In the midst of Hollywood’s era of the ascendant superhero, playwright and director Neil LaBute has provided some of the most shocking, provoking, and occasionally sickening cinematic moments over the past 15 years; his movies, like The Company of Men, crawl into our brains and lay waste to our consciences with little more than breathy dialogue from sly, angry egotists.
This month, the 50-year-old writer-director one-ups himself with Some Velvet Morning, which, even in 2013, where Superman killed millions in Metropolis and Brad Pitt was chased by flesh-eating hordes, is still the most devastating and frankly most fucked-up mainstream film of the year.
“That zombie movie this summer, its basic difference was it had zombies times millions. You’ve never seen so many zombies,” LaBute noted with a laugh, referring to the Pitt-fronted film World War Z. “I’ve seen fast zombies in 28 Days Later, but this has a million fast zombies! So that’s sort of the idea behind studio movies now, to make it as big and accessible and loud as possible. I think something like [Some Velvet Morning] says that movies can also be really tiny and intimate and very quiet and have a lot of power.”
Some Velvet Morning features just two characters — Velvet, a prostitute played by Alice Eve, and Fred, a john portrayed by Stanley Tucci — who engage in a meandering, circuitous, confounding, and regret-charged conversation. They have a history, despite the decades that separate them, and Fred’s return to her apartment after several years of absence makes for an awkward and fiery interaction. It is more or less a play on film, the scenery limited to the various rooms of Velvet’s apartment.
Control passes back and forth between Fred and Velvet as they poke each other with heated barbs about jealousies and past mistakes. Details of their relationship become apparent in dribs and drabs, and it seems that Velvet still sees Fred’s son — in both personal and professional settings — which only adds to the unconventional nature of their semi-undefined relationship.
“I was interested in parameters of love — How far does love stretch? What is it that makes someone say, ‘I’m in love with this person,’ and I believe them?” LaBute said. “Fred and Velvet’s is not the type of relationship that one would usually see or accept, so does that mean they’re not in love because it’s hard for me to believe it? Does it mean I look at it and say, Well, there must be something else going on there. He’s so much older than you, or you’re so much better looking, or you’re so much more famous. There must be something else going on?”
For Eve, the script came at a time when she was looking to do a “darker” project. The intimate and intense Some Velvet Morning production piqued her interest since it followed her experience playing the Enterprise’s Carol in the massive CGI extravaganza that was Star Trek Into Darkness. The actress said Velvet intrigued her because she couldn’t quite understand where the character was coming from.
“She’s entered into a fight with a guy she knows is ultimately physically stronger than her, and she’s playing him hand-for-hand at his own game,” Eve explained. “I guess it’s a form of addiction. You can watch a heroin addict go through the process of taking heroin, and then, you’re like, Well, that looked horrible. They’ll never want to do that again. I know that for sure… and then they’re doing it again. That’s something that we probably still don’t understand. We call addiction a disease; we don’t understand it yet. It’s a crazy thing.”
It’s hard to write about Some Velvet Morning without risking the revelation of major spoilers, because so much of what audience members think they know about the characters and fundamentals of their relationship gets blown to pieces with an explosive late-game bombshell. Fred and Velvet bicker and dance in a minefield for nearly 90 minutes, an exhausting pace for the actors; with a short window for production, they ran through 10 pages of the script’s wordy repartee a day, all with the knowledge that their characters are operating on a different frequency than the audience.
The twist not only alters the context of Fred and Velvet’s conversation, but entirely challenges a viewer’s sense of morality. That created a sizable challenge for LaBute, who had to create two realities that could somehow complement each other.
“You pinpoint a few places along the way. You say, ‘It would be great if we could layer in that knowing thing, where you have a moment where they pause and look at each other,’” LaBute said. “The rest of the time you kind of have to play the A-story. You don’t want them winking at each other too much because that’s when an audience goes, Something’s up. You just feel it in the air. Most of these had to play for what was real.”
Little hints along the way — like a shot of Velvet’s planner — do rush to the fore of a viewer’s mind after the big revelation. But rewinding for context clues seems less than important when one’s still reeling from a horrible incident of sexual violence that interrupts Fred and Velvet’s dialog, and then, the twist that follows. It is, based on the time that elapses, a short assault, but one that, with close-ups of the anguished and maniacal faces involved, feels like it goes on forever.
While Tucci’s Fred is primal and brutish, a man whose nature is not entirely altered by the huge twist, Eve’s Velvet is a more complicated character, damaged and emotionally tied to a man who has so many ways of hurting her, on both planes of the film’s reality.
“The thing about life is we all know there’s a twist at the end and we’re living it anyway,” Eve explained. “I think here, it’s the same thing, either way. It’s part of a game, and she’s playing it, just like we are now and we’ll all continue to do until we die.”