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The Moralist 

Neil LaBute, Latter-Day Filmmaker

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000
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Page 2 of 7

The bitter truth, however, is that the most successful of these upstarts -- George Lucas and Steven Spielberg -- also helped to extinguish the industry's more inventive, anarchic creative tendencies with the blockbuster imperative. The rest is contemporary movie history, brought to you by Jerry Bruckheimer and the wonderful world of industrial entertainment. What remains is an unstable system in which studios function more like distributors than production units, and the more visionary studio heads, such as Joe Roth, formerly of Disney, and Bill Mechanic, formerly of Fox, are rotated off their jobs before they can really take hold. This sort of executive musical chairs, in turn, has helped to create an environment in which directors, young or not, are forced to jump from studio to studio, production deal to production deal -- that is, if anyone wants them to jump at all. Nobody asks Jarmusch to, and it's doubtful he ever would.

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 Details put 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 Nevsky and 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 Brown to "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.)

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