An Interview with Neil LaBute

Writer, director and playwright Neil LaBute has been producing provocative and critically-acclaimed theater, film and fiction for more than a decade in the US and abroad. Mr. LaBute joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1981; his membership in the church recently ended. After completing a bachelor’s degree in theater from BYU, Mr. LaBute completed MA and MFA degrees at the University of Kansas and NYU; additionally, he studied at the Sundance Institute’s Playwrights Lab and at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Mr. LaBute’s first critical and commercial success was his 1997 film “In the Company of Men” (based on a play written and produced at BYU in 1992, and which was awarded the 1993 Association for Mormon Letters Award for Drama); the film earned him, among other awards, the Filmmaker’s Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival, propelling him into the film and theater projects that followed. Mr. LaBute’s film credits as writer and director include “In the Company of Men” (1997), “Your Friends and Neighbors” (1998), and “The Shape of Things” (2003); his directing credits include “Nurse Betty” (2000) and “Possession” (2002). Mr. LaBute’s work for the theater includes “bash: latterday plays” (1999), “The Shape of Things,” (2001), “The Distance from Here,” (2002), “The Mercy Seat,” (2002), “Autobahn” (2004), “Union Square” (2004), “Fat Pig” (2004), and “This Is How It Goes,” (forthcoming 2005). In 2004 Mr. LaBute published a volume of short fiction entitled Seconds of Pleasure. I spoke with Mr. LaBute by telephone.

Neil LaBute

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RW: You joined the church as an undergraduate at BYU, just as you were developing your identity and skills as a dramatist. How has Mormonism informed your work since then?

NL: I don’t imagine there would be a way in which Mormonism couldn’t inform my work, because I’ve been around it in some fashion longer now than I was not around it. Throughout that time, no doubt, there were moments when I was closer to it than I am now. But even during that period of, say, twenty years it went in degrees: I was devout, or not as devout, or struggling. All of those things, any choice you make, informs what you write. Not that I didn’t think of myself as a Mormon writer–I don’t now because I’m not a Mormon–but I don’t think of Mormonism as being more informative than any other aspect of my life. Of course, going to the store doesn’t inform my work necessarily, unless something amazing happens and therefore a piece of work comes out of that: “I went into the store and was held up and I became a hostage and out of that came a fabulous series for FOX television.” That, in fact, might inform my work more!

Perhaps there would be more work that was centered around the church if so early in my professional career I hadn’t been asked [by church leaders] to no longer write Mormon characters. That happened because of “bash,” a play that I did in about ’99, during that period where I was disfellowshiped [because of concerns about the play]. I have at least followed their recommendation to not write about Mormons; I set that aside and really haven’t delved into that world any more. But being around the church, being around people who are in the church, having that influence early on in what were still formative years, in college, can’t help but inform who you are and what you write.

RW: After your undergraduate work at BYU, you went to the University of Kansas and then to NYU for your MA and MFA degrees; you then returned to BYU in 1991 for work on a PhD, although you did not complete the degree. Why did you return to BYU, and how did your experiences there compare with your experiences at other institutions?

NL: I felt comfortable going back to BYU and working there; I’d always liked the faculty and the work environment. I found it a bit restrictive in terms of the kind of work I could do; by that point, certainly, I had opened my eyes far wider than they’d been before. I’d become very interested in English playwrights post World War II; living and studying in New York was an interesting experience; going to the Royal Court for part of that was a very formative experience. All the experiences I had as a student were quite good; part of that comes from liking school. To be sure, I had my conflicts along the way, at all three of the schools, because I’ve always been a person who doesn’t take no for an answer. I accept somebody’s no, but that doesn’t stop me; I bounce off and look for somebody else to say yes. That’s sometimes welcomed as “Well, he’s a hard worker,” and sometimes it’s “He’s a pain in the ass,” and often they walk hand in hand. But I felt that at BYU–whether they would actually say those words at that institution, they would say it in various ways, but not “pain in the ass,” whereas in New York they’re more than happy to tell you that and add a few words to the sentence!

But I always felt like the talent pool that I worked with at BYU was, in some ways, superior to other places I’ve worked; I was surrounded by really gifted actors, in particular, but good writers and directors, as well. Someone like Aaron Eckhart, whom I met at BYU, is an example of someone I’ve continued to work with, and then in Kansas I met Paul Rudd and I’ve worked with him a number of times. But BYU was — the second time around they were a little quicker to realize–I was more seasoned as a person, as a student–that our interests were perhaps just too different, ultimately. But I certainly enjoyed the time that I was there. The facilities were good; the people were good. I don’t remember it without some fondness; I did enjoy it. I don’t know how often I’ll be asked back; they’re not really clamoring to do my plays. But I understand that: it’s the language, or simply the pervasive feeling that a piece might have, that makes it not right for a BYU audience. But I’ve never not felt support from the people that I’ve spoken to since then–people like Tim Slover and Charles Metten and Bob Nelson, on the faculty. They were supporters then, and continue to be supporters. I think they look at the work and go, “Yeah, he’s doing something; he means well, and he means to do something good.” And that’s important.

RW: So, going back to “bash,” it’s a three-part modern adaptation of . . . Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy?

NL: It’s a mix, really. Part of it, the Iphigenia [“Iphigenia in Orem”], comes from that trilogy, but Medea [“Medea Redux”] really doesn’t. And there isn’t really any Greek root, necessarily, to the third piece, “A Gaggle of Saints,” except perhaps someone like Ajax. But I didn’t originally see it as a classical trilogy in that way. When I wrote the first one I wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to write three one-acts that will make up an evening.” The first one that I wrote was, in fact, “A Gaggle of Saints,” and that was just a stand-alone piece until I had written the other two. Thematically they seemed to work together: there was a confessional tone to each, there was a violent act that triggers each story. I left it open as to whether the man who was beaten so badly in “A Gaggle of Saints” dies or not; some will assume he did, but I don’t think there’s anything overtly in the text that suggests that he does. That’s different from the other two, in which we’re quite certain that there’s been a death. That said, they still seemed to work together thematically; they made collectively a strong evening, I thought. Since being a student, I’ve had an interest in the Greek theater: I love not just the stories but also the conventions of offstage violence. Much of the Greek storytelling technique employs extensive dialogue to tell the story, to move it along, so I tried to apply that to some kind of modern context.

RW: So why did you choose Mormon characters in “bash”?

NL: Even after it was under scrutiny, I never personally felt that the piece was any kind of attack on the church. Even though the four characters have some contact with the church–it’s fairly tenuous in the Medea piece, she mentions Utah relatives, but there’s not anything to suggest she’s a churchgoing member. But because they all seemed to have that connection to the church, I guess people could read that as being all-consuming, as if someone who saw the piece would say, “Well, this is what Mormons are like then.” I think that’s dangerous in any context: to watch “Fiddler on the Roof,” for example, and say, “Well, there are so many Jews out there, that must be exactly what Jews are like,” whether or not it’s dangerous, is ill-advised simply because it’s not very smart thinking.

That said, I felt like I could give the thing some resonance, and give it some truth, by filling it with language that was specific to the rituals of the church, the dynamics of the church. That seemed the best route to go, at the time. I wanted to juxtapose people who, ironically, the world would look at and say, “We think of them as good people, in a broad way, we think of them as good, church-going folk.” The point was not that they were also blood-thirsty killers, but that going to church, and having a testimony–or being around those who do–is not insurance against having choices appear in your life that cause you to go the wrong way, to falter or even to fall. It seemed like an honest and interesting juxtaposition to me, but one that ultimately, I think, the church saw as damaging.

Interestingly, it was not necessarily even the play itself that was damaging. But the headline of a review in, say, San Diego could be “Murderous Mormons,” and that would be the first contact someone might have with the church–which is just sort of out my jurisdiction, out of my hands. You give the rights to somebody and they do it, and the drama critic in that town writes a review, and the person who writes the headlines for that paper … and it creates that domino effect so that then some reader one morning along the way goes, “Wow, I didn’t know Mormons were so savage.” That’s one of those unfortunate things that can happen; when it does, you stand by the work, or you say, “Gee, I never meant for that to happen.” I guess I did both. And ultimately I did also comply with church leaders’ requests, and say, “You know, I won’t write any more of those characters.” I never felt that I had that much to explore; I didn’t grow up Mormon, I didn’t think I had so many stories I needed to tell about the church.

RW: You’ve said that “great good can come from showing the bad,” and in “bash” you certainly put some bad behavior on display. What good can come from depicting the bad onstage?

NL: Awareness, principally. I’ve never felt that showing something negative–a negative lifestyle, a negative character–was a bad thing to do. I’ve never felt that I was reveling in the behavior of any of the characters I’ve written. That’s closer to what one might consider pornography to be: there’s nothing to gain from watching their behavior except to be titillated by them undressing, them shooting someone in the face. It’s really just there to provide a kind of stimulation or entertainment. I’ve always taken the work a bit more seriously than that–although never too seriously! I still think of it as work; I still think of it as trying to create entertainment; it’s still just made up. But I do think that you have quite a forum on the stage or screen: you’re concentrating people on looking at something, and you can influence them in a certain way. You are being instructive, hopefully. You’re saying, “Don’t look at just what they do, but look at what’s behind it.” Does the story focus this in such a way that bad behavior leads to something beneficial, a good way of life, happiness?

Whether I’m in an organized religion or not, the moral structure that was instilled in me early has always been interested in those larger questions of good and bad, of sin and morality. I often grapple with them, and they often get swept aside today. In a lot of my work you’ll see people simply talking about those things: what it is to be good, how do you do the right thing, struggling with those classical moral questions. To deal with that, to see that struggle, sometimes you have to see the fall; characters are not always going to rise. A lot of my stories end much less happily than an audience would wish them to end. But that’s me being true to the story as I see it, as opposed to being true to what the audience hopes will happen or is accustomed to see happen. As a viewer, I don’t shy away from something tragic or challenging or questionable, because I continue to be curious. That curiosity has ultimately led me in positive directions. It hasn’t made me into someone who sneaks back downstairs at night and watches pornography, or writes it, for that matter. There may be images or characters in my work that some other person would find questionable, but I think it’s always been lodged in material that I consider dramatic and probing, and at least always reaching toward being something artistic, rather than just created to stimulate one particular side of me or my audience.

RW: Your work is often remembered for its accounts of violence and sexuality–although explicit violence and sex is relatively infrequent in your work. However, the strongest continuity in your body of work may be the difficult and inevitability of relationships–particularly of male-female relationships–in human life: films as diverse as “Your Friends and Neighbors” and “Possession” can be seen to share this preoccupation. Why has this theme been so engaging to you?

NL: People–not just myself or those people around me, but people in general, including the fictional people that I’ve created or I’ve seen other people create–continue to fascinate me. I’ve always been intrigued by that kind of personal relationship, and not just because it’s a part of most stories. You take Hamlet or you take Star Wars and break it down and say, “Well, those people are still men and women”; kings and queens become husbands and wives, or whatever it is they are. That’s at the root of most stories. We can get lost in the trappings of those stories, or we can be fascinated by those elemental relationships and the people who are involved. As both a viewer and a doer, I’ve been intrigued by that, and find it a constant well of inspiration. Hopefully my stories have been interesting and different enough that people wouldn’t say, “Oh, he’s repeating himself,” simply because I’m interested in those things. But some of my cinematic heroes, say Eric Rohmer or Woody Allen or Mike Leigh, tend to dip into that same kind of well over and over again. They create different dynamics, to be sure, but they still create little worlds that are in some kind of conflict–with their families, or their colleagues from the office, or their lovers, whatever they are. There’s a universe that seems to be solid and then presents itself to be less than that. That seems to be the kind of world that I’m most comfortable writing about, as well.

I don’t think of myself as a very timely or topical writer, even though I have a play [“Fat Pig”] on in New York right now, which hit the pulse of the moment. People are infatuated with weight, at the moment–losing it, not losing it, it seems to be everywhere. Even though the play is called “Fat Pig,” however, I don’t think of it as a play about weight; it just happened to come at a moment when people are intrigued by it. A few years ago I wrote something after 9/11 called “The Mercy Seat.” But even when I wrote that piece I didn’t feel like, “Oh, I must weigh in on this; I must say something about that terrible day.” What came out was ultimately another relationship play, about two people who proved that their own problems were far more interesting and important to them than the lives of three thousand other people who passed away.

I could say [I write about relationships] because my family life was so fascinating and fraught, and yet I think that could come out of anyone’s mouth. That’s the way we tend to grow up, in bursts of love and distress, and we are formed out of that, who we are. So I don’t think I would be very different saying, “Wow, I came from this dysfunctional family; that must be really strange to everybody.” It’s not that strange a universe that I arose from. You notice that about your life and you either remain intrigued with it, and with other people’s lives, or you go on and say, “Yeah, but what really interests me is sea turtles, so I’m going to write about that.” So far the couple in love is more interesting than sea turtles.

RW: One of the ways in which your characters relate to one another and to the audience is through cultural references–to film and literature, mostly, but also to music and television. What’s striking is how often these references are incomplete, obscure, incorrect or misunderstood: in “The Mercy Seat,” for example, Ben doesn’t understand Abby’s cultural references. Is this technique merely descriptive–is this simply how people talk? Or is there some thematic purpose to these cultural references?

NL: Our language is littered with references like that; it’s a way we communicate. There’s solace, a closeness that come from sharing in like things that we hang on to. It becomes an easy way for people to communicate; they can reach some shared ground and not have to invest a great deal of emotion into it. There’s a pleasure that comes from knowing what the other person’s talking about. And that’s why there’s some frustration, as you mentioned, in “The Mercy Seat,” where this guy feels as if he’s being made a fool, or is foolish, because he can’t catch the references of this woman. It’s not that she’s so smart with them, it’s just that he’s unaware of them because of his age, and is being made to feel foolish, and so therefore turns that around on her.

But yes, part of it is technique; it’s just what my voice as a writer has become. Because you’re right, I do often have someone not know the name of something, to describe it without ever giving the actual title of something, or to get it wrong, to kind of bury it in some way in the text or in the title even. I’ll embed a line from Othello in the text and see how many people come up with it. I had more fun night after night watching “The Shape of Things” when it was first produced in London; there was a reference to a handkerchief with strawberries on it, and it was fun to see just how many people caught it, or at least vocalized it because they wanted to feel smart, like, “Oh, that’s a reference that I know; I’ll laugh, because the whole audience is laughing, and so therefore I’ll feel smart if I laugh.” It’s that feeling I used to have at a Woody Allen movie: half the time people are laughing and going, “What are they laughing at?” and only catching up later on. So it’s the Woody Allen laugh I go for every now and then. There’s material planted in there that can give varying degrees of pleasure.

RW: Speaking of audience, your plays and films often engage the audience–directly or indirectly–in a shifting relationship with the action onstage, withholding key information until the end or manipulating sympathies toward the characters. How are your plays intended to affect and engage your audience?

NL: Never in the same way. But you’re absolutely right that I’m constantly interested in that, because you have something that’s so unique: you have live performers, and you have a relationship with the audience that is quite malleable and constantly shifting, very quicksilver. I’m curious about that relationship, and I’m interested in manipulating it. I find that interesting both as a practitioner and as a viewer: when that happens to me as an audience member, I say, “Oh, it didn’t end how I thought it would; I like that; I was surprised when they broke the fourth wall.” Even though we’ve gone out of our way to [the theater,] an experience that’s different from our daily lives, still we feel fairly safe, collectively, together, sitting in those seats: people are up on the stage and they’re lit, and we’re not, and we’re sitting in judgment as an audience. I like to remove the safety of that and break the fourth wall sometimes; I make a silent partnership with the audience that turns back on them.

Sometimes I remove things that the audience is used to having, like a curtain call, because I want the end of the play to speak for itself. It’s more truthful to the play, because the play is a lie, and the curtain call is the moment where the [actor] drops that facade and comes out and says, “Here I am, really; love me, thank you, clap for me now; I’m no longer that horrible person I was onstage.” I don’t always like the feeling that leaves me with; I feel that the audience, until they’re out of the auditorium, are mine to play with. If I want to leave the sensation with the closing moment of the play, why have a curtain call? But people feel very territorial about that, and they’re very disturbed if it’s removed. I’ll manipulate the volume of the music, or anything like that, if it can take the audience out of the pre-supposed place that they’ve held and say to them, “I would like you to feel as uncertain as we do, as uncertain as the story is trying to be.” That’s a good place to put an audience, I think. And because that’s one of the tools that is afforded us in the theater, it’s one that I tend to use a great deal.

RW: Drama has its ancient and modern roots in religion, like Greek religious ritual and in the Christian passion plays, for instance. Do you think that a vibrant LDS theater can develop in Mormon culture today?

NL: Anything can happen, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Yes, of course, I think it can. And I don’t think it necessarily has to pull closer to the center, as if it will only be vibrant if it allows in more language, or anything that perhaps it shies away from now; [I don’t think] that it has to become more like everybody else. That may be the case before it will be widely accepted, but there’s a big difference for me between whether it’s good and whether it’s successful. I think it probably has a better chance of being good than being successful, although that could be completely wrong. One of the things I would point to as an example of that right now is some of the Mormon film I’ve seen. There seems to be a kind of cottage industry–I don’t know if it’s as strong as it was a few years ago–of films being generated in Utah, primarily, and playing really strongly there. I can’t say that any of them that I’ve seen were necessarily groundbreaking or particularly strong as dramatic or comedic pieces, as far as I was concerned, but I hear that they’re actually returning well on their investment. So in that sense it would be the complete opposite: they’re actually successful without being particularly good. And good is incredibly subjective; that’s just my opinion. There are those who would say, “Well, actually, I think yours are crap and these are good.” And I would absolutely say, “That’s valid, because that’s your opinion. For you, that’s good.” That’s really only placed on the LaBute scale of “Is this good or not?”

I think there’s no reason that there shouldn’t be–I don’t go so far as the “Mormon Miltons and Shakespeares” and all of that–but there’s no reason why there won’t or can’t be successful and quality work produced by people who just happen to also be members of the church. I thought that was happening when I was a member of the church. I always enjoyed the work of–now I’m thinking more of when I was in college–but I always liked Tim Slover, Eric Samuelson, Tom Rogers, I always enjoyed their work. Whether that work will be seen outside of Mormon quarters remains to be seen. It’s tricky getting a play done; it’s hard to get a film made. I applaud anybody who does. And then to turn around and have success come from that … [Jared Hess,] who did “Napoleon Dynamite,” he’s a member of the church, as far as I know. There’s nothing about that film–other than a couple of pictures on the wall which are highly suspect, they look like some sort of church or mission photos of some kind–but there’s nothing about that film that would suggest that he’s a member of the church. And that’s neither good nor bad; it just doesn’t scream, “This is Mormon film.” This is just a guy who happens to be a Mormon, who made one of the oddest and most original and funny movies I’ve seen in quite a while. And he was happily successful. That’s the best kind of success that the church can hope for. There’s nothing in that piece that most members could complain about, that would be outside of the standards of the church, and yet it didn’t have to deal with [questions like] “Is it a good representation of the church or not?” It was just its own world. Idaho probably would have a bone or two to pick with him. [laughs] But that, I think, is a nice success.

Don’t ask me, though: I think Brian Evenson is a success, simply because he writes good stories. Whether anybody’s read them, or whether the church accepts them, whether he’s even still a Mormon I’m not sure. But he’s a good writer, as far as I’m concerned, and so that’s successful to me. It’s not about whether he’s won a prize, or whether his book, Altman’s Tongue, sells volumes. All I care about when I sit down with my copy is whether I enjoy it or not, and I did, so therefore I go, “Hey, he’s a success.”

You can listen to selected portions of the interview here and here.

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