For a writer/director who has long been fascinated with situations that will allow his characters to drop the pretense of civilized behavior to give into their base wants and desires, there’s no wonder why the British phrase “Dirty Weekend” was so appealing when it hit Neil LaBute’s ear for the first time. Now the title of the “In the Company of Men” and “The Shape of Things” helmer’s latest film, it is only a small indication of the mess he puts Les (Matthew Broderick) and Natalie (Alice Eve) in as a pair of co-workers who are stranded in Albuquerque after a plane delay.
Knowing each other as they do from work, light, familiar banter ensues between the pair in the immediate aftermath of learning their Dallas flight has been postponed, but as another flight out of New Mexico seems to get further and further away, they begin to reveal themselves in a way they hadn’t at the office, with Les slowly realizing the last time he was in town he had a one-night stand that lends an air of mystery to the proceedings since he cannot remember exactly who it was with or where. Just as LaBute showcases characters who know each other but obviously not well enough, he cannily uses what preconceptions the audience has of the film’s two leads to surprise, employing Broderick’s typical fussiness and Eve’s intimidating beauty as facades for who they really are, their personal discontent exposed in the desert sun away from their significant others.
Yet “Dirty Weekend” is a comedy after all, and the filmmaker’s embrace of limitations in recent years to keep his work creatively unbound – two central characters in a setting that feels confined even if it’s in the open air – has only seemed to sharpen the punchlines. Eve and Broderick trade glances and lines as if they were just-lit cherry bombs and eventually, a larger explosion comes in the form of Les finding out exactly just what happened to him on his previous trip. Shortly before the film hits theaters and video-on-demand, LaBute spoke about how his work in the theater has informed being a (very) independent filmmaker, how actors help shape his work, and the refreshing quality of putting characters and audiences in the same boat.
With both this film and “Some Velvet Morning,” it seems as if you’ve imposed certain limitations on yourself, such as having two central characters and limited settings. Has that become a model for being able to tell the stories you want on screen?
Because I come from the theater, I like very controlled environments. I was very happy doing “Some Velvet Morning,” where were inside of a house the entire time and it was still very theatrical to me. The actors worked in that same kind of way. We rehearsed a lot and they had a lot of dialogue to deal with and it was a blast. This picture was different, of course, because it’s a little bit more like a road movie, even though it’s on a short road – from the airport to the downtown and back, you meet people, you move on. I really liked having the control of a smaller budget and being able to dictate how a lot of that worked out.
On “Some Velvet Morning,” you’ve said you cut out about 20 pages from the script after a table read. How integral is that to the process you have?
When you finally have good actors reading stuff, you actually breathe a sigh of relief that you have something that actually works. It’s great to hear people who are talented and able to create a character do it for you because when you do it yourself, it doesn’t sound so great. You start to realize how much they bring to it, how much you don’t have to overarticulate these things and usually, what ends up happening is you end up cutting stuff out because you go, oh I’ve already said this in a certain way or their face is going to tell me this, I don’t need to keep reminding people about it.
On a two-hander like this, do you develop characters independently of each other and then want to see how they might collide or do you actually figure out the scenario and then just hear the conversation in your head?
So much of it goes to casting. That kind of part [that’s played by Matthew Broderick], you can imagine a someone like Jack Lemmon going through the same sort of thing years ago in a movie from the ’60s. If I could have not been able to get Matthew, I would have had to have [asked] Paul Rudd to play that part. Paul’s done other stuff for me before, and it wouldn’t be out of his wheelhouse. But the beauty is there’s a lot of actors out there who can bring life to these roles. A guy like Paul Giamatti or Stanley Tucci, who was in the previous movie [“Some Velvet Morning”], could have played a character like this and you can get a whole different read on the character in the film by just casting somebody else.
A lot of the credit has to go to what Matthew brings to it both as a person but also because people have known Matthew Broderick for a long time now. It already brings a certain feeling to you when you know he’s in it. You either smile and go, “Oh there’s Ferris Bueller or the guy who was in ‘Election'” or whatever you like him from or somebody else goes, “Oh, I don’t really like him that much.” Actors carry in a lot of cache who they are, but they also are able to create a very specific character for you as well. Having Alice Eve play that part was very different than having some other person play it. When you get lucky with casting, it’s a great thing because they bring so much more to what you had on the page.
It was of interest to me, but I think that’s also what was interesting for her about it – that if we were going to do something again together so quickly, that the characters would feel very, very different. Even the physical look, down to the way we dressed her and she dyed her hair, we tried to take that as far as we could. She pulled that off exceptionally well.
You’ve long been interested in power dynamics, particularly between men and women. But in recent years, it seems to go into the realm of actual ownership in terms of how much someone may belong to their significant other – what is it about that theme that perhaps has grown more interesting to you as the years have gone on?
There is so much power play between people who are co-workers and lovers and family members in our lives, so that has been a natural point of interest for me. What I really liked about this particular grouping [in “Dirty Weekend”] is that there was not a romantic or sexual component between those two characters. When you have a man and a woman, it often immediately goes to that place. In this one, there was no sense that these two were ever going to fall in bed together or fall in love or any of that. They were both on their own journeys and there was nothing that was going to force the issue and make it one of those moments where, “oh we forgot ourselves” and it becomes something more predictable. I was happy to keep them out of that situation and off on their own trip of self-discovery.
You actually go as far as only revealing the true nature of their relationship as the film wears on…
I have always loved that, certainly even more in my plays than film. I love the idea of back story only coming out as you go along and you don’t get a great sense of build up to what’s happening. The first shot of [“Dirty Weekend”] is of these two people coming off a plane and a character saying, “Where are we? What’s going on?” We’re asking that same question as an audience member, so I think finding ourselves in the same boat as the character is refreshing. It puts us into a partnership with that person in a very tangible way right off the bat.
In this particular story, I love that because it’s all about a journey for a guy who doesn’t know what he’s looking for. He doesn’t know that he’s right back in this place [where] he doesn’t remember what happened to him when he got drunk and was with somebody on a previous trip to Albuquerque. That all makes it fun to discover it at the same time as he does.
All the days were pretty crazy because it was a relatively short, 15-day schedule. We had about half of that much time for the previous film that we shot. Both of those pictures were really quick. They were more like shooting an hour-long television show and because you’re asking people to learn so much dialogue, every day was crazy.
The last day that we were there, we worked really late into the night and people were getting very touchy. Interestingly, that’s when some good things happen because people let their guards down a little bit. I think the more tired that Matthew got, the more you could push him to go further and further with the character. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The last scene we shot was the scene when he wakes up in bed with the brother and sister and he’s putting on his clothes and leaving their apartment. We got a certain gentleness in that scene between he and the sister that because it really was the middle of the night and they actually felt like they were really tired. There was a reality that came into that scene that I don’t know that you would otherwise get. [SPOILERS END]
Since you write such provocative plays and films, does the reaction of audiences complete it for you or since you’re so prolific, do you actually consider something done when you put the pen down?
[The reaction] is the completion. We made this and you walk away from it at a certain point as an actor. Then as a director, you stay with it with the editor and you finish it and there’s a space of time before you ever show it. We showed [“Dirty Weekend”] at Tribeca and there’s been times since then until now when it comes out and more people see it, but there are gaps and you go on with your life, but you’re brought back to it like now. This revitalizes all those memories about it.
Of course, if you did it in a vacuum, you would just be done with it or if you wrote novels, you would know that the experience is a very singular one. Unless you’re doing readings, you’re often meeting people one person at a time who dealt with your work. Movies and television and theater even, a lot of people come in groups and go and experience the thing. It’s meant to be there in front of people on the screen or on stage, so it’s not really complete until that’s happened.
You go with it. You take the good with the bad. I’ve never really begrudged someone having an opinion that’s adverse to mine. That’s valid because that’s their opinion. I have occasionally had taken umbrage with critics. You take things very personally and it’s a weird part of the experience that you put things out there and people grade them in a public fashion in front of everybody else. But I’m used to that and used to having very split opinions. I don’t think I would be satisfied if you made a movie or you made a play and it never got to the stage or on the screen. What it’s all about is you telling a story and having someone at the other end of that listening to it.