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The Dramatic Art of Oral Storytelling: Neil LaBute Discusses 'House of Darkness'

Award-winning writer/director Neil LaBute gives a fresh take on the children of the night with the upcoming 'House of Darkness.' He illustrates his mastery for storytelling by having characters in the film demonstrate the difference between lying and skillfully telling a powerful tale.
House of Darkness. Courtesy Saban Films.

House of Darkness. Courtesy Saban Films.

The vampire is an enduringly popular monster and has been portrayed in novels, comics, movies, and television series. This undead being has been alive in mythos for thousands of years, with the Egyptian warrior goddess Sekhmet being one of the oldest representations of this blood-sucking figure. However, the most renowned in the collective consciousness of modern society is Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel Dracula (1897). The count was then made famous in glorious black and white on the big screen by Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). Jonathan, Lucy, Mina, Renfield, and Van Helsing are all characters who make up Dracula’s colure.

Award-winning writer/director Neil LaBute gives a fresh take on the children of the night with the upcoming House of Darkness. He illustrates his mastery for storytelling by having characters in the film demonstrate the difference between lying and skillfully telling a powerful tale. Starring Justin Long and Kate Bosworth, the film is a slow burn, amping up the tension in each scene in this comedic horror tale. Neil started out as a playwright but crossed over to film when he adapted his play into the critically acclaimed and award winning film In the Company of Men (1997). House of Darkness marks his fourteenth film and will be released in theaters on September 13, 2022, by Saban Films.

What's your favorite horror film?

Probably The Exorcist because it works on so many levels. Maybe because I saw it when I was too young, it stuck with me. I wonder if that's a throughline with a lot of people? One of the ones they saw at a young age, and it affected them in a certain way. Jaws ruined all things water...swimming pools, my bathtub. But as a movie experience, what a blast! Psycho too. I love the ones that make you wait. I'm not necessarily into high body count. I don't mind that but love someone who can really build suspense and make me wait for it. That's a great thing.

Neil LaBute. Photo by Aaron Elkhart.

Neil LaBute. Photo by Aaron Elkhart.

That's a perfect segue to my next question. This film was a slow burn. What are the elements of creating tension in a story?

To create tension and suspense, you've got to have footage...the raw product material to cut back and forth, to have silence. Silence is certainly one of the great tools for doing that. It's not so much that I’m going to do it through the rhythms of editing as I've got to get the actors who are in the same frame to create a rhythm.

What's the undying fascination with vampires?

Well, maybe in just what you said... that "undying" thing. People have been searching for the fountain of youth forever. It's a little bit of be careful of what you wish for. Living forever is a fascinating concept but it's like 'Wait a minute. How good is that?' That is something that the female characters in the film talk about. Let's say you've been alive for a couple of hundred years. At some point, a date like Justin’s character is just another dinner. Do they let him go if he says the right thing or are they just toying with their food? This guy is oblivious to it because men have this sense that they're in some type of control.

How did you come up with the idea?

I wanted to do something that was contained. I like horror and I like Dracula. I always loved the notion of the weird sisters. I thought, 'What are they doing today?' Probably something akin to this.

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How long did it take you to write the script?

The physical writing phase always tends to be shorter than the thinking part of the script. I consider the whole thing, so it's hard to say how many days it took because I tend to bounce ideas along in my head for a long time and make sure they're "see worthy." I have to get to the stage where the impulse is so strong that I have to sit down and write. The stage where I actually sat down and wrote was relatively short with this one.

In general, what's an average writing day like for you?

I try to make it as pleasurable as possible. I love writing. With this script, it came about because I wanted to write it, not because it was presold or because someone paid me to write it. I don't bash my head against the wall. Unless I have deadlines that I'm trying to meet for something, I try and set up a couple of hours...then if it's not working, I walk away from it for a bit. Sometimes I'll work on another script, or I'll watch something for inspiration. I try and put in a good four or five hours a day. I have a young child, so I have to balance those things.

You can get a lot done in a couple of hours if you really get down to it. I'm pretty flexible. I don't have a special cabin or breakfast that I need to eat before I start writing. I can write in the airport or the car. I'm not strapped to a precise routine.

You created the series Van Helsing. What kind of research did you have to do?

It was a namesake pulled right from the text of Dracula. While we were writing a whole different thing, we wanted to use as much of that world as we could and stay true to what fans of that text know about it. Then bend a few rules as well. It's like playing jazz. You have to know how to play music before you can break the rules. I had adapted Dracula for the stage years before and I had made Van Helsing a woman. It was more of a straight approach to the actual Dracula myth. When we approached this new story, I thought ‘I would love to go with a female Dracula or a very androgynous one.’

What's the difference between writing for tv and film?

The excitement for me of getting into television was I had been used to telling one story about one group of people. Closing that book and putting it on the shelf. Then opening a new empty journal and filling that one up. The idea of trying to tell legitimately 50 interesting tales about the same group, or an expanding group of people, is a whole different set of skills. That was something I hadn't done so I had to approach story and character in a very different way.

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Are there advantages to adapting something that's based on folklore.

There are advantages to adapting anything because you have source material that you can use as much or little as you want. But when you're sitting there staring at a blank screen and a cursor, that's a big task. When you are adapting, there can be the demands of I'm doing this for someone else or I love this thing so much, I hope I don't ruin it...that can be the flipside. You're beholden to something in a way that you're not when it's an original.

What's the most difficult aspect of a feature script to write?

For me, it's probably the prose. It's not the dialogue...and I'm pretty good at creating characters. It's that 'John walks across the street thinking to himself as he finds his cart.' My stuff is pretty terse in those terms. It's probably the same reason I haven't written a novel.


What was your first paid writing gig?

When I was a kid, a local paper paid me to review films that were a part of the drive-in circuit. I was off watching Warlords of Atlantis and writing film reviews for them.

You used to teach. How did that affect your writing, if at all?

Anything in life runs the clock. It allowed me to do the thinking writing a lot. When I was in college, I would lean towards those third shift jobs so I could write while I was at work. As a teacher that's harder to do.

What do you love about storytelling?

The same things I love about being told a story. That's where I started out. I went to the library a lot when I was a kid. I loved to read stories and be transported to somewhere. I think doing that as a job is the best. I love doing that task. When you get it right, nothing else feels like it. 

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