Filmmaker Neil LaBute Talks HOUSE OF DARKNESS
Hard to believe but its been twenty-five years since playwright Neil LaBute had his cinematic breakthrough with the provocative and darkly satirical THE COMPANY OF MEN, a film that not only explored the toxicity of the office place but the men who dominated it.
In the years since his debut feature, Neil LaBute has had quite the career, from the highs of the award-winning NURSE BETTY to the universally reviled THE WICKER MAN. While not everyone one of LaBute’s films have found box office success or critical favour, his list of hits far outweigh his misses.
LaBute’s latest feature, HOUSE OF DARKNESS, sees a return to what made THE COMPANY OF MEN so great, not only in the quality of its writing and direction but also in its acute focus on male entitlement.
Structured as a chamber piece with a gothic sensibility, HOUSE OF DARKNESS blurs the line of protagonist and antagonist as Hap (Justin Long, BARBARIAN), a seemingly “nice guy” goes back to the house of the beautiful and mysterious Mina (Kate Bosworth, BARBARIAN), after a night out at a bar.
With the film arriving this week to rent/buy on digital platforms in Australia, Monster Fest’s Jarret Gahan caught up with LaBute to discuss HOUSE OF DARKNESS.
Justin Long brings with him a perception of being a nice guy, given that his filmography is heavily weighted toward those roles. Was that something you were specifically looking for in casting the role of Hap so as to aid the reveal of his true colours?
No question. I mean, your mall viewer, the person who literally sees the poster for a film and goes “oh I like that guy“. You know that they don’t even know his name. And they’re like “he’s funny“. That goes a long way in selling a lot of what I’ve done. I’ve tried to use handsome guys, beautiful women, to say and do more, you know, outrageous or unattractive things. It’s been a good device in terms of a lot of what I’ve done, but in a case like this, I think when you’ve got a guy who’s self-professing to be one of the nice guys and over the course of an evening, you get to watch him unravel a little bit and he doesn’t get what he came for and wanted, you start to see those veils drop.
It’s important to have someone who you go on the ride with that you have been duped a little bit as well, you thought he’s a nice guy but now I’m seeing a side of him that I don’t find so attractive. I think it would’ve been wrong footing and boring too, to have someone be obnoxious and just a complete idiot from the first step. You’d feel like whatever happens, he’s got it coming to him. It’s great also to let an actor have that journey to go on too, they get to play all those beats in between.
You don’t always get to shoot as you know, in sequence, so you’re trying to keep these things straight in your head, but thankfully most of what we shot was in order so that allowed him to kind of play it as if he were on stage, to go from beginning to end, over the course of the days that we shot. So that he’s like “and then I do this and this and this, and I can watch it myself. I can feel myself doing those things“. So I think that was helpful on our side to allow him to do that as much as possible in, you know, kind of in real time.
In terms of the shoot, you mentioned that it was mainly chronological, how long did you have to shoot the film itself?
We shot in eleven days, so it was quite quick. All in one location and all nights. Actually I take that back as there was a sequence, the kind of a dream sequence in the middle of the picture, that was our one day shoot. Down in the guts of an abandoned mind, so it felt like it was nighttime, but it wasn’t in fact nighttime. So ten nights and one day. I didn’t like being in that mine, that was a very disorienting, weird experience but ultimately good for the movie.
Was it the location or the time of day that lead to the unusual feeling?
Both. It was strange coming off nights to a day shoot but then you walk into the location and there’s no daylight anywhere. You really can get messed up in terms of where you are and what time of day it is, it was just weird. I can’t complain though, it wasn’t weeks and weeks of it, it was just one day and was worth it to get that different look to the rest of the picture.
In terms of that dream sequence you mentioned, I saw it almost like a premonition in a way. Was that that something born by Hap’s own fear or something fed to him by an outer force?
I think it was a little bit of both, really. You know, we also really wanted to give the audience a sense that that it was actually happening. So it was important that it played the way that it did. You see him drinking and you think, oh, why did he just drink out of her glass? Then you see him starting to nod off a little bit, so it felt like we’ve jumped in time rather than we’re in this kind of real time situation, which is what it felt like for a while.
As well as being cautionary for Hap, it also subtilely establishes the world of Mina and her sisters too.
Right. And that was key. Not only in the dream sequence but we needed to build that overall.
As to where they are they in their world, what it’s like to be who they are. The way that they go about it every night, in terms of bringing someone home and who’s turn it is. When Lucy comes in, you know, she has this look on her face like “wait a minute, what is he doing here? I thought this was my night to go out” and each one of them has a different take on it. There’s a sense of how does it work, not even in terms of hierarchy but their sisterhood. Also have they evolved to a place where they’re also sort of doing the world a favour?
Is there a chance for man in the company of the sisterhood?
Well there’s a sense of could Hap say the right thing that would allow them to go, Yes, you know what, you should go home now. And him never knowing that he just dodged a bullet. But I wouldn’t want him to do that because it would be a less interesting movie to me. We talk about a lot about that the agency of is there some of that going on? And are they just allowing him to trip himself up by only asking him to tell the truth. Which becomes such a big thing to him and to her as well and how hard it is for us sometimes to tell the truth about who we are as as people.
What you just mentioned there regarding telling the truth, is a key motif throughout the film. The concept of a lie is examined on several levels, what constitutes a lie and is a ‘fib’ or ‘bullshitting’ any less a form of lying.
I think that’s such an interesting place that people find themselves like who am I and what’s the truth? And who do I present to other people? Whereas you feel like these women were presenting themselves pretty honestly as who they were. He just didn’t really ask very many questions about them. It was all sort of about himself and what this thing that he really wanted. There were enough red flags not to go in that house but this was a guy who just said, this is what I want and I’m going to get this.
Even watching Justin, get to this place when we were filming, he started saying things that were off script and I was like that’s magic. Great. Grab that one. There’s another one. Things that were like even juicier than I thought the script was.
He just worked himself into that place as that character and said “I’m going to give you a lot to play with”. There was one line that was really outrageous when he was like “I wasted an entire night.”
As if his time were more important than that of Mina’s.
That’s it. And watch him dance this tight rope and I guess that’s the interesting power dynamic in this, that male privilege and this idea that he’s not in danger. He really feels like he’s completely in control. You know, he may not get what he wants, but he’s certainly in control of his life in a way that a woman stepping in, you know, reversing those roles, you would never see the same confidence.
Kate Bosworth’s casting is perfect too and to a degree casting against type. She’s complex, almost menacing without seemingly presenting a direct threat though always inquisitive and never once holding back on her opinion. How did you go about casting Kate in the role?
Well Kate and I had worked together before, and Justin as well too. I was lucky in terms of getting them to come in, as I was able to send them the script and ask what they thought of it. I was like “what do you think of this thing? I hope it’s gonna be fun, but you know it’s being shot in the middle of Arkansas and and at nighttime, so there’s not so many pluses” but when you’re throwing out these ideas of how hard it’s going to be, I think people like to be challenged. Kate gets a lot of a certain kind of role, oh she’s the pretty this or the pretty wife or the you know so it’s nice when she gets to play something darker or something more complicated and she was very into helping create that.
We even kind of had to put in some lines where you could hear Justin saying “Yeah, she’s weird, but she’s like, you know, it’s so interesting“, that most people aren’t wearing these long white dresses and this long hair. And so it kind of reached back to another era without being completely obvious, it was flirting right on the edge of Hammer Horror.
It was subtle. It didn’t become apparent to me until Mina’s sister, Lucy, came along as prior to that Mina was the only female onscreen in the universe you had created so there was no yardstick as to what could qualified as normal or abnormal. Likewise with Hap too.
Obviously the casting of both Justin and Kate worked out fortuitously offscreen for both parties too as I believe romance blossomed behind-the-scenes of the film?
I believe it’s exactly where it blossomed. You knew there was a good energy, they were playing off each other really, really well. And then by day too, it was really, really well, and that’s great. They were very good at creating an energy that held the promise of more. And that was really what we were trying to do with folks was to keep you coming back and saying what happens next and what happens next? That’s what you’re doing with a movie or a play is getting the audience to say that until the very end.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of your debut feature, THE COMPANY OF MEN, is there anything in the works to celebrate this? A possible Collector’s Edition on physical media or an anniversary screening?
Well Sony has been saying that, as Sony Classics put it out and, and we talked about the 25th anniversary, but then their 30th Anniversary is coming up and they were talking about doing a package of their films from the last thirty years.
I hope Sundance may like to show it or something like that.
Well that would make perfect sense as I believe they’ll be screening Gregg Araki’s THE DOOM GENERATION next year, restored in its original festival cut that screened at Sundance back in 1995. Hopefully you’ll get the call to be invited back to screen THE COMPANY OF MEN also.
That would be nice if they would do something like that. Maybe we’ll drop ’em a line and say “hey, remember us. Yeah. You know we’re back to ruin people’s day“. There’s a whole generation of people whose days have yet to be ruined by us and I would be more than happy to do that.