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Exclusive: Neil LaBute on Directing Death at a Funeral

Source: Edward Douglas
April 16, 2010

Director Neil LaBute has always been somewhat of an enigma and an anomaly in the film business. Coming from his background as a respected playwright, LaBute began by bringing some of his plays to the screen, then moved onto other's material, like adapting the novel Possession and doing a remake of the '70s horror movie The Wicker Man. After having a significant hit with the 2008 thriller Lakeview Terrace, LaBute decided to do a complete about face and direct a comedy (and his second remake) with Death at a Funeral.

Based on the 2007 British comedy of the same name, the idea to remake it so soon raised a lot of interesting questions, including what it might be like for LaBute to play ringmaster to such a wildly diverse ensemble cast, beginning with the comedy triumvirate of Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan, and expanding outwards to actors like James Marsden, Zoe Saldana, Columbus Short, Luke Wilson, Danny Glover, Regina Hall and Loretta Devine.

There's no question LaBute is a brilliant writer and a master at getting unexpectedly good performances out of his actors, and we certainly were curious to know how he'd go about taking on such a task. Having interviewed Frank Oz, director of the original movie (which you can read here), it only seemed fair to talk to the filmmaker who had the unenviable task of creating a new version of it.

With that in mind, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with LaBute a few days ago, and despite his misanthropic reputation, we found him to be quite jovial and funny, fielding all sorts of questions about the movie as well as a rather awkward question about his previous remake, The Wicker Man.

ComingSoon.net: I haven't seen the movie, but I've seen the original. I don't know if that helps at all. I really wanted to talk to you, because for most people who follow your career both on the stage and on film, this is another really interesting choice to remake a movie which isn't that old.
Neil LaBute: Yeah, it's not very old at all.

CS: I know you had just done a movie with Screen Gems and you worked with Chris Rock, so who was the one who approached you about directing it?
LaBute: Well, I suppose equally. Chris wanted to have somebody step in and direct. He's done some directing himself now, but even though he'd be producing and so forth, he really wanted to be free to just act when the cameras were rolling. So we had a good relationship from "Nurse Betty" and I think he felt like I would bring good things to the table there with so many actors and trying to keep the tone and the same balance well. That was certainly an interest from his side, but Screen Gems had to do the hiring and Clint (Culpepper, President of Screen Gems) and I had a good go with "Lakeview Terrace." They both knew that I was looking for a comedy, which any time you want to go in a new direction, it's hard to get people to not just take you seriously, but be willing to take you seriously to the tune of $20 million. They have to put that money on the line. So happily, both of those things coincided and allowed for it to happen here. Any qualms that I had about, "Oh, it's a remake or it's too soon," were kind of waylaid by the fact that I thought I could do something fun with the movie and get a chance to do a comedy, so both things kind of evened themselves out.

CS: You have an interesting relationship with comedy because so many of your movies have been dramas, but they've had a darker comic sense to them; in your writing as well.
LaBute: It's always been there, but when you just say, "Hey, I want to do a comedy," people don't necessarily... it would be like me saying, "I want to do a musical." People would not necessarily think that's the first place they'll want to put their investment.

CS: You've been directing other people's scripts a lot more in recent years. I've talked to a bunch of writer/directors who got so busy taking directing jobs they haven't been able to do much writing. For you, has it been a matter of having these jobs come up and putting the writing aside to do them?
LaBute: Well, movies do both take a while and they come up erratically. They suddenly come together and there's this moment where this window opens and everybody has time if we do it right now. So there is some truth to that. The other side of it is, I think I have channeled a lot of what I might have suffered along trying to make some of these stories that would have gone to screen. I've had the ability to put them on stage rather quickly, so I think a lot of the original writing that I might have done for film has now gone to the stage and has left me free to be open to whatever comes my way as a film director.

CS: Would you consider "Death" to be one of your more commercial films? Even "Lakeview Terrace," it ended up doing very well, but it still had lots of dark thought-provoking topics in there. Do you think this is a more commercial film or does it have some of those edgier elements as well?
LaBute: Well, I think there's an edge of dark comedy to the proceedings in this movie, but I do think that it has probably has as much commercial possibility as anything I've done in that it's a more straightforward fit in terms of its genre. That people are gonna say it is just a comedy that basically you're always mindful of trying to go for the laugh. I think that in those terms, those films tend to have the broadest appeal, then in this case, even with it being a primarily black family, I don't think you're gonna shoot as much towards the niche black audience as much as just an audience who wants to laugh. One can only be wrong, but when you ask, "do I think" I think so, yeah.

CS: You talked about the timing of making movies, and I gotta say, the cast you put together for this is quite amazing. Besides the three leads, you have actors who are generally very busy like James Marsden and Zoe Saldana. Was Chris very involved in getting the cast together and how hard was it to actually get all of them together in one place at the same time to make this movie?
LaBute: Yeah, Chris was involved obviously because he's a producer and myself and Bill Horberg, one of the other producers, but Clint was incredibly instrumental. He's the one who had to put the money where his mouth is. He's worked with a number of these actors in these previous pictures and had an idea about what he wants to sell and can sell well. So he was very helpful and I think, to be honest, instrumental in terms of when the notion that Chris and Martin Lawrence had never really had any kind of a meaningful relationship on film before, we all thought that would be a great thing to have. Money helps make that happen in the time that you need it to happen. So yeah, I think Clint saw something that had a great potential and was willing to help pay for that, so it was a real collaboration in terms of getting the right cast. I think we did put a really sweet group together.

CS: I like the fact that James Marsden's doing comedy because he was hilarious in this movie no one saw called "Sex Drive." He has really tough shoes to fill, because he's doing the Alan Tudyk role, and Alan kind of stole the original movie a little bit.
LaBute: Yeah, he did a great job. I mean, I think everybody who came into the movie was coming from that point of view of, "We really like what they did." It wasn't like, "Hey, we can make this better." It was, "We can make it our own." James, I think in particular was one of those people... Everybody has their own approach. Some people go, "Gosh, I don't really want to see the original. I don't want to know what that person did." There's varying degrees of that. It would be weird to say to Chris, "Hey, do a Matthew Macfadyen impression." He'd be like, "I don't know where to begin." But Tudyk had such specific physical stuff that you really could use a lot of that, so James was one that I said, "You really have to watch this thing. I don't want you to try and imitate that. I want you to find your own behavior and you go on your own acid trip." So this was very much watching it to say, "This is what I shouldn't do," and kind of scene by scene we took that into account that while some of these are gonna be very similar episodes, we just want to make sure that the bits that we're doing are really our own. So he had an extra job there, and he tried to keep away from some of the things that we both found really funny, but also did not want to emulate.

CS: There's definitely a chance that people who liked the original movie will see this one as well, and I know that Dean Craig wrote both of them, so what was involved with changing the script from the original movie? Was a lot of that done based on which actor signed up for the role?
LaBute: Well, there was a time along the way when you will start finding out who the actors are gonna be. At the time, Chris really did do the adaptation with a partner of his to create, I think, in a general way just a different dynamic. With the original... I mean, Dean, through arbitration, ended up with the sole credit on this again, because so much of it is weighed by the WGA toward character and incident to the first writer. That's the way it happens. But, you know, Chris and Aisha did a good job of taking what was a very repressed family and jacking up the level of anxiety for them throughout these proceedings. In this case, we start with a family that begins 20 degrees hotter already. These people are louder and more aggressive with each other and have qualms about seeing each other again. If you're already in a place that's animated beyond the beginning of the original film, so not only do you start there, but you're required to keep that fire burning and stay ahead of the curve the whole time so that while you reach the same place, you reach it at a temperature that's always a little bit hotter. We created a few incidents and changed some things around, but hopefully, part of that is casting. Tracy Morgan is gonna bring an energy to this that is absolutely his own kind of thing, and Luke Wilson's gonna bring a kind of humanity and then expand and flesh out a character that Ewen Bremmer played in the original that I didn't think had a lot to do. He just kinda stood around and tried to catch the attention of his old girlfriend whereas Luke, I think, gets more to do than just play the sort of garden variety *sshole. I do think there were a couple of characters along the way that more than all of us were mindful of. It's such a big ensemble, and while Dean had done a great job of creating a really fun group, a couple of them, like the mother I think, the character who is Chris' wife, or Matthew's wife in the original, didn't have as much to do. So we've tried to give those characters a bit more activity for themselves that creates a greater kind of equity between the roles.

CS: When I hear someone's doing a movie with Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan all in the same room, I think that could turn into complete chaos as they'd all be so on in trying to be funny and top the others that you'd never get done what you need. Is that at all true?
LaBute: I think the atmosphere was a good one. They were all mindful of that, that the first audience of the movie was right there in the room. If Tracy could make Martin laugh, he was happy because that's one of his heroes. So then he knew he was on the right track. One of the great things I think about shooting this--and it wasn't something that I imagined when we were first talking about shooting--one of the benefits was shooting it on video. Part of that was just the fact that technically, we never as a crew stopped the comedy flow, and there was a flow to it. These guys are like racehorses. They can get going, and they just want to run. They don't want to stop and adjust the light and "Let's go back and everybody settle down." That brings their creative juices back to zero as opposed to just letting that engine rev, like getting on the track and just going. So we never ran out of film, we never had a hair in the gate, none of those things that come with film. We're shooting short ends, because we just got a bunch stacked up, we need to get rid of these, and there's a little scene and "Oh, God, we ran out, sorry." None of those things where you're stopping them; they were always the ones who were setting the pace and leading the charge. Then they sort of look at you, exhausted, like, "Okay, man, what else do you want? I'm done, I got nothing else."

CS: How do you go about editing a movie like that then? You end up with so much extra stuff, I'd imagine.
LaBute: Well, that's the person you drive crazy. Your editor gets like two takes that are 45 minutes long (laughs) and they're like, "Wow, what do I do with these?" Ultimately, you have a much longer period in which to sort through that crap, and you're in there to help them, and they just have to put up with it. I'd much rather have that difficulty than the actors be slowed down.

CS: Do their comedy styles generally work well together? They're all such strong comics, but they all have their own styles.
LaBute: Yeah, everything was quite good about being a part of a whole. I think part of it was them knowing what I do. I was there to take that comedy and shape it into a character. Tracy can riff for twenty minutes, but if it's riffed it doesn't actually go with the character. I'm gonna stop and say, "Let's do it again." As long as I was getting everything that was on the page, you could allow for improvisation. Tracy, he did it a couple things--you'll probably know what they are when you hear them--you just go, "That guy is nuts," and they're funny. And then every so often there'll be one that you listen to it, and "I think he just said he got molested. I can't use that!" (Laughs) "That's not something I can use," but that was funny. So you just let him keep going and back on track and off he goes. Or Martin throws something in that just breaks everybody up and then you start over. It's all a part of the fun. It's like being the father who has agreed to take your kids and the neighborhood kids camping and some of the kids are wild and are gonna make them all feel like they're all going to have the same good evening. You create an atmosphere that allows them to feel free enough to do that stuff and then you have to accept that stuff. You can't be like, "Oh, hey, just stick to the script." You gotta know that every so often someone's gonna throw in just a comic jewel and you're like, "Oh man, that's what this is all about." We're using more stuff that's off the page. You have a film that's happily I hate seeing one of those comedies that I've seen everything in the preview. You know, they put everything in the trailer because that's all they've got. This is a movie that you could see the trailer 100 times, and you probably have by now--I'm sick of the trailer--but it's a movie that you go, "There's lots more to come." So it's good. There's never really a dull moment in terms of at least trying to make you laugh.

CS: I wanted to ask about Peter Dinklage, because obviously he's the one guy from the original movie. When I first saw the trailer, I thought, "Wow, they got him back." What was his reaction when someone called him up and said, "Hey, we're gonna remake 'Death at a Funeral,' do you want to come back and do it again?"
LaBute: I think he thought it was as odd and cool as we did. How rare for a movie to get redone this quickly or from another country when they were rarely ever I mean, I can't think of another person who has played the same part in the remake of a movie no matter how many years. Often it's a token in "Cape Fear," Gregory Peck comes back as a kindly lawyer because it's thirty years later. Rarely is the person who actually could play the same part in the same way, and we thought it was already a funny idea. It was the one that wasn't really on the page, it was one Frank Oz came up with. At that point, we thought it really was a fun notion to have him. We gave him sort of the rough trade version of his original. He's cool, he's got this leather jacket and a little scruffier beard and is a little more mercenary than going after the money, but essentially he gets to play the same part.

CS: Did he change things up to balance off the new actors?
LaBute: Yeah, he did, of course. You can't help but have a whole new energy there. I think he had fun accordingly. I enjoyed seeing that, because as I say, that's something that seems very rare to me. He really seemed to take to the idea and jumped in.

CS: I was really surprised when I found out this was rated R because I think I always assumed, maybe because it was Screen Gems, that it would be PG-13. Did you go into this with a PG-13 in mind and it just kind of evolved into R? The original was R-rated obviously.
LaBute: Yeah, there was only the slightest conversation about that. Part of it is that you know what will make the MPAA slap you with that rating, which is we had drug use. Even though it's comic drug use, it's what they consider an acid trip and they're gonna be picky about that for kids. On top of that, just the word "f*ck" used more than once in a movie, it kinda gets you an R. We looked at it and then we realized we had these comedians who really that's their bread and butter. You want to hear Chris go, "Motherf*cker!" you want to hear that. See? I make you laugh doing a Chris impression, but when Chris does it, it's three times as funny. So it's like, why am I gonna shackle him with that when you hope that people look at the rating and they go, "Language," and they go, "Okay, well you know what? I've watched this guy 100 times on HBO, so my kids can go see this." So you take that hope and really hopefully it's still gonna be a better movie for 17 and up than it is gonna be for 13 and up, they'll just enjoy it more. So I think we're taking our chances in the best possible way. We're getting the best possible movie this way.

CS: I asked before about this. Many of your movies have dealt with sociopolitical issues. "Lakeview Terrace" was obviously a thriller, but you dealt with race relations and profiling and things that people don't really talk about it. Even in "The Wicker Man" you dealt with gender issues. Did any of that make it into this movie or did you just want to do a straight comedy?
LaBute: Well, I think it was as much of anything, the main thing here was to make people laugh and leave the rest out. There were moments where something sneaks in. Like you say, like "Lakeview Terrace" is essentially a thriller, but you enter race into in an interesting way. Here even, the idea that we used Peter, Clint liked that, because he loved the notion of this line of when these brothers are finally at the moment of realizing what's going on, and it's in the trailer, where the guys' like, "Dad is having gay sex with a man who is four feet tall and you're mad because he's white?" A line like that says a lot actually while still in the context of humor.

So those kinds of things find their way in, again just because of the mix of who the people are on screen, what color their skin is. And yet, it's a very truthful sense of the kind of integrated family issues you have today, where you've got Zoe's character, who seems to have a propensity towards boyfriends. There was a way to not only have white actors cast in it, but to be a through line for a character. The father didn't just like white guys, out of white guys he liked this white guy not that white guy. There's a way for some of those things to slip in, but certainly far less than in the work that I've done previously myself or some of the other things I've taken on. As I said, I wanted to do a comedy. All those concerns were secondary to "There better be laughs in every scene." When I look back at the comedies that really stand up, I think, "This really had something funny in every scene." So we're looking to do that same sort of thing. There shouldn't be a scene here that's connective tissue or "Let's have a moment of tenderness as well." Well, there still better be something funny in there. That was always the mandate humor first and then the rest second.

CS: I gotta say, I hope this movie does well because I've always wanted to see a prequel to find out how the father met the guy, and I feel there's a lot of backstory to those characters, and presumably these characters as well.
LaBute: (laughs) It would be interesting to see. There's so many of them you can kill off. I told all the actors that if there's going to be a sequel, you better agree what the salary is gonna be for the next one, because you'll be the guy that they try to kill. Anybody could be killed here virtually, so people have to be careful.

CS: So what about your writing? That's how you started out. Have you been able to do anything in between these last few movies?
LaBute: Yeah, I've been doing some theater writing and some new theater that will be coming out. I'm doing a show in New York in the fall called "The Break of Noon," and I've got another new script that's hopefully going to open in London within the next year. Then I adapted a Truffaut film, "The Woman Next Door," for a company and that's a film that might get made. That's probably the most recent film writing I've done, so I'm keeping my pen to the paper.

CS: Is that something you're gonna direct, or is that something you adapted for someone else?
LaBute: It's possible. I originally adapted it for Taylor Hackford, but it's a movie that unless it's at a certain financial level, he may not do it because I think he's someone who's working pretty much for studios and having a certain financial cushion which to work in. If that happens it'd be great, if not, it's something that I might be interested in doing. But I don't know. I really like that film; it's something that's not really well known even for Truffaut lovers. It's not one of his most well-known and yet I thought it was a great story, so it's something I think could play really nicely.

CS: Is there any danger of directing a third remake that you might want to avoid?
LaBute: Yeah, you know, for me, it's a little different because of the background in theater. I'm so used to, "Here's my take on 'Uncle Vanya'" and there's been a thousand of them before me. It's one of those things where I have plays, and I've seen the umpteenth version of "Fat Pig" or someone's doing the tenth revival of this. I'm far more used to stuff being done all the time. Frequently there's two shows running in the same city at the same time. It's not such a crazy notion to me as it is to some filmmakers, the idea of, "Oooo, how could they touch my material while I'm alive?" or something like that. There's certain movies now that I just probably wouldn't want to touch, but the idea of taking something that you really like or you find the base material interesting or go back to the book or whatever, I don't find such a crazy notion, so I'm probably one of the least worried about the remake idea.

CS: It's interesting that in theater, they're much more accepting of having new versions of things.
LaBute: Yeah, how many versions of "Hamlet" do you see, and the next time you find an interesting actor, you're like, "Gee, I wonder what his 'Hamlet' will be like?"

CS: Also, I think people feel that once you commit something to film that's the be all end all.
LaBute: Yeah, including most of the filmmakers! (laughs)

CS: Before we wrap-up, I want to ask something about "Wicker Man," and I apologize in advance. I don't know how you feel about that.
LaBute: Well, the making of it was a great time. It was only upon release that... I thought it was a movie that hardly anybody knew. Suddenly, it was like every critic's favorite horror movie and the first time all of them agreed to give me a good bashing.

(Note: If you haven't seen The Wicker Man and plan to, the following response spoils the ending of the movie.)

CS: Which also has to do with doing a remake, because anybody who does a remake is in danger of suffering the critic's wrath. (For reasons mentioned above.) I wanted to ask about one specific scene. I don't know how many people saw the movie, but there's this one scene with Nicolas Cage in a bearsuit, which has become a part of pop culture now. How did that come about?
LaBute: (laughs) Bear suit, bees, how did he get burned? There are some classics out there that are YouTube staples. When we set up the nature of the island and what actually exists and the fact there were two things - there had to be something that he could disguise just like in the original, when the guy dresses up as the fool. There had to be something that would be a big enough disguise to hide the entire person. The idea that would come naturally from that environment, the bear suit was sort of a natural. (Laughs) At the time, we didn't look at it and go, "That's kind of goofy," although at the time, the idea, it wasn't really that we thought of if as a horror movie. It was meant to be this kind of weird mood piece and have something kind of interesting to say about gender issues. So here's an island completely run by women and we're like, "Yeah." You may chuckle at the idea this guy's running in a bear suit in the same way Edward Woodward looks pretty stupid running around in his costume. But in the end, the guy's gonna get pulled outta that and he's gonna get burned to death. Now if we tried to save him in the end, I thought we would cheapen the effect, but it's pretty rare today is the movie star that gets put in something and killed in such an excruciating way. So we were like, "No matter what happens, we're gonna still kill this guy in the nastiest possible way, so let people have a chuckle," but ultimately, I don't know if you ever come back from a man running around in a bear suit.

CS: Like I said, I've always seen the sense of humor in your movies, and I thought maybe that people didn't think that it was meant to be funny.
LaBute: I think people thought I took it far more seriously than I did, that this is going to be a horror film. It's like, well, the original wasn't a horror film. Other than the burning, there's nothing really horrific about it. It's sort of this, I mean if you really go back and look at the first one, it's a pretty tongue and cheek experience.

CS: Well, most of the movies in the '70s were because they were all on drugs.
LaBute: Yeah, thank God we didn't put the music in from the original one. I mean, that's even goofier. So you never know how these things are gonna go. It's a great example to me. As I said, I enjoyed making it, had a great time doing all of that, but it's such a crap shoot, you have no idea what the response will be. So I'm fully expecting people to suddenly say this is their favorite British comedy ever and here's the crass American remake.

CS: Hopefully that won't be the case. Anyway, thanks. I really appreciate that, because I've been wanting to ask you about that for years.
LaBute: You and many others.

Death at a Funeral opens everywhere on Friday.





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