In December's Some Velvet Morning starring Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve, writer and director Neil LaBute (The Wicker Man) takes on the story of a twisted relationship filled with bitterness, lust, anger, and frustration between a man named Fred and a woman called Velvet. We spoke to LaBute about the similarities of directing a film and a play, the benefit of leaving the audience in the dark, and his love of black-and-white films.
Warning: Questions and answers that reveal specific plot points in the film have been marked with a "spoiler."
The biggest thing that I noticed about the film is that I think you could really see it as a play on stage. Was directing the film similar to directing a play?
Well, I certainly have done so much theater that that’s an easy thing to imagine, and because of the contained quality of it, it would translate quite easily. I mean, once I had a script I could have done either thing with it. I’ve staged many things; I’ve made films out of plays afterwards. But what I hadn’t done yet was take a text and said, "I’m going to make a movie out of it first." One that was as contained as that. Even more contained than some of the plays I’ve done. It all felt like it was in real time and in one space and all that. I just felt like it was a good time for me to do something like that, and it felt like the right kind of script. It was manageable and something I hadn’t done, so whether people like it or not -- whether they agree if it’s a movie -- they have to accept it for what it is. It hasn’t been on any stage… it just is what it is. It’s a very contained chamber piece, but it’s a film. So there you have it.
Did you feel at home being in a smaller space like that?
Yes, and I had made films for relatively small amounts of money and very quick shooting periods.
How long was the filming?
Eight days. There was a ninth day that we had to have that was a studio day. It was a part of the New York tax law. To be able to be a part of the rebate, you have to shoot in a studio. But there was nothing that we needed to shoot in the studio. We were like, "Why are we going to recreate all of these rooms when we have them right here?" But we shot the title sequence which was from above, so we brought the rug and the couch into the studio and shot that and it fulfilled the requirement. But essentially the movie was shot in eight days.
For the relationship between Fred and Velvet, did you do anything with Stanley and Alice beforehand to get their chemistry just right? How did you extract all of their anger and bitterness?
You do get lucky that people sort of just click and trust each other and they trust you. We had about three days beforehand -- which is not tons, but it’s something. They didn’t just show up on the set and say, "Here we go." Two of those days we set around a table, were seated, working on the set. You know, just mercilessly cutting stuff that we said, "No, no, not good enough." ... So there was a lot of that, and then there was a day that we spent in the house kind of saying the mystery is this: ...He needs to show up at the door and, however many pages later, he needs to go out that door. Everything else is fair game. And there’s certain things that I know we have to do like when he says, “get me a drink of water,” you’re either going to get it from the bathroom or you’re going to go downstairs to the kitchen. So there were only certain ones that made sense. You’ve got to go somewhere to make that phone call. When you go to the bedroom, you’ve got to go up the stairs. But we sort of felt our way there ... but it was great having those levels.
Right. You didn’t want to be too constrained, in an already constrained situation.
Yeah, it’s already constricted. So as much as you could say, "Let's open this up," it was worth doing. But they were able to manufacture a lot of that on their own. They clicked as people and they trusted each other, and they really had to count on each other in terms of "let’s learn this material." And the best way to learn was to go back and forth, back and forth and repeating it. And then also we were shooting two cameras a lot of the time, so there wasn’t a lot of, "Oh good, we’re shooting the other couple today." You’re constantly working, and you’re constantly on camera. There’s not even the relief of, "Okay, I know I’m shooting you; I can say the lines and say emotional, but I’m not giving 100 percent. I’m reserving a little energy for my side." But when the cameras are pointing both ways, you’ve got to go all of the time. And then you’ve got to go home and learn ten more pages. They had a very exhaustive eight days.
[Spoilers ahead] What were you trying to illustrate about this specific human relationship between Velvet and Fred?
The trick is that you’re showing two things, but you don’t want to show your hand until very late in the game. Now people may come and say, "I’ve seen some of his stuff before and there may be a plot twist, this may not be the same thing of what I think it is;" so you’re going against all of that already. But I wanted people to go on the same emotional ride that they would go on in any movie. Invest in the characters and go, "I want to find out what happens." I don’t care if people love them or if there’s a sequel. I just care that you go, "Yeah, this is interesting enough. I want to know what happens to these two people." And slowly start to invest in them and go, "Oh, what happened to you? Oh this is interesting." And take that journey that you would normally take until you suddenly go, "Oh wait, is any of this true?" And see how long I can keep that ball in the air. Because it’s always fake... I mean, from my point of view, the kind of stuff that I write, it’s not biography, it’s not a story that I read in the newspaper, it’s always made up. And yet I want to make it seem real enough, the psychology appears valid enough that you go, "I believe these people. I believe that they exist. I believe that they’re falling in love. I believe they’re falling out of love." So the dynamic was exactly the same. It’s just that there was something else going on underneath that hopefully you can then go back and look at and go, "Oh yeah, I should have seen that they were acting, that there was a weird little thing going on between them, as they kind of don’t answer each other’s questions or pause for a moment." So hopefully it works on both those levels.
[Spoilers ahead] And did you want both of them to know the ending? I mean, it changes your whole perspective. They’re acting on multiple levels.
They needed to know from the beginning. Really the audience is the only one who’s left out -- which can annoy the audience, actually. Some audience members, I’m sure, can watch or will watch and will go, "Oh, that’s a fucking cheat. I invested in that and now you’re telling me that they don’t even exist as people?" And they’ll find that annoying. But I think the best version of it is that you do enjoy the manipulation. It’s sort of like watching a magic trick and you like it on two levels. You like it if you don’t figure it out and you like it if you do figure it out. Or a mystery. You read Agatha Christie and you go, "Hah! I figured it out." Or you don’t and you go, "Damn." So it kind of works both ways -- or I hope, anyway. But the actors had to know because that is their dynamic. While it probably is more fulfilling, because it is a sexual game they’re playing, it’s probably more sexually fulfilling the more it feels real. So the more he does get angry at her, the more she does hold back from him; the more he has to pull it out of her and take it from her. I think that’s probably ultimately their dynamic: I want to take you, but I want you to hold me off as long as you can.
[Spoilers ahead] What was your favorite scene in the movie?
That’s an interesting question. No one’s asked me that. But now that you say that, the first thing that came to mind for me is probably the scene towards the end of the movie where Stanley and Alice sit on a couch ... they’re just laughing together, and they’re very quiet. Because it’s unbroken, because it’s just the two of them acting -- there’s no cutting back and forth-- it's all just, it’s what I like best. The camera just sitting there [watching] two really good actors acting with each other, setting the pace. I really like that scene. I like the look of it, the way they play it – it’s just a really nice scene. I love the last moment of Alice after he leaves. There’s so much going on on her face. It kind of changes the game again, even this sort of like, "Hey it was great, thank you, are you going to call me again?" And then he leaves and there’s a whole other thing. There’s a whole lot more that you’re not telling me. And it’s all her. It’s just on the page, “Velvet goes and sits down.” And that’s just Alice standing there, and you’re like, "This girl is in the zone." She was amazing to watch, and she’s great to watch on screen.
Did this film trigger Alice Eve being cast in Dirty Weekend?
Yeah. I'm really happy with the experience -- with the outcome ... it just kind of made sense to let her do something that was much different than what we had just done. And she's easy to work with. She's smart. She's funny. She's really focused.
What is your favorite film ever?
If you twist my arm hard enough – I don’t know if you can, we won’t test you today – I would say La Dolce Vita.
Any particular reason?
Because it is uncommonly beautiful and the story moves me. If I had to pick an American movie, I’d pick Manhattan. So two black and whites.