Chuck Zlotnick, Screen Gems
Director Neil LaBute talks to actor Samuel L. Jackson, who menaces his neighbors in "Lakeview Terrace."

Neil LaBute could make "safer" movies if he really wanted to do so. It's just that he doesn't want to do that.

"Playing it safe just doesn't interest me at this stage in the game. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure I could really do something that doesn't completely horrify or offend at least one person," the often-controversial, 45-year-old playwright/filmmaker said with a laugh.

LaBute's original plays and movies all have button-pushing moments. He has confronted sexism — from both perspectives — in "In the Company of Men" and "The Shape of Things," and marital strife in "Your Friends & Neighbors."

His latest is "Lakeview Terrace," a dramatic thriller about an interracial couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) who is confronted by intolerance in their new Hollywood Hills neighborhood.

Of the film's many plot twists, the biggest one may be that most — if not all — of the racial prejudice comes from an African-American character, a veteran Los Angeles Police Department patrol officer played by Samuel L. Jackson.

The "Snakes on a Plane" and "Pulp Fiction" star was attached to the movie project before LaBute was. But LaBute says he "couldn't have found anyone else" to play Jackson's character, Abel Turner.

"For this part, you need someone who can play it in a way that's mysterious and menacing but is still relatable," he explained by phone from Chicago, where he was doing interviews to promote the film.

In fact, Abel is shown as being an attentive, if very strict, parent to two children (Regine Nehy and Jaishon Fisher). But then he turns into "a real nightmare," according to LaBute.

"He has his reasons for doing what he does. But what he does is pretty horrible and is pretty unreasonable, obviously."

For a change, LaBute is working from someone else's script. Screenwriters David Loughery and Howard Korder are given credit, though he acknowledges that he did some uncredited "script polishing" on the project.

"I didn't want to mess with the script too much, since it was terrific. But there's always more work that has to be done once you have your cast in place ... and to accommodate your budget restrictions."

Speaking of which, LaBute says he's used to working on a more modest scale than other filmmakers. "That's made me a better director and a better storyteller, I believe."

He also learned about budgeting and production "scale" while staging plays at Brigham Young University. LaBute graduated from the university and was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though he now says he and the church are "divorced."

"I'm actually not a member any more. My jersey was retired ...," he said.

Being in Utah also put LaBute in close touch with the Sundance Film Festival, which is where "In the Company of Men" premiered in 1996. And BYU is where he met actor Aaron Eckhart, who's been a regular presence in most of his movies.

"You'd have to be crazy not to want to put Aaron in one of your films. He's an amazing talent, and he's made me look a whole lot better over the years," LaBute said.

At first, LaBute toyed with the idea of having Eckhart play the Patrick Wilson role in "Lakeview Terrace." However, he jokingly says the 40-year-old "Dark Knight" co-star is "much too old" to play part of a young couple.

"I'm kidding," LaBute quickly followed up. "In reality, Aaron is just crazy-busy with projects and doesn't have time for little old me any more." (Besides, Wilson is only five years younger than Eckhart.)

Still, LaBute says he "actually shot a scene with Aaron, but unfortunately it wound up getting cut for time. Maybe that will be one of the inevitable DVD extras."


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com