By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Rachel Weisz has just flubbed a line.
It comes in Scene 8 of Neil LaBute’s film version of his play The Shape of Things. Weisz‘s character, Evelyn, is supposed to tell Paul Rudd’s Adam, ”We got you a cocoa,“ but for some reason it comes out ”juice.“ The slip gets a laugh on the set, which, in a way, is remarkable. The film‘s four-member cast, which also includes Gretchen Mol as Jenny and Fred Weller (who is not on set tonight) as Phillip, hasn’t just been working up this material for a long time (these actors also appeared in both the London and New York stage productions last year); this Saturday night marks their 19th day of a tight, four-week shoot. The coffeehouse set, described in the script as ”a local Starbucks-knockoff,“ is the very real Gourmet Coffee Warehouse, located on downtown L.A.‘s Traction Avenue. The place, renamed here La Dolce Latte, neatly fits the story’s college-town requirements: a split-level floor plan with brick walls and bad art. All the set decorator had to add was a vintage Vespa scooter, some whorehouse drapes and a Fellini poster.
The Shape of Things is about two college couples, one on a marriage track (Mol and Weller), the other (Weisz and Rudd) involved in a Pygmalion romance in which art grad student Evelyn plays pussycat to Adam‘s English-department owl. Scene 8 is a pivotal one, in which Evelyn, in an apparent moment of jealousy, forces Adam to choose between her and his friendship with the other couple. LaBute, whose new film, Possession, is slated to open in June, filmed the master shots Friday and tonight is doing coverage -- two-shots and individual close-ups. Considering the brutally precise badinage of such previous work as In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, you might expect LaBute to be an intense perfectionist, insisting on retake after retake. Instead, he works at a surprisingly brisk clip.
”I just kind of go by intuition,“ LaBute admits. ”If I feel I’ve got it with two takes, I‘m happy with that. I certainly don’t overcover things.“
Indeed, he seems to be the most relaxed person on the set. A bearish 39-year-old with dark, curly hair and beard, LaBute fades back during shooting, a can of Diet Pepsi in hand, as though he were just some guy from the loft upstairs who has come down to watch. When the scene ends, he quietly says ”Cut“ and turns around 360 degrees so deliberately that you can almost read his thoughts before he asks, ”One more or what?“ And when Weisz says, ”Take it up one?“ -- asking whether LaBute wants her to bring her character‘s emotion up a notch for the retake -- he replies with near-comical nonchalance, ”You’re sure not going to go wrong that way.“
Still, there‘s more happening here than laissez faire, as when LaBute insists on crowding as much of his wide, anamorphically lensed imagery with background scenery, placing his characters way off center in the frame.
”I’m not that enamored with the camera,“ he‘ll say one moment, while the next owning up to his stage director’s obsession with filling empty space with the props and detritus of his characters‘ lives. ”The stage is a kind of socialistic environment. A theater audience can look anywhere they want onstage. In a film I turn their attention to where I want it.“
LaBute’s work has been controversial in terms of shoving its audience into the arena of sexual politics, but it‘s also clear he derives a certain satisfaction just from keeping people off balance. In his two stage productions of The Shape of Things, he deliberately assaulted viewers with a loud Smashing Pumpkins soundtrack, no blackouts, no intermission and, in London, no curtain call.
”I have no qualms about making people sit for two hours without a break. They’re used to their intermission, they‘re used to an actor getting applause afterwards, but I don’t really have much use for that. And I‘m not big on having the actors come out after the show and say, ’Oh, we were just kidding, we all really like each other,‘ and hold hands and break the moment.“
Still, compromises of a sort have been made for this film -- the script is a few pages lighter than the play’s, and, to open it up, some scenes will be shot as exteriors. More important, consistent weather and a $4 million budget have ensured that the play‘s original conservative Midwestern setting is now loudly California: LaBute’s company has shot everything in L.A., San Pedro and Camarillo.
The actors take a long break as the Panaflex camera is re-positioned along a track. A stoic Gretchen Mol remains posted at her scene‘s tall-standing coffee table, while the fidgety Weisz wanders away in a ”Cookie Monster“ jacket -- the fluffy blue coat Evelyn wore on Broadway, which Weisz now wears strictly for warmth. (It’s been deemed too over-the-top for the movie.) Rudd moves downstairs to the long service counter, takes a chocolate Malteaser from a jar, and goes outside to strum on a guitar then fool around with someone‘s new digital camera.
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