2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
Neil LaBute has gotten used to how some audiences respond to his work. “People will correct themselves: ‘I enjoyed your movie — well, I didn’t enjoy it…,’” he laughs. “They always want to qualify it. ‘It wasn’t anything I enjoyed — I liked it, but I didn’t like it.’ There’s that constant qualifying to somehow distance yourself, to not be associated with it. ‘I’m nothing like those people, so I couldn’t even enjoy watching them from afar.’”
In a career that’s focused on society’s worst tendencies — especially, those of men — LaBute never shocked or proved as insightful as he did 25 years ago when he unleashed In the Company of Men upon the world. A prizewinner at Sundance that went on to play Cannes and collect two prizes at the Independent Spirit Awards, his debut feature has lost none of its power to unnerve and provoke. It still feels ahead of its time, dissecting a specific type of man that hasn’t gone away. If anything, he’s far more prominent in our culture. Now, we have a name for it: toxic masculinity. Back then, it was just two monsters called Chad and Howard.
The film’s plot has a cold simplicity, telling the story of two anonymous, vindictive corporate drones — the alpha-male misanthrope Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and his ineffectual sorta-boss Howard (Matt Malloy) — who visit a branch office for a six-week assignment, deciding to exorcize their romantic frustrations by wooing a local secretary, Christine (Stacy Edwards), who works for the company. Once they trick her into falling in love with them, they’ll dump her. That Christine is Deaf only makes the scenario more perfect in their minds. As the malicious Chad puts it at one point, their plan is simple: “Let’s hurt somebody.”
Opening in U.S. theaters on August 1, 1997, In the Company of Men was an arthouse sensation, bringing in $2.8 million, an impressive haul for a no-budget dark comedy with no stars. Most of the reviews were ecstatic. (“In the Company of Men is the kind of bold, uncompromising film that insists on being thought about afterward — talked about, argued about, hated if necessary, but not ignored,” Roger Ebert wrote in a four-star rave.) The film arrived at a moment when the American independent scene was thriving, with In the Company of Men emulating the risk-taking going on in that world, even if that meant stirring up controversy — and accusations that LaBute was merely pushing buttons to get a response. (Writing for the Los Angeles Times, veteran critic Kenneth Turan declared, “Bad behavior doesn’t have to be soft-pedaled to capture our interest, but it does need to be illuminated and dissected, not merely presented. … [A]s shrewdly put together as this film is, it’s hard to shake the feeling that what we’re watching is a well-made psychological snuff film.”)
Nonetheless, it remains one of the most septic portraits of misogyny ever put on screen. No wonder that LaBute once described his movie thusly: “It’s a simple story. Boys meet girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle.”
In the Company of Men started as a play that LaBute had written in the early 1990s. “I was looking for a good love triangle — or ‘love,’ in quotes — triangle,” he tells me. “At the time that I wrote it, I was very much into reading plays from the 17th century, like The Way of the World, restoration plays. I thought the restoration comedies had a really wicked sense of humor and allowed characters to do whatever they wanted and hold a mirror to the audience — all that stuff that I thought I hadn’t seen, necessarily, in film or on stage that much, other than in a period play. So I tried to apply that logic and rhythm to a modern story.”
From an early age, LaBute (who turned 59 in March) found himself as a viewer attracted to darker narratives. “I could feel that I was gaining pleasure from that experience in a way that was related to how challenging the experience was,” he recalls. “Not that I couldn’t enjoy something quite simple as well, but the more challenging it was, the more I seemed to be drawn to it, or wanting to emulate it. I still seek out that experience.”
When he wrote In the Company for Men for the stage, it was hardly the first time he’d dared to upset audiences. Not that long before, he’d penned Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, which was set at a topless bar, the patrons and the waitresses delivering diatribes that revealed their often-poisonous worldviews. (In his 1999 profile of LaBute, New Yorker writer John Lahr noted that one character’s tirade about people with AIDS — “I say, put them all in a fucking pot and boil them … just as a precaution” — inspired an audience member to yell, “Kill the playwright!” during the show’s Off Off Broadway run.)
As a play, In the Company of Men had also prompted some negative responses, LaBute says, but he wasn’t bothered by them. “It wasn’t like it was on Broadway or anything like that,” he tells me regarding the small degree of pushback he encountered to Chad and Howard’s heartless scheme. “It was only a regional thing or very specific to where it was being done. Some people have always responded to the characters as venal and people they wouldn’t want to be around, but also interesting to watch. So, if it’s interesting, then I feel like you’ve done your task.”
Chad and Howard weren’t inspired by anyone he knew, nor was their plan based on any actual incident. Instead, LaBute says, the idea stemmed from his overall observation about how men act. “It was finding guys who were unhappy with where they were in life. They’re both moaning about their job and having to go off to this other town [for a work assignment]. ‘I want to make myself feel good coming out of frustration’ was a very male thing. Just even the fact that two guys were doing this together and competing, that felt very male. So I was just trying to tap into those male frustrations that I felt like I could write.”
LaBute had started to make his name as a playwright — studying theater at Brigham Young University, New York University and the Royal Court Theatre in London — but he wanted to try his hand at film, too. “I always loved movies and going to the movies,” he says, “but I had really been a practitioner in the theater because that was the opportunity that came my way more readily through school. Just economically, filmmaking isn’t the cheapest medium to work in — it’s not like, ‘Let me grab a pad of paper, if I draw well enough, I’m going to have a picture here.’ There were a lot of expensive components. Today, you can go off with your iPhone and make movies, but at the time, it felt out of reach.”
But then an opportunity arose to adapt another of his plays for the big screen, although the process dragged on interminably, ultimately leading to nothing. Still, that endless delay made LaBute think that maybe he could make his own movie. Being naive helped fuel his ambition. “Now, of course, I realize it takes forever to get movies put together sometimes,” he says, laughing. “So it was just my inexperience, but I was like, ‘God, why are they taking so long making this movie?’ That got me to that place of ‘I could make one faster than these guys!’ I had no experience making them, but I had watched tons of them. I also was seeing these stories of people at Sundance: ‘I made a $25,000 movie and I used my credit cards and I went and I put my money in Atlantic City on a roulette wheel.’ There was a Robert Rodriguez [story]: ‘I was a human guinea pig for a drug test.’ Maybe [these stories] were manufactured — maybe half of them were real — but they fueled me: ‘Well, shit, I can do that.’”
Famously shot in only 11 days in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for just about $25,000, In the Company of Men the movie didn’t veer too far from the original play. Because of the tight shooting schedule, and the complexity of the satire he was after, LaBute decided he needed theater actors. “They could memorize big chunks of dialogue,” he explains. “It was the only way that you could look at a thing like that and say, ‘We’ll get through all these pages by shooting it really simply.’ They learned it like a play and knew it by the time they got to town.”
For Chad, LaBute turned to Eckhart, who he’d met at BYU. “He was very different from me,” LaBute admits, “a surfer guy, really. But I could tell that he was someone who had the same interests and ambitions that I did. We started doing theater together there. It was a connection that we made — and even after school, we were pretty far away at the time geographically but just said, ‘If we get a chance to help the other person, let’s do that,’ and stayed in touch for a couple of years. When I turned [In the Company of Men] into a film, I just made the offer to him: ‘If you can get yourself out here, you’ve got the part. Let’s do this thing.’”
Eckhart hadn’t done much film or television before the chance to play Chad came his way. To prepare for the role, he read case studies about sociopaths and eavesdropped on the conversations of Wall Street bros in Manhattan watering holes. But it also probably helped that, because audiences weren’t familiar with Eckhart, Chad’s snide, faux-charming demeanor just seemed like who Eckhart was as a person. “After seeing the film, my girlfriend’s mother complained to her that she shouldn’t trust me anymore,” Eckhart said in the late 1990s. “That’s why I don’t want my own mother to see the movie. She still thinks I’m an angel.”
Interestingly enough, LaBute had thought Eckhart could have played either role, a suspicion that might strike fans of the film as odd since Eckhart so beautifully embodies Chad’s smug, cocky, overgrown-frat-boy essence. (One of the film’s many great comedic ironies is that Chad at one point insists he’s not a frat guy — there is nothing about the character that justifies that assertion.) And as LaBute himself admits, “Chad’s probably the showiest role,” but if you revisit In the Company of Men — or watch it for the first time — you might marvel at just how nuanced Malloy’s performance is as Howard, a wimp who’s been assigned to lead this work project, quickly demonstrating that he’s too wishy-washy and uncharismatic to really motivate the troops.
Malloy had been a mainstay of indie auteur Hal Hartley’s films and featured in Robert Altman’s groundbreaking Tanner ‘88 before being approached to portray Howard. It’s easy to view Howard as the pathetic pushover — a minnow who can’t compete with the sharks of the world like Chad — but that’s merely a surface reading of the two men’s dynamic. While Chad is clearly the more obnoxious and offensive of the guys, Howard’s cruelty toward Christine — especially once he realizes that she prefers Chad to him — is unconscionable. As the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro noted at the time, “[Howard] courts Christine by smothering her with earnestness and then feeling entitled to some affection payback.” Before society became aware of the fake nice guys who pretend to be sensitive allies, instead proving to be as sexist and self-centered as their more overt peers, LaBute gave us the archetype in Howard.
“That’s the guy who fascinates me,” LaBute says of Howard. “The Chads are a little easier to see coming — the pretty ones, the wealthy ones, the ones who have the privilege, you see them and you go, ‘I have a bead on you.’ But then you watch the other ones faltering and you go, ‘That’s a little more surprising.’ The guys that I’ve written that have wanted to be good — or consider themselves better than that other guy — and yet make even more egregious mistakes. I think Howard falls into that world. Those guys, I have been as interested in — if not more so — than the ones who are just obviously bad news.”
Playing the unsuspecting target of Chad and Howard’s evil prank, Edwards was someone LaBute had known from doing theater work with her as part of the Sundance Institute. “I was like, ‘I think she would be good for this, too,’” LaBute says. “Both [Malloy and Edwards] were kind enough to say, ‘We’ll jump on this folly of yours.’”
Notably, Edwards isn’t Deaf, and while the role today would almost certainly go to a Deaf actress, LaBute points out that, even back in the mid-1990s, she was sensitive about how to portray this woman. “She always felt like [Christine] was the stronger character,” he says. “Even though some terrible things happen to her, in the end, she seemed to bounce back.” According to LaBute, “[Edwards] felt, ‘I don’t want to take that part away from somebody [who is Deaf].’ But I was like, ‘No, I think you’re the right person emotionally for this. I also know you, and I know you’ll come show up and do it — you’re right for it.’ But she wanted to get this right. So she spent time in Los Angeles going to classes and speaking with people who were dealing with [Deafness] in their lives. She did due diligence on that.”
But LaBute also appreciated that, like Eckhart and Malloy, who weren’t interested in sugar-coating their unappealing characters, Edwards didn’t recoil at the idea of Christine being toyed with by these men. “Some people are adamant — ‘I don’t want to see any female characters who are victims, there’ve been too many’ — but she didn’t feel that,” LaBute says. “She felt like, ultimately, this woman was strong and made choices that moved her on in life and put these guys into places where they belonged. She was able to look at it and not feel like, ‘I’m just playing this person who’s victimized throughout.’”
Over the course of the film, LaBute is unsparing in his depiction of the nonchalant misogyny and homophobia that dominate Chad and Howard’s workplace. While some may assume that the writer-director was focusing on these two characters as a worst-case scenario, the critique actually runs deeper, condemning a whole corporate culture that’s systemically bigoted. Intriguingly, that behavior seems tied into the generic, nonspecific jargon Chad and his coworkers spout during the film: You could watch In the Company of Men a hundred times and still have no idea what these white-collar bros do for a living.
That vagueness was intentional, partly because LaBute had experienced it himself. “I had done a couple of internships in different places, and I never really knew what they did,” he tells me. “There was a software company that I worked for, for a while in college, and I had no idea what they were talking about. [My] job was so minuscule — so unimportant — to them, but they still needed someone to do it. I would listen to [my coworkers] talk about stuff, which was fascinating because it sounded as if they weren’t saying anything. They were just talking about numbers and letters and cities — and they didn’t seem to do any work, either. They were just always with their feet kicked up and talking to each other and ‘Let’s go get some lunch’ and never getting anything done, really.”
LaBute points out that, in the movie, “You see the women actually getting things done — the guys are just always there having a good laugh.” When I mention the office’s frat-boy vibe, he responds that they tried to cast extras that had “the right look, making that feel as much like them being in school — just everything being a pissing contest and a popularity contest. Fun and games.”
The hazing rituals reach their nadir in perhaps the film’s most traumatizing scene, in which Chad lords his superiority over a Black intern, named Keef (Jason Dixie), asking him to prove that he’s literally got the balls to work in business by making him drop his pants and show him his junk. It’s a disturbing moment that pushes into uncomfortable racial terrain — to say nothing of the scene’s homoerotic edge as Chad examines the intern’s privates, almost imperceptibly seeming impressed by what he sees.
The sequence appeared in the play as well, and LaBute was worried how it would land with film audiences. “What was hugely important to me about that [scene] was when people got into the whole misogynistic thing about [Chad], I was like, ‘He doesn’t seem to like anybody,’” LaBute says. “You can call it misanthropic, but it’s not like he [just] dislikes women — or has a fear of them, or whatever it is — he doesn’t like anybody, really.” Indeed, Chad happily bad-mouths his white male coworkers as well, having no compunction identifying which of them is a “prissy cocksucker.” But for LaBute, the intern scene — which also sees Chad mocking Keef’s diction (“the word is ‘ask’”) — was about examining just how horrible this man was.
“It was really important to me for people to see he’s an equal-opportunity hater,” LaBute tells me. “He enjoys toying with them, enjoys the pleasure of this game that he plays with people. When he drops these bombs on people, he’ll look at them like, ‘What does that feel like to be hurt like that? What are you experiencing right now?’ It’s not just women.” As for Chad’s brief slipping of the mask while looking at the intern’s privates, LaBute says, “If you watch Aaron, there’s a moment when [Chad] leans forward, and it’s this weird little moment that you can’t deny. He leans forward, stares, and then his visage changes afterwards. We pushed that button: We were like, ‘Why not? We’re here. We’re going everywhere, so why don’t we make it as murky and interesting as possible?’”
With such a rushed shooting schedule, LaBute couldn’t linger on his anxiety about whether the inflammatory scene would play. “We were shooting all of it so quickly that you really don’t have much time to think about that kind of thing,” he admits. “You’re in it and you’re like, ‘We’re doing this.’ I think, more than anything in that scene, I was worried about the young man who was doing it — not as ‘This is so damaging’ or anything like that. [Dixie] was definitely excited to work on it, but he didn’t have a lot of experience as an actor — I think he wanted to do comedy and he was local. So getting him into that place where he was able to do what he did, I was thinking more about that probably than anything.” (By the way, Dixie is now a stand-up and actor, proudly including a photo of himself and Eckhart on his website.)
Still, In the Company of Men’s main narrative focus was the growing complications within its romantic triangle. Chad manages to woo Christine, coming across as sweet and sensitive — he’s so convincing that you’d almost believe him if you hadn’t seen any of the film’s earlier scenes. In turn, Christine starts to develop deep feelings for him, whereas the fumbling, slightly patronizing Howard fails to make a connection. As much as Howard wants to pretend that he’s all-in on Chad’s plan to break Christine’s heart, he actually cares about her — or, perhaps more accurately, wants (or expects) her to like him.
As with the Black intern, In the Company of Men depicts this Deaf character as someone Chad and Howard can exploit — a pawn in their elaborate game. Of course, Christine doesn’t even realize she’s in a game, and Edwards (who was nominated for Best Female Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards) is marvelous as a woman who’s self-conscious about her condition, thinking that in Chad she’s finally found someone who accepts her. In an age of CODA, Sound of Metal and the A Quiet Place films — when there’s greater appreciation and sensitivity to the importance of representation — it can be hard to watch Edwards imitate speaking like a Deaf person. But Edwards never turns her into a martyr or a bland innocent, never asks us to pity the character. I asked LaBute if, in subsequent stage adaptations of In the Company of Men, a Deaf actress has played Christine. “Not at this point,” he says. “Could you use a Deaf actress? I think absolutely you could — it just hasn’t been done yet.”
In keeping with the film’s bleak perspective, there is no happy ending to be found — no moment where Chad grows a conscience or Christine turns the tables on him. It remains a remarkable moment when Chad drops the act and brazenly owns up to his nefarious plan, coldly staring at her like a lab specimen in order to study her heartbreak in real time. Likewise, Howard doesn’t learn any lessons, discovering after the fact that Chad’s girlfriend had never actually dumped him like he’d claimed at the start of the film. When Howard tries to run back to Christine, rom-com style, to profess his love and ask for a second chance, she ignores him, the soundtrack going silent to reflect how she experiences the world — his angry demand that she “Listen, listen, listen!” utterly futile.
That final scene was also in the original play, although it was a post-production brainstorm that prompted LaBute to drop the audio for the film. As he recalls, “We were like, ‘Wow, what if we just took the sound out from that and just made it the most impotent gesture you could possibly make — even more so than his pathetic little screaming?’ If you took that away from him, as she does when she looks away, it made it all that more effective. That was something you really couldn’t emulate on stage if you wanted to, even now.”
The ending shocked viewers hoping for some sort of karmic payback for Chad — a reassuring affirmation that, indeed, bad things ultimately happen to bad people. But LaBute wasn’t interested in leaving the audience with any sense of comfort. “Those are my best viewing experiences,” he tells me about seeing other people’s films. “I’m sitting there going, ‘Shit, they’re not going to end it right there, are they?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, good one.’ I’m both like, ‘Good ending’ and ‘I’m sorry it ended there because that was horrible.’”
From its debut at Sundance, where it took home the Filmmakers Trophy, In the Company of Men inspired passionate response, the film (and its cast) being questioned about these men behaving badly. Did LaBute condone Chad and Howard’s attitudes? Was he these guys? “Someone who appreciates movies that are dark, you hope you calibrate it well enough that an audience gets your intentions,” he tells me. “From the debut of that movie, which brought me into a wider audience or place of awareness, I’ve dealt with people going, ‘You are those people.’ They never pick the least-bad person — or the good guy or woman. It’s always the darkest character you’re able to imagine — [that] must be who you are. I’ve had that finger pointed my way for 25 years: ‘You must be a bad person because you’re able to write those people. I couldn’t even come up with those people.’ It’s easy for people to make that jump, so they sometimes do.”
It’s hardly as if LaBute shied away from such caustic terrain since In the Company of Men. His follow-up film, the equally brutal Your Friends and Neighbors, in which Eckhart got to play the wimp, furthered the writer-director’s fascination with the impossibility of friendship and romance. Because his characters are often bastards, LaBute soon learned that journalists would be thrown that he didn’t behave similarly in interviews. “Often, [the articles would say], ‘Surprisingly, he seems to be nothing like [his terrible characters],’” LaBute laughs. “‘He’s really just more of a big schlub rather than the mean little shark-like character. I thought he was going to be a complete asshole, but he’s really just a big dope.’”
But if those reactions didn’t entirely surprise him, reviews closer to home of In the Company of Men did. “After my mom saw it, she said, ‘Wow, you really nailed your father on that.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ Because my dad was, on paper, the antithesis of Chad. He was a very blue-collar person. But my mom just in terms of his — I don’t know, his psychological makeup or whatever — she was like, ‘That was your dad.’ If I’d set out to write my father, it certainly wouldn’t have been that.”
Did his mom’s comment make him think differently about Chad? “I still probably didn’t really see it,” he replies. “I was like, ‘Okay, that’s her reaction, but he doesn’t look like him to me. But she spent enough time with him.’ I don’t think she was saying it for fun. I found that interesting and amusing but, no, it didn’t change [Chad] for me.”
Taking home Best Debut Performance (for Aaron Eckhart) and Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards, In the Company of Men failed to land any Oscar nominations. But LaBute received kudos from his peers in other ways. A funny running joke in the film is that Chad loves his poster for American Gigolo, the 1980 Richard Gere drama in which he plays a high-end, in-demand sex worker who gets entangled in a murder investigation. “It just seemed that would be the touchstone for him,” LaBute explains when I asked why he picked that movie in particular for Chad to fanboy over. “It’s aspirational: ‘Someone would want me in them and would pay for the experience.’ Maybe it’s so obvious, but it felt right.” (In fact, at one point LaBute was going to do an American Gigolo series for Showtime.) But American Gigolo’s writer-director enjoyed the bit very much and let LaBute know. “I got a lovely postcard from Paul Schrader after the movie came out [with the] American Gigolo poster on it,” he tells me. “It said, ‘Thanks for the shout-out.’”
In the 25 years since In the Company of Men’s debut, it’s hard not to feel its reverberations across the culture. Watching it this time, I thought how, in some ways, Howard’s flop-sweat attempts to be the cool boss are a more mellow precursor to the inept David Brent and Michael Scott of the U.K. and American versions of The Office — to say nothing of In the Company of Men’s examination of the drudgery of white-collar officework, which is echoed in later comedies like Office Space.
And then there are the people who mistakenly see Chad as a positive role model — and come up to tell Eckhart about it in public. “There would always be business people in an airport or somewhere that would just be like [makes ‘come here’ motion with hand and starts whispering], ‘I love that fucking guy,’” he said in 2014. “‘That dude has balls. I don’t know why everybody hates that guy.’ But those same guys are who the character was based on, so basically they’re just saying ‘I love myself!’ and not realizing they just made fun of themselves.”
As for the movie’s jaundiced view of engrained societal misogyny, you could argue that LaBute helped lay the foundation for our current bumper crop of popular entertainment about toxic masculinity. Early in the film, Chad and Howard are complaining about how you can’t say anything to a woman these days without her getting the wrong idea — and then poor guys like them will be in trouble. (The only difference between now and then is that, today, Chad and Howard would probably be talking about joining a men’s rights group online.) I’m not the first person to mention to LaBute his prescience on the subject. “I feel like I have touched on this a couple of times in the last  years,” he replies.
LaBute was very much inspired by David Mamet, who like him had a way of exploring a certain kind of male hostility in seminal works such as Glengarry Glen Ross. In light of #MeToo and Time’s Up, some recent productions of that play have flipped the gender, casting actresses to portray (and subvert) such notoriously masculine male characters. (You see this strategy as well with the recent Swimming With Sharks series, which stars Diane Kruger and Kiernan Shipka, updating the 1994 satire that featured Kevin Spacey and Frank Whaley as the screaming Hollywood agent and his harried assistant.) I was curious if LaBute has ever been approached about — or would be interested in — reconceiving In the Company of Men so that its two main characters are women.
“I remember at the time people asking me, ‘Could you imagine doing that with women? Could you flip it?’ And I said, ‘I suppose you could do almost anything. I don’t want to say no, because somebody will come along and do it and do it well,’” LaBute tells me. “But in my mind, it was a very male-wolfpack, one-upmanship [attitude], and then once they get the prize, it becomes less shiny to them. Those are all things I associated with this male mentality.” Instead, LaBute wrote The Shape of Things — his play, then movie, that focused on a woman, played by Rachel Weisz, who was calculating and manipulative. “When I was imagining ‘How would it happen with a woman?,’ I thought a woman would probably be playing these men off each other,” he tells me. “It wouldn’t be two guys competing with each other — a woman would end up doing this in a different way.”
In the Company of Men still occasionally rears its ugly head, including a 2013 revival in Chicago. If LaBute had his way, it also would have been turned into a musical. “Oh god, I would love to,” he enthuses. “I talked to Elvis Costello about it.” LaBute, who incorporated Costello songs on the soundtrack for The Shape of Things, had proposed doing a jukebox musical of his tunes for the In the Company of Men stage show. “I had all the songs laid out — I was like, ‘I want to use this and this and this’ — but at the time, he was like, ‘Nah, I would love to do something original.’ The guy has such a bond with music, he’s just ready to write a song at any given moment. But his songs [would be] perfect because [musicals] are usually so upbeat — it would be fun to take something as tricky, emotionally, as [In the Company of Men] and then have these people sing you songs as well. But it never happened.”
LaBute has kept making films — including the infamous Nicolas Cage horror-thriller The Wicker Man — and kept writing for the stage, not to mention directing for television on occasion. At a time when there’s a growing awareness of the importance of greater diversity in the arts — not to mention the anger stirred by the #MeToo movement — I wanted to know if LaBute has found his corrosive work to be less embraced than it was earlier in his career.
“Right now, I think I fall into a category of older white guys who are like, ‘Get out of the way’ rather than ‘We want to hear more from you,’” he tells me. “You have to wait for the wheel to spin again. I keep doing my work and writing, but do the opportunities come in the same way? I think that happens for all writers and creators — it waxes and wanes — but it’s definitely a time, in terms of diversity and #MeToo, [that] there’s a lot of people going, ‘We’ve heard enough from you — we’d like to hear from somebody else now.’ So you look for other ways to express yourself or for the opportunity to come along again — or go make it yourself.”
For LaBute, he finds this present moment strangely reminiscent of when he was trying to put together In the Company of Men as a film. “In a way, you’re almost right back to ‘I’ll have to do some of these stories on my own again,’” he says. “That’s what you do to keep your work out there.”
And because he’s still perhaps best known for In the Company of Men, he’s had to combat the negative assumptions that he surely must harbor some of the same misogyny that his characters exhibit. Those assumptions came to a head in 2018 when MCC Theater, which had worked with LaBute for years and was about to mount his next play, Reasons to Be Pretty Happy, abruptly severed ties with him and canceled the production. No reason was ever cited, but it didn’t stop some, including The New York Times, from noting that the termination happened in the wake of the #MeToo movement. During a period when so many problematic men were being called out for their behavior, it led some to reflexively add LaBute to the list of disgraced sexual predators.
“The funny thing is we had really just a business falling-out. We didn’t air our laundry, and so people assumed all kinds of things over it,” LaBute tells me about the situation with MCC. “If you look back in, like, 2010, there were stories about ‘They’re going to go their separate ways after Reasons to Be Pretty,’” LaBute’s only work to be nominated for the Tony for Best Play. “It was a long relationship where you tire of each other or have a falling-out over a piece of work. That’s really the place we found ourselves, but because people were in the throes of this general #MeToo/Time’s Up thing, they just lumped it into that and assumed that’s what was going on. Some people just think of it as ‘There must be something wrong,’ but since then, has anything come out that said, ‘That’s why there was a big problem’? No. I’m just not into airing my laundry with people. Never have been. I’ve always been worried about the work and not about my biography.”
Still, he admits that the whole very public incident “was the perfect time for people to say, ‘I told you so’” about their suspicions that LaBute was a secret sexist or creep. “You either jump into it and fight every Twitter battle, or you fight none of them — for me, that was the best approach.”
So, how is he feeling about men in 2022? After In the Company of Men laid bare their grossest tendencies, has he learned anything more about his gender in the ensuing years? “I think all men are capable of good, bad, anything that people can come up with within the human experience,” he responds. He recalls a line from Shakespeare that he put on the title page for In the Company of Men a long time ago: “All men are bad and in their badness reign.”
“I certainly was looking at that,” LaBute tells me. “I was tapping into something — all these guys have bad behavior that they’re perpetrating in various modes. We’re all capable of having shit behavior over the course of a day, let alone a life. And so I’m going to just try and create something that lets them look at that within the context of a story that, hopefully, is still ‘enjoyable.’”
There’s that idea again of people possibly being able to “enjoy” LaBute’s caustic psychological examinations. He believes dark work can be entertaining but also illuminating. And while he’s been a master of showing men at their worst, he hasn’t given up on the male species. “Progress is slow and I think, begrudgingly, people have been forced in some places to open up their ideas, finding space at the table that they’ve always just controlled,” he says about how #MeToo has helped change society. “But with what we’re hearing about possibly with the Supreme Court [in terms of overturning Roe v. Wade], these things go back and forth — it’s a long journey. People have just, I think, felt a certain amount of privilege for a long time.”
But no matter how much society changes, or doesn’t, one thing seems clear: The Chads of the world are gonna be fine — especially In the Company of Men’s Chad, who at the film’s end is content in bed, his oblivious girlfriend going down on him, his life just getting better and better. “Chad, he’s just a great white shark,” LaBute tells me. “Right to the end, he keeps swimming. That last shot, it’s just him smiling. The guy is always alone, but always happy. He’ll always float to the surface.”