Director Neil LaBute Talks Death at a Funeral

The director of this hilarious comedy remake takes us behind-the-scenes in honor of its August 10th debut

For the first time since collaborating on the modest hit comedy Nurse Betty, director Neil LaBute and comedian Chris Rock have once again joined forces to bring us the hilarious new farce Death at a Funeral, which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, August 10th. The film is an American remake of Frank Oz's 2007 international smash hit of the same name, which explores the provocative exploits of a deceased man, and the problems his well-buried secrets cause a close-knit family once they are revealed at his funeral.

The terrific ensemble cast includes such iconic luminaries as Tracy Morgan, Martin Lawrence, and Danny Glover, and it is backed by outstanding performances from James Marsden, Zoe Saldana, and Luke Wilson. The film even finds Peter Dinklage reprising his heartfelt role from the original.

We recently caught up with director Neil LaBute to chat with him about the film, his fascination with race relations in the context of his work, his thoughts on The Wicker Man as it becomes a cult hit removed from the shadow of the original, and his upcoming collaboration with Samuel L. Jackson that focuses on White Supremacists in the North West. Here is our conversation:

It's interesting that you would even take on this remake, seeing as how the original came out as early as 2007. And that it was fairly well received in the States.

Neil LaBute: The one thing I feel is not completely accurate is how well known the original was in the States. It is known. People have had time to check it out on DVD. As far as the box office goes? It really didn't do all that well. I think that's what set Chris in motion as far as getting the rights. He was at the center of that. He brought me on afterwards. In terms of myself? I had been looking for a comedy to do for a while. I wanted people to believe that I could do something other than what they are used to seeing me do. It's hard in this business. It costs a lot of money to take that risk. I had already worked with Screen Gems. I had already worked with Chris Rock. So all those things fell into place, and I was being given this opportunity to do a comedy. I thought, "I should do this to show that I can do it." I liked the original piece. And I liked how it was going to be redone. For me, the idea of redoing something is less prohibitive. I come from the theater, and I see versions of Hamlet all the time. Or this play, or that one. I can't even tell you how many versions of my own plays have been done. People's take on things? We see that all the time. Perhaps more so in theater. That said, it didn't really bother me to go in and remake this movie. Even though it had only been just a few years since the original came out.

One of the coolest things about this film is that you bring Peter Dinklage back to reprise his role from the original. His character's name is different, but he is essentially the same guy. Were you looking at this new film as a sequel? Or at least a story that could exist within the context and universe of that first film?

Neil LaBute: Absolutely. Everyone involved in the film, from the producers, to the actors, to the crew, to the director? None of these people were looking at the original film as something that needed to be fixed. They were all looking at this as something they liked. They asked each other, "How can we climb this same mountain in a slightly different way?" This film has a different sort of energy. They are a different sort of family. They are going to react to the situation in a totally different way. But it's the same idea that they are reacting too. He's still got a dead father. And his father has a male lover. The idea of bringing Peter Dinklage back was so much fun, simply because it's rare that a person gets to play the same character removed from a franchise. He is playing essentially the same character in something that is not a true sequel. I can't think of another instance of this. Sometimes an actor will pop up in a remake twenty-five years later. But they are not playing the same role. They are there as a nod to the original. Having Peter Dinklage here is a clearer and stronger nod to the first film. It's not just a cameo by someone that was involved with the previous film.

Did Peter ever come to you and explain what his process was on the first film? And that he maybe had a different direction he'd like to take this time around?

Neil LaBute: He had a sense for the material, but its like I was saying before. Theater actors often have to reprise the same role again and again. Especially in terms of the classics. They know how to play the same role multiple times. You'll hear a great actor say, "I have played Henry V five times. I was the same age as the character when I first played him, and I didn't understand him. I played it ten years later, and then I really got it." That's not to say these are Shakespearean characters, but Peter Dinklage did appreciate getting to play this guy again. At the same time, he had a different take on it. He read it on the page, and when he came in, he wanted to give the guy a different edge. He wanted to be a bit cooler in his personal style. He gave this guy a beard. You could feel this certain edge to the guy. This time around, the character felt a little rougher. He was pricklier in the original. This gave him an opportunity to shake that. And it gave me an opportunity to find those nuances within him. I asked him, "Where do you want to go? I think this is what you need to do." In saying that, I also gave him room to wiggle around. It was nice for him to have that freedom.

Dean Craig, who wrote the original screenplay, got sole creative credit for the remake as well. Even though both you and Chris Rock wrote quite a bit of what we see on screen. What were the contributions you and Chris made in evolving the original storyline from Dean's core blueprint?

Neil LaBute: The temperature of the thing. Dean Craig started with a family that had to react slowly to what was happening around them. We had a family that was already slightly at odds with each other. It begins with a couple of higher breaks at the beginning. From there, it had to continue with the momentum that the original screenplay had. So much that Dean already had in place still worked. For me, I had some fleshing out that I needed to do. This was a screenplay that I could work with, like Nurse Betty. I could work within the acts of it. Whereas, Chris fought to get screen credit, and he ultimately didn't get that from the Writer's Guild. Dean was the first person in, and that is always weighed most heavily when it comes to those types of negotiations. Chris put in a lot of different jokes. For me, it was about fleshing out some of the characters. There are a lot of characters in this story. There are a lot of things going on. In a group of this size, there's inevitably going to be some characters that don't get the same kind of pay-offs or screen time. Like the character that Luke Wilson played. Or the boyfriend of Zoe Saldana. He did not get a lot of screen time or narration in the original. Neither did the character of Chris Rock's wife, played by Regina Hall. I didn't feel she had a lot to do in the original, so we added in this subplot of her trying to get pregnant. In terms of the mother character, we added a new sweet spot for Loretta Devine. We added a variety of new ideas. When you look at a film, and you are trying to make a comedy more than anything, and there is some romance in there, you have to break down every take on set. "Is there anything else we can add? Is there anything else that is funny about this particular situation?" As a writer, maybe there is another line I could throw in there. For me, that is what I was thinking. I wasn't creating new characters. I wasn't creating new episodes. The only thing that I expanded on in terms of what was originally there was when James Marsden's character slips off the roof. In the original, he is helped down by his fiancé. But there is another beat here. There is a big moment. I thought, he is naked. And there is this guy that got him up on that roof in a way. Because he had these drugs in his house. I wanted that guy to run up there and grab him while he was naked. Its obvious and there's funny stuff to play with there. That, I expanded on. I was taking what was originally strong and good, and trying to expand upon that. We were putting more and more armor on top of it.

You have such an iconic team of comedians gathered here. They are known for their improvisational skills. Yet, you're someone that methodically plans out his screenplays. And adheres very close to his own dialogue. Is there ever a moment on set where you grow frustrated with the actors' instincts to go off the page? Or are you always open to whatever new idea may be brewing in the moment, on set?

Neil LaBute: I am open. I am a meticulous writer, but I am open in terms of whether or not something is good. And if it works for a particular actor. If they can come up with something that is a little better? Great! Let's go for it. At the same time, I am hired to film the screenplay that exists. For me, part of it is getting the work off the page. Once that is done, then you can get whatever you want. I am very good about being the Scout Master who goes, "Okay, Boys!" You wait for everyone to stop playing, and then you say, "Stoke that fire! You? Do this, this, and this!" Ultimately, when you get it into the editing room, that script is what they are gong to ask for. "Where is this footage? Where is this gag? Who decided that didn't work?" Sometimes, a joke isn't going to work while you are doing it. But for the most part, you need to get everything that you've agreed upon in the screenplay. You have to do all of those things. But I admire someone when they come up with a good idea. I just want to make sure we have time to get all of it. One thing that helps is that we shot this on video. The Sony Genesis allows us to continue moving forward. We don't have to breakdown and reset. We don't run out of film. We got a lot of mileage out of that, especially in terms of working with these comedic actors. They could exhaust themselves working in that capacity.

You brought up Nurse Betty. How has your relationship with Chris Rock continued to evolve from that experience, going into this, and where it might go beyond here?

Neil LaBute: It starts with a respect for what the other person does. I admire what the guy has accomplished. He also writes and directs. Me? I don't act. So I admire people that do that. I admire people who perform, or get up on stage. I think he likes the fact that I do theater. He is interested in that. We admire each other's strengths. We bring out the best in each other in terms of checks and balances. We mull over the best ideas. We talk, and throw them out there. He knows that I admire actors. He is always wanting to be the best actor that he can be. Nurse Betty was like summer camp for him. I don't mean that in a relaxing way. It was like art camp. He came in and got to work with Morgan Freeman. This is a guy he can learn from in terms of acting and being in front of the camera. I think people are drawn to me in that I know how to put together a great ensemble. They know that I am going to want them to do their best work. That brought us together. We've also admired each other from afar for different things. He did I Think I Love My Wife, which is an Eric Rohmer film? Eric Rohmer has always been a big hero of mine. We'll generally check in with each other, and we like what the other guy does. We're not emailing each other day after day. But we've managed to stay connected over the course of the last ten years.

Its funny that you bring up the fact that you're not an actor, yet Chris is a director. A lot of the actors you have hired for this film have directed in the past. Is the atmosphere on set different when you have a core group of guys who know what they are doing both in front of and behind the camera?

Neil LaBute: The actors respect you when you respect them. It doesn't feel so much like a dictatorship. Someone has to take control of the ship, and they can feel like they are in good hands. Things are being handled. I want the best out of them, and I want to give them the best. There was never any more power in who I was dealing with. They were all very clear about what their roles where. Though, some of those roles were blurred. Like with Chris Rock. He is also a writer. He is a producer. He is someone that has more input than someone you just hire to act. They will have a different say in it. Overall, I never found any type of power struggle. I think clarity has always worked in my favor. I am always very clear about what I am them to do, and I am going to take credit for what I do. Not anything else. I want them to get full credit for what they do. It's never been a problem for me in terms of someone wanting to completely take over.

When you first started out as a film director, you became known as this guy who was making these deep, dark films about love and emotional relationships. Now, with Lakeview Terrace, somewhat with this film, and your upcoming collaboration with Samuel L. Jackson that focuses on White supremacists in the North West, you've really turn your attentions towards race relations in the United States. Can you explain that trajectory? And why does this subject matter continue to interest you in terms of your current creative output?

Neil LaBute: Race has interested me for a while. I wrote a play that was about race relations. At the beginning of my career, I wanted to focus on my own material. But a goal of mine was also to direct other people's work. At the time, I was getting an open panel to do a lot of theater. I realized that a lot of the original writing that I was doing could very well work in a theatrical setting. Some of this stuff would be much more difficult to get made as movies. To raise the money for a movie would take a couple of years. As opposed to finding a theater and saying, "Yeah, let's go!" I was able to do a lot of my original work in the theater. My exploration of race relations was always there, it has continued from that. But now it's being done in a slightly different way. This process has allowed me to investigate a lot more widely. I have worked in more genres in the theater, than I ever could have as a film director. I was able to work on things that I hadn't written myself, which allowed me to focus on things that I never would have studied. When Death at a Funeral came to me, I realized that it could widen my breadth of what I can do as a director. I thought it would be nice to try a flat out comedy. This type of material has come to me at a certain crossroads, when I said, "Yes, I will direct other people's stuff."

What was the genesis of this project you are currently working on with Samuel L. Jackson? Did that come out of working together on Lakeview Terrace?

Neil LaBute: The work came about incidentally. For a while, I had been interested in writing television. As a writer, you have to start from scratch. You get a new piece of paper. It's a whole new world all the time. I thought it would be nice to focus on a set of characters for a length of time. Over the course of several seasons. Can you legitimately do that? And make it interesting? Can you go back a hundred times and make it fresh every single time? Sam had a deal for television. He was interested in doing something about race from a different standpoint. He and his partners were talking about this particular project, and I told him that, interestingly enough, I grew up around the North West. I know the kind of person that makes up a lot of these hate groups. I told him I was interested in exploring this idea. I thought it would be interesting to take a character we wouldn't normally want to associate with, and give him the same problems that everyone else has. I wanted it to be like The Sopranos, and take you through this world that you might not know very well. You open the door and realize that this guy also has a problem with his wife. He has car issues. But he kills people as well. Part of this idea was about taking something that is unfamiliar and making it familiar. Yet make it interesting. I wanted to do it. He was equally surprised and happy that I was interested in that. We had a good relationship on that first film together. We thought, "Why not continue the partnership?"

Now that The Wicker Man has become a cult sensation outside of the shadow of that original film, what are your thoughts on it today? And how do you feel working on that particular remake pushed you and improved your thought process when it came to making this new remake of Death at a Funeral?

Neil LaBute: This is a different situation from Death at a Funeral. I didn't think that the original Wicker Man was particularly great. I felt the story was really good. I loved the ending of the movie. I just didn't love the execution of it. It was overrated. I didn't love the music. Some people love that score from the original. I didn't. It wasn't a horror film. It was billed as this very strange, psychological movie. It's interesting, because they came to me and said, "We want to do something very different with this." I said, "I have a different idea about it." Now, people want to make fun of the film I made. Or say whatever they are going to say about it. Eventually, the movie will gain more and more of what Nicolas Cage and I were pushing towards. Which was the fact that it was supposed to have a satirical edge to it. When your making a film that has Nicolas Cage running around in a bear suit, you are deftly aware of the irony. He is punching a woman. We are making weird allegories about men and women. We weren't making a horror movie. We were being pushed towards making something that wasn't really there. They wanted us to make a straight out horror film. It became more diluted than I wished it had. Still, you come along, and you watch the ending? It is as violent and surprising as the original. But the guy is running around in a bear suit. He gets pulled out of there and killed, he is then sacrificed right in front of you. That's the same thing that happened in the original. You're left wondering, "Ooh, what the Hell happened?" Hopefully time will shuffle those scares. Maybe people will be able to see it a little more clearly, and they will understand what we were trying to do. They won't look at it as us trying to make a horror movie. I never saw it as a horror movie, but something else. I had a great experience doing it. But its one of those things in retrospect where you go, "We sold it wrong!" Or, "We pushed it the wrong way." We diluted it in such away, it became critic bait. We didn't accomplish what we set out to do. You live and you learn.

Death at a Funeral arrives in stores on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, August 10th, 2010.