December 11, 2013
Neil LaBute: the shape of TV scripts
LOS ANGELES — Neil LaBute is far from snobbish about making room for television in his portfolio of stage and film projects.
He directed two episodes of the AMC Western Hell on Wheels, wrote the 10-episode drama series Full Circle now showing on DirecTV (9pm EDT on Wednesdays, or video on demand) and will write and direct a group of short films, also for DirecTV, planned for next year.
Full Circle, inspired by the oft-adapted early 20th-century play La Ronde, stretches the medium by limiting nearly all episodes to a restaurant setting and conversation between two people who are family, friends or perceived enemies. One character moves on to the next chapter, and so on, to stitch the chain together in the ensemble drama that includes Billy Campbell, Minka Kelly, Tom Felton, Keke Palmer, David Boreanaz and Kate Walsh.
LaBute’s astringent perspective on relationships in In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things and other works has earned him a virtual tattoo of two other potent words, misanthrope and misogynist, but in a recent interview he was cheerfully game for questions and generous with his answers.
Why did you decide to write for TV?
As a writer, I’ve always been someone who did these one-offs. ...The idea for writing for characters even more than once was always appealing to me. ...
Critics and observers have said your characters aren’t necessarily always — or even sometimes — lovable.
(Laughing): Or ever.
But TV depends on creating a bond between viewers and characters and, in this case, we’re being asked to spend a couple meals in their company. How do you expect viewers to respond?
I think everyone has that in their family: someone comes to Thanksgiving dinner and you say, ‘Oh, heavens, you didn’t tell me he was coming.’ That’s a little bit of life to me. ...I hope that whether someone on the show is difficult, or someone you don’t necessarily want to throw your arms around, that you find them compelling, you find them interesting and you want to see what happens to them. Here they are a kind of bullying character in this episode and they’re the more reasonable one in the next. That’s the way we live our lives: different sides of us come out around different people.
Would you prefer that viewers “binge view” your series as a whole and not wait for each episode?
I don’t mind that (binging). I can be caught up in that sort of thing, but there is some really satisfying thing to waiting each week. ...There’s a great DVD that came out a few years ago of (Ingmar) Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, I think one of the great television programmes or just pieces of drama. They put out the series and the movie he cut from it and (film scholar) Peter Cowie... said you could sit down and watch the whole darn thing tonight but you should think about watching this the way in which a Swedish audience did, week after week, waiting for that next episode to come out. They would talk about how the streets would be empty on the nights this played for six weeks. There is something about waiting for the next beat, when you put your book down and you have to go to work and can’t look at it again until tonight. The pleasure of that is gone.
Did you find TV writing experience gratifying?
I did. It was really great to have the freedom to know where I was going but not how I could get there. ...Sometimes you sit down to write a play or a movie and the map is wide open. Here, because of television, even the relative freedom of DirecTV, there’s still a framework, a half-hour that we’ve said, “this is how each of the episodes is going to work,” so I had a fairly clear signpost to follow. But anything in between I could fill in the blanks and take these people on any journey I wanted to, and I think they go some surprising places.
Were these signposts constraining?
I actually don’t mind restrictions. The more I go along in life as a writer, I’ve found, to impose those on myself or have someone impose them actually helps the writing. It makes me say, ‘If this is what I can’t do, these are all the things I can do.’ Or to ask how far up the side of that “no” can I crawl, until they say ‘no’ even more strongly.