Director and playwright Neil LaBute is known for grim and lacerating works such as "In the Company of Men" and "The Shape of Things," in which his characters tend to be degraded in unique and inventive ways.
So a lot of people were scratching their heads when it was announced he would be the director of a broad comedy starring Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. And yet LaBute's "Death at a Funeral," a remake of a British farce about a funeral gone horribly wrong, has garnered great reviews and earned $16 million its opening weekend. In many ways, the film delves into the same themes of LaBute's other films and plays - jealousy, vindictiveness, manipulation, grief, humiliation, etc. - except this time there are punch lines and sexually adventurous dwarves.
Neil LaBute, a former Jayhawk, joined us to discuss "Death at a Funeral," mainstream success and why Tracy Morgan had curry all over his face and hands.
Q: How big of a pivot was it to switch from your usually somber material to a remake of a British comedy?
A: The world pretty much remains the same - you have a series of tasks to complete and a number of pages of dialogue and action per day to capture. Of course, some things change. The physical comedy demands a kind of movement and coordination of events that two people sitting at a table don't require. That said, you want to leave a certain amount of latitude for the actors and yourself to play with so that a freshness remains in the material. If it's a thriller, your job is to thrill; if it's a comedy, your job is to get laughs. Other than that, the overall job is very much the same. Lead the group, create a safe environment for your actors, "make" your day by shooting the number of pages that you've agreed to for each day, etc.
Q: How do you retool a distinctly British comedy of errors and manners into a rowdy American endeavor? What do you think separates British comedy from American comedy?
A: There are certain specific words and phrases that place it in an obviously American context, but it is also a sense of temperature. What started in the original as a very repressed family is now a more outgoing, testy family who have their bond tested by the death - and ongoing revelations about - the patriarch of that family. Since we start at more of a fever pitch than the original, we are obliged to stay there and/or keep topping it. On one level, funny is funny. That said, comedy can be very specific - regional, cultural, gender-based, etc. - and get lost on the wrong audience. We aimed pretty squarely in the middle and tried to make a picture that would appeal to as big an audience as possible.
Q: This is the second film you've made with Chris Rock, and from what I gather he handpicked you to direct "Death at a Funeral." Are you guys developing a Scorsese/De Niro, Herzog/Kinski relationship? Or even a McKay/Ferrell relationship?
A: Hard to say at this point. Two movies isn't enough to say it's a franchise yet. It's certainly been a lot of fun. I enjoy talented people, and I've worked with the same people - Aaron Eckhart, Paul Rudd, Chris Rock, etc. - many times over. The same with various crew members. This is a pleasure on many levels, and in a business that is very migratory it's nice to work with a few of the same people again and again.
Q: This has the potential to be your biggest box-office hit to date. Any concern about losing your "indie cred"?
A: After last weekend, no worries at all! I'm joking, but the movie only did "respectable" business rather than breakout-hit business - but even if it had been a runaway success, I would've put that down to the fact that it has a great ensemble cast and that it's a comedy and plays quite broadly to various audiences. As a director, I've been lucky enough to try a variety of projects based on what interests me rather than on how much money I think they'll make. And I'm not even sure I have any "indie cred" left - it's so easy to run hot and cold in this business. At some point you have to quit worrying about being cool and being on magazine covers and just get out there and tell stories that interest you.
Q: Is Tracy Morgan as insane as he seems in interviews? I mean, delightfully so, but still insane?
A: He may, in fact, be even more lively and insane than he comes off in interviews. He was a constant source of amazement and amusement on the set and in person. He's very funny, very smart and a sweet guy. We were lucky to have him involved.
Q: Lastly, and most importantly, what's the secret to constructing the perfect scatological toilet joke? You've got quite the doozy in "Death at a Funeral." Was it difficult to film, with an icon like Danny Glover taking one for the team and going pantsless, or did you treat it like any other scene?
A: Frank Oz (director of the original "Death at a Funeral") left a nice place to jump off from in the original film, and Dean Craig (screenwriter of the remake) created a great bit to start with. We just staged it as well as we could, and I didn't think twice about it being Danny Glover. He's a terrific actor, which means he was ready for anything. It was a very tight set but I remember having a great time staging it and watching it all come together - what I remember most is the smell of curry, which is what we used to help get just the right color of poop to complement Tracy's skin color. My God, the things we do to earn a living!