- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

You can call Neil LaBute many things — misogynistic, for example, or even misanthropic — but don’t call him thin-skinned. The writer-director took a lot of flak for his film debut, 1997’s “In the Company of Men.” The film featured two men planning to woo, then dump, a deaf woman to strike a blow for men everywhere.

In a recent phone interview to promote his new film, “The Shape of Things,” the filmmaker sounded implausibly mature and reasonable about the criticism.

“I’m not impervious to criticism, but I’m very open to it,” says Mr. LaBute, whose latest film is adapted from his 2001 play of the same name. “I get a chance to say what I say; if they wanna say their piece, fine. Go for it.”

“Shape” follows the disastrous courtship of two college students (Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd), with a final twist right in keeping with Mr. LaBute’s dark world view.

Mr. LaBute doesn’t discourage the notion of links between this film and his first two efforts, “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends & Neighbors.”

“It’s a fair assessment,” he says. “It’s very much of that same kind of world.”

Though straightforward, formula love stories might bring him bigger audiences, the director clearly can’t be bothered.

“If I’m going to tread in that area, I feel like I’m responsible for having something fresh to say,” says Mr. LaBute, whose new film represents a return to form, of sorts, after his less overtly bleak recent features, “Nurse Betty” (2000) and “Possession” (2002).

None of his films has struck gold at the box office, but he operates within the kind of tight budgets and production schedules (he shot “Shape” in 19 days, while “Men” wrapped in just 11) that keep the studio suits at bay. Still, his budgetary discipline isn’t enough to offset a stubbornly uncommercial approach: He seems destined to be forever pigeonholed as a “Hollywood outsider.”

“I’m happy when I can’t describe a plot in one line,” he says, a comment that will make movie producers wince. He prefers “twists and turns that I didn’t see coming when writing them.”

“Shape,” he says, is “almost a direct translation” of the stage production, down to the casting of the four original actors. “There’s very little opening up,” he says. “There’s maybe one scene played outdoors instead of indoors.”

Cinema purists are sure to turn pale at such a verbatim visual transcription, and the film does lack visual energy.

He chuckles. “If it’s up on the screen, it looks like a movie [to me],” he says.

The stage version of “Shape” featured music by the alternative rock group Smashing Pumpkins.

“Their power lay in letting a song play for a while,” he says. He didn’t have that luxury for the film adaptation, so he turned to a recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee for help.

“I needed the antithesis of that — really tight, snappy, catchy licks. Who better than [Elvis] Costello?” asks Mr. LaBute, who let the singer-songwriter help place song snippets throughout the film. “He writes so authoritatively about relationships.”

“Shape” isn’t as coherent in its characterizations as the director’s previous efforts, but it does boast a wholly original creation in the duplicitous Evelyn (Miss Weisz). Mr. LaBute hopes audiences will find some sympathy for the character, who steers the plot into its downward spiral.

“Many will have no problem hating, or at least pitying, her,” he says. “I understand her drive to create. She feels she’s right about everything.

“She’s very human to me, and she’s interesting,” he adds. A revealing afterthought, that. One senses no other word drives him as much as that adjective.

The 40-year-old director brings what some might regard as an unlikely personal background to his work: The emotional scab-picker is a Mormon and a graduate of Brigham Young University. Call me unimaginative, but when his characters bare their fangs, I don’t immediately think, “Osmonds.”

More surprising still, the Detroit native converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while a student. He returned to Brigham Young in 1993 to stage “In the Company of Men,” which he later adapted for the screen along with his college friend, actor Aaron Eckhart (“Erin Brockovich,” “The Core”).

Shot for about $25,000, “Men” earned the Sundance Film Festival’s Filmmaker’s Trophy as best dramatic feature. A tale of callously manipulative seduction, it shocked sensitive moviegoers while marking the young director as a talent to watch.

Had Mr. LaBute’s creative forays met stiffer resistance, he might have turned to psychology for his livelihood.

“People working in theater or film … are trying to get believable relationships,” says Mr. LaBute, who worked in a state mental hospital during his student days. “I’m interested in the way people are made up.”

Directing from his own plays and scripts allows him to keep greater control of the material, and he plans to keep writing for both mediums. Just don’t ask him for which medium his next written project is intended.

“When I start writing, often I’m not thinking if it’s a film or not. Somewhere along the line, I think, ‘It’s in the same room all the time; it must be a play,’” he says dryly.

“I enjoy the filmmaking part of it, but I think I’m most comfortable writing,” he continues. “It’s all about me. It’s not egotistical … you’re not taking someone else’s time. You decide how you want to use your day.”

In directing, it may seem as if everybody and everything except the director — the union, the weather, the cast — decides how he will use his day. “There’s pressure with losing the light [on shooting day],” he says. “Or, this person has to be out by next Wednesday [for another gig].”

“With writing,” he says, “you meander your way to the finish.”

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