Neil LaBute comes on like Jeckyll and Hyde via the schizophrenic ways he's represented now around the Hub: as the playwright of a lurid, monstrous trio of short dramas, Bash: Latterday Plays, at the Actors Worskshop through October 28; as the film director of the benign Hollywood comedy, Nurse Betty, showing at your neighborhood multiplex.
Bash is far more consistent with LaBute's previous two movies, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, both reviled for their alleged misogyny and/or misanthropy. However, at his Nurse Betty press conference last May at the Cannes Film Festival, LaBute came off as, well, a nice, regular, relaxed guy, who joked that, "Eleven years ago I was here at Cannes as a journalist for a television station trying to get interviews with pretentious actors."
Is he really a hail fellow? Or is just tired of being thought of as a sexist prick playwright and filmmaker? And is that why he made the sweet-tempered Nurse Betty?
"There is every chance I am a sexist prick and this is a ruse," LaBute answered when we talked at Cannes, speaking to me with bracing honesty. "Bash, which I wrote and originally directed in New York, consists of three one-act plays of people saying they are one kind of person and then doing dark deeds. It starred Calista Flockhart, who is America's sweetheart and turns out to be a child murderer. I could have found a film to do much more unlikable than this one. But I enjoy attempting things I hadn't done, and there's a personal mandate to surprise people."
He grew up Mormon in Spokane, Washington, viewing, from junior high on, foreign films along with his mother on the PBS affiliate. "It was a survey course of the greatest hits of world cinema. I saw La Strada early on, The Seven Samurai. The 400 Blows was a favorite.I'm as happy watching La Dolce Vita as any movie I've ever seen. Now, I'm a big fan of Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. I've been a fan lot longer than I've been a filmmaker, and these are people I'd love to meet.... And I'm quite intrigued by Philip Roth!"
LaBute met Aaron Eckhart, the actor whom he's cast in all his movies, while they were students at that Mormon bastion, Brigham Young University. "Aaron was in my class, and I was the grad-school assistant, in a course in Ethics in Film. We were actors in a scene about two theater collaborators who are writing a musical comedy based on the assassination of President Lincoln.
Ethics in Film? "I tried to gear the class to the ethics of adaptation. Would you have difficulty making a film which is politically charged and you don't agree with the politics? I'm a Mormon filmmaker, and it informs my work. But I have some difficulty with the Church for being wary of the idea that showing something negative is fine in order to show something good. I certainly have that view."