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For week ended June 27, 1999 Posted 26 Jun 1999

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A Filmmaker's Faith in God, if Not in Men

Summarized by Kent Larsen

A Filmmaker's Faith in God, if Not in Men
New York Times 23Jun99 L2
By Dinitia Smith

NEW YORK, NEW YORK -- LDS Filmmaker and playwright Neil LaBute has carved out a clear niche in his work. Details magazine captures the niche well, "The meanest movies in Hollywood," it calls his work. Now LaBute's "Bash, Latterday Plays," has opened at the Douglas Fairbanks Theater in New York City for a month-long run, bringing more of his style to the stage. The three one-act plays in "Bash" are monologues starring Ron Eldard, Calista Flockhart (TV's Ally McBeal) and Paul Rudd.

LaBute himself is quite a contrast with his plays. A 36-year-old father of two, the author of this profile describes him as "a big teddy bear of a man in an unironed shirt over a T-shirt, politely answering questions." A convert to the LDS Church, LaBute currently lives in a suburb north of Chicago.

He burst on national consciousness with his film "In the Company of Men," in which two men on assignment from their company to an office in another city deliberately destroy a young deaf woman by seducing and then rejecting her. He followed this up with a critical pan, "Your Friends and Neighbors," which depicts 'emotional violence and sexual failure among a group of friends.'

What is different about "Bash, Latterday Plays" is that the characters are all associated with Mormonism in some way. The first segment, "Medea Redux,"stars Calista Flockhart as a teen-ager pregnant after she has been seduced by her teacher. She extracts a terrible revenge when he abandons her. Flockhart says that her character is not a victim, "She's betrayed, but strong and capable and smart and hurt. She's Medea."

The next segment, "Iphegenia in Orem," involves the story of a young executive being told he will lose his job and the sudden death of his baby daughter.

"A Gaggle of Saints," is the final segment, a dual monologue between Flockhart and Paul Rudd. In it Rudd is a handsome, charming Mormon college student who beats a gay man in a Central Park bathroom while out on the town with his girlfriend. Flockhart plays the girlfriend, who ignores the evidence to remain "blissfully" ignorant of the events.

Rudd says that he tries to get the audience on his side, helping it sympathize with his character. Flockhart says her character knows the truth, "I view her as somebody in denial," she says, "able to shut out the dark, ugly truth, but she knows the truth fully."

LaBute says he chose Flockhart specifically because of her role in "Ally McBeal." "She comes in with a great deal of good will," because of her role. A lot of people put a certain kind of trust in her. I want to see how that works when you lead them into a place they may not want to go."

In spite of the Mormon subtext, LaBute says that "Bash" is not a commentary of Mormonism, but merely a background, something he is familiar with. In the play Mormonism is "a universal for characters brought up under a religious authority. You would imagine they would know better. But just being part of a religion doesn't make you good."

LaBute grew up in Spokane, Washington, where he had a difficult relationship with his father, who was a truck driver. "There is a reaction to my father in terms of the severity of my male characters," he said. "I found my father to be a difficult character to grow up with." His mother say it right away when she saw "In the Company of Men." According to LaBute she said, "'Oh, that was his father."' LaBute describes his father as "gregarious, quite charming, very handsome. He had lots of great qualities from afar. But on closer examination the painting did not hold its light." His parents are divorced, and he is estranged from his father.

LaBute accepted a scholarship to BYU because of its theater and film programs, finding it a "very refreshing change" from his home life. He says he was "surrounded by very nice, helpful, kind people, so driven by a passion for religion." He soon fell in love with a LDS chuch member Lisa Gore, another student. After he joined the church, they married and now have two children, Lily, 11, and Spencer, 8. Lisa is a family therapist.

LaBute's attraction to Mormonism lay in its ethical and spiritual stance. "The great thing about it, you can say definitely, 'This is what it is. The idea of modern prophecy makes people very nervous. I have little difficulty acknowledging the possibility of modern prophecy by an inherent faith." He is glad that he has had so little reaction to his work from LDS Church authorities. "I always liked things that had parameters, demarcation lines," he says about the church's strict teachings. "And to see how far I can travel within those lines."

Following his graduation from BYU, LaBute got a master of fine arts at New York University and wrote his first play, "Filthy Talk for Troubled Times," a series of explicit and sometimes profane monologues set in a bar, which was produced in 1992 Off Broadway. He then went back to BYU for a Ph.D. in theater, managing to get his play "Lepers," staged there, but had another work barred from production.

After getting a job as a professor of theater at St. Francis College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he made "In the Company of Men" with $25,000 borrowed from a friend. It won the Filmmaker's Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival and the award for best first feature from the New York Film Critics Circle. Times' critic Janet Maslin even praised it, saying it was a "tremendously gutsy first feature."

Currently he is editing his big-budget feature film, "Nurse Betty," starring Chris Rock, Morgan Freeman, Renee Zellweger and Greg Kinnear. The film, written by James Flamberg and John Richards, tells the story of a woman that becomes delusional after witnessing her husband's murder. She thinks she has jilted a soap opera star, who hires hit men to kill her. LaBute says that this will seem a bit different from his other work. "People may look at it at first as more upbeat. It has both light and dark in it. In the past my work was mostly black or dark gray. This one broaches into the territory of beige or eggshell."

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information