Since his award-winning debut feature “In the Company of Men” in 1997, Neil LaBute has developed a diverse career that spans writing and directing for both the stage and screen. Depicting unsettling and often cruel relationships between men and women, his work can be difficult to stomach, but there is no denying his unique voice. Over the years, LaBute has experimented with directing other people’s work, venturing into the horror (“The Wicker Man”), thriller (“Lakeview Terrace”) and comedy (“Nurse Betty,” “Death at a Funeral”) genres, to varying degrees of critical success. At the same time, he is a prolific playwright, with “The Mercy Seat,” “Fat Pig,” “reasons to be pretty,” and “The Shape of Things,” among others, making theatrical waves.
LaBute’s latest film, “Some Velvet Morning,” had its world premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Starring (only) Stanley Tucci (“The Hunger Games,” “The Devil Wears Prada”) and Alice Eve (“She’s Out Of Your League,” “Star Trek Into Darkness”) as a couple reluctantly reunited, the film’s real-time, one-location setup is certainly reminiscent of a play, yet the close-ups afforded by the camera add an emotional layer of immediacy that can be lost in the theater.
We caught up with LaBute and Eve this past spring in New York City, where we discussed his artistic journey, power dynamics between men and women, and the “epic juggernaut” of “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”
Where did the idea for this movie came from? I suspect your mind is a dark and twisted place.
Alice Eve: Oh my goodness! I don’t think his mind is a dark and twisted place at all! I think it’s just a really good mind, and I think a good mind can find dark and twisted things. Neil is actually quite liked.
Neil LaBute: But I know what you mean. I don’t feel like Poe; I don’t feel like I’m going around in some kind of haze. Part of it is just work to me, especially if you work in this world of contemporary relationships. Here we are with a story, where a woman has been paid for her service. How many times have I seen or heard or read stories about that? So the compulsion for me is to find some other take on it. The thing I had not seen people do before was actually kind of live out—in real time—what that experience is: the before, the during, the after.
Alice Eve: And the sort of intricate role plays therein. Everybody’s capable of imagining the john and the prostitute doing the act—but the preamble to that is quite complex, and probably quite hard to imagine.
Neil LaBute: And then for us it was: how complex is that experience? Why today? Along the way, Alice’s character starts to pick up that things are not as they seem, or as they usually are… So it’s a weird day for them. And beyond that, we see not just reversals in who they are as people, but that there are strange longings there, and connections—that obviously this has been built layer upon layer over time. So, while love can be a currency, this is not just a transaction. There is peripheral damage in this relationship, and connections that are just going to continue to build if they keep having this relationship.
Alice Eve: She always moves with trepidation around him, but I suspect that the way that the climax plays out is a more extreme version [than usual]. She is anticipating something from him because he’s volatile and unhinged, and she doesn’t love him in the way that he wants her to.
Did you work on a back story for Alice’s character, Velvet? She makes some comments about her past, and then she kind of laughs them off, but you can see there’s real damage and pain. Did you talk about that?
Alice Eve: We definitely did, at length. I think there are some people who are beyond help, beyond repair, and she is definitely one of those people. I think she spiraled into something, and into a language and communication with people that she’s going to find it very hard to buck. She’s either going to have to be saved, or find a strength inside herself that I don’t think she has. That’s why people say, “Stay away from bad people,” and she didn’t do that, and now she’s kind of sinking and sinking. So the only language of love that she has is a very destructive, abusive, violent one.
Neil LaBute: I heard a great term the other day that I thought was so simple and so true: “Hurt people hurt people.” So many people who have been abused become abusers, because it’s a safer place to be. And abuse doesn’t have to be the standard I-knocked-your-mom-into-a-door; it can be a kind of slow, psychological abuse.
[Alice gives] a really amazing performance; Velvet is a really surprising character, even more surprising than I thought when it was on the page. There’s a story she tells when she turns around and says, “…I was raped when I was 9.” And then you laugh about it. But then, sort of under your breath, you say, “Just because it didn’t happen to me, at least not that way….” You kind of throw it away. That’s a line that someone else would have latched on to and made this big moment out of, but with you, I knew that was true. This thing was in her past. Alice just kind of let it go and walked away. I was like, YES, that’s the way you want to put the character together.
Alice Eve: [Also,] I thought it was important from my perspective to have visual transitions, because we were in one location. I wanted [changes in] lipstick and hair—just those kind of simple, visual feasts that we go to the cinema for. So they were important to me.
Neil, the buzz around the festival is that this is a return to form for you, to the more theatrical dramas that we first knew you for. What was the detour all about? Or do you see it as a detour?
Neil LaBute: It’s my journey. I started making these films that had almost no money to start, and they were original stories. And then I got an offer to do something bigger—somebody else’s movie—and to direct. I had always done that in the theater, directed other people’s material, so I thought, “Great, I’ll do that.”
I think ultimately, I stretched myself very thin. I tried to do films, and theater, in L.A. and New York and London, and keep all those plates spinning. It was often much easier to have someone come to you and say, “What about this?” And you think, “Oh, I haven’t done a comedy; I’ll try that.” And all of these stories that were my own found a home much easier on stage—cheaper, faster—it’s just so hard to raise money these days. This was a bit of a fluke, the way things came together, and I hope it flukes out a number of times in the future…
Alice Eve: [This movie was] built on a different type of economics, so we made it like a little family. There was no pressure. We shot in sequence…
Neil LaBute: It happily worked for this piece, because [the characters] haven’t seen each other for so long. At first, there’s a little bit of a reticence, and an emotional distance between them, that thaws as the movie goes along. And that’s happening in sequence with the time you guys have spent together. Suddenly you are pitched into this thing where these two actors are constantly on screen. They were a little shell-shocked.
Alice Eve: We were, weren’t we?
Neil LaBute: It kind of worked in an emotionally draining way. It exhausted you in the right way… Everyone’s been in that place where it’s like, “I can’t live with this person. I can’t live without them.” It’s just crazy love.
Stanley is instinctive… [There’s a scene where] you can see how sweet he is, and as soon as she says, “I don’t love you the same,” this cloud comes over his face.
Alice Eve: But in that moment, she’s not necessarily telling the truth; she just smells that she has the power, and she has the chance to wield her own axe, after he’s been wielding his. She’s like, I don’t even fucking care if I do love you. Right now I’m going to get you down and I’m going to put you on your knees.
The title of the movie is the name of a song, and a band…
Neil LaBute: There is a band that took the title of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s song. I knew I wanted to use that title, and then it just kind of transitioned into using it as her name.
Alice Eve: But don’t use the song!
Neil LaBute: Well, then, perversely we didn’t use the song. [laughs] No, there’s just 2 pieces of music in it—I love the silence and the sounds of the environment, and them. And when it gets quiet, it’s great, I think. I just didn’t see a score for it. The first piece is from a Truffaut movie called “The Soft Skin,” which is also about a man having an affair, and an affair that ends quite violently as well.
And then I’d always heard that Turtles song [“Happy Together”] in my head at the end. I didn’t know if it would ultimately work, but seeing her as she was after he left, and what the cost of what she’s doing is… The juxtaposition of that with the weird little vibe running through that song is kind of haunting. I thought the repetition of “me and you, and you and me”—it all sounded like the right thing to do.
Isn’t that song in the trailer for The Great Gatsby” trailer now, too?
Neil LaBute: Yeah! A really weird version of it, like a Trent Reznor, crazy version of it.
Alice, switching gears, what can you tell us about “Star Wars Into Darkness,” which opens in a couple of weeks?
Alice Eve: I play Dr. Carole Marcus, who is in the canon. She’s a weapons specialist, and she has a Ph.D. She’s incredibly capable and pretty much as smart as all the boys. It was a great experience—very different from this experience!—and it was nice to come onto this, right off of that, because this was so intimate. I’ve seen the film, and it’s an epic juggernaut of a movie. It’s great!
Is this the first sort of blockbuster you’ve been in? Aside from “Men in Black”?
Alice Eve: Yes, I was in “Men in Black,” but not in the same way I’m in “Star Trek.”
“Some Velvet Morning” is now playing in limited release and is available on iTunes and VOD.