In writer-director Neil LaBute's short "Sexting," a young woman is so wrapped up in unloading a difficult confession that she doesn't care to whom she's speaking. To catch the urgency of this performance from Julia Stiles, LaBute ("In the Company of Men") captures the monologue in one take that uses up six of the nine-minute short film. (Teaser posted below.)
"Sexting" is part of the "Stars in Shorts" series premiering this Friday, for which LaBute also wrote "After School Special" for director Jacob Chase. Our review of "Sexting," "After School Special," and the other five short films here.
Clearly, LaBute ("Nurse Betty,""The Wicker Man," "Death at a Funeral") enjoyed experimenting in a short medium. We talked to him about the liberating power of shorts, capturing a theatrical performance on-screen, and never asking the audience to like his characters.
TOH: What compelled you to want to film Stiles' monologue in just one shot?
Neil LaBute: The idea really came from some theater work I had done at a benefit in New York, and Julia Stiles was part of that. We were saying how it would be great to do something on film, how great it is doing theater, and how chopped up a performance is on film. It would be great to film something during real time, not just taking real pieces and putting them together… The way that movies are made, they are shot out of sequence. Actors are asked to do things many, many times. It's harder, technically, than just being able to really go A-to-Z in real time, like you would on stage. So this was a nice combination of those two worlds.
TOH: How did you keep this monologue engaging throughout the film?
NL: I feel if the words are interesting and person saying the words is interesting then the audience will be interested. I love that sort of thing. It's not a traditional approach. A lot of that goes on her shoulders but it takes a person to be very adept with words. You get little glimpses of highs and lows and emotion. It's a nice approach to it that she took. You get lucky. It's kind of like athletes. You give them a chance to perform like that, to sprint, and they show you something you haven't actually seen before.
TOH: Were there many takes when you were filming this?
NL: I'm very happy with what I have. With most movies you start out wide, because you have more to light and all your people and extras, then you go in for the close-up and you don't have all of the extras. So that means there is less time to do the close-ups. It's the meat of the scene you often leave the least amount of time for, but happily she was ready to do a great job. So, it happened in just a couple takes and then we were good. But I would have loved to have her do it eight times if she wanted to, but she was satisfied with what happened.
TOH: As I was watching I suspected that we weren't supposed to like Stiles' character.
NL: For me, I'm not one to want to judge the character. I want to look at what she's done. I love to take people who have done things where most of us wouldn't do that, and see how they justify that. We can see how a regular person can do something extraordinary or monstrous or off the charts for us, but they aren't a monster, they are a person, they just made these choices. For me, it's not about how I can make you like her, but how to make her compelling and interesting. Whether you like her, that's up to you, but I want you to be interested enough to want to know the whole story.
TOH: Yes, I found the same sort of result in another short that you wrote for "Stars in Shorts" – "After School Special."
NL: Yes, it was just a little weird scenario. It's deceptively hard to come up with something that works… you just look for those ideas. I would look and realize that there's no full play that's going to come out of this for me, but these are really short ideas. I imagined a Chucky Cheese kind of place, there would be a juxtaposition about this place and the loneliness of a single parent. Then he deals with the idea that this woman doesn't really like him – that's a familiar scenario of two people meeting and it not working out. But it turns out to be the most extreme reason that it wouldn't work out…
TOH: What did you want to explore in the short medium?
NL: "Sexting" allowed us to go out and do something that you wouldn't otherwise do – this subject, a monologue, and black-and-white. These films can really become a place where people could go try something. Great place for actors, technicians, writers, directors have to control something they might not do in a studio or with an independent producer. It's really fun in that way.