Getting Direct With Directors...
Neil LaBute
No.2: Neil LaBute

Neil LaBute is best known for his caustic debut, In The Company Of Men, the blackly comic Nurse Betty, the underrated Possession, and The Shape Of Things. Here he opens up about his controversial career...

Why did you become a director?

Start with the easy ones, huh? I stumbled into filmmaking, and I think that may be the best way. I came to it from playwriting and directing in the theatre - adapted a playscript of mine for a company, then grew very frustrated as I waited for them to raise the money to film it. When they didn't, I decided to give it a go myself.

What would you be if you weren't a filmmaker?

If I wasn't a filmmaker, I'd probably go into the mental health field, since I find people so damn fascinating. If not that, then I'd probably do what most frustrated filmmakers do - become a film critic.

What other director would you most like to see work?

That's an interesting question. Well, I have to say one director that I suppose everyone is curious about, and that's [Stanley] Kubrick, because of his reclusive nature. There was a nice little documentary that went with The Shining and it was great to see, for a number of reasons. Very eye-opening, because it was sort of like going to the mountain to see Mohammed.
Big minds are enjoyable - for example, watching the Terry Gilliam film that fell apart.

Terry Gilliam with Jean Rochefort on the set of the ill-fated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, as captured in Lost In La Mancha

Lost In La Mancha?

Yeah. That was enjoyable because here was a mind that was struggling with all these great ideas and just bogged down with the crappy day-to-day things that can bring somebody to his knees. That's fascinating. And it would be really fun to watch the Coen brothers work, you know, brothers who are partners. Like the guys who did The Matrix - the Wachowski brothers?
I'm sure I would love to watch Woody Allen work, and yet from what I hear there isn't that much that you see happening. I would love go watch Godard at work. That would be fantastic. Thinking of people working today, one of my heroes is Eric Rohmer, so even though he's in his 80s, I'd love to see him work. Just to see that simplicity you see on screen, that profound simplicity, I'd love to see if he gets it in a profoundly simple way.

What was the last movie you paid to see?

Let's see. Lilya 4-ever. It's very good.

The director, Lukas Moodysson, also did Together. Did you ever see that?

I saw it in London, and I saw it twice in a row. It was so good that I'd like to see it again. Right now, I'd like to watch it again! It was that good.

What was the last movie you walked out of?

Bulletproof Monk. I walked out of X-Men 2 as well. Both of these were because my son got tired. Bulletproof Monk I was happy to go. X-Men 2 I would have gladly stayed.

Do you believe in God?


Who's the most famous person you have in your contacts book?

Um, that I could actually just ring up? Um ... Elvis Costello.

What's your favourite movie quote?

It's tricky, because there's so much. I don't know whether to sound cool or be honest - which is always the case! It's probably a Bette Davis quote from All About Eve: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night".

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

From all time? I would probably go with Rohmer as well.

Orson Welles, the most overrated filmmaker of all time?

Which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?

Orson Welles. As much as I love him, there's no way he could live up to that mystique. He was an impresario as well. He took a lot of credit for being surrounded by amazing people. That's the way directing often goes. Part of it was funding, but he had such promise and it never really sparked. It's also just fun to say.

What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?

I'll put that back on you: overrated filmmaker, since you're forcing me to choose and I don't really want to choose. So of course I chose someone who's dead.

Do you believe in test screenings?

I believe in them as long as we put absolutely no stock in them. How's that for an answer? I believe in them as screenings - not that you should go off and change your movie because of them. It's interesting to see what an audience thinks, but every time you turn up the lights and say, "Now, you be the filmmaker. Tell us what we did wrong and how we can fix it," people pull their glasses off and put the stem in their mouths and that makes them film critics. It's interesting to watch an audience, but if you're going to decide whether to keep the ending or not because of a group of 20 people... it's absolutely nuts. I haven't been burned by it, but I think the notion is quite crazy.

How seriously do you take reviews?

You know, I read everything I can get my hands on. I don't try to give the writers enough power to make me feel bad or good, depending on what they say. It's interesting to read somebody's opinion, the opinion of an audience member, albeit a fairly learned one. But I don't invest in it as gospel, I don't carry the good ones round in my pocket and fire off letters to the bad ones. If anything, I've written to people who gave me a bad review, if I thought their review was any good.

What's your biggest regret?

Every day. There's always something to regret. That's kind of a nice thing as well, like unrequited love, you know? Biggest regret? Other than being completely candid, in a way that you could never hope for me to be in a question like that, it would probably be not finishing my PHD or having learned a language.

There are five minutes left till the end of the world. What do you do?

Call as many people as I can on the phone and open a bag of chips and see what's on TV. Hope I can catch five minutes of a good movie, cross my fingers that Carnal Knowledge will be playing. I won't go screaming into the street, I'm sure.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

"Don't take no for an answer."

And the worst?

"I really think you should apply for a school loan."

Which performer would you love to work with?

Tilda Swinton.

What film makes you want to spit?

Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom.

Not a fan?

I didn't say that spitting was a bad thing! It just sort of leaves a taste in your mouth.

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder's wonderful The Apartment

What are your three favourite films and why?

Oh God. La Dolce Vita, to my taste, it's as close to perfect as it gets. Carnal Knowledge, is a fantastic representation of what I'm trying to do - dig into relationships and do it in a visually interesting way. And then... I don't know. Rohmer? I've mentioned him already, it might be The Apartment. I love The Apartment, it's as good a screenplay as anybody in America ever wrote. It's just audacious that he [Billy Wilder] was able to balance that dark and light and to take Best Picture, whatever stock you put in the Academy as it's often very mainstream.

What do you think of Norman Wisdom?

What do I think of Norman Wisdom? Ha! I think he's absolutely fine.

What's your pefect date movie?

I've already soiled Carnal Knowledge. It would be Manhattan.

Calling The Shots homepage