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Friday, 18 October, 2002, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Victorian romance with a modern edge
Gwyneth Paltrow
Gwyneth Paltrow stars in Possession
Film-maker Neil LaBute, one of America's most controversial playwrights, talked to BBC Radio 4's Front Row about bringing AS Byatt's romantic detective novel Possession to the screen.

Playwright and film-maker Neil LaBute is often associated with a "cinema of cruelty".

His first film, In The Company of Men, was about two colleagues who, whilst bored on a business trip, decide to amuse themselves by romancing and then dumping a young deaf woman.

Author, AS Byatt
AS Byatt: Author of Possession
But his latest choice of project, an adaptation of A S Byatt's Booker Prize winning novel, Possession has surprised many.

Possession tells the story of two present-day scholars, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, who at the same time as discovering a secret romance between two Victorian poets, fall in love with each other.

LaBute admits that with his track record in mind he had to persuade Warner Brothers he had the right credentials for the job.

He said: "I went at them and said, 'Look I know I haven't done a period film, and the budget no doubt is larger than a lot of the things I've done, but you will have on your hands a fairly hollow exercise in carriages and corsets if you don't get the emotional core of the story right.'

"It's certainly been my interest in my writing - how men and women deal with one another in relationships and I said that's what you have here."

He added being labelled as a misogynist would always make it difficult to silence critics.


I don't think it marks a life change, I think it shows my interests as a director

Neil LaBute
He said: "You can never second-guess what people are going to think. I graduated from misogynist to misanthropist and now I've gone soft - in the matter of one more movie.

"I don't think it marks a life change, I think it shows my interests as a director, rather than my interests as a writer."

Friction

The project was in development for 10 years as four directors tried, but failed, to make the novel work as a film.

For LaBute the key to making it happen was his collaboration on the screenplay with Laura Jones, who has worked on adaptations of Angela's Ashes and Portrait of a Lady.

He said: "She was very good at being kind of slavish to book and wanting to represent it well and yet knowing that we had to break free and create our own world."

British actor, Jeremy Northam
British actor Jeremy Northam stars in Possession
One important change they decided on was to make the previously quiet, reserved British academic, Roland Michell, into an outgoing, outspoken American visiting Britain.

This gave LaBute an opportunity to breathe new life into the romance between Maud and Roland - and met with the approval of AS Byatt.

He said: "That was a big change and one that was hinted at by Ms Byatt herself in some early notes that I read.

"Not that he should be an American, but that he had to be a different kind of character to have a dramatic drive," he said.

"It was important for me to find as many ways to make Maud and Roland have that friction, that she was a woman, he was a man.

"Anything that could strike up and stir up the passion between them seemed like open season."

Success

At various points AS Byatt offered feedback on versions of the screenplay, although she was not involved in making the film.

But Neil LaBute is confident that the final outcome will meet with her approval.

He said: "She did have a lot of influence, and she seemed quite happy.

"For someone who's had such huge success with the book, and is not a screenwriter herself she was incredibly open to the process.

"She was inherently understanding about how different a film would be to the novel on which it was based."

Possession is released in the UK on Friday 25 October. Front Row is broadcast each weeknight on BBC Radio 4 at 1915 BST.

See also:

01 Jun 01 | Entertainment
31 May 01 | Entertainment
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