Watch out for games, the actor’s part,
the speech planned, known, given,
for they will give you away
and you will stand like a naked little boy,
pissing on your own child-bed.
Watch out for love
(unless it is true,
and every part of you says yes including the toes) ,
it will wrap you up like a mummy,
and your scream won’t be heard
and none of your running will end.
-Anne Sexton, Admonitions to a Special Person
To love another human being is to submit yourself to a very particular kind of hell. For all its life-altering wonder and the pleasure it may bring, when a rift in that connection is made or when the darkness of oneself rears its ugly head and spills over onto the other person, things tend to become quite rough. You make little attacks and jabs, you fight for your own ego and the protection of your love, and the small words that would normally wash right off impress themselves into your bones. It’s an inevitable fate and when it comes to the intricacies of love it’s always a hell of a game.
And in Neil LaBute’s latest latest biting bit of cinematic theater, Some Velvet Morning, we’re presented with a lipstick-stained and sexually-charged verbal squash match between the sexes. Starring the always wonderful Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve (in a truly revelatory performance), the film follows what happens when Fred (Tucci) waltzes up to the doorstep of Velvet’s (Eve) home—after not having seen her in four years—to announce he’s left his wife and is finally ready to confront his love for her and be together. And while that all seems well and romantic—a tender love story this is not. Both surprised and slightly frightened by Fred’s presence, and the quiet menace and possessive aggression that brings, Velvet tries to thwart his advances and although claims to be late for a lunch date, seems to be operating on a Bunuelian time table for leaving the house (she never does).
With Some Velvet Morning, we see LaBute return to the roots that we know and love, working a the rough-tongued and emotionally potent realm that shocks and excites. A few weeks ago, just before moderating a Q&A with him last weekend at Village East Cinema, I sat down with the writer and director to discuss his influences, the distinction between setting a story on the stage and in the cinema, as well as exploring the question of what it means to love.
I’m really a sucker for movies like this—these very biting, close-set painful drama verbal sparring matches.
Me too. Obviously. Well, not necessarily, you can make something without saying you love those kinds of movies—but I do. Very contained chamber pieces.
I’ve read Robert K. Elder’s The Film That Changed My Life and in that you talk about The Soft Skin and how it was the first movie that made you think, oh I can make movies too.
Yes, I don’t know why a Truffaut movie made me feel like, oh now, I can make movies.
Easy! But that’s the way I feel when I see films like this. Sometimes films just speak to you in an odd way that you can really wrap your head around. So did Truffaut and the other filmmakers of that era influence this film in any way and what is it about their style that you admire?
I felt like The Soft Skin made me feel like that’s the kind of film I want to make and that films could be made in that way—as opposed to lots of films I watch and admire technically, but not go, I wish I could do that or want to do my version of that. But it’s seeing an Eric Rohmer movie that I say, oh boy did I love that. I love that he just sits there and watches people and doesn’t judge, he just sits there and takes it in. So that’s what makes me think I wish I could do that or more of that. I did steal the music in the beginning from The Soft Skin for the opening scene of the film.
I love a lot of things from that period, and certainly Scenes From a Marriage in particular; there’s a segment in there called “The Illiterates” that takes place in an office—not unlike this one we’re in—where the two characters are in there for like an hour. They’re so beautiful and soft and then awful and it’s amazing, and I don’t need anything else. Give me that and I’m good to go.
Something that always struck me about Scenes From a Marriage as well as this, is the blocking and the positions of their bodies in the frame.
Well there’s only so much room. No no, you’re right, of course. There is that. You know the theater, so while I don’t move the camera so much, what’s happened within the frame is really important to me in what that looks like and what that angle is. If you choose only a couple of angles then hopefully they’re good ones and not just happenstance. Sometimes when people walk out of the frame it’s the best thing that happens. So it is deceptively calculating in its own way to look as if its happenstance.
This film is certainly a departure from some of your recent film work and harkens back to the original films you’ve made. Were you looking to go back to your roots as a writer and director and what spurred that desire?
Absolutely. No question. I needed something else. After I did a couple of films that I had written and directed, the opportunity to go back to the theater in a bigger way presented itself. So a lot of the original stuff I was writing went straight to the theater. And at the same time, the opportunity to direct other people’s work came, and that’s flattering and interesting. I didn’t really have a background in film, so I hadn’t made the short films and commercials or music videos or things people often find their way into movies. So that whole thing was a thrill. And when someone says, oh what would you like to adapt and do you want to read this, you’re in a haze of excitement. But in the end, after you’ve adapted something and you’ve remade something and made a film out of your own play, there is some sense of it. However many years later as it goes by, only now do I look at Terrence Malick and go, eh what’s twenty years? Goes just like that.
There was a point where I thought, yeah, I really should go make another movie like that, it would be good for me and good the kind of scripts that I’m writing. And I just happened to have this script, which could have gone to the stage—it may go to the stage, I don’t know—but it felt right to say I’m not going to let it go that way around this time, I’m not going to put it on stage and then make a film. People will just have to engage in it as a movie whether they like it or not, or whether they say it still feels like a play to me, it will be what it is. It’s a movie.
When you began writing the script, was there a specific idea you wanted to work towards for these characters. I loved when Fred said, “Who said anything about fair? When has love ever been fair?” That seemed to get at the essence of the story. As well as when you’re in a relationship, to some extent you’re always playing a role for the other person and this really just took that to the extreme.
Yes, part of it is definitely love. And I’m not really a real theme writer, I don’t set out and go: I must write something about race, I must write say something about capitalism. I just don’t think that way. Hopefully themes emerge, but I do think—like other things that I’ve written—it is about love and the elasticity of love. What is love, what do we do to get it, what will we tell ourselves is love, what is the currency we exchange for it—in this case, actual currency. But there’s an emotional currency. There’s a price she pays and you see that in her performance that’s different than the one that’s being exchanged at the end of the picture.
So that has been of interest to me, and what someone else might call love and what do I believe that is love or what is it. Even though there is a facade at the end of the movie, this A story has largely been built on pretense, on a game that is exchanged between these two, to be at all successful it has to sell itself as real. You have to go on the same emotional journey you would with any movie for the first 80 minutes our of 85 or whatever.
Did you begin writing with that specific ending in mind or did it emerge as you went along?
I knew what the ending would be. I had that notion. And part of it was an experimental side, saying, how long can I keep that ball in the air, how long can I take people on a ride that ultimately they’re the only ones that don’t know they’re on it, because ultimately, characters do know and I know, and putting in moments that hopefully you’ll go back and look at it even when he says, “It’s me, Fred,” you see her eyes go, “Oh, okay you’re Fred today, that’s who you are.” Otherwise they would be the greatest improv artists in the world—they’re like Second City graduates—they have to have done this for a while and there has to be a template. And Chris, that child that we don’t see, that son is a surrogate for whoever that third person is, that one that is between him and her and that he wants something and she’s going to withhold it as long as possible and he’s going to take it.
And that’s the game. And the game seems to be going, but for it to be unique, it had to be that something changed today—that they went a little long, he didn’t go after her when she thought he would. Those kinds of things, those were the rough rules we played with. But in the end, the job is the same. I came up with a story, it may even feel similar to ones you’ve seen before, but how am I now going to spin it a little bit and hopefully you believe it right up until a moment when the positions change.
I’ve seen the film a few times now and it becomes more and more enjoyable to watch their word play and understand the small nuances of their performance. You also pick up on a lot of hints towards the ultimate reveal.
They’re very haunting in the first ten minutes. You can feel them feeling each other out, and you run a danger of people going, what is this, what kind of acting is this? You can feel them feeling their way and then they get safer and more in control of the game. So hopefully it all pays off.
How did you go about casting the film?You’d worked with Alice before and I believe Stanley as well?
Well actually that’s true. You may be the only person that’s right about that because one of the first things I did when I was still in school, I worked on a very short-lived television show for FOX called Urban Anxiety and Stanley was on it, but I only knew him fro afar. I wrote on it for a very short period when I was still in school. So that’s the only connection I had to him. He both brings a lot of warm and wit and those things that humanize the guy, so that you can feel that he’s sad or that he really loves her.
And that was important to Stanley, that you could see—even if it’s a smoke screen—that you could see that he appeared to really love this person, no matter what his methodology was, that was the root of it. But he also was a little dangerous and menacing.
A love more about possession.
Yes, exactly. And that the level of menace stayed kind of high because that’s the only thing you have to offer is the danger between these two people. Why doesn’t she go? Well, because they’ve got a history. Yeah, but she seems frightened, and what keeps her in the room and why does he keep going after her? So he just had those abilities. But Alice, I had worked with in the theater. She was just so smart about the character and she’s one that people don’t know maybe know as well so she’s more revelatory that way.
You can read so much on her face, she’s never been better.
Yeah, my god she’s fantastic. But I could tell that. I’d worked with her in a limited way but hearing her talk about it, I thought if that can translate to the performance, you have everything you need— she understood this girl, she understands the dynamic, she has real thoughts about it.
I imagine just reading the script, this would seem perfectly fitting for the stage. What were the challenges of telling this story on screen?
I guess letting it have a chance at being accepted for what it was and finding a way to move them around organically and knowing the power of the medium. Even onstage in a live performance, you don’t have the power of what a closeup can do. You can really study their faces. And then dealing with the kind of physical climax of the movie and how much of that were we going to show. You can show that in so many different ways but I didn’t think there was anything more powerful than her face. There’s really very few cuts there, it’s mostly about what you hear and all that and what you don’t show.
In a horror movie, certainly, I’ve learned my lesson. But that’s where the power is, in her response to that and that’s what you find troubling and that’s what you have to access and figure out by the end. It seems like this means more to her than they’re both letting on at the end and she seems to be carrying away something different. You’ve seen people in those altercations before, anything from Irreversible to any number of movies, but I knew the power of that close up and what that would be and I think getting as close as I could to those people is really the great gift that a movie brought it.
And then how jarring after that she’s fine and smiling through her tears.
“Fine.” And seems to be asking him when is the next time you’ll be here, and she suddenly seems like the needy one and the one who is not going anywhere. All those little moments, we wanted to turn as many as we could on their head. The great convention was talking about whether she was going to use her English accent in the end or at the beginning and then we opted for the whole movie and then only at the end because then it’s even a further step. She becomes this American and yet you know she’s English, so it’s like, wait, oh that’s weird. So it was a good series of things that changed the paradigm.