Button-pushing is what Neil LaBute does best. Depending on your own warped sensibilities, LaBute’s ferocious feature debut In the Company of Men and his sophomore effort Your Friends & Neighbors (which found Harvey “Two-Face” Dent – Aaron Eckhart – proclaiming he was the best lay he ever had) either delighted, offended, or possibly sickened, you. Relationships or race, social class or Nicholas Cage in a bear suit (The Wicker Man) – no subject is taboo to LaBute and he continues his dissection of human nature in Lakeview Terrace.
“For as much as we talk about race in the country, we don’t have that many films about it,” says LaBute during a press function for the film in Santa Monica. But is his latest effort solely about race? Patrick Wilson (Watchmen) and Kerry Washington (Fantastic Four) play Chris and Lisa, respectively, an interracial couple in the film; newlyweds settling into an archetypal dream home. Immediately, they catch the eye of neighbor and LAPD officer Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), a veritable human version of McGruff the Crime Dog who prowls his street nightly and offers the neighbors a sense of security. Except for Chris and Lisa. This bloodhound disapproves of their union and makes their life a living hell.
Abel’s discrepancies with the pair are rooted on various levels, from Chris’ messy smoking habits to the couple’s possible future with children, however, LaBute sees that race “is ostensibly about it by who’s in it,” the director explains. “There are no scenes where they say, ‘Hey, man…let’s talk about race.’ But because of the nature of the dynamics, it’s there. That’s something I’ve always been interested in. And certainly not the thriller side of it, but what’s going on with the couple and their relationship. The thriller side was the unknown quantity for me. Could I do that? That wasn’t why they came to me. In the end it wasn’t because I could do that part but, more importantly, [because] I would bring something else to what was going on.”
“When I first read the script, for me, I saw it was about the misuse of power,” Washington explains. “One of my best friends grew up in Vermont and we always laughed that when the cops come around in Vermont, you feel safe and relieved. In the Bronx, you get nervous. It’s just a part of the culture. I identified with that. For me that’s what the film is about, what happens when you trust somebody to serve you and protect you and that’s what happens to Chris and Lisa.” The actress believes one could learn a lot by asking people who have seen the film what it is about. “I think how you receive the film will have to do with where you are in your openness. For some people, it won’t be shocking to see this interracial couple and they’ll be wrapped up in the thriller aspect. For people who still find that as an issue, it will be all about that.”
“Neil and I talked about it. I wanted audiences to make a choice,” adds Jackson. “Do you want to be on this guy’s side or the other guy’s? There are all of these questions about who Abel is and what he does. He’s got a moral compass, it just goes another way. Abel says what’s on his mind, he has a real opinion on what he wants the world to be and what’s going on around him and his neighborhood. He’s got a real idea on how he wants to raise his kids. He’s not afraid to do things to make the world his way. I don’t know if he’s a villain. I can guarantee you there will be a couple of people watching the movie [and Abel’s actions] going ‘Okay…I get that. I’m with you.'”
LaBute hopes this “shades of gray” approach to the character works with the audience. “We’re complex people,” he says. “But I didn’t want him to be just the bad guy. I wanted him to keep making questionable choices that could legitimately be made by anybody, but he wasn’t a bad cop or a bad father. From page one when we started working on the script, at least the first script I was aware of, the story began with Chris and Lisa, them in a motel, waking up and going to their new home. I thought we should start with this [Abel] and it would gradually shift to everyone else. We were always looking to make him more complex.”
Abel, LaBute confesses, could have been played by a myriad of actors: “If you take Tommy Lee Jones, it’d still be a great movie. He’d have the same concerns and the same backstory. That’s why I think race is only part of it, when we say race, we immediately think black and white, to change that and say Edward James Olmos – how different would it be? You could still make the story work and that backstory would naturally fit.”
Turning to another aspect of the film, Lakeview Terrace is one of the latest Hollywood thrillers to come packin’ a PG-13 rating. LaBute expresses this was frustrating in some respects, citing one example: “There’s a scene that’s no longer in the movie – a nice kissing scene between Kerry and Patrick – it was important to see this couple really in love because of where they go to and the MPAA kept calling it the sex scene. Everyone still had clothing on and even what Clinton would call sex is actually not happening, but they said, ‘Yes, but obviously in the next scene they’re in bed without their clothes on.’ So really I’m responsible for what’s not on the screen. It became a really interesting game to figure out what would get us PG-13.”
Lakeview Terrace opens in theaters September 19th.