Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2003

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Kindred spirits


Mark Caro

Neil LaBute's latest film takes 'Shape' thanks to an overriding influence of the music of Elvis Costello

Playwright/film director Neil LaBute reached down to a table covered with Elvis Costello CDs and pulled out his favorite: "Imperial Bedroom I would always choose," he said, removing the 1982 disc from its jewel case and slipping it into a boombox.

"I love it," agreed actor Paul Rudd, who co-starred in LaBute's play The Shape of Things and now the film, which opens Friday and is scored with Costello songs.

"Just the complete package of that CD is like perfect from beginning to end," LaBute said, as the ominous tones of "Beyond Belief" seeped out of the speakers. "It's all so of a piece."

That LaBute would consider Costello a kindred spirit is no surprise. LaBute's first two films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, were as toxic a one-two punch of male-female duplicity and cruelty as you're likely to see. Costello cemented his early Angry Young Man reputation spitting out such venomous lyrics as "Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor / You've got to cut it out," from the manic "Lipstick Vogue."

Both artists were said to mellow over time, LaBute with Nurse Betty and Possession, Costello with forays into country, classical and old-style pop songcraft. The Shape of Things, with its no-frills look and stinging sexual politics, could be viewed as a back-to-basics move a la Costello's Blood and Chocolate or Brutal Youth.

Snippets of "Lipstick Vogue" and other Costello songs play between the 10 scenes of the new movie, the story of a college nerd (Rudd) whose beautiful art-student girlfriend (Rachel Weisz) gives him an aggressive makeover. The music is different from the stage version, in which LaBute assaulted theater-goers with rock-concert-level Smashing Pumpkins music.

His reasons for the switch illustrate basic differences between what works on the stage and on the screen — and had nothing to do with playwright Harold Pinter's tender ears. Pinter, you see, had a less-than-ideal reaction to the Pumpkins' "Cherub Rock" being blasted before a line of dialogue even had been delivered at one of the show's opening New York performances.

"My heart's racing, the adrenaline's going because all the critics are out there, the show has started, and I just saw a shadow on the wall, thinking, 'That's not supposed to be there,'" Rudd recalled. "A guy just came storming out, looked at me with his hands over his ears, screaming at me going, 'I can't [bleepin'] take it! I can't [bleepin'] take it!' And I recognized him as Harold Pinter, and then his wife Nancy just came scuttling by, following in his footsteps by about three seconds, and then they stormed out, and literally I had to turn and walk on stage and start the show."


A badge of honor

LaBute considered the walk-out "a badge of honor." But he had specific reasons for cranking up the Pumpkins songs between each of the play's scenes.

"I wanted to create the aura of the sound but also just use the actual sonic blast of it, so the audience, at the place where they normally might kind of rest and talk to each other at a blackout, they were just enveloped in this noise, and they couldn't talk about the plot or anything like that to themselves," LaBute said. "So there was never a moment of rest."

Plus, the breaks between scenes were relatively long as cast members changed clothing, and sets were shunted in and out.

"Because of that I needed a good portion of a song, whereas when you're just cutting from scene to scene in a film, those songs couldn't even get started," the director said. "So I had to look for something that could make its point really quickly, and Costello is so great at these very punchy, very hummable hooks, and he also writes great lyrics about relationships with an acid pen. He made complete sense."

(Costello could not be reached for this story.)

Turns out, LaBute and Rudd both have worked with Costello or his music in the past and share a rabid admiration for the British singer-songwriter.

So when the 40-year-old director, who lives in the Northwest suburbs when he's not working elsewhere, and the 34-year-old actor, who lives in New York City, gathered in a downtown hotel room for what might have been a standard promotional chit-chat, they perked up to find that Costello's complete discography had been brought along for the occasion.

LaBute was wearing his standard plaid, while Rudd, who used his boyish good looks to devastating effect as a gay-basher in LaBute's Bash: Latterday Plays (and is best known for playing Phoebe's boyfriend on Friends), was tousled and scruffy behind a few days of beard growth.

As the opening descending minor chords of "Shabby Doll" (track 3 of Imperial Bedroom, for those playing at home) came strumming over the speakers, LaBute asked, "How good is this song?"

"There are a few versions," Rudd said, nodding to the recent Rhino Records double-disc issue of the album sitting on the coffee table.


Second time around

"By the way, this is my second all-Elvis extravaganza," LaBute said. "Very few have seen the other. When I was directing theater in college, I directed Howard Korder's Boys' Life, and I used all Costello. It has an equal number of scenes [as The Shape of Things]. I used this song ['Shabby Doll']. The final song was 'My Funny Valentine.' I used a ton of stuff."

"Did you use 'God's Comic'?" Rudd asked.

"No. Great song."

"Did you use 'New Lace Sleeves'?"

"No. What's the song from Imperial Bedroom? Not Imperial Bedroom, from Armed Forces: 'Big Boys.'"

"That's a great song," Rudd said.

The Shape of Things opens with "Lovers Walk," sort of a Bo Diddley-in-a-B-movie track (from 1981's Trust) that warns, "Be on caution where lovers walk." Only on that song and the closing "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" do you actually hear lyrics.

Otherwise there are what LaBute describes as "just these little blips, these 10-second pieces, like the scream at the beginning of 'Man out of Time,' and they're beginning to build as we go along. That was important to have music that even if you didn't recognize it, it was all of a piece."

"Lovers Walk," meanwhile, has become a staple for the director. "I was in the [New York University's] Dramatic Writing Program, and we had to make like the equivalent of a music video," LaBute recalled. "Even though we didn't have the training, it was like go out and make a video of something that moves you. And I used 'Lovers Walk.'

"And 'Lovers Walk' very much influenced what I wanted for In the Company of Men. There's a similar sound at the beginning of those movies, and the way I did it." When he met with that film's composer, "I said, 'You've got to get this Trust album. You hear the beginning of that song? It's like that.' And then I played him Last Tango in Paris, and I'm like, 'You hear the saxophones in there? It's like that. I want that kind of jungle sound.' So it was like this grafting of those elements. But, yeah, Costello, as long as I can remember, he's just been the go-to guy for creativity."

Rudd previously crossed professional paths with Costello as well, meeting him on the set of the 1999 movie 200 Cigarettes, a one-crazy-night ensemble piece set in late '70s Manhattan. "He wasn't really supposed to be [in the film]," Rudd said. "He'd shown up. He was just going to be in these photographs at the end of the film, but the director knew I was such a huge fan that she asked him if he'd be willing to just walk through a scene, and thankfully she picked mine.

"He was just kind of walking around, and I had a trailer, so I said, 'Come on in,'" he added. "I had this CD of John Harle, who's a saxophone player, and the first four songs were Elvis Costello singing the songs of [Shakespeare's] Twelfth Night, and I said, 'I've been listening to this CD a lot.'"

Weisz, on the phone from New York, said Costello has figured into her past work as well.

"I made a movie quite a while ago now with Michael Winterbottom called 'I Want You,' which was named after the Elvis Costello song and used the song to great effect in it," she said. "It's one of the greatest love songs ever made."


'Best love song written'

"I Want You" is also, as those of you who know it will attest, one of the creepiest and most desperate, as the singer sounds like he's going to die from desire. "The best love song ever written," LaBute termed it. LaBute passed Rudd This Year's Model, Costello's brilliant, furious 1978 album. "Which do you want," Rudd asked, "the bonus disc or... "

"I think just the original," LaBute said. Rudd slipped the disc into the player, and out came Elvis sneering, "I don't want to kiss you / I don't want to touch..."

At some point, Costello overload becomes a possibility. LaBute said his editor talked him out of inserting title headers between the scenes of The Shape of Things that would have been scored with Costello's 1993 collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet.

"I was only going to use the very beginning, the instrumental from The Juliet Letters, 'Deliver Us,' that really classical piece, and he's like 'You're just so close to being pretentious with this. Why don't we just move on?'"

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Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2003


Mark Caro interviews Neil LaBute about The Shape of Things.

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