Strange bedfellows

Ask 34-year-old playwright Neil LaBute how he came to see his controversial debut feature In the Company of Men hit the big screen, and he'll tell you he doesn't quite know.

"I became a filmmaker by accident, by proxy," LaBute says during the Dallas stop on a 15-city international tour to promote his film. "I discovered after I got involved what a difficult process it was, and how stupid I was for presuming to know so much."

LaBute may vigorously insist on his own cinematic innocence, but In the Company of Men, his smartly crafted, emotionally savage story of two male executives who woo a deaf female secretary just for the sadistic pleasure of dumping her, is receiving rave reviews from some critics and howls of protest by others. His feature is more confidently executed, eloquently performed, and just plain professional-looking than most of the indie product that comes out of Sundance, where early this year In the Company of Men began to stir a tempest in the national press.

The film's five-part structure was modeled on 17th-century Restoration comedies, in which social and economic elites performed outrageous acts of treachery and manipulation for the sport of it. Employing theatrical elements for his debut was a conscious choice. LaBute, nourished by the footlights, sprouted as a stubborn theatrical weed; he insists he'll always belong in that patch of dirt. He received a graduate theater degree from New York University and has seen many of his 15 full-length and one-act plays staged in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and London. He began to mix with moviemakers when he was accepted into the Sundance Institute's Playwright's Lab back in 1991.

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"Somebody read one of my plays and said, 'You know, this would make a good movie,'" LaBute remembers. "I'd never really thought about it before. But I've always loved movies, so I began to write screenplays. That was simple. When it came to the directing part, I discovered nothing was cheap or easy. Even something as basic as sound turned out to be an arduous, costly process. And the less you knew about the technical stuff, the more expensive it got."

Cool and detached, filled with long conversations whose nuances only begin to reveal themselves after a second viewing, In the Company of Men lacks the velocity audiences expect nowadays even from relationship-oriented pictures. It seems to revel in a quality that most people use as an insult when describing a movie--stagy. The technical choices LaBute made--lots of long shots; whole scenes rendered as single takes; a paucity of exterior scenes; a dialogue-driven plot--give the film a slithery pace appropriate to the machinations of the two lead reptiles, played by Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy. You might be nauseated by the film's bald depiction of man's inhumanity to woman. But it's easy to see how LaBute's theatrical roots helped him direct a film that turns on the axis of office conversation.

"My background as an artist is environmental," LaBute notes. "On the stage, you have to find a play that'll fit the space where you work. In movies, it's opposite--you hunt around to find backgrounds that'll accommodate the script. That's totally opposite from the old Mickey Rooney-ish 'I've got a barn! Well, I've got the costumes!' mentality. In movies, it's more like, 'I've got a barn! Well, I've got $250,000 to change it or build a better one!'"

In the Company of Men ultimately cost $250,000, which LaBute amassed mostly from private investors. The decision to film the screenplay in 35mm gives the movie a slicker look than the modest budget might suggest. Fiduciary concerns were always near the top of LaBute's mental checklist, but he was surprised that applying the barebones standards of a live production doesn't always translate to thrift.

"I thought having all these interior shots, and focusing long takes on just the actors' acting, would be economical," he says. "And it was--to a degree. But you forget that film, the raw stuff that goes into the camera, is very expensive material. Once we decided to shoot long takes, there was a theatrical pressure on the actors--they couldn't screw up, flub a line, or anything. One small mistake meant you had to throw out a lot of film."

The unmediated, improvisatory quality that stalked the actors has also assaulted some critics and audiences. When married to the film's sometimes grueling attention to the details of psychological exploitation, that laid-back feel has led some to assume that LaBute has endorsed the cruelty he portrays. Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times called In the Company of Men "a psychological snuff film."

"There's a certain arc we expect from a moviegoing experience," LaBute explains. "We expect the director to close the circle for us. I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to say, 'This character's a real asshole, so I'll have a truck hit him.' The point is that he lives in his own kind of hell, whether there's justice or not. In fact, if he kept using people, I think Chad [the film's lead viper] would eventually crash. But I didn't want to let him or the audience off the hook by showing it."

Ambiguity, the caprice of fate, raising questions you can't answer--this is the toxic fuel that keeps the engine of live theatrical drama stoked. LaBute doesn't plan to make "cross-pollination"--what he terms the application of theatrical ideas to film--his sole career endeavor. A play of his called Bash, which was nominated for several critics' awards during its recent Los Angeles run, is about to be restaged Off-Broadway as a benefit for several women's and gay men's organizations.

But even with Hollywood studio confidence squarely behind his directing skills, LaBute says he and his wife might someday relocate to London, where he studied playwrighting on a fellowship at the Royal Court Theatre. "I discovered humility there," the playwright says, traces of awe still in his voice. "They were great, I was small."

"Londoners go to the theater the way Americans go to the movies," LaBute claims. "Both as a playwright and an audience member, it would be thrilling for me to live in a place where people come home from work, relax a while, then head out to a play. There's such a love of language in that environment."

Though his affair with cinema will provide him illicit thrills as long as it lasts, LaBute insists he will never abandon the stage.

"The British playwright Howard Barker has my favorite defense of theater: 'It is because I say it is.' This box I'm sitting in isn't a box, it's a plane, because I say it is. Ultimately, that's what the stage is about--faith, an intimate trust between audience and actor."

In the Company of Men opens at the Inwood August 15.

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