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LABUTE, NEIL : In the Company of Men

A docile family man in middle America who teaches English and theatre, turns his pen into a boot with his first screenplay, aiming the steel tipped instrument straight at the worst male in his imagination, a bastard in bedroom and the boardroom. Neil LaBute talks to ANDREW L. URBAN

It was rated R for ‘language and emotional abuse’ when it opened in America late last year, and at the first Australian media preview, one seasoned critic felt so ‘abused’ he walked out half way through. In the Company of Men is an American film but it defies America’s national sense of optimism and the belief that good triumphs over bad. First time filmmaker Neil LaBute set out to consciously defy such expectations.

"If I’d written something that satisfied those expectations and the characters got what they deserved, that would have let the audience off the hook, they would have walked out and soon forgotten about it."

"The plots are based on the deception of the witless by the witty."

The triggering mantra for the film was ‘let’s hurt somebody’ LaBute says pointedley. The setting is a corporate environment, where two men spend six weeks away from home base on a project. One of them, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) complains to his colleague Howard (Matt Molloy) about the treatment women dish out to men, and suggests a plan of revenge in which they identify a suitably vulnerable woman and both romance her unmercifully until she falls for them both – and then they can both unceremoniously dump her.

Where LaBute’s deadly pen strikes hardest is in the selection of the target, a pretty temp, Christine (Stacy Edwards) working at the company, who types up notes – but is totally deaf. A woman with a disability that probably makes her vulnerable. And unattached. Perfect.

"Chad is closest perhaps to the Moor in Titus Andronicus - 'if ever I’ve done anything good, I regret it’."

It is risky filmmaking because it risks alienating its audience. Told in five acts, LaBute’s steady framing is driven along at each new act by damning drums alongside discordant orchestral music, restating the mood. For those who take their tea strong, their vodka straight and their emotions on the chin, In the Company of Men is a jolting, sometimes jocular exposition of the human condition – seen through dark glasses.

"It’s really a typical love triangle," says LaBute, "but with a twist. And more than anything, it’s based on Restoration comedy" where the plots are based on the deception of the witless by the witty. But there is also a nod to Shakespeare in the deception that Chad engineers. "Chad is closest perhaps to the Moor in Titus Andronicus, a deceptive, awful character who, even when he was buried up to his neck at the end said something like, ‘if ever I’ve done anything good, I regret it’."

"They’re very proud that I’ve made a film, but they refuse to screen it."

This was a conscious reference and not surprising for a lecturer in English and theatre. A graduate of Kansas, New York and Brigham Young Universities, LaBute, a Mormon, is bemused by the reaction to his film at the latter, a Mormon institution: "They’re very proud that I’ve made a film, but they refuse to screen it." He admits there is a split with his church over the film. "The church doesn’t believe that good can come from bad. But I do; I believe a great deal of good can come from showing what is bad."

Married with two children, LaBute lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, two hours north of Indianapolis and over three hours south of Chicago: the center of middle America, "or as some say, the center of nowhere. We shot the film here in Fort Wayne because it’s a good place at providing the nondescript environment we wanted."

The curly haired La Bute describes himself as a "docile" person, but he also admits to a "chronically arched eyebrow about the world, including myself." Above all, he says he is a writer "with a need to find something new to say."

"It cost somewhat less than The Castle, and the money came from the insurance payout from two friends"

LaBute has never made a film before, but he has already made his mark with this one, winning an armful of awards last year, including the Filmmakers’ Trophy at Sundance Film Festival, Best First Film from the New York Film Critics, the Youth and the Silver prizes at the Deauville festival, a Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking from the National Board of Review, and is included in the Best Films of 1997 lists of both Time magazine and Rolling Stone.

Not bad, huh? It cost somewhat less than The Castle, and the money came from the insurance payout from two friends who had been in a car accident. One of the three lead actors, Matt Molloy, came up with another $5,000. The film grossed around US$3 million in the US, making it instantly profitable.

"It has a caustic view of the world."

LaBute is in the middle of editing Friends and Neighbours, his second film, which has been financed by Propaganda Films (part of PolyGram) and has a bigger budget "but it is still contained: there are no exterior shots and only six characters. Aaron Eckhart, whose performance in In the Company of Men won him Outstanding New Talent Award in the 1997 Golden Satellites Awards, joins Jason Patrick, Ben Stiller and Nastassja Kinsky in what LaBute calls "a film between drama and comedy, about fluctuating relationships – there’s a lot of fur flying, and it has a caustic view of the world."

And a chronically arched eyebrow, perhaps.

This is an edited version of Andrew L. Urban’s article in The Bulletin, March 25, 1998.

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