INTERVIEW: A Kinder, Gentler Neil LaBute? Getting Romantic With "Possession"
by Wendy Mitchell
(indieWIRE: 08.14.02) — Neil LaBute is not the first name that pops to mind when you’re talking about romance. This acclaimed and controversial director is better known for his dark portraits of modern relationships and brutal sexual dynamics in his films “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends & Neighbors,” and his plays including “bash” and “The Shape of Things” (the latter of which will come to the big screen in 2003).
Nevertheless, LaBute says he was drawn to direct the film version of “Possession,” A.S. Byatt‘s 1990 romance novel that won the prestigious Booker Prize for Literature. “Possession” is the tale of two relationships: contemporary scholars Maud Baily (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart) uncover a previously unknown love affair between the Victorian poets Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) and Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). As Maud and Roland uncover a trail of clues disclosing the affair between LaMotte and Ash, they find themselves developing an unlikely attraction themselves. Though it has elements of mystery, the film is lushly romantic, which will surprise fans of LaBute’s earlier films, which focus on misogynistic young men and sexually frustrated couples.
indieWIRE managing editor Wendy Mitchell spoke with LaBute about the challenges of adapting a literary romance, trying period work, and working with a Gwyneth-level celebrity. Focus Features releases “Possession” on Friday.
indieWIRE: How did you get involved with “Possession?” When did you read the book?
Neil LaBute: I, like you, read the book a few years ago. I asked around to see who had the rights, and Warner Brothers had them, so I went in to meet with them and try to get involved.
iW: What drew you to wanting to direct this?
LaBute: I loved the parallel stories … really all the things that were in the book interested me. I was in academia. I’ve been an anglophile for a long time. I have always written about relationships and here were two relationships that were very different. So all the elements spoke to me, it just seemed like a natural fit.
iW: You say it’s a natural fit, but a lot of people will say this is a huge departure for you.
LaBute: On the surface, I suppose it is, with it being a period film and having a larger budget, and feeling a bit more mainstream. Even if it doesn’t do well [at the box office], it still feels more mainstream. I can certainly see how people would say this is a departure for me. But for me, it feels like a natural extension of what I’ve been doing: exploring relationships. Here you have two relationships and we can explore how difficult it is for people to be together.
iW: Adapting any book for the screen is a challenge, and this one in particular, with its literary feel and passages of Victorian poetry. What elements did you try to highlight when you were doing the script?
LaBute: You can see the problems, like all of the poetry and the correspondence. We also had to find a balance of these two stories. How do you tell one story in two hours, and how do you tell two stories fully in that amount of time? And then we also had the story about this mystery unraveling.
We didn’t look for the literary equivalent of car chases, saying let’s really make that scene in the graveyard as bombastic as it is in the book. If you remember the book, it’s all about the wind blowing and trees dropping on cars, this might seem a little goofy on the screen
I was always looking for the most dramatic emphasis. One example would be the letter writing, or the reading of the letters. If you remember from the book, they find the letters and then in the most undramatic way they take them downstairs, they get approval, they sit at a table during the day with their own author, across from each other. That’s not exactly the most romantic thing in the world. And then when they read them, there is just a 40-page section of letters, there’s no mention of Maud and Roland. So you’re thinking, “Wait a minute! The audience is going to want to watch how Maud and Roland respond to these letters.” I wanted to show how those are moving Maud and Roland. It was constantly trying to keep weaving those two stories and finding what was the most inherently dramatic episodes without being able to keep everything in.
iW: Do you think you captured the spirit of the book?
LaBute: I do, I watch it and I say, I recognize this. Yes, episodes and characters changed, but that is the story of “Possession.”
iW: Why did you decide to make the character of Roland an American? Did you already know you wanted Aaron [Eckhart] to play him?
LaBute: No, and even if Roland were British I would have wanted Aaron, I would have just said, “Aaron is going to do a dialect.” That change was made before Aaron saw the script. Roland in the book is fine, I like him, yet he is a very reticent character. And we needed something not only to make the audience like him, but to make he and Maud have friction, they needed to be as opposed as possible to create some conflict. She’s British, so I thought we’d make him American. She is very careful and empirical, and he just blurts out, “I bet this is what happened!” She says, “What, are you nuts?”
iW: You’ve collaborated with Aaron for a decade or more, but this is the first time you’ve worked with Gwyneth. Was that more difficult to work with one actor you know very well and one you don’t know at all?
LaBute: It’s interesting, because it’s daunting just who she is. I’m not even really a celebrity watcher, although I pore over “US Weekly” (laughs), I really don’t follow her life as closely as many people do: every belt, every cup of coffee is documented. You sort of feel like you know her, and I was wondering what she would think of me, and that sort of thing. But she was very focused and she easily closed the door on all the celebrity trappings that follow her. In some ways, she felt like the outsider for a while because Aaron and I know each other so well. But we all got very comfortable very quickly, I think everybody was on their best behavior. And with Aaron, I’d have to find a reason not to work with him.
iW: You have also directed the upcoming film adaptation of “The Shape Of Things.” What else are you doing? Are you writing now?
LaBute: I’m writing, and I just finished a play called “The Mercy Seat” which will open in New York. And I’ve got some screenplays and plays ready to dip into when I need to. Those are probably more in the vein of my past work. I don’t see my career as this steady building to a point, it’s just a path that wanders for me to do whatever I’m interested in doing. I was interested in “Possession,” but that doesn’t mean this will change the rest of my career.
iW: Did you like working with this period story?
LaBute: I did. But there’s this feeling that I didn’t want to screw it up. Not only because it was “Possession” and I felt strongly getting it right for the author. You have to get the details right; I didn’t want people to look at it and say, “Oh that’s not how it was,” or “Those dresses are outdated.” You want all the elements to be right so you can concentrate on what’s important, which is the emotional core of the story.
I wanted to make these people real, not like they were in a painting. Like these are people who don’t know they’re in a period movie. Those concerns are incredibly immediate. The best advice to give Jennifer and Jeremy, who had done this more than I have, is that you know how they are supposed to feel. There are certain mores, about how people conduct themselves, the way they pick up a fork and all that. The base of it all is that they have to have a real, emotional life.
iW: Were there certain romantic films you had in mind when you were making this?
LaBute: There were certain things that I watched, and I screened a series of period films as well, not because I wanted to copy those, because I wanted to be different. “Far from the Madding Crowd” was one I looked to because I thought it looked so good. “Doctor Zhivago.” Unrequited love is always a great thing. “Tess” was something I looked at, I thought Polanski got the period right.
iW: Is it hard to do a romance without becoming cheesy or over-the-top? How did you prevent that?
LaBute: That’s gut I guess. You’re putting yourself out there when you say, as the book did, it doesn’t say “Possession: A Literary Romance,” it just says “Possession: A Romance.” It’s a very brave thing to say.
People will say, “my film is a romantic comedy, BUT…” Or they will say, “It’s a road picture, and they fall in love, but it’s a lot of humor. And there’s a heist!” But nobody just says, “It’s a romance.”
It’s the same thing as putting yourself out there in a relationship, we had to put ourselves out there with this movie. In a relationship you have to open yourself up. To actually experience love, someone has to say, “I’m going to go for it.” And that’s what I did.
I have been waiting for somebody to make faces at me when they hear it’s a romance. In fact, I was watching “The Kid Stays in the Picture” at the Sunset Five in L.A. — the audience there usually doesn’t sit through anything at all that doesn’t smack of hipness, and our trailer played, and I thought they might rip this thing. But there was nary a ripple, so I thought, “Whew, that passed that test.”
iW: Has making this sort of romantic movie changed you as a filmmaker or as a person?
LaBute: I think the experience of making it has changed me, it’s made me better just having that much more experience, and working on areas I haven’t worked on before.
As a person, I don’t think it has really changed me. I still am somewhat guarded with my feelings. A lot of writers find it much easier to express themselves on paper. That hasn’t changed.