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
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
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
"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."