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LaBute Lightens Up

LaBute Lightens Up
Photo Source: Francois Durand
It might seem that the words "Neil LaBute" and "broad comedy" have no business existing in the same sentence. But playwright-filmmaker LaBute, perhaps best known for his scathingly incisive examinations of humanity ("In the Company of Men," "The Shape of Things") is looking to change that. His latest directorial effort, "Death at a Funeral," takes an absurd situation—a wake gone wrong—and plays the farcical bits for all they're worth. The film, a remake of the 2007 British version, stars such comedic heavyweights as Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, and Tracy Morgan. LaBute says he landed the gig thanks in large part to producer Rock, whom he directed in 2000's "Nurse Betty."

"He took a chance on me that some people hadn't, which was believing that you can do something other than what you're known for," says LaBute. "It's nice to say you can do something and believe in yourself, but [film is] such an expensive medium, people have to really trust you."

That doesn't mean LaBute is abandoning his darker side. His play "The Break of Noon," which focuses on the aftermath of an office shooting, will debut at New York's MCC Theater this fall. And in July, one of his controversial early works, "Filthy Talk for Troubled Times," is set to be released by Soft Skull Press.

Back Stage: How did the "Death at a Funeral" remake come your way?

Neil LaBute: I wish I could take fuller credit. It was really more Chris Rock's idea: We'd both seen the film independently when it came out and thought it was very funny. It didn't do particularly big business in the States but did pretty nice business around the world. So I think that prompted Chris to say, "This could be developed into something that might catch the eye of the American public, done by American actors."

When I came into it, it was me really looking for a comedy in the general sense. Chris is also a director, but he wanted to just be in front of the camera for this role. I can see why: With Tracy Morgan and Martin Lawrence, you want to be on your toes and not having to go back and look through the lens again. He thought I would be somebody who would be good in corralling these folks and getting good performances from them.

Back Stage: What did you do to differentiate it from the original?

LaBute: I liked what they'd done, but I really did feel I could bring something to it. There were a few characters who I felt were just there to prop certain things up in the original. We tried to give those characters even more to do. I always felt like the mother didn't have a great deal to do, and I think Loretta [Devine] gets a bit more here. I think, in particular, Chris Rock's wife, played by Regina Hall, brings a lot to it. She's a very funny woman. But she also had more to do; the idea that she wants to get pregnant during all of this was a funny conceit. There's stuff that's going on that's personally about her. She's not just saying, "Oh, honey," all the time. I think I was able to bring the best of what I do—work with actors, work on script—to it. And each person brought something to the table and made those characters fleshed out in a way that seemed more equitable to the whole.

Back Stage: This isn't the sort of film we usually associate with you. Were you looking for a change of pace?

LaBute: I was always on the lookout for a comedy. I really didn't have any on the résumé. I think there's always been humor in my work—sometimes inadvertently. You might find something funny that wasn't meant to be. Something like "Nurse Betty" has probably more of that, but it also has great shifts in tone where there's scalping and a fantasy romance, so it doesn't stay just a comedy the entire time. This is still not necessarily a garden-variety comedy, but it is essentially in the genre of comedy. And I always felt like I could do that well.

Back Stage: How did you get Peter Dinklage to reprise the role he played in the original?

LaBute: I loved the idea of having that connection. How rare is that? You'll see a nod to a previous work in a film that's made years later: Gregory Peck will show up in "Cape Fear" 30 years later as the gentleman lawyer. But Peter literally played the same part. I was like, "What a funny idea. We'll give him a slightly more rough trade version with the leather jacket and scruffy little beard and a little bit more conniving way about him." I think he thought that was a fun notion, too.

Back Stage
: And what was the rest of your casting process like?

LaBute: Chris had a say in that, and I had a say in that, but we had other producers who were actively working on it, as well. And then there was also Clint Culpepper, who runs Screen Gems, who had a really strong voice in this. A lot of the people you'll see in this movie are people he's worked with before. He's very shrewd about knowing not just what makes sense to him but knowing what he feels he can sell. He was very quick to say, "Gosh, I think this person would be great. Chris, if you can call Martin, I will find the money to make that work." He was a voice in the casting process and sometimes introduced us to people we really didn't know—in particular, Regina Hall. I went, "She seems too young for it. That doesn't make sense." I became a huge believer. I think she's terrifically funny and really good, and that comes from being open to other people's ideas. It was a real stew, in the best sense, of everybody throwing ingredients in and it working out.

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