Reasons to Be Cruel: Neil LaBute on Some Velvet Morning

Neil LaBute (Getty)

Neil LaBute (Getty)

“I never understood that expression— ‘Have your cake and eat it too,'” director Neil LaBute said last week, munching on a jam-covered bagel at French Roast on the Upper West Side. “It doesn’t make any sense. Who wouldn’t want to eat the cake they ordered? Who wants to go through the trouble, or keeps going through the trouble, all the time? Orders a cake and then is like, ‘No, thanks, I can’t have any’?”

Mr. LaBute’s musings about hypothetical baked goods had been a tasty dodge from the Transom’s question about the ending of his latest movie, Some Velvet Morning. (The film is out on December 13, 2013.) Starring Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve as sex partners locked in a manipulative power struggle—as if there were any other kind of LaBute story—the movie features one of the most graphic portrayals of dominance since Irreversible. And yet, a third-act reveal insinuates that even the most despicable acts can, in fact, be made reversible. So was it a cop-out, we wondered?

“You tell me,” Mr. LaBute smirked. “Did it work for you?”

It’s not that he was trying to be evasive; Mr. LaBute was genuinely asking for our thoughts, as he also did when we described his movies as “cruel.”

“What’s cruel, in this one? Maybe harder to watch, in a way,” he said. “I’ve certainly used that element before, but it’s not my go-to, people being cruel to each other, though people often are. What’s cruel?”

We mentioned Rachel Weisz’s character in The Shape of Things.

“I think of her as exuberant to a fault,” he countered, “not cruel.”

Fine, then how about Jason Patric in Your Friends & Neighbors? Again: not cruel.

“I think he’s always trying to tell the truth, he’s bringing you the truth, though again, it’s to a fault.”

“Hurting people and being cruel are two different things,” he continued. “People do hurt people, and it creates great conflict, and conflict is what I’m supposed to create.” He paused, then added: “Well, I’m creating great drama. I write about people acting in extremes. I’m not making documentaries.”

Mr. LaBute’s seeming sympathy for such ostensibly awful personalities—personalities of his own creation—might appear to be at odds with the stories he tells of them, and that is once again the case in Some Velvet Morning. The film is something of a forced tableau, as people find themselves trapped in a house with intolerable company and they stay long past the time any rational person would have just left the room. (Mr. LaBute was able to film the low-budget indie in eight days and only had to switch locations once—when he was forced to move his production to a studio in order to get the state tax credit, which demands a certain amount of time shot in a soundstage.)

“People don’t want to rub shoulders with monsters,” Mr. LaBute explained, perhaps answering our original question about his decision for Some Velvet Morning’s twist ending, though he was now ostensibly discussing how audiences reacted to Chad—played by Aaron Eckhart—in In The Company of Men. (It should be noted he did admit that that character is truly a cruel sociopath, instead of just, you know, “extreme.”) “They have to find a way to go, ‘Oh, he’s just a guy, and he’s caught up in this thing.’ They want to humanize people.'”

Mr. LaBute wants to humanize people too. He wants Mr. Tucci’s character to be seen, as horrific as his actions may seem, “through the prism of humanity,” he said.

After all, if you’re not invested in these characters at least a little, why bother watching? And high conflict, as upsetting as it can sometimes be, is still a form of movie escapism. Mr. LaBute gave us a personal example: On a recent Air Canada flight, his movie choices included Last Tango in Paris. Not really a fun way to pass the time, by anyone’s definition.

And yet: “I watched it because I thought, well, they’re not going to show the whole thing, but they did,” he said. “Every stick of butter.”

And as they say, you can have your butter and eat it too.