Playwright turned writer-director Neil LaBute works inside the Hollywood system, more often than not these days. He was show runner for the Netflix series “Van Helsing,” and many of his recent films have been studio pictures — “Lakeview Terrace,””The Wicker Man” among them.
But twenty years ago, he was an outsider struggling to get his breakout indie feature “In the Company of Men” some attention. As a playwright and a writer-director, he typically focuses on human cruelty, particularly as it is directed at those who do not fit in. Plays like “Fat Pig” and that first feature, “In the Company of Men” fixated on men’s reaction to women who don’t fit society’s standards of beauty.
“The Shape of Things” (like “Men,” a play he made into a film) is about the “victims” of others’ makeovers.
So it’s not surprise to see LaBute’s name on the credits to “Some Freaks,” an indie romantic dramedy about high school misfits — a taunted boy with only one eye, an overweight girl — who meet, connect and then hit the wall with each other as each choose to alter his or her appearance. alter their appearance
It’s a movie LaBute could have written and directed. But this time, he produced it.
“I love characters like this, and could certainly see myself having directed this,” LaBute says. “They don’t fit the mold.”
“But my connection to this is Ian MacAllister McDonald. He interned with me years back, went off to grad school, and wrote this feature he wanted to direct. He asked me if I’d be willing to executive produce it, I said ‘Why not?’ That gave me access to the script, and I saw these characters I totally identified with, personally and as a writer. My play ‘Fat Pig’ dealt with this sort of relationship — a plus-size girl, a guy who has a hard time accepting that. The transformation the characters go through here are fascinating, and we don’t get to see them on screen.”
Playwright turned director McDonald, pictured above, had made a movie that is like his mentor’s best work, is “refreshingly grounded, unsentimental yet empathetic slice of D-list teenage life,” as Variety’s Dennis Harvey noted in his review.
LaBute wouldn’t characterize this as a mentor seeing himself in his protege. He wouldn’t presume to use those words, nor would he admit to blushing at seeing another filmmaker’s version of a LaBute world peopled with LaBute characters.
“That’s for other people to notice,” he says with a laugh. “I was just happy to see somebody look at the world in a similar way, and see characters from the population that we just don’t see on the screen. I hope people see Ian’s movie and recognize characters that are a lot more real, more like you or me, than Hollywood typically gives you. Refreshing and honest in its relationships, really sharp in seeing how relationships at that age can turn in just a single moment.”
Hollywood is very good at giving us monsters — over-the-top mean girls, frat boys and the like. But the casual, juvenile off-the-cuff cruelty that has been a LaBute specialty and that we see in McDonald’s “Some Freaks” is rare.
“Cookie cutter studio movies about high school tend to give us exaggerated characters, more beautiful, more mean or whatever versions of real people. Ian’s movie gives us people we know, people we are or people we were back in high school.”
The culture that “Some Freaks” arrives in is different from the one that LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” burst into in 1997. Cruelty, politically incorrect insults and the like seem more out in the open. Or are they?
“These behaviors have always been out there, but it does seem like they’re more in the open. I told a very particular tale about a certain kind of white collar jerk. ‘Freaks’ taps into bits of that behavior much younger. And we see people on the receiving end of this, in high school, and experience it through these kids who are just like people we know.”
And as with most of LaBute’s films, the world captured is far removed from Los Angeles or New York, a “fly over state” story with fly-over state characters.
“That’s the great thing about independent film. Guys like me or Ian try to tell stories, often in our home state. Indie film is a great x-ray of the country in that way. This is how the ‘other half lives,’ and as we know, the other half is the biggest part of the country.”
“Some Freaks” (my review is here) opens in limited release on Aug. 4, and is worth remembering and tracking down when it makes its way to your part of fly-over country.