“You know, if people just go into the theater looking to have a good time and to laugh, this film absolutely delivers,” says director Neil LaBute of Death at a Funeral, the American remake of the minor-hit British film of the same name (it opens on April 16). That's not quite the sales pitch you'd expect from a man who made his name penning and directing films and plays whose brusque depictions of humanity, particularly late–20th century American maleness, made many viewers recoil. LaBute's 1997 debut film, In the Company of Men, established him as a chronicler of misanthropic, deeply damaged characters — a tag reinforced by films such as 1998's Your Friends and Neighbors, and most of his critically acclaimed theater work as well. Despite the fact that his filmography swerves from Nurse Betty to Possession, from The Wicker Man to Lake-view Terrace, news that he was directing Death raised eyebrows from almost everyone who's been paying attention to his career. In a recent phone interview, he explained why the film is not such a leap for him, offers some biting words for the mumblecore film movement, and reveals the true meaning of Lost.
How did you come to direct this remake?
I was asked by Chris Rock, who wanted to develop it into an American film. We had worked together on Nurse Betty and Chris had directed a couple of pictures [in the interim] but really wanted to just concentrate on acting for Death. At the time, he was doing a picture with Screen Gems, who I'd just done Lakeview Terrace with, so they were familiar with me. And they all knew I was looking for a comedy. I had been for a while. It's hard to get people to believe that, although I always felt that there was comedy in my stuff — whether I put it there or by accident. [LAUGHS.]
Given that you have Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan in the film, was there much improvisation during shooting?
There was. Tracy especially is someone who can riff really well on camera and stay in character. Whereas another person can do a line or two, Tracy can practically do a monologue. There's a section, in fact, where he's sort of doing just that. I'm someone who really — and I guess this comes from my writing background — I wanna make sure that we're telling a story that we actually thought through, and not just thought we can make it better in 10 minutes while standing here. But as long as it was in character and in keeping with what we were doing, and we got a take that made sense in terms of the script at hand, I was open to that.
One thing that was surprising to me, though at the time I wasn't really thinking about it, was that Chris and Martin Lawrence had never had a proper teaming together. I think they were in Boomerang together God knows how many years ago, but I don't even know if they had had scenes together. Chris was the mail guy and I don't think their paths ever crossed in the film. And Boomerang is really a fascinating movie on a lot of levels.
It's interesting that Boomerang doesn't get written about more just in terms of race and class and the ways they play out in that film. It's sort of an Afrocentric utopian paean to upward mobility, yet most of the characters are actually quite unlikable.
Yes, I know what you mean. At least the actors bring some human quality to it. On paper, the characters must have been really horrible people.
I want to flip direction for a moment. Given that you're known for writing angry, fucked-up male characters, I was curious if you've seen any mumblecore films and what you make of the men in them. What sort of reading might you give them, cropping up at this moment on the American culture clock? They're sort of passive, or passive-aggressive and wan. …
Yeah, you can't even call them bumbling. That'd be too much effort for them. [LAUGHS.] Talking about passive, they just kinda lay there with their shirts off. C'mon, now. But it's interesting to see that seep into the work of Noah Baumbach, who I know has done some work with these guys — guys and gals, obviously. He has Greta Gerwig in his film [Greenberg] doing really nice work, almost the kind of work where you feel like he just happened to film her. Her performance is so natural and lovely. But yeah, Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg would make sure their doors are locked at night so people like [LaBute characters played by] Aaron Eckhart and Jason Patric don't come in. You know they're out there still.
It's interesting to juxtapose images of angry, red-faced tea-baggers with the males in the mumblecore stuff. It's like the latter are what the former are afraid of being reduced to — these subeffete, sexless creatures who are sort of stripped of everything remotely emblematic of conventional male power.
Yeah, that's probably very true. It hasn't really been that long since the last great movement of civil rights and women's rights and the sexual revolution, where that slice of white American male felt pushed out and put upon. It's sort of like you keep letting other people in the elevator until, “Don't get too close. I need my space. I'm used to the whole damned thing.” Whether it's death throes or just a tantrum is hard to tell with the boy-men I write about. But yeah, they don't love change. They're very much used to having it their way. I think that those [mumblecore] guys and the women who are around those guys would really irritate [my male characters] to no end.
People keep saying that Death is the head-scratcher among your work, but I think that honor goes to the promotional short you directed for the game Heavy Rain. It seems the most atypical of your work not only because it's in the service of selling a video game but because there's a masculine tenderness to it.
It was a fascinating project to me because I'm not a gamer of any kind. But it was really just the idea that this was not selling anything so much as talking about the game, which has a fascinating quality to it — the idea that you're still on a quest, you're doing all the things the game asks you to do but you're making all these emotional and moral choices along the way. I certainly have been one who — no matter what the rant has been, whether it has been quiet or loud — has been interested in going back to those really basic things, as simple as good and bad, which after all the black smoke and polar bears may be all that Lost was ever about. You know, what's good and what's bad, and can they ever reconcile? And do they need to? There's always been that interest in me — how far would you go for love? I thought that was an interesting thing to ask. And just to hear Sam Jackson going, “Not very.” [LAUGHS.] I thought that was funny. And very candidly true.