Revisiting with Neil LaBute


A magazine writer, simply referred to as “guy,” attempts to make amends with his past girlfriends. He’s in his early 30s, about to get married, and he wants to ease his conscience. Or maybe he wants to make sure he’s not missing out on anything—or anyone. Or maybe he is looking for new material for another, thinly veiled autobiographical article in Esquire. His motives depend entirely on the actor and the production.

Far from the dictatorial playwright or director, Neil LaBute sees his plays as “a living text” with which he “continues to tinker.” Some Girl(s) is a great example. In its first incarnation in London in 2005, David Schwimmer played the protagonist. There were four former girlfriends on his list: his high school sweetheart, college professor, semi-casual sex partner, and the one he could have married. By the time Eric McCormack took over the role for the play’s New York run, LaBute was revising his protagonist’s motives. He wrote a new scene, with a new, younger character, Reggie. She didn’t make it on stage, but she appeared in the printed version of the play as an optional act. Eight years later, Some Girl(s)—Reggie included—is making its film debut at SXSW. Adam Brody, who played a charming cad in Damsels and Distress and a charming high schooler in The OC, succeeds Schwimmer and McCormack.  His costars are Kristen Bell, Jennifer Morrison, Emily Watson, Mía Maestro, and Zoe Kazan as Reggie.

We recently spoke with LaBute about the transition from stage to screen, his short-lived high school acting career, and his newest play, Reasons to Be Happy, which opens in May at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

EMMA BROWN: Could all of your plays be films, or only certain ones?

NEIL LABUTE: It’s funny how that comes up, because sometimes I’ll write something and I’ll think, I don’t know if that’s a film or a play, and then other things I feel very strongly about them just being plays—they feel very theatrical to me. This, in fact, is kind of a weird one. Not quite a hybrid, but I wrote it with a theatrical device: this writer goes to all of these different women in various cities and sees them in hotel rooms. The set stays the same and it’s just the details that change—the paintings on the wall, one time it’s two beds, and then there’s a king bed. I imagined all that theatricality to it when I wrote it and yet, when someone else says, “That’s a road picture,” that little light goes off and I think, “That can work.” It doesn’t make me change it a great deal to accommodate movies, which always want to show you more than they tell you. Along the way I’ve been surprised by what ends up going from one medium to the other.

BROWN: Did you think about turning Some Girl(s) into a film during its original run? Or was it only later?

LABUTE: I didn’t think about it at all, actually. It was other people who came to me. I didn’t direct the original production; there was one in London first, and then New York, and then I directed it in Los Angeles. I probably, at some point, thought, “Wow, you could turn this into a television show: every week he spends 30 minutes with some other person.” But it strains credibility; how many women he can go to and say, “I’m sorry”? [laughs] When you get up to the 30s, [the audience is] probably going to say, “This guy’s got a pathological problem.” I could certainly write all those interactions, [but] I think it would strain the lead character a little bit.

BROWN: It didn’t surprise me that the protagonist had such an impact on these five women, but it did surprise me that he was aware of his impact. Do you think there are other women in his past that he didn’t think to visit?

LABUTE: I think so; he talks about looking at everybody and picking the ones that make the most sense to him. He says to Bobbi at the end, “You’re right there at the top of the list.” There are probably other trails of debris that he left behind himself—not a great way to think of relationships, but I think this guy makes a lot of messes. He gets away with a certain amount of that and has allowed himself to do that. While he goes with these “best intentions” to make amends for those things, it’s very narcissistic; it’s very self-centered and self-serving. [For] most of the women, even though they perhaps get the better of him during the conversation, it opens up a lot of wounds and unfinished business. He makes as big of a mess, if not more, by the time he’s gone.

BROWN: Reggie was not in the major productions of the play, but you include her in the film. Do you think her presence will make it more difficult for the audience to relate to the protagonist—make them dislike him more?

LABUTE: [laughs] Did you dislike him before and then that’s sort of the icing on the cake? I’m sorry to hear that.

BROWN: I didn’t dislike him, but I found that part a lot harder—

LABUTE: To rectify. I would think that’s certainly true. You can see where that wasn’t there in the original idea—it was a different kind of journey. I hoped that it would complicate things. While he’s a young man there, it’s pretty clearly delineated that he was old enough to know a lot more than she did. It was something that shouldn’t have transpired between them. I think that it will definitely color how you see him. I think we placed it accordingly; it’s late in the picture. I don’t know if you end up hitting that spot and going, “Wow, I don’t want to see any more about this guy. I don’t know what his next adventure is, but I’m not interested. I didn’t get to see Kristen Bell, but I’m leaving.” [laughs]

BROWN: Adam is a little younger than David Schwimmer and Erick McCormack were when they played the roles on stage. He also seems much more benign. Was that a conscious decision?

LABUTE: I think we did like the idea of going a little younger. If you line those three up at the same age, certainly with Eric, maybe even David, you’d look at Adam and say, “Wow, he’s very boyish.” He’s got that kind of boy-man quality. I think that does afford that character a little extra room to maneuver. It was important that—being who he was—there was a seemingly more innocent quality to him. I think youth does help, but I think it is really just in the person sometimes.

Lots of people know Adam from something else, and they want to like him. They found him charming in his television series or whatever else they’ve seen him in. I’m glad Adam was cast, to create that extra level of discomfort, of anxiety for an audience. They have these general feelings toward him and he’s pushing them away—his present behavior—but also [his] past behavior. We hear so much more about this guy than we actually see and the rap sheet is long.

BROWN: How did adapting Some Girl(s) compare to The Shape of Things (2001, 2003)?

LABUTE: There was some adaptation, at least, in Some Girl(s)—bringing in the Reggie section; all of the pieces had to be shaved down a bit and shaped slightly. I give a nod to the idea of motion pictures: here someone’s sitting in a car or a plane, walking through a hotel. The Shape of Things, we got a chance to take this company that had worked for a year together in London and then in New York. The movie was really the play lifted from the stage and put onto the screen in realistic settings. Instead of pretending we were in a coffee shop, we were in a coffee shop. Instead of pretending we were in a park, we were in a park. Those were really the only changes. It’s one step removed from those filmed versions of plays taken during a live performance. We lost some time, some language in the editing process, but there was really no, “And here’s the screenplay.”

BROWN: Would you ever translate a film that you directed to the stage?

LABUTE: That’s an interesting question. Possession (2002) would be really difficult. Nurse Betty (2000) would be insane onstage.

BROWN: What about something like Lakeview Terrace (2008), which is just so tense?

LABUTE: Yeah; the anxiety, those interactions between people—I love all that. Death at a Funeral (2010) is so interior, you almost could do it. Like in [Tracy Letts’] August: Osage County, you could have the interior of a home and see what’s happening all over the place. The Wicker Man (2006)—I could never imagine going back there and working on that onstage. [laughs] I took enough body blows from doing the movie to ever do that again. But it’s a good question. Not an idea that I’ve ever had, of taking something that I’ve done directly for film and going back the other way.

BROWN: Your next play, Reasons to Be Happy, is a continuation of Reasons to Be Pretty (2008). Have you ever done that before—written a sequel?

LABUTE: No, I’ve never done that before. Part of it was just sheer curiosity and part, I think, was some little light in my head that’s pointing me toward writing for television. Almost purely as a writer, the notion of, “Can I tell other stories about these characters?” You get so used to focusing in on 90 pages of the lives of people. That may take 25 years in their life or 90 minutes, but you’re so used to telling that one story, and turning the page and starting clean on four new people or 10 new people. It really felt like, I want to see where those people are, and see if I can go back into them and create those characters again believably.

BROWN: What about the characters in Reasons to Be Pretty made you want to revisit them?

LABUTE: Some of it’s the place that I left them; [but] when I say that, almost every play I’ve written I’ve left people either hanging or in a complicated situation. I don’t think that one made the most sense in those terms. I think I felt a great affinity for the people and the situation they were in, and the community that they came from. I grew up in a very blue-collar world and, while I’ve written a number of white-collar people and been educated—overeducated, yet somehow manage to be undereducated, it’s an amazing feat—I still think that spirit of those people who go out there and work with their hands for a living and spend their nights awake when everybody else is asleep, I know them. I absolutely could have been that person. I found them people that I wanted to go back and check in on. And see what had happened to them three years later.

BROWN: Did you act early on in your career?

LABUTE: I did! In high school. It was really one of the only ways to be involved in theater, but it was never a draw for me.

BROWN: What was the last part that you played?

LABUTE: It could’ve been Snoopy in You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. My one foray into musicals, which was kind of sold to me on the premise, “You don’t have to be good, you just have to be loud.” I thought, “Yeah, I could do that.” There might’ve been something else. Certainly there was something in college, because I was still in that place of “I want to do as much theater as possible.” I probably did [Harold Pinter’s] The Dumb Waiter or something like that. The times with me onstage became fewer and far between once I started writing my own material or directing.