject of Mr. LaBute's second feature, "Your Friends and Neighbors," released in 1999.
At a glance, Mr. LaBute would have seemed a far-fetched candidate to adapt and direct the prestigious "Possession." The more logical choices over the course of the 1990s would have been James Ivory of "Room With a View" and "Howards End," Gillian Armstrong of "My Brilliant Career" and "Little Women," or Anthony Minghella of "The English Patient" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
Nevertheless, Mr. LaBute had begun to enlarge his range beyond the plays and scripts that seemed to type him as an incorrigible young misanthrope. His third feature, the picaresque crime comedy "Nurse Betty," was written by someone else. At the same time, he was actively looking into the status of "Possession," which had been acquired by Warner Bros.
"By that time, Warners had held the rights for a decade," Mr. LaBute recalls. "The project had cooled off again. It was between people who were committed to making it. I volunteered to make another start, working on a new screenplay with Laura Jones. I don't think I've made enough movies to have a body of work, but if people are pleasantly surprised by this film, I think it will be a good shock. It reflects a shift in interest to a book I loved and sincerely wanted to do."
Realizing a cherished movie project is likely to require prodigious patience. "There are so many stages," he says with a sigh. "Developing a script and then getting it financed and cast and shot. Then seeing it through post-production, previews and an eventual release."
The release of "Possession" itself has proved a stumbling block. "In a perfect world, this movie would have been out several months ago," the director says.
"The film was made by USA Films, which is a branch of Universal. 'Being John Malkovich' and 'Gosford Park' have been their big titles. The company recently underwent a name change to Focus Features. Warners remained involved all along as a kind of senior partner.
"Anyway, we were ready to go last fall, but the company did so well with 'Gosford Park' that they didn't want another period film on their slate until 'Gosford' had been through the Academy Award season and completely realized its potential," he says.
Having played bridesmaid to "Gosford Park," the movie version of "Possession" played another waiting game this summer.
"The next attractive target date was June," Mr. LaBute says. "Then Warners, our very own partners, pulled rank and bumped us with 'Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.' When the smoke clears, I think the switch to mid-August will prove beneficial."
Mr. LaBute acknowledges that Miss Paltrow was indispensable to getting the project approved.
"Gwyneth seems so obvious, so right for the role of Maud. She's described in the book itself, although she was about 17 and unknown at the time it was published. She's had great success in stories of this kind. I wanted her. The studios wanted her. We all agreed. So something had to be wrong. Well, no, you're just not used to having a major piece of the whole package fall into place so neatly."
Casting his sidekick Aaron Eckhart as the romantic lead opposite Miss Paltrow was a trickier proposition. In the first place, it depended on a change in the story: The character he plays, Roland Michell, a researcher at the British Museum, is English in Miss Byatt's book.
"That happened toward the end of the writing process with Laura Jones," Mr. LaBute says. "Somewhere along the way, we agreed that it would make sense to turn Roland into an American. The more different Maud and Roland could be from each other, the better. So we added nationality to the list of differences."
Readers will find a number of supporting characters missing from the Jones-LaBute screenplay. The casualties begin with Roland Michell's estranged fiancee, Val.
"She never made it into our draft," Mr. LaBute says. "The rollicking feminist professor Leonora Stern was in the script, and we actually shot some stuff with her. But it became more and more obvious that she served only one purpose in story terms: getting Maud and Roland to France in order to retrace the steps of the Victorian lovers.
"We fashioned a way to do that through a character who had been introduced earlier, a former boyfriend of Maud's played by Toby Stephens. Then there's a devoted researcher named Beatrice whose job we gave to Roland. That helped us streamline a little more."
According to Mr. LaBute, he needed to take a somewhat stubborn line to get Mr. Eckhart into the cast, although his supporting role in "Erin Brockovich" evidently gives him superior billing clout to the dashing Jeremy Northam, who became conspicuous as Miss Paltrow's leading man in "Emma" and recently adorned "Gosford Park."
As Mr. LaBute recalls, the second phase of casting obliged him to "tell Aaron to get his hair cut and charm the people who needed to believe he was right for Roland, so we could all pack and go to England."
They weren't convinced on the spot, but the director had a foolproof fallback position. "I stood by the idea show me someone better than Aaron," Mr. LaBute recalls. "I admitted that they could probably hire someone who cost a lot more than Aaron. They might also have come up with someone as qualified to play the role. But better? I thought that was unlikely. And they didn't."

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