Exclusive: Interview with Death at a Funeral director Neil LaBute

Posted by: Jeremey Gingrich

To celebrate the release of his latest film DEATH AT A FUNERAL, (read the Blu-ray review) Neil LaBute was kind enough to sit down and talk to Flix66.com about the film and other projects.

Neil LaBute

Flix66.com: Thanks so much for speaking with Flix66.com today, Mr. Labute, and congratulations on DEATH AT A FUNERAL. I was wondering, did you decide to come on board after seeing the original 2007 British version by Frank Oz, or was this a project that appealed to you beforehand?

Neil LaBute: I did see it on its release in the states, and it didn’t make a huge splash here on its original release – most people saw it on DVD or paid television – but I did see it in the theaters, and enjoyed it and didn’t think that much after it. But then Chris Rock also saw it on its release and thought it could be made into a picture here in the states. When he got the rights, got a script together, that’s when I got a chance to get involved.

Flix66.com: With the comedians you had in this film, historically outlandish in their stand up and early roles – people like Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan – was it difficult to reign them in for this story which called for the majority of reserve called for in the film with only occasional outbursts? Or have they naturally calmed in their later years?

Neil LaBute: They’ve just gotten better and better as actors. Not just comic actors but actors. Martin and Chris were really happy to work together. I was surprised that they had never really worked together. They were both in the movie BOOMERANG but they never shared a scene together. And now from never working together to playing brothers. They actually liked being around each other and making each other laugh on the set, but as far as letting each of them have their moments, it was not a contest, it was never an issue of any one of them dominating the screen at any time. Chris kind of knew he was playing the straight man, per se, but they each knew in their roles what they were supposed to do, and they each were sure that they would have their bits and they would get their laughs.

Martin Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Tracy Morgan and Chris Rock in DEATH AT A FUNERAL.

Flix66.com: From most reviews, the character that’s gotten the most reaction has been James Marsden’s Oscar, which was kind of the same reaction Alan Tudyk got for that similar role of Simon in the 2007 version of the film. How much of Marsden’s hallucinogenic experience was straight from the script, and how much was you and the screenwriter Dean Craig just saying to Marsden “You’re on a hallucinogenic. Go.”?

Neil LaBute: It’s funny you ask, because there are some situations in the film where we wanted to follow the original and others where we really didn’t want to follow the original. In that first film, Alan did some really funny and very specific stuff, some on the page, but a lot of the time we focused on what he did to make sure James was not doing that. Someone like Martin Lawrence can play his character without seeing the original, play it straight off the page and never mirror the same character in the original, but with James’ character – and how well people responded to Alan’s original performance – his journey was a little different from everyone else’s. But it seemed to work out because as you’ve said people have really responded well to it.

Flix66.com: Peter Dinklage was actually the only character that did both the original and this remake, and I was wondering how much either input he volunteered or how much advice you asked from him specifically, if any? Especially in leaning towards not duplicating the original but still hitting on the key points and the money laughs, and I was wondering how much he contributed in that respect?

Neil LaBute: Peter’s work in the original allowed him to come in knowledgable not only about what he did and how he did it, but also what he felt works and bringing him in allowed him a unique opportunity to reprise the same part, the same character in a film that’s not a sequel.  Bringing him in allowed him to reprise the part but he was mindful of how to tweak it for the same story with an American cast and contrasting with a British cast from before. But he did offer insight as far as “This is what happened when we did this…” and it was good to hear those original experiences.

Zoe Saldana and James Marsden DEATH AT A FUNERAL.

Flix66.com: The actors seemed to have a pretty good rapport on the screen, but I’ve never really seen many of these actors together, especially many of the comic actors. Luke Wilson doesn’t show up in a lot of Chris Rock movies. So I was wondering how that rapport went behind the scenes.

Neil LaBute: I think what was fun for most of these actors was watching the others work. One of the things we did that was helpful to the ensemble getting along was shooting in video… we shot on the digital system, which allowed us to keep shooting, unlike traditionally shooting with film. And minimizing those technical glitches we could shoot longer and allowed the actors to just go, go, go and spill more of their ideas and original aspects to their performance. Another thing we did was, we created, on the set, a green room for the actors. This was a big green room just for the actors right on the sound stage where they could watch the others shooting their scene, and they weren’t isolated like they are when they have their individual trailers. This allowed them to stay close to the scenes even when they were not in the scene. The idea came from Sony/Screen Gems. They’d done it before and we thought it was a good idea. It kept people close, kept them engaged as to what was going on.

Flix66.com: I’m wondering about your future projects. Do you think you’ll do more comedies or lean more towards a dramatic project on the horizon?

Neil LaBute: I really enjoyed working with Sam Jackson doing a thriller, LAKEVIEW TERRACE, a thriller with suspense that also had something to say about race. That Kind of project appeals to me and I’m looking into another project with Sam in the future. I constantly go back to the stage, and I’m working on a new play in New York in the fall and one in London in winter, and I’ll see where my film projects fall from there.

Flix66.com: Again, Neil, thanks so much for talking to us here at Flix66, but one last question before I go, I wanted to know what movie, of all time, other than DEATH AT A FUNERAL (of course) would you consider your favorite?

Neil LaBute: Favorite movie anybody’s made or mine? I’d have to say all time it’s probably something like LA DOLCE VITA, a movie that I’m just happier watching than anything else, if it comes on I’ll stop and watch it. Other movies I’ve seen more are like Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN, I love THE WIZARD of OZ, too, actually, but I’d have to say LA DOLCE VITA for all time.

Flix66.com: Thank you, Mr. Labute, and again best of luck with your future endeavors.

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