Neil LaBute’s characters are smart and good-looking, at least until they reveal their Machiavellian evil. In movies like In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things, the nasty games they play give LaBute a chance to explore uncomfortable things about relationships and idenity. Double or Nothing, a short film written by Labute and directed by Nathaniel Krause, is a distilled version of the writer’s early work.
Shot over the course of the shortest night of the year, it is about a young couple (Louisa Krause and Adam Brody) who encounter a homeless man (Keith David) outside a bar. The men play a game, one that gets increasingly violent, while the young woman watches in horror. The film is Krause’s graduate thesis for USC film school, and he wisely lets the writing serve his shooting style, instead of the other way around. Krause said he wanted the film to be “offensive but accessible,” which is an elegant way to describe the LaBute’s appeal.
The short film got a positive reception when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, and Krause already plans to show it at other festivals before it debuts on iTunes and YouTube. After watching Double or Nothing and BFF, LaBute’s other short at Tribeca, he responded to my questions via email.
Double or Nothing distills your recurring theme of the nasty games people play. What’s so appealing to you about relationship subterfuge?
I think people are taught to play games at an early age and they use those abilities throughout their lives, in both good and bad ways. We learn the rules and then we either follow them or we break them, according to the game and/or our needs. In films it is much the same thing, both for the filmmakers and the audience: we know how things should work and when they don’t, we either applaud or dislike the alterations. I like playing shell games in my work and I enjoy writing about relationships so that leads to a fair number of scenarios in which people are not always truthful or are playing games with each other. It helps with the subtext when characters are operating on a variety of levels and it’s fun to try and outsmart the reader, the audience, and even yourself.
What was it like to hand your script to another director?
I wasn’t on location for the shoot so there was little opportunity on the day. I did get a chance to see several edits and make a few suggestions but i took a chance with Nathaniel and he delivered a really nice film. I think sometimes doing that, stepping out into the unknown, is the best way to make good and surprising things happen.
Was there a point when you were writing Clark’s racist rant and thought “this is too offensive”?
I let the story and characters lead the way–I’m never afraid of what characters need to say or what I have to make up to convey an idea in the best way possible. This is the place that we should be actively examining the issues of the day–on stage and on the screen–so I work with very little fear concerning the kinds of things i write or bring up in my work. I’m much more afraid of being boring or having nothing to say than in pushing the boundaries too far.
What appeals to you about the short film format?
Everything. So far it’s brought me a freedom in terms of format and control and storytelling that I haven’t experienced in a while; it’s great to pay for something and own it and therefore be free to experiment or use black & white or actors who are great but have less box office value. The difficulties are the same but the dividends have been relatively extraordinary.
What unexpected challenges does the format bring?
It’s still a movie. It’s still difficult to get everything to come together and to ask people to work for little or nothing. It’s hard to ‘make your day’ whether it’s a one-day shoot or a forty-day shoot and the sun goes down on short films just like it does on longer, more expensive ones. That said, it always feels like folks are there because they want to be and you’re making a thing that looks a lot like what you set out to create.
How do you plan to release/disseminate the short films you’ve made over the past couple years?
There seem to be more and more avenues to get these shorter projects into the hands of an audience but mostly it’s about the making–getting back behind a camera with a good group of people and generating strong material. I’m happy if these can then be seen at festivals or on YouTube or downloaded off iTunes. I send them to people who ask to see them. It’s nice not to have to worry about the opening weekend and read Box Office Mojo to find out if you’re a ‘hit.’ If someone sees it and likes it, then you’re a hit. I like that kind of simplicity.
Has the content of your films and plays affected your relationship with friends?
No, I try to have few friends and that makes it pretty easy. Kidding. Sort of. Actually, the people who know and like me are pretty understanding and know that I don’t steal from their lives and trust that my work is my work and my life is something else entirely. Some people have no sense of humor and worry too much about what other folks think but I have little time for that. I like working and have no plans to give it up–a perfect day is working with friends. Friends who don’t understand that are probably not at the top of my ‘friend’ list (which, as mentioned previously, is already fairly short).
Are you forgiving when you catch people in a lie?
I’m pretty forgiving by nature as I’m a natural screw-up myself. I give most people a fair amount of rope to work with; some create fancy dream catchers with that rope and others hang themselves with it. It’s up to them. What I’ve learned most from life and writing is how profoundly human we all are and that’s quite humbling. People are amusing and sad and amazing; I’m not hear to judge them but I do love creating them on the page and trying to tell a few interesting stories about them. People lie about lots of things–it’s not great or admirable or anything like that, but it’s very human. That part of it I totally understand.