A Neil LaBute play or film isn’t complete, typically, unless one of its central characters turns out to be outlandishly evil (and they weren’t that nice to begin with). Think of Aaron Eckhart as the oily corporate ladder-climber in “In the Company of Men,” who convinces his weaselly co-worker to take revenge on the jilting females of the world by cruelly deceiving a vulnerable deaf woman. Or Jason Patric’s creepy monologue in “Your Friends and Neighbors,” in which he delightfully recalls his schoolyard rape of a wimpy classmate. In LaBute’s cynical and often bitingly funny vision people live to screw other people over, and they don’t really pay a price for it.
Audiences that have been put off by these exercises in emotional sadism may be mollified by LaBute’s latest screen adaptation, “Some Girls,” which was itself lifted from his 2005 play and directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer (“Party Girl”).
The lead character (Adam Brody) is certainly smug, a womanizing writer who visits an assortment of his exes, seemingly to apologize for breaking their hearts but in essence to receive forgiveness from them before his approaching nuptials. But there’s such a pathetic, needy streak to him that audiences may come away pitying more than hating him. Some may even emphasize (up to a point); who hasn’t felt the need to right a past wrong, no matter how secretly selfish that goal may be? But fear not: there’s always at least one nasty trick waiting around the bend.
Screen Comment talked with LaBute this week by phone:
Screen Comment: Did you think about casting some of the same people from the two theatrical productions of “Some Girls,” like Fran Drescher and David Schwimmer, or were you set on the cast in this film?
Neil LaBute: In this case, I was less involved because I wasn’t directing. Other people had the idea to make the film, and so there were more hands in the pot. I think they wanted to just clean the slate and do their own version of it.
How much did you collaborate on a day-to-day basis with Daisy on the shooting decisions?
That was really more up to Daisy and the producers who had signed on. I worked with them in adapting the material so we could fit all five stories in, and I certainly did some cuts and wrote in some of the material that kind of sutures everything together, the traveling from place to place. But really, the production was handed over to me by them. I wasn’t there, I was working on another project, and so a lot of it I’d see just in the dailies.
Did you initially want to direct the project?
No. I liked the idea of having somebody else direct. I have had a lot of people direct my material for the theater, but I haven’t had anyone do my work on film. I was excited by what would be brought to it. It was great to have someone else in there that you could trust visually and intellectually and emotionally to make something that was respectful of the material but also creative.
What made you decide to not direct this one for the screen as opposed to “The Shape of Things”?
The producers were as into the idea as I was of having someone else do it, and the idea of having a woman do it was attractive to us. It’s certainly a male point of view, so we thought it would be a really good idea to have a female voice there.
How did you find Daisy? Were you always an admirer of hers going back to “Party Girl”?
Yes, I’ve known her work for quite awhile. Originally we had a different female director [Jennifer Getzinger, director of several “Mad Men” episodes]. It was gonna be her first picture. She literally shot one day and then her brother was in a car accident and passed away. She was not able to continue, so Daisy stepped in. They knew each other from the television world, so she was [already] tapping Daisy for information and ideas.
Is Getzinger’s footage still in there?
Was there talk about opening the play up a bit, beyond the hotel room settings? Did you think about shooting outdoor scenes?
No, I think people really liked the framework of the hotel, even though it’s kind of a road picture. There was still that desire to make a nod towards the theatrical roots of it, and a belief that if you wrote interesting dialogue, people would respond to that.
How did you come up with Zoe Kazan’s character, which was not in the play?
Not long after the play opened, I had the idea of another character. The filmmakers were interested in using all five characters, so we had to find a way to trim some of those encounters down so they’d all fit into one film.
Were there any difficult changes you had to make?
No, I’m pretty good about cutting. Nothing made me cry. I’m not someone that’s very precious about that. I work hard and create things that I’m proud of, yet I’m open when people say “I don’t get this.” In this case it was really about time, just trying to be a little more straightforward with each of those stories. What you usually end up cutting first is character. You need the story, you need what happens between people. Those moments where they start talking about their childhood, those are things that can go. On top of that, these actors come in who bring so much to the character. A writer can overwrite to create this character, and then you realize you don’t need all that, because you have someone that immediately becomes that character, and just by looking at them you know who they are.
In several of your films, an incredibly dark, evil twist happens at the end, where a character is putting on not just the people you knew he was putting on, but a handful of others–
And the audience as well, yes. I have been known to have a twist or two.
There is a treacherous twist at the end of “Some Girls,” but comparatively it’s a gentler Neil LaBute film than most. The character generates some sympathy. What inspired this change in tone?
It’s just that one character. If you happened to see “Some Velvet Morning,” it’s got plenty of nastiness going on. I think in this case, it just happened to be a character where a lot of his behavior with these women had been excused by him being boyish. I think that made sense for that character. But the next character I write may not have any of those attributes.
The women in the film want Adam Brody’s character to own up for being hurtful to them. As the writer, do you think that he’s entirely to blame for the level of hurt he’s caused, or do you think that we’re supposed to slightly pity these women who have been unable to move on?
I think everybody has really moved on from it. It’s just a matter of—here’s someone that comes around and rubs their nose in it, reopens it. I think there’s a difference between having some scar tissue there, and someone coming in and jabbing it, going, “Hey, does that still hurt, that shit right there?” And you go, “Yeah, it fucking does, when you stick your finger in it!” I think that’s his problem. He thinks he’s gonna have this sort of twelve-step AA, make amends, but he doesn’t really make amends with anyone. He just opens the wound. In fact, some of them who didn’t even think they had the wound suddenly go, “Oh, well, that hurts.” I certainly put more blame on him.
Do you think that late-stage apologies are generally futile, too little too late, even if they’re more sincere?
In this case, he’s still creating a lot of messes. He reopens these wounds, but what has he actually said to make them feel better? Even on the surface, it’s a half-assed thing that he’s attempting to do. He doesn’t exactly want to roll up his shirtsleeves and do some work, he just wants to hear that everything’s OK. It doesn’t mean that those things can’t work, that people can’t go back and say, “Look, this happened years ago and I felt bad and I wanna change that.” But I don’t know that they always have success. Just because you’ve confessed doesn’t make everything OK.
“Some Girls,” which also stars Zoe Kazan, Kristen Bell and Emily Watson, opened June 28 (check out the trailer here)