It feels like we haven’t seen many movies from playwright-turned-filmmaker Neil LaBute in recent years. In fact, it’s been seven years since his last feature film, Dirty Weekend, which came after a fairly prolific run that began in 1997 with an adaptation of his own stage play, In the Company of Men. That was followed by several films that he wrote and directed, including Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), Nurse Betty (2000), and The Shape of Things (2003), though he began directing other writers’ scripts more often after his 2005 remake of The Wicker Man.
Now, LaBute returns with two new original movies that he both wrote and directed — House of Darkness and Out of the Blue. The former starts out as a fairly simple two-hander with Justin Long and Kate Bosworth playing strangers who meet at a bar and return to her massive mansion for…whatever is going to happen next. Naturally, things don’t quite go where he expects, and the film proves to be an interesting one for LaBute, who has explored toxic masculinity in his earlier work, though this is a sexy thriller that’s very much a post-#MeToo exploration of dating.
Meanwhile, Out of the Blue stars Diane Kruger and Ray Nicholson, and that’s more of a classic noir thriller ala The Postman Always Rings Twice (which, it just so happens, stars Ray’s father, Jack Nicholson), though it also takes elements from classic erotic thrillers of the ‘90s. Nicholson plays Connor Bates, an ex-con who takes a job in a library where he meets Marilyn Chambers (Kruger), the wife of a wealthy businessman. The two of them begin a sordid affair, which leads them to decide that they might both be better off without her pesky husband in the picture.
Below the Line recently hopped on Zoom to chat with LaBute about these two very different projects, though both share some of the same thriller DNA, not to mention LaBute’s well-honed knack for sharp and snappy dialogue.
Below the Line: You’ve been doing a lot of television over the past few years, but now you have two new movies coming out at once.
Neil LaBute: Yeah, they came out very close to each other.
BTL: I guess we’re going to mainly talk about House of Darkness, but we can also discuss Out of the Blue in relation to it. Out of the Blue, you shot before the pandemic, right?
LaBute: No, I actually did House of Darkness first, both during the pandemic, in, like, 2021.
BTL: Had you been writing a lot of stuff that you were finally able to get into production one after the other?
LaBute: I think people were genuinely looking for material. They felt like there was going to be a space in the pipeline of, ‘Hey, we’re running lower on material and we’re looking for stuff that has smaller casts and that kind of thing.’ Sometimes you go five years without doing something, and then suddenly, there’s two or three in a row. So, it just happened to line up that way.
BTL: Did you finish shooting one and then go immediately into post on it, or did you shoot both of them and then do post on both?
LaBute: I basically finished one and started into post, and then before I even finished, really, on House of Darkness, I was getting into shooting Out of the Blue, and then went into post on that. They were very much back-to-back in that case.
BTL: We should talk about that amazing location for House of Darkness since it plays such an important role in the movie. Were you able to find one place where you could dress up for what you needed to do so that the film could mostly be shot in that single place?
LaBute: Yeah, no sets of any kind. It was a location in Arkansas, which was a big tax incentive. It was almost… I almost said “self-built” but I don’t know that he actually worked on the building himself, but he made his money in a mill [making] fancy wood for homes. A lot of the wood that you see in that house is the kind of stuff that he would have created in his past. He built himself a faux-Scottish castle in the Arkansas hills, and I think it was up for sale, so it was available to use for weddings and film locations and that sort of thing. We knew it’d be very self-contained and had all the properties that we needed.
You’re always looking for, “What about our services as well? Are we going to have space for parking? Are we going to have space for holding and all those things?” It had just enough of all those things to make it a property that was worth our going there and just setting up and being there for the entire shoot. So, there were no company moves, nothing like that. Well, that’s not true. The script itself was written to have… there’s a section in there, a sequence [where] you see him in another location in a mine shaft on the last day of production. But as written, it was meant to happen at the house, but the house didn’t accommodate that as well. So there was one company move to go shoot in this mine. Everything else was taken care of at that location.
BTL: Did you find the house first, or had you decided on Arkansas, and then you had to find a place?
LaBute: Arkansas was one of the places that were under consideration, so we just started looking for properties in states that were very welcoming in terms of tax breaks. That was the one that we centered on and liked the best.
BTL: How did you come up with casting Justin and Kate opposite each other? Have you seen Barbarian, Justin’s other new movie, yet?
LaBute: I haven’t. How is it?
BTL: It’s amazing, so he has two movies coming out this week. In your movie, he’s not a complete jerk, but in the other movie, he definitely is, so your movie ended up being a nice set-up or lead-in to that one.
LaBute: Oh, great. Justin, I had worked with him in the theater, so I knew him from about 10 years ago. One of the producers had gone to college with him, and they’d stayed in touch, showed him the script, and he was interested in that part, and kind of stayed with us while we were raising the money. Kate, I knew and got her the script, and just felt like what they would bring, not just as actors, but even as just people…
People see [Justin] and go, ‘Oh, I like that guy.’ They think he’s funny, so he would allow us to take that character a little further than somebody else might because you want to just like him. And then Kate is very still and had the right quality to make this woman, even as pretty as she is, kind of unsettling, the more you got to know her. The combination of the two of them just seemed like a really good fit, and it worked out perfectly well.
BTL: It has a nice tight cast with just the four characters, so were you able to workshop and rehearse with them before filming?
LaBute: We had a little bit of rehearsal [but] not very much, as you can imagine with a film that we shot in 11 days, I think, [or] something like that. It was tight, and we had very little margin for error, but there was a little time to go over the script and pull out anything that didn’t feel like it was right, and switch up a few things. But mostly, [we rehearsed] in the space, on the day, and they just had to really pound those lines into their head, because there were a lot of lines.
BTL: Correct me if I’m wrong, but there didn’t seem to be a ton of crossover in terms of crew between the two movies, other than your composer, Adam Bosage, who did the score for both films. Do you generally have people you normally work with, or is it more about finding local people wherever you’re shooting?
LaBute: No, because one was shot in Providence, Rhode Island, and [there’s a] big difference, geographically, between those places. Someone like a composer can work from home, but in terms of people on the ground, we shot with people in Arkansas, and then people in Providence.
BTL: How do you go about finding your DP for a project? Do you watch a lot of movies? Do you take recommendations from friends and fellow filmmakers?
LaBute: There’s that, but there’s also, you hear about somebody, so you check out their reel or movies they’ve done, but I’ve gone back to the same wells a number of times. I happened to use two different DPs on those two films, but it’s nice to work with people you know. It’s also nice to meet new people. I didn’t know Daniel Katz before we did House of Darkness, and I was so happy with the way he approached it. He operated his own camera, and he was very into the whole aesthetic of it being very still, and letting the actors kind of dictate the whole thing. So [he] was a great find, [and he was] someone I didn’t know, and then got a chance to work with.
BTL: Having done some television in between, have you found that’s a pool you can draw from as well?
LaBute: Absolutely. The guy who shot Out of the Blue [Walt Lloyd], I’d worked with first in television, and so definitely, you get a chance to go, ‘here’s a whole crop of other people that you haven’t had a chance to work with.’ It’s a very vagabond life in terms of going from Vancouver to Arkansas to Providence to New York or L.A. You do end up just, by necessity, and by the way things are built, you work with a lot of different people. It’s nice when you see a face that you know, every so often. You go, ‘Oh, cool, it’s good to see them again.’ You’re only gonna see them for six weeks, and then off they go to something else.
BTL: I do want to ask about casting Ray Nicholson. He obviously has the lineage of his father, but he hasn’t really done a ton of leading roles. He’s made quite a few smaller appearances in movies like Licorice Pizza. Did you find him through an audition process?
LaBute: I had seen some stuff that he had shot, and his name came up, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I like his look,’ and got on a phone call with him, and he was just great. He just got the script and wanted to do it, and hence the energy was there, [plus] I liked what I’d seen on screen, and sometimes you just take a chance. Diane [Kruger] was more of a known quantity. She’s been around longer and I’ve seen her stuff, and so she just kind of fit the bill of someone who is going to take that femme fatale role and run with it. But Ray was a different entity and I got lucky. [He was] someone who was really fun to work with [and] really held his own, I thought.
BTL: As far as the music, as you mentioned, Adam Bosage did the music for both movies. Obviously, these are genre movies with a very different tone and feel, and he leaned towards more of an old-school thriller feel, so how did you work with him to give each movie its own distinct sound?
LaBute: These are the first scores that he’s done, actually, and again, I was taking a chance on somebody new. Sometimes, when you find someone who’s really hungry to get that chance, they really give you the best they’ve got, and I knew going into House of Darkness, there wasn’t a ton of music, so we could work on it, and he would have enough time to make it and he wouldn’t get overwhelmed by that first project.
We put a lot of music into Out of the Blue, and I wanted something that felt very classic, very much of that world. We just kind of kept trading different music cues and saying, ‘Oh, remember this one?’ and ‘I love the sound of this,’ and ‘Hey, take a listen to this.’ Pretty soon, he’s sending bits of score, and you go, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ and then you have a temp score going, but you’re plugging in his stuff. By that second film, he had embraced how to build a score, and he was great to work with.
BTL: And you’ve already finished shooting your next film with Maggie Q, right?
LaBute: I have, yeah. That’s still in post.
BTL: She’s a terrific dramatic actress, but when I interviewed her, I discovered that she’s also very funny.
LaBute: Yes, really, really funny. We don’t ask her to be too funny, but she’s got a really good sense of humor.
House of Darkness will be released in select theaters on Friday, Sept 9, and then will be available on digital starting Tuesday, Sept. 13. Out of the Blue is also now available on demand.