The protagonist of Some Girl(s) is as cringe-inducing as some of playwright Neil LaBute‘s most famous stories. From The Shape of Things and In The Company of Men to (last but not least) The Wicker Man, LaBute has a natural ability to dig under the skin of an audience. He often shows us worlds and characters that are far from pleasant, leading to films and plays which are not the most easily digestible, depending on your sense of humor and threshold for conventionally unlikable characters.
LaBute doesn’t use that brand of character to annoy an audience, but to take them on a ride to new places. For some, that ride isn’t one they want to go on, and he has been the target of some heated criticism and outright name calling. The film of his play Some Girl(s), which he adapted himself for director Daisy von Scherler Mayer, doesn’t shock the audience in the way some expect from LaBute, but it has been met with some familiar reactions.
I spoke with LaBute when the film premiered at South by Southwest this year, and that was an extensive conversation about his process as a writer and storytelling in general. This time around we discussed the reactions his work tends to draw. Even after an hour in total of interviewing him this year, there’s still plenty of ground to be covered, but for now here’s another round with the writer.
The last time we spoke, you discussed your difference from The Man (Adam Brody), with how he uses his life stories and you don’t. But how do you empathize or, if at all, relate to him?
I relate to the human side of being a fuck up, making mistakes and making the same mistakes. Not the same mistakes as that character, but whatever mistakes are in your life that happen over and over. I don’t have to look at him and go, “He doesn’t seem to be learning his lesson, so how can I embrace him?” Because the good news is I don’t have to live with him or love him, because he’s not real. He’s standing there as a character doing these things. I mean, we just have to watch that and gauge whether it feels real or not, and it does feel real to me.
I think people make these kind of mistakes all the time, but I think Adam Brody lets us go on this journey wanting to, if not embrace him, watch him and see where he goes. As a writer, I certainly know that impulse to create and get your work out there. I don’t have that same impulse to use other peoples’ material, so that’s foreign. I do understand that weird hazy place you find yourself in where you’re talking about a subject, thinking, “Well, what are people going to think of me? I wrote that.” All those impulses make sense to me in understanding what this guy is trying to do. As a person and looking at the wreckage he leaves behind, it’s better as a cautionary tale, so you can look at him and say, “I’m going to use that as an example of what I’m not going to do in life.”
I’m glad you mention that. When I said how funny I find The Shape of Things, you discussed the judgement that comes along with finding humor in that kind of material.
Oh yeah, people judge us all the time, even based on movies we like. Whether they’re cool enough or smart enough or, like you said, “Oh my God, you like that movie? You must be a complete perv.” People love to judge, because it takes their mind off their own shit. It’s like, “Let me judge your relationship, what you what or what car you drive.” It’s so much easier to be pointing your guns at somebody else than yourself.
You often get personally judged by some viewers. When did you first notice your work can have that effect on certain kinds of people?
Partially when you start to hear people react to it. I had a play early on when I was still at NYU that had a monologue about AIDS, and literally a guy in the audience yelled, “Kill the playwright!” That gives you a pretty clear indication of how that person felt [Laughs]. I didn’t have to wonder if he didn’t like that monologue or not! Sometimes it’s more tough to figure out how someone feels about it, but sometimes people will challenge or dismiss it in certain ways.
That comes with the territory of writing something and putting it out there. Now everything has a comment page on it, so your critiques are being critiqued. Some critics don’t like being critiqued. They spend their lives reviewing, but they don’t like it when someone reviews their review or continues a debate. For a long time they’ve felt like that was the end of the conversation, but the conversation never needs to end. Now, we’ve been given a formatting in which we continue that conversation.
I also think I noticed, particularly in the press, when people want to know about your background, your path or romantic relationships. I think, “Well, why the hell do you care about that?” It seems to me they want to take some temperature on the material. I’ve said this before, but I don’t think people were asking George Lucas about his relationships. I guess it doesn’t seem to apply. They’re going to ask about his relationship to technology, as opposed to strange creatures like Ewoks. I don’t read many interviews anyway, but I don’t remember people being interested in his take on men or women.
If you spend time cultivating stories in that world, they figure that must be your interest and there must be a connection. I’ve certainly been scrutinized in that way because of the material, which starts to make me think people are looking at you… It comes from people thinking, “He’s able to imagine all those scenarios, so I wonder where his mind is and how it works.”
Right. People assume Sofia Coppola’s work is deeply personal, not Michael Bay’s. Can that be interpreted as a compliment, though, that a story may feel so real they just assume it’s based on your life?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we kind of know Transformers isn’t personal, so there’s no need to ask that. If it is, then, well, it’s kind of amazing. I mean, that would be weird if that’s your life [Laughs]. Then again, we don’t ask that of Michael Bay. I would never think to ask that about Pain & Gain. Like, “Wow, is that close to your own experience?” But when it comes to, like you said, Sofia Coppola, we immediately imagine that must be her story or some version of her life. I think that’s often inaccurate.
When someone shouts “kill the playwright,” do you take that personally? Can you laugh it off?
In the moment, it unnerves you. You know the temperature of what you were writing and doing, but you don’t know what someone’s reaction is going to be. Most people will just walkout, leave during intermission or say they hate it in their review. Most people aren’t vocally active during a live performance, because they understand the live aspect of it, with real actors trying to work. When somebody is insensitive enough to do that, you know you’ve made a connection with them, good or bad [Laughs].
[Laughs] Is there a punk rock side to you where you enjoy getting a rise out of someone like that?
In that sense, no, because it wasn’t, “Boy, if someone has AIDS, I really want to hit them with this!” There is some part of it where you think the power of words… It’s amazing you can put shit down on paper and cause people to feel a certain way. It doesn’t make me feel like a five year old kid showing off what I could do, but you respect and understand what’s going on there, seeing what’s working.
There’s other aspects of me that want to take the audience for a ride. They’re paying for a ticket to go somewhere they haven’t gone before. I don’t begrudge, but I do look with narrowed at eyes that they usually gather together, sit in safety, and get to decide what they think. I like to push that boundary between actors and audience and technology, playing the music louder than they might like, taking the curtain call out, or creating material that confronts a sensibility. I want to keep them on their toes. I want them to experience something they’re not having in other theaters.
You’re in a unique position in that regard. When it comes to your writing, people have come to expect a gut punch. As a writer, do you ignore those preconceptions or do you have to consider them?
I think you have to do both. You have to ignore the good, the bad, what people like, don’t like, when they call you soft or that you’re maturing. You have to be true to whatever it is you’re working on. I don’t want to weigh what I’m doing next to everything else and repeat myself, unless I’m going, “Oh, this is a part of something and I’m doing this for a reason.”
I just wrote a sequel to Reasons to Be Pretty that’s up now, and that you have to consider you wrote for these characters and make it sound like them, because if it’s not, then it’s going to be weird. When I’m doing something new, I’m not measuring it in terms of how it fits in with what came before it or the pantheon. If I have an idea for a play, I’m going to write it and see what happens with it. You don’t want to listen to the hype or the naysayers. You just have to keep going and do your work.
Y0u don’t want to get into the place of, “Oh, you’re always going to fucking pull a trick at the end, aren’t you?” Then suddenly if you don’t, then that’s the trick [Laughs]. The trick was that there was no trick! You can never win. Or they find a way to measure it against the other things, like, “Oh, it’s not nearly as misanthropic or misogynistic.” Or, you know, “It’s still not The Wicker Man!” That’s the one you have to live with the most.
[Laughs] That’s the high bar.
Yeah, that’s where the bar has been set. If it doesn’t have a bear suit, people are sad by that fact. You know, you forge this thing, make as many contributions as you can, and somehow steer yourself by your own sense of forward direction.
Even though you mentioned it, a lot of people wouldn’t accuse you of being soft. Have you ever attempted a drama about good characters doing good deeds or do you think there’s not much drama to be had there?
I think there is. I think a kind of drama can. I can go look at Our Town, where there’s nothing terrible going on there. There’s minor squabbles and floibles in life, but mostly drama is fueled by conflict, whether it’s small or large or nasty or wholesome. I want something, you want something or that person wants the exact opposite. There has to be something going on. If everyone wants the same thing, acts cool and everybody is clicking along then, for me, there’s not a lot going on. That’s not the kind of thing I’m going to spend time I’m writing.
So, you’ve never had the desire to make a romantic comedy or high school teen movie where everyone wins at the end?
You know, I just might surprise people.
I feel like Nurse Betty could’ve easily been one of those movies, but it’s far from it. Even though that movie was made for a more broad audience with a bigger budget and more conventional stars, did it feel like a chance at making something mainstream?
I certainly knew it cost more to make, and I was working with different people, but it still wasn’t really for a studio. For me it was new, because it was the first time I was directing somebody else’s material. It really came to me as a, “Do you want to do it or not?” I didn’t have much time to think about it, but I jumped for it. It was not something I would’ve written, but it was fun, surprising, had a female lead and all these wonderful shifts in tone. I thought it’d be interesting to make something this funny, that sad and that violent with this big soap opera world. It was a challenge, but I always utilize humor, despite not writing comedy. I thought it was different, so I gave it a whirl.
Going back to the comment of “kill the playwright,” do you feel the need to defend your work or should it speak for itself?
I think the work speaks for itself, but I have no problem defending myself. I don’t think that’s wrong, especially if they’re not talking about the work and attacking your character or, worse, attacking your mom [Laughs]. One time I had a reviewer reviewing a play of mine, which was a modern take on Madea. At the end, this pregnant woman stabs herself. Basically, the sum up of the review was wishing my mother did the same thing.
At that point, you think, “Hmm, that’s not really a review” [Laughs]. That’s just somebody saying shit about your mom, not a review. I wrote back in the comments, basically saying, “You fucking pussy. I’d be happy to meet you and talk about this.” At that point, you’re not really having a dialogue about the work. It’s just boys on the playground. You know, I grew up in enough playgrounds to know my way around them. That sort of thing you have to deal with on a different level.
I’m happy to talk about the work and don’t get crazy offended if they don’t like it. I don’t think, “Oh fuck, they don’t get it!” They probably get it, but they just don’t like it. I get my say and they get their say, but I’m pretty cool about that. Often something comes up and you say it’s just someone being kind of bitchy and mean. I’m often bitchy, if not mean, on the page, but about people who don’t exist. I don’t think the job is to put it out there and take whatever anyone says. You have the freedom to continue the dialogue in whatever way you find necessary.
Some Girl(s) is now on Vimeo OnDemand.