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Racism adds tension to thriller ‘Lakeview Terrace'

Some people might say filmmaker Neil LaBute, of “In the Company of Men,” “Nurse Betty” and “The Wicker Man,” has a problem with women, or black people, judging by his work. But he insists he's not really the misogynist or misanthrope that many assume.

“People meet me and go, ‘Ooo, you're not as mean as I thought you'd be,'” he says, laughing. “That's the danger of doing stuff that has an edge. People assume that's a part of me. They get the wrong idea.”

LaBute, 47, is the ex-Mormon and Brigham Young University grad who created a stir even while in college with his controversial plays, and made an even bigger splash when he turned one of those plays into a film. “In the Company of Men,” about two cruel salesmen who play a vicious game with a plain-Jane deaf woman they court simply to humiliate her, was an indie sensation in 1997.

He's not shy about pushing our buttons on gender, for instance, or race, the subtext of his new film, “Lakeview Terrace.”

“I don't like to think that it's purposeful, that I'm just walking around looking for something I can poke with a stick – ‘What other trouble can I get into?'” he says. “But the things that interest me cross paths with the zeitgeist, at times.”

In “Lakeview Terrace,” an interracial couple moves into a neighborhood where they fall under the disapproving eye of a man with racist tendencies and the power to make their lives miserable, or worse. He's a cop played by Samuel L. Jackson.

“Race,” LaBute says, “tends to be the divide that we talk about the most. We have a hard time accepting that people might be different and equal. And yet, in some way, we all end up being the same.”

LaBute likes the timing of his film, which comes out during a historic presidential campaign with race very much on the nation's mind. “But that's not why I did it,” he says. “This is a subject that we all admit is a big part of our makeup as a nation. You just don't hear it talked about in popular culture all that much.”

LaBute didn't write “Lakeview Terrace,” but the fact that he had played around with race in a stage play (“This Is How it Goes”) got the attention of the film's producers and landed LaBute the job, he says. He took it not just because he liked that racial hot button. He's intrigued by the possibilities of a person with a gun and a badge who abuses the public trust, something that he sees as another thread through all his work, that notion of power – who has it, in a given situation, and who doesn't.

“A cop is in that one group of people we actually put a gun in their hands and say, ‘Protect us.' … In this case, this one (cop) has a problem with people who move in next door. That's what makes ‘Lakeview Terrace' cruelly unnerving as a thriller. The list, the very short list, of people you would call if you're threatened this way, is topped by the police.”