by Sheri Boggs
One might wonder what ties, if any, Neil LaBute has to Spokane. After all, the 41-year-old director's new film Possession -- which opens Friday -- is an understated romance in the best overdressed-and-repressed British tradition. His previous films, In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors and even, to a lesser extent, Nurse Betty, are all black comedies infused with an edgy and sophisticated sense of urban alienation. Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco or even his present home of Fort Wayne, Ind., would seem closer to the mark than Spokane, with its relentlessly "aw shucks" disposition and scarcity of arts options.
But LaBute, who grew up in a middle-class neighborhood near Liberty Lake and who graduated from Central Valley High School in 1979, nevertheless found enough inspiration to eventually pursue film school at Brigham Young University. LaBute's father, a long-haul truck driver with a reportedly violent temper, was periodically gone during his childhood, and in his absences, young Neil would watch foreign films on KSPS or go to second-run movies at the Dishman with his mother and brother.
In high school, he and his friends acted in various high school productions -- You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Arsenic and Old Lace -- but he realized he could write something far more interesting than the usual crowd-pleasing fare he was studying in drama class. Although LaBute had found some sort of niche in the cultural wasteland that was the Spokane Valley in the late 1970s, he also found future material in the people around him. Of the two thuggish youths (not unlike the two thuggish adults of In the Company of Men), LaBute has said, "I wasn't one of them myself, but I went to school with kids like Darrell and Tim."
During high school, LaBute worked as a grocery store clerk, a loader of boxcars and as a farmhand. Between high school and college, he worked as an usher at the Magic Lantern, where he saw numerous foreign and art films. He also saw plays, here describing a trip to an EWU production of King Lear for the Dallas Observer: "I loved that physical connection with a real person that theater has," adding, "It's not like I saw John Gielgud. I saw some kid who's probably now a car salesman."
At BYU, LaBute converted to Mormonism, met his future wife, Lisa, and also worked for the first time with longtime friend/collaborator Aaron Eckhart (who has been in every one of LaBute's films, including Possession). After graduating, he borrowed $25,000 from friends to make In the Company of Men, which was the talk of that year's Sundance and solidified his position as edgiest new indie filmmaker on the block. He continues to write and direct -- both for screen and stage -- the sorts of disturbing truths most of us would rather not know about. Still, there's an innocence there, a simple joy in the act of being able to create such complicated dramas, that goes all the way back to childhood afternoons spent painstakingly drafting little handmade books while the other kids were out playing in the street.
"They were not bestsellers, even in my own house. Four or five page long rambling tales, littered with pictures and arrows that pointed out items of interest," he writes of his juvenile work for London's The Observer. "Of little worth to anyone but me, the budding artiste from Spokane, Washington. But the point is, I was writing. Even at six or seven, I wanted to. Not needed to. Not had to. I wanted to. And so I did."