Neil LaBute's 'Men' aims to provoke Movie: 'In the Company of Men' angers audiences, which pleases the writer-director.

September 28, 1997|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Neil LaBute's first film triggered walkouts in Cannes and at Sundance. After his "In the Company of Men" was shown at the Seattle Film Festival, an enraged woman marched up to the lead actor to announce she hated him. Not the movie. Not the character he played. Him.

All of which has brought nothing but pleasure to LaBute, the film's 34-year old writer and director. "The object of a writer is to provoke, to be a provocateur," he said in a phone interview recently.

Object achieved.

Though "In the Company of Men" was initially shot for a mere $25,000, it has caused as much stir as any of the mega-budget blockbusters released by Hollywood this summer, especially over its portrayal of a particularly pernicious brand of misogyny.

"We got more press on this film than most Hollywood films," boasted Stephen Pevner, one of the producers.

In its still-limited release (it was at the Charles for two weeks earlier this month), the film has grossed $2 million, a respectable figure for an independent film. LaBute has already been mentioned as a possible Oscar contender. An unknown nine months ago, he's now being pursued by studios, proving again how quickly movies manufacture stars.

"In the Company of Men" creates one of the most toxic villains in recent cinema, a young, mid-level corporate executive named Chad whose defining characteristic is a poisonous contempt for virtually anyone who isn't himself. Chad lives to exert power, relishing the pleasure of forcing others to yield to him, especially if humiliation is involved.

Toward that end, Chad, who is played by LaBute's college buddy Aaron Eckhart (now in "In and Out"), devises a game in which he and a male colleague will seduce the same innocent young woman. After she has fallen in love with each of them, they will reveal that they were just using her.

"She'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week, and we'll be laughing about it until we're very old men," Chad tells Howard, his accomplice.

It's not simply Chad's perniciousness that has aroused audiences, but LaBute's refusal to punish him for it. The bad guy doesn't get his in LaBute's film. Chad succeeds in hurting the woman, a deaf secretary played by Stacy Edwards. He also achieves his real objective, which is to bring down Howard, an old friend but also Chad's direct supervisor. When last seen, Chad is lying in bed with his loving girlfriend's arms wrapped around him and a self-satisfied smile on his lips.

Ending causes stir

That image of contentment sends audiences out of the theaters in full debate. "People react viscerally to the ending," said LaBute. "A friend showed me an online site about the movie, and more often than not, it was the ending that they were talking about. Whether they liked it or not, they thought it was strong. It undercut the usual sense, the falling off, the denouement. This image is so angry, so confrontive, you usually don't see that sort of thing." But, LaBute says, any kind of redemption for Chad would have compromised the film. "The ending makes sense to the story, and I think that's what you should be true to."

Being true to the story is not something often respected in Hollywood. But then, Hollywood had nothing to do with the making of "In the Company of Men." In LaBute's mind, the only person he had to please was himself.

"It didn't make sense to me to try and be inventive for 90 minutes and then undercut yourself in the last few minutes," he said. "I'm much more committed to story than to the audience. It's not an effort to drive an audience away, but they're just used to a tidy end. They don't necessarily want it."

Still, the creation of "In the Company of Men" represented a successful mixture of artistry and practicality. LaBute, who was born in Detroit and raised in Spokane, Wash., was a playwright and theater director in Fort Wayne, Ind., who had been looking to make a film from one of his movie scripts. One of his major considerations in choosing "In the Company of Men" was that it has only three main characters. He wouldn't have to pay many actors.

"With the tools available to me, this was the product that I felt I could get on screen with what I had," he said.

What he had was $25,000 two friends anted up from the settlement of a car accident. He also had numerous people willing to contribute their time for little or no money. "You couldn't make a movie in the same way in New York or Chicago," he said. "We didn't run into location fees but people who said, 'Gee, can someone in my family be an extra?' "

LaBute could afford 11 days of shooting in Fort Wayne in July 1996, enough to finance a rough cut. With that, Pevner, LaBute's longtime literary agent (who grew up in Baltimore), was able to shop the film to investors. With an additional quarter of a million dollars, LaBute was able to polish the film in post-production and add sound and music.

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