By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But LaBute has jumped. This weekend, Nurse Betty, an alternately dark and sly road movie starring Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock and Greg Kinnear, opens across the country. The film, which was initially funded by the now-defunct Polygram and then rerouted to the newly formed USA Films, a division of Universal Pictures, was produced for under $30 million -- or about $23 million more than Your Friends & Neighbors, the film that sealed LaBute's reputation as "the meanest man in Hollywood," as Detailsput it. In contrast, despite one Grand Guignol murder and two icy hit men, Nurse Betty seems sweet enough to threaten LaBute's notoriety, a shift in tone that may be as important to understanding his trajectory as the fact that he's not credited as its writer. When Nurse Betty premiered in May at Cannes, it won the prize for best screenplay for John C. Richards and James Flamberg. It's no small irony that the director, who wrote his first two films and is also a playwright of estimable standing, was banished to the sidelines during the film's big festival moment. Ironic, especially, because LaBute rewrote the dialogue from beginning to end.
LaBute has no problem claiming credit, but unlike many newly minted auteurs, he doesn't seem anxious to laminate each film with his fingerprints. "I like working within other people's frameworks," he says. As if to prove his point, and with the hope of directing, he did a rewrite of a Richard Price screenplay, Bleeder, for Jonathan Demme's company. LaBute may yet direct Bleeder, but not for a while, because just last week he began production in Northern England on Possession, a lavish romance set in the Victorian era and the present day, based on the novel by A.S. Byatt. A fan of the book, LaBute sought out the project, and though there was already a screenplay by Laura Jones (The Portrait of a Lady), whom he credits with "breaking the back of the book," he plunged into a rewrite. The stars are Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle and the director's college friend and regular collaborator Aaron Eckhart; the companies footing the bill are USA Films and Warner Bros. Much as in Nurse Betty, in which Zellweger plays a woman who's forced to flee her home in order to discover her true self, Neil LaBute is following his own glittering road.
"i really don't wanna, umm, elaborate too much on, well, you know, cover all the relationship stuff a whole lot, cause if you've talked to him you know it already, anyway, right? maybe more than you want to . . . "
--medea redux, bash: latterday plays
NEIL LaBUTE WAS BORN IN DETROIT AND RAISED near Spokane. His father worked as a long-haul truck driver while his mother worked as a homemaker, taking care of Neil and his older brother. LaBute grew up "outdoorsy," attended a nondenominational church, watched a lot of TV and, with his mother's encouragement, began cultivating a taste for the foreign films that aired on public television. "The quintessential Film 101," as he calls it. "You know, Alexander Nevskyand Wild Strawberries and La Strada." While in junior high, he began acting, going on to play everyone from Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brownto "the alcoholic choir leader" in Our Town. After graduating from high school, he took a year off to consider his options. He was working in a supermarket and at an art cinema, going to movies every night and taking a film class at the local college, when a high school adviser steered him toward Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, which had a theater program and a number of non-Mormon scholarships. (He also has an M.A. from the University of Kansas and an MFA in dramatic writing from New York University.)
It was while at Brigham Young that he was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When asked why, LaBute, a big guy with a baby face under ã glasses and a thicket of whiskers, answers freely. "You have to remember," he says, "I was going to a school where you're asked to take 12 hours of religious coursework. You're surrounded -- I mean, in Salt Lake you could find quite a disparity of people, but in Provo, 45 miles down the road, and certainly on campus, it was probably 97 percent [Mormon] -- you're literally surrounded. Everywhere you go you're getting the same kind of sell. Sometimes it's a very, very soft sell and sometimes there's a harder sell. Being surrounded by all that was a bit intoxicating. For myself, I can't imagine how it couldn't be. I still find that, as a religion, it makes as much sense -- and ultimately more -- than anything else that I've come in contact with. The idea of a modern prophet seems no more ludicrous, if you will, than the idea of an ancient prophet."
LaBute's Mormonism has been a subject of some discomfort in the media, addressed more as an article of kitsch than of faith. Read enough interviews and reviews, and you begin to understand why he prefers to live with his wife and two children outside Chicago rather than in Los Angeles or New York. A review of Nurse Betty in the current Gear, in which LaBute is tagged as the "Stormin' Mormon," exemplifies the cruder extreme of this unease: "Shit, even misanthropic Mormons have feelings. Who knew?" Even when LaBute's religious identity isn't the issue, it informs much of the critical language. In a bitingly funny and generally approving review of Your Friends & Neighbors, J. Hoberman of the Village Voicenonetheless reproached the film's "giddy sense of puritan revenge -- as though the filmmaker's dream audience would be watching these antics from the stocks."