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Neil LaBute interview

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Director Interview:
Neil LaBute
By Bill Desowitz
In director Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, he returns to familiar territory: incisive and incendiary relationships between men and women. Art student Evelyn’s (Rachel Weisz) latest project is her boyfriend Adam (Paul Rudd), so she sets out to turn him into a completely new person. Meanwhile, Adam’s friends (Gretchen Mol and Fred Weller) are a little freaked by the transformation. Cinematographer James Carter, editor Joel Plotch and costume and production designer Lynette Meyer were the main collaborators in adapting the hit London play that has been moved to L.A., where it was shot.

Below the Line: Let’s start with cinematographer James Carter.
LaBute: He is someone I’ve wanted to work with for quite some time. In fact, he was one of the people I was looking at [to shoot] Your Friends and Neighbors. I ultimately went with Nancy Shreiber—part of that was I wanted a woman to shoot Friends and Neighbors to try and get a little bit of a balance because of the kind of material that it was. It made the actresses feel freer. Jean Yves Escoffier, who I used on Nurse Betty, was unavailable, working with Robert Benton on Human Stain, so I needed someone and there was James. I really liked stuff he had shot before; One False Move was really beautiful. He had worked in both television and film, and that was invaluable because I needed someone who was quick. [It was] quite simply lit, with Chinese lanterns most of the time. Nice, quiet Zen quality and really good compositional quality, which was good because I don’t move the camera all that much. I’m more interested in fixed camera or strong, simple moves.
BTL: A holdover from theater, no doubt.
LaBute: Yeah, very much so. And so he embraced those things.
BTL: Anything in particular come to mind?
LaBute: We developed the idea of no over-the-shoulder shots. Anything you see is a single or a fairly wide single, even if it’s a piece of somebody’s body; [this made for] a nice distancing to keep people at bay. It’s so important for me to have people you enjoy working with.
BTL: Lynette Meyer?
LaBute: I met her on Your Friends and Neighbors. She’s got a razor-sharp mind and great taste. I’ve worked with her in television, film and theater. We think very much alike. In this case, she had done the stage costumes for Shape of Things. And I loved the idea of someone doing the costumes and sets as well, which you don’t see that often in film. The cumulative design of one person’s mind, and she was a natural for doing the set design. She’s pretty influential in the visual side of what I do.
BTL: Why was it shot in L.A.?
LaBute: Ultimately it was decided because of the budget we could not shoot it over the course of a semester in the Midwest [where] you could see the change in seasons. L.A. was the only place that made sense to shoot quickly and have good weather.
BTL: How did that impact the costumes?
LaBute: I think Lynette rethought a lot. Rachel was interested in trying some new things. And so it was easy to think about doing this around California college kids without being cliché about it. I had her go back in and paint in a few new details in terms of choice of shirts for Jenny, shoes or shorts that Phil wore.
BTL: And Joel, your editor?
LaBute: I’ve worked with Joel at least five times. It’s such an intimate relationship between a director and editor. In preproduction and in production, there are so many people around that you don’t necessarily have to think about how to get a warm one-on-one with [a particular] person. It’s a familial atmosphere and anyone can have a bad day. But when you get into the cutting room, you narrow your field of collaborators down to one, and maybe an editing assistant. So the idea that you’re going to be with someone that long, making important choices with this material, means you have to have a certain amount of trust. And Joel has been that guy for me. You know, everyone has a specialty, and Joel’s gift is with character. He’s very incisive about performance and character. Much of what I’ve done has been driven by that. So it’s far more important than someone who’s great with pace or cutting action sequences. The scene is dictated by the actors because they’re both in the same frame. There’s a long take, so they’re the ones creating pauses. So it’s not an editor who’s doing that, although Joel does that too. The play’s a good half an hour shorter than it was on stage. He looks at it anew and says, “Hey, how come you can’t jump from here to here?” The scene between the two guys out on the lawn is one example. There was a nice handful of lines in there that Joel cut. He showed me what he could do and it was pretty seamless. So I mulled it over and over and I asked him to show me that again, and I was sold.

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