Director Neil LaBute discusses racism within the police force while showing us through his cul-de-sac set

This September, director Neil LaBute returns to form with the racially charged drama Lakeview Terrace. In the film, Samuel L. Jackson stars as an LAPD officer who'll stop at nothing to force out the interracial couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) that have moved in next door. We recently visited the set of this topical thriller and chatted with director LaBute about his latest project.

The Lakeview Terrace cul-de-sac that is featured in the film rests in the quite suburb of Walnut, California, just thirty minutes outside of Los Angeles. There, we were invited into the home of Officer Able Turner, the character played by Sam Jackson. We also got a chance to check out his neighbors' duplex, which sat conveniently next door. Most of the film crew's equipment was set up in the driveway of this average, middle class American home. When we arrived, filming had been slightly delayed due to technical difficulties. With ample free time on my hands, I decided to check out the sets myself.

And there it was. The first thing I saw. Rendered in plastic, the upper torso of Mace Windu sat atop one of the blurred out monitors in the adjoining garage where the crew's video village was stationed. It was a soda topper from 1999, released in conjunction with the Phantom Menace and made available at Taco Bell. A clause in Samuel L. Jackson's contract states that at least one piece of Windu paraphernalia must always be present on set. Or so he joked, traipsing across the quaint suburban sidewalk of his latest thriller.

The actor, still dressed in his pajamas, dragged his slippered feet across the paved driveway of his screenside domicile. He looked tired; huge black circles resting under his furrowed eyebrows. He yawned, balling up his fist. He then took a look at our small group of journalists and shook is head. He gave an annoyed grandpa smirk; he didn't look in the mood for play. He hurried past us with his small entourage of old ladies, ducking behind a mass of film equipment that had been carefully set up in another nearby carport.

The prospects of seeing this generation's Robert DeNiro actually act before the camera was looking promising. And this sounded like one juicy role for the actor. In the film, he portrays a cop with a negative attitude towards interracial relationships. When he catches his new neighbors, played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington, making love in their own swimming pool in full sight of his children, Turner decides to make life a living hell for this mixed race couple.

The scene being shot on this particular evening involved Jackson rooting around in his neighbors' house after the rest of the cul-de-sac residents have been evacuated due to an out of control mountain fire. Think The 'Burbs with a much darker appetite. We were supposed to watch an intense moment between Jackson and Patrick Wilson, with powerful racial slurs being thrown across a fence at one another. Sadly, we would not be able to see the scene due to problems beyond the director's control. It seemed that Sam was only in our immediate shooting vicinity waiting for one of the freshly cooked fajitas that were about to come off the catering truck behind us. The audible sizzle of the peppered steak had coated the location with a delicious Mexican vibe. I doubt I'll be able to watch the film, now, without thinking about those savory tacos.

Because the scene in question was taking longer than expected to set up, we retreated to a small canopy with fajitas in hand. There inside, director Neil LaBute met us for a lively discussion about his latest drama. Here is our conversation:

So, why are you guys shooting in Walnut, California?

Neil LaBute: Why are we shooting in Walnut? We ask ourselves that every day. The street we ended up on was as much like the description of the cul-de-sac in the script as we could have imagined. Now, of course, you go in and you change out the houses. You work on their backyards. All of that. In terms of the layout with all of the homes, and the two homes in particular, the layout was the most advantageous that we could find. We went from Calabasas to here. We wanted something that felt very suburban, but could afford a backdrop for fires. So, while you know you are going to do a fair amount of changing, the actual structure and layout of the homes and the surroundings made the most sense.

Are you guys staying out in Walnut, or do you drive in everyday?

Neil LaBute: It depends on the day. Sometimes you work early enough that you don't notice the commute. You come out early enough to miss the traffic, then you leave late enough that you are kind of going against the traffic. This week, people are giving considerable thought to staying here. Doing nights, you get off early enough in the morning that you are kind of going back into Los Angeles with everyone else. This week, I think we have a number of people who are going to stay out here. We'll see how it goes.

You mentioned fires. Can you tell us about the plot, thematically? What are some of the issues you are dealing with here?

Neil LaBute: The fires just come from the time of year we find ourselves in. On the news, there are raging fires. Part of that heat is the element we are playing with, in terms of color and the way we are shooting it. Just thematically it makes sense that it keeps getting hotter and hotter. The simple plot breakdown is a mixed race couple moves into a new neighborhood. A black LAPD cop living next door takes an instant dislike to them. And he starts a campaign to get them out. The racial side of it was interesting to me. I'd done a play a while ago where racial politics were at the front of it. And there was a movie that I was trying to make for a while that took place in the Sixties and had a similar theme. I've remained interested in that for a number of years. I ended up doing the play with one of the same people I am doing the movie with. One of the reasons I think the original movie I was going to make didn't happen is because I worked through that on the stage. But for me, it remains an interesting subject, certainly. This movie seemed to take a refreshingly different approach to some of those ideas. So, not only was the cast interesting to me, it was also a bit of material that I hadn't seen handled in this way. It seemed well worth getting involved in.

Why Samuel L. Jackson?

Neil LaBute: Why not? That's just as good a question. He has this sense of authority that he brings with him to ever project. And it's interesting to watch him with his kids. He's a widower, and that human aspect was something that needed to be tapped into. Certainly. He is not a very conventional bad guy. You will question the choices that he makes, but when he says why he does these things, you will understand those beats. And you will understand the back-story. It all makes sense. He doesn't feel like a typical villain. He has been pushed in a certain direction, and his views have been altered. He makes that commanding figure a humanly believable one. He knows how to tap into what you need. It is great to be around someone that knows how to shoot movies. He comes prepared. He is like all of the good people I have worked with in the past. He comes with some of his own ideas. They are often times great, and he is never afraid to say what is on his mind. He doesn't just do what you tell him to do. He wants to know why certain things are being done. That makes the movie better. It makes you question the script yourself. I am not afraid of someone that is constantly asking, "Why are we doing this?" You get his absolute interest in the character, and he brings this performance that works.

Is the film at all like Unlawful Entry? Does he use his powers as a cop to get at this couple?

Neil LaBute: Well, there is certainly a similarity between the two movies. If you picked both films up at the Blockbuster, and you looked at the back of their boxes, you'd say, "Hmm? These sound very similar." But there is a very different take on the cop in Unlawful Entry. He certainly abuses his police powers a lot more. And in a slightly less believable way. He uses them in a way that makes you worried about what he can tap into. This is a much more domesticated story. So much of it happens in the neighborhood. The people you'd normally turn to in a situation like this are removed, because Sam is a member of the police force. The sheriffs that come to check on the situation are friendly with him by association. This situation is, Jackson wins the color issue. And that color is blue. There is this internal sense of police, and that is what becomes terrifying. They can't just call the LAPD and tell them, "We have a problem." When the police seem to come, there are no ramifications. And there is no one to turn to from there. The insight they get from a lawyer, which happens to be one of their parents, is to move away. If you can't stand up to this person, you should just get out of there. There will be no good that can come from this. This is more than just a color clash. It is also a clash between men and women. A clash between old and young. It's a generational thing. And it is a blue collar and a white-collar thing. There is a point where Sam's character gets involved, and he can't just back down. He will push until these people move out or something terrible happens. That is a bad situation to be in when you are neighbors.

What are some of the things that Sam's character does to make life difficult for this couple?

Neil LaBute: One of the things you seem him do is, after he is drawn into this conflict, the young couple is in bed talking. They notice that the air conditioning is not working. They go outside, and they see that the belt is broken. It looks like it has been cut. We don't show Sam doing these things, but it looks like he is the one responsible. There is another scene where the tires have been slashed. One of the first things that bothers the couple are these spotlights Sam has on the front of his house. They are shining in the couple's window. Patrick Wilson's character walks over and asks, "Until we get some curtains, can you keep the glow down?" He tells them he can't do it, because there is a bad element of kids hanging out in the cul-de-sac, breaking bottles and bothering his young daughter. Sam always has an answer for the things he does. Or seems to do. The more we imply he is doing these things, the less evidence they have that he is doing this. In terms of the police, it seems that Sam isn't doing these things. This leads up to a burst of anger at the fence, and that goes into the climax of the film.

We understand that you did a lot of rehearsal on this particular project. Was that your idea, having come from a stage background?

Neil LaBute: It sounds good, so I will take the credit. It was all my idea. No, not really. In this case, it was as much an idea of the whole department as it was mine. We are shooting the last week here. And the last week is the climax of the film. Everybody needed to have a sense about how the last scene would block out. They needed to show us what and where the characters would be. We had to be able to run through this huge amount of material. We also needed to find a place to hide the lights, because the light is coming from these mountain fires. At the beginning of the week, we all needed to walk through where we were. Everyone needed that kind of walk through. I always like to do rehearsal. Sometimes you get a lot, sometime you get a little. I'm glad that everybody wanted to come in a week early. That made me happy. But it was really the fact that everyone needed it.

Do you storyboard the heck out of a movie like this?

Neil LaBute: It is somewhere in-between...I storyboard some things. But storyboards are limiting in a way. Everybody starts building around your storyboards. I like to do like I am tonight. I walk around the set and figure things out from there. I see what I need. I don't like to put a bunch of cameras on it. I just get what I need. That said, I still tend to shoot a relatively limited amount of footage. I like to have the actors set the pace. The editors shouldn't have to do all the work in that regard. I am certainly happier with the scenes where it's just the actors and me. It feels like something is happening between us. And they are allowed a space to create. But you also have to allow for other elements to figure themselves out and work.

How did you get involved with this project?

Neil LaBute: Movies always seem to be a mixed bag to me. Sometimes I will write them, or someone will bring them to me. Sometimes, I will decide to take and adapt them from one of my own stage plays. Ideas come in a variety of ways. If I did less theater work, I would be writing more screenplays. Luckily for me, I can search out material. And that's what I did here. When I looked at this material, I do believe it is as dark as anything I would write on my own. Some of that darkness is leveled with the fact that we have Sam Jackson. It is a thriller that can be marketed in a few different ways. Those aspects balance out, and that is what is attractive about it.

You do push your characters a little further than most directors. How dark does this actually get? Is there a lot of violence? Are there a lot of N-bombs dropped?

Neil LaBute: That is the easy one to drop. For a while, we were thinking, "Do we even want to say that? Would it be more interesting if we never said that word? That this anger might come in some other form." That is what I am interested in. Not only is this provocative, but will it also be interesting? Have I heard this before? There is some relationship drama that I have never been able to touch on before here. There is some racial material that I have never been involved with, and that is interesting to me. Hopefully, it won't only be interesting to me. This is a subject that isn't touched on too much.

Do we see any interracial love scenes in the film? Some still consider that taboo.

Neil LaBute: There is a lot of love. This couple is made up of two very attractive people. You also see why these two people would be together aside from that physical attraction. They are very comfortable together. We have to see the other side of that, and be able to see what bothers Sam Jackson's character. He is drawn to the relationship, and repelled by it at the same time. He doesn't like that his kids are exposed to this interracial relationship. But they see the couple having sex in the swimming pool next door. Most parents aren't going to want their kids exposed to that. So, it goes beyond the racial issue.

How violent does the film get?

Neil LaBute: It is something that builds, but it is metered out in terms of the way that they go at it. At first it is verbal, then it moves into the physical. I don't think it's quite as radical as Straw Dogs. There aren't seven people rushing to get inside this house. It is a logical, but unavoidable path that these characters find themselves on.

Do you let Sam Jackson say "mother fucker" at this point? Or is that something that has become too cliche?

Neil LaBute: It is hard. One side of me likes hearing it. Even if I am not going to use it, I should shoot it. Its like one of those love scenes that goes on for too long. You just don't want to say, "Cut!" As a person, I want to hear him say it.

What about critics that say your films are too misogynistic and anti-female? Do you address that issue here?

Neil LaBute: I don't think I do that here. Not with this. I tried to put that to rest with The Wicker Man. I gave them a world run by women, and I tried to show what a utopia that was. It is funny. It seems that for a decade, everything has been measured against one response to a film. Is this film more misogynistic or less? Is Neil getting soft? Or is he back to hating everybody? For me, I ultimately just have to do the work and let it speak for itself. Some people will find it refreshing. Some will find it a new take on an old tactic. I have stopped worrying about what I am saying. Now I worry about how I say it, and what I want to say. When I stop writing good characters for women is when I will start worrying about it.

Stay tuned for more interviews with stars Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, and Patrick Wilson. Lakeview Terrace opens September 19th, 2008.

B. Alan Orange