Nasty Business

Neil LaBute is making a considerable splash with his debut film, In the Company of Men. A corrosive black comedy about two businessmen who hatch a plot to humiliate a young deaf woman, it won the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival this spring and was immediately picked up for worldwide distribution; it opens today in Chicago. LaBute’s highly charged dialogue and scathing portrait of corporate culture have drawn numerous critical comparisons to the work of David Mamet, a major influence on the 34-year-old filmmaker, who now lives in Fort Wayne with his wife and two children. LaBute still considers his years in Chicago as the seminal period in his development as a dramatist.

“I loved Chicago,” he says. “It was very exciting to be a young playwright here. People didn’t just embrace or encourage new work but passionately engulfed new plays.” Raised in Spokane, Washington, LaBute attended Brigham Young University, worked for a computer company in New York, and pursued a graduate degree at the University of Kansas before he moved to Rogers Park in the late 80s. One of his first productions, Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, was staged as part of Bailiwick’s Directors’ Festival, but LaBute made his local reputation with Lepers, a brilliant play delineating contemporary sexual attitudes that was staged at Cafe Voltaire in 1993. “I probably would have stayed much longer,” LaBute says, “but I got a scholarship to go to NYU.”

Like Mamet, LaBute has a fine ear for idiom and the intricate rhythms of speech. Also like Mamet, LaBute shows how language is used as a weapon, how words are used to heighten political, sexual, and racial differences, and the difficulties men face when trying to communicate with women. “I was reading an interview with Mamet,” LaBute recalls, “and when asked, he said Harold Pinter was his most significant influence. He said [reading Pinter] was the first time he saw something that came off the page, that seemed like the way people spoke. I remember the lightning bolt for me when I read Sexual Perversity in Chicago. I thought, my God, here’s somebody who captures the really colloquial speech of the way we live.”

In the Company of Men (named after an essay in Mamet’s 1989 collection Some Freaks) explores the brutal and insidious ways that men dehumanize women in the American workplace. (A review of the film appears in Section One.) Chad and Howard, white-collar workers stuck midway up the corporate ladder, arrive in a nameless city to complete a project at an unspecified company; angry about their respective failed relationships, they agree to find a vulnerable woman, simultaneously romance her, elevate her self-esteem, and then dump her. As in LaBute’s plays, language is a sword, only here it preserves a rigid social order in which men lunge for power, manipulating the weaker players in an elegant but vicious game. When the charming and malevolent Chad is asked why he wants to ruin people’s lives, he responds icily, “Because I can.”

In scripting the film LaBute drew on his past business experience writing for an educational software company. “I got a chance to go out to various other companies around New York and see the different ways businesses operate, how people interact with one another. That’s why the film is ultimately so nonspecific. I didn’t want to marginalize it and say, ‘This is a film about Wall Street.’ It’s more about the culture of business, a mindset about giving yourself over to the cause, in a sense losing yourself and becoming wealthy for it. That’s what business is about. It’s a very troubling [atmosphere], because people lose their individuality. It’s especially disastrous when you apply it to personal relationships.”

Though In the Company of Men is his first film, LaBute has never made any effort to separate theater from movies. “I’ve always been a real cinema hound,” he says. “But theater was most readily available. I have a real passion for what happens onstage. I don’t believe in a really strong dictum: this is theater, this is cinema. By virtue of working in it, that’s what it is.” After attending New York University’s graduate program in dramatic writing, LaBute refined his craft at London’s Royal Court Theatre and the Sundance Institute’s playwright workshops. He shot In the Company of Men in Fort Wayne in 11 days; its initial budget was $25,000 ($20,000 of which came from the insurance settlement of two associates who’d been involved in a car accident).

Since its screening at Sundance, the film has provoked op-ed articles in national publications and drawn raves from critics such as Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who wrote, “The implicit power politics of his sterile corporate world have made Chad shockingly bitter in ways that this unflinching, sharply written film articulates with brilliant ferocity.” Though the industry buzz would seem to guarantee him a promising future in the movies, LaBute remains impressively unfazed by all the attention, less concerned with a Hollywood career than with creating serious, emotionally charged drama. His next film will be an adaptation of Lepers, the work that first brought him to the attention of local audiences. Revisiting Chicago to promote In the Company of Men has brought back fond memories. “We talk a lot about returning here,” he admits. “I would like that.”

Lewis Lazare is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Neil LaBute photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.