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Interview: ‘Lakeview Terrace’ Director Neil LaBute Fans Flames of Human Relations in Incendiary Film

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CHICAGO – Already an important and controversial American playwright, Neil LaBute is looking to make the same individual mark as a director in films. His most recent effort is “Lakeview Terrace” with Samuel L. Jackson. It’s an incisive and poignant meditation on race, class and gender relations in America.

HollywoodChicago.com interviewed LaBute in anticipation of the film’s opening. The filmmaker had varying degrees of insight into this highly symbolic and multifaceted work.

Samuel L. Jackson as Abel Turner in Lakeview Terrace
Samuel L. Jackson as Abel Turner in “Lakeview Terrace”.
Photo credit: Chuck Zlotnick

Kerry Washington as Lisa Mattson in Lakeview Terrace
Kerry Washington as Lisa Mattson in “Lakeview Terrace”.
Photo credit: Chuck Zlotnick

“The film still feels like a thriller,” LaBute said. “But in the end, there is a more dramatic weight there than you would realize. I hope that drama is the added element that will engage the audience.”

The film stars Samuel L. Jackson as Abel Turner. He’s a recently widowed police officer who raises two kids in a cul-de-sac in Los Angeles called Lakeview Terrace.

When a mixed-race couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) move in next door, a decency line in Jackson’s psyche snaps and he sees the couple as a direct threat to the neighborhood. Jackson’s character makes it a mission to create havoc that will force them to move out.

“It is Sam that breathes life into it. Part of it is what he carries in from the last 20 years of his career,” LaBute said. “People generally like him and he carries in this goodwill that we don’t play with. It’s just there in who he is.”

Patrick Wilson (left) as Chris Mattson and Kerry Washington as Lisa Mattson in Lakeview Terrace
Patrick Wilson (left) as Chris Mattson and Kerry Washington as Lisa Mattson in “Lakeview Terrace”.
Photo credit: Chuck Zlotnick

HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 4.0/5.0
Rating: 4.0/5.0

“We wanted to keep him off the ‘monster list’ and make him someone the audience would understand,” LaBute added. “Not that you would do what he does, but you could understand where the rage was coming from.”

As the harassment increases and the barriers are established, tension wells up in the couple’s marriage. The policeman’s obsession with his objectivity starts to intensify as Patrick Wilson’s character starts to push back.

“Patrick has a likability quotient to him the audience can identify with,” LaBute related. “They can also identify with the particular kind of male he plays, which is the kind of boy/man who struggles with growing up.”

“But Wilson was also very important to us because he is a guy who believably would not accelerate too quickly,” LaBute said. He quickly added: “Guys often want to go to fisticuffs as quickly as possible as a first inclination. Patrick has the air of niceness about him. That was an important quality for that character to have.”

Patrick Wilson as Chris Mattson in Lakeview Terrace
Patrick Wilson as Chris Mattson in “Lakeview Terrace”.
Photo credit: Chuck Zlotnick

Samuel L. Jackson as Abel Turner in Lakeview Terrace
Samuel L. Jackson as Abel Turner in “Lakeview Terrace”.
Photo credit: Chuck Zlotnick

The battle for the neighborhood turf devolves into a distinct power struggle with racial issues and overtones always lurking nearby.

“In my films and plays, I’ve always been interested in power and how power is used and misused. Sam represents a character who is in a job as a cop that’s different than any other job out there in our country,” LaBute said.

“There is a power that comes with that [law enforcement] authority and mentality,” he added. “The leap from discussion to violence is a short one. The fuse is short. If the cop is the one you’re having trouble with, then who do you call to help?”

When wildfire season begins, an out-of-control blaze snakes it way to the neighborhood and further marginalizes the two neighborly rivals. LaBute explained the nature of using fire as a symbolic element.

“We obviously weren’t allowed to set wildfires, so in special effects, I didn’t want the audience to say: ‘Oh, that’s a fake fire.’ While it’s a very easy metaphor, it’s pretty apt for the story. Once you could visually see and experience the fires, it became even more provocative,” LaBute said.

The excellent cast feeds into the script’s powerful statements on race and class. LaBute spoke of the pride he had with how the ensemble played those particular elements.

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“Every day the cast was elevating the material,” LaBute said. “We were aware at the same time that with this material – as much as we talk about race in this country – it’s not necessarily reflected in popular culture. We don’t get to see this in the movies all the time.”

He added: “It was nice to do something that was more genre based – like a thriller – but still it had something to say.”

The climax of the film is an unsavory clash of authority, class and race. LaBute offered his own thesis on the relationship nature of humanity in times of crisis.

“Skin color means absolutely nothing,” he said. “Often what comes built into that is a cultural difference. People are naturally wary of things we’re not familiar with or don’t understand. There is a tendency to back off rather than put a hand forward.”

LaBute concluded: “If Rodney King asks the question ‘can’t we all get along?,’ I would say after much scrutiny the answer would be ‘just barely’.”

“Lakeview Terrace,” which opened on Sept. 19, 2008 in limited theaters, is directed by Neil LaBute. The film stars Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington and Jay Hernandez.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2008 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

Anonymous's picture

Get real

Come on who is he kidding, this is based on a real life incident in Altadena, Ca.

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