Neil LaBute’s latest film, Some Velvet Morning, is a wild and sometimes shocking ride, starring Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness), both in roles that twist and turn their way through the relationship drama. In the film, which was written and directed by LaBute, Tucci plays a man who drops in unexpectedly on his former lover (Eve) after leaving his wife. The two are well-matched as they repartee their way through a gorgeous Park Slope brownstone, with a George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-type fierceness, minus the alcoholism. But as in much of LaBute’s work — Fat Pig, The Shape of Things — things are not always what they seem.
EW talked to LaBute about how he keeps those twists fresh, and how making movies requires some different approaches than the stage.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why is film the right format for this story?
NEIL LABUTE: I write things that do not have homes. I didn’t write it for a theater company, I didn’t write it for some film company, I simply had the idea, sat down and wrote this thing. So I had this piece of material that yes, could go straight to the theater — it’s a two-hander, it’s one location, it’s absolutely helped by this wonderful, triple story Park Slope brownstone we used, but it’s still essentially in one location as written, so that could have been the natural trail. So there I was with this material and I was also in a place as a director where I was thinking, “I’ve directed other people’s stuff, I’ve remade things, it’s been a while since I’ve taken something of my own and made a film.” So it was the perfect time to say, “It won’t take a lot of money, I just need really good people and that’s what I’m going to do.”
There’s a pretty brutal assault scene near the end of the film. Did that take more than one try to film? Was the film mainly shot in order?
We had the luxury of shooting in continuity from beginning to end, and so just even Alice and Stanley — them having supposedly not seen each other for a while and feeling each other out — that was the beginning of our work. We worked our way towards that ending and didn’t talk much about the ending either. We knew what we had to do there. I let them know it’s not about nudity, it’s about the raw, physical collision that the two of you ultimately make, for various reasons we find out. We had to reset one time. I’m not really someone who maps out every shot, because that’s not as interesting to me as the actors are, but I knew I had to be economical and make sure I had everything I wanted but not overdo it. And I knew the power of the thing. We’ve seen fights before, we’ve seen attacks, but I knew the power was going to be in her face, you know, what was happening to her. That was going to be the uncomfortable thing, how long we stayed with that. So I had to make sure I got that.
In many of your plays and films, the power is held either in the male protagonist or in the female protagonist, but in this movie it feels like they are pretty equally responsible.
I suppose by the end that is the case, because the audience is the one who really feels they’ve been left out. Because of that reversal, you realize, “Oh, it’s not what I thought it was, he’s not as awful as I thought he was.” He’s a different breed of person now suddenly, yet so is she and so I have to refigure this. I know the filmmakers were in on it, and the actors were in on it, and the characters now are in on it — I’m the only one who wasn’t in on it. So you almost feel confronted by learning a lie, so it’s a weird, kind of off-putting thing and some people hate that and some like it, and I like going on a ride like that. For me it was certainly worth taking that chance with people, that they might not like it because it created an interesting dynamic. You think somebody’s in control and somebody’s not. It’s also a testament to actors. I don’t think what’s on the page is nearly as strong as what Alice has on her face. There was supposed to be a slightly different ending — she was supposed to go back to the couch and lay down and put her headphones on, and look like she’s waiting for the next person — but after I saw her at the door I was like, “Wow, I can’t cut to anything else, this is it.”
How do you maintain the balance between the story being serious and letting the audience in on little clues as to what might be going on?
You put in certain things and along the way we’d say, “Do we buy that? Is that too much?” You really have to walk a fine line because you do want people to believe what’s happening in front of them for as long as possible. But if you go back and look, there were sort of little things that we did, certainly verbally, but even the address book that she brings upstairs and starts going through and finding a spot for him to meet her. If you look carefully there’s nothing on the pages, but she’s acting as if there are all these dates that she has. Little things like that, you’re kind of playing a shell game — “Look here while I’m doing this over here,” because I don’t want people to study those pages, I want them to look at her face or his face and yet if they go back — “There’s nothing written on those pages, she didn’t have all those dates!”
We don’t often see Stanley Tucci playing such a smarmy, unlikable guy.
Stanley kind of fit every box. That guy needed to be human. He’s built up a lot of good will with people, they like him. So to carry that in to a character who’s not always likable I think is a great help. Stanley could be sexy and sad and scary and vulnerable and kind of apathetic, and he’s definitely funny. He was all the things I really needed.
How much collaboration did Tucci and Eve have in working on the film?
They’re the best sort of actors. They hear you and they react to you and they bring in something they had very specific ideas about. Stanley really wanted to make sure we felt he was there because he loved her and he had an agenda as well as an actor. They look at you when they need you, and the rest of the time you stay out of their way. You hire people who you like and you trust.
Do you feel hindered by the fact that people now expect there to be some kind of twist or manipulation in all your films and plays?
That’s already an issue. If that’s something you’ve done, then people start to come in with that general attitude of wariness, of caution, “I don’t know if I can believe this.” If you don’t have a twist, that’s what they call the twist. You can’t get out of that spiral. You do have to deal with that and I know I carry that in, so for me to keep writing and come up with not just twists but revelations — or whatever they are — that are legitimate and work with a story is harder and harder. But I also like going on those kind of rides as a viewer and certainly as a writer. I don’t mind the challenge.
Some Velvet Morning is currently playing in theaters and is available on VOD.