We're delighted to present the first in a series of in-depth interviews with notable Irish filmmakers, presented in association with Screen Director's Guild Of Ireland. Here, RTÉ Culture Editor Derek O'Connor talks to Handsome Devil writer/director John Butler.
Watch the interview in full above, or read a transcription below.
About The Director: John Butler is the writer and director of the Irish box-office hit The Stag (2013) and Handsome Devil, currently on national release. Butler also created the IFTA-winning TV sketch show Your Bad Self (2010) and wrote the novel The Tenderloin.
Are you developing something new at the moment? What are you working on?
Yeah, I've written a script called Papi Chulo, which is a buddy movie set in Los Angeles, which Treasure Entertainment, who produced my last two films, are going to produce. This film's also developed with the Irish Film Board, it's a buddy movie about a lonely gay weatherman in his early 30's who drives past a hardware store on Sunset Boulevard; outside those hardware stores in LA you see migrant workers looking to get picked up for a day's work, and he sees this one particular migrant worker who's physically very unremarkable and in his late 50's, but he just sees something in him and he hires him to be his friend and then he continues to hire him and develops this kind of obsession with him.
There's a huge language barrier between them. The migrant worker doesn't speak English and the weatherman doesn't speak any Spanish, but they communicate through this form of sign language and begin to go on these kind of weird little dates, which the guy's paying for every day. So, it's a very strange kind of atmospheric buddy comedy. Maybe a little bit like Death in Venice, and a little bit like Lost in Translation, set in L.A. Let's see if we get that made.
What was your road to becoming a feature film director?
I always wanted to do it, for sure, and then when I left college, I moved to San Francisco and became a runner in a TV show, which actually meant building desks for a TV company for about a year, and then began to produce little stories for them. But then it became clear to me that the best way to actually make films was to come back to Ireland and try and access the finance that the Irish Film Board could offer. So I came back and worked for our national broadcaster for one year, and for TV3 for a couple of years and at the same time began to write and direct short films. I also spent a good period making television promos, which is a really interesting way to learn the mechanics of storytelling in feature films.
Basically, from that and other longer things. I directed a television sketch show called Your Bad Self and I wrote a novel (The Tenderloin) and things started to take off from there. So, it was actually quite a long road. I wasn't one of these guys who wanted to be Martin Scorsese. I never felt like I was wired in that way. I was more interested in trying to figure out how to tell stories, and then the form came to me as I went through it. I was really trying to find my voice through all those different other forms - commercials, documentaries, TV sketches - and it all started to coalesce with the idea of making features. So, now that I'm here, I don't really want to do anything else.
What have been the biggest challenges along the way?
The biggest thing is, if you're looking for anybody's money or anybody's confidence as a first-time feature film director, they will always tell you that your script is 'execution dependent' - which is another way of saying that they can't tell if it's going to work until they've seen it. And this is an innately kind of conservative business. So, you're kind of saying 'Well, it's a comedy, and the script is very funny, and I've made commercials and a sketch show and bits and pieces...' And they're like 'Yes, but you haven't made a feature film.'
So, the hugest hurdle in the road to becoming a director is getting the confidence from somebody to make the first one. Then, once you've made one and then it lands in any kind of meaningful way, then the path becomes marginally easier. It never becomes easy, because you're usually looking for more money or you're trying to broaden your scope of storytelling and then that becomes another thing that's 'execution dependent' - but that phrase 'execution dependent' is a killer, and it takes a lot of work and a lot of confidence to get over it, because you've got to just really be so tenacious to get any money for your first one.
Now, obviously, you can make films for very little, but you do always need somebody to go 'Okay, I'll take a punt', you know? People don't take confidence from you having worked in other areas, or they didn't seem to in my case, because I hadn't made a feature film. Which was a vicious circle.
The hugest hurdle in the road to becoming a director is getting the confidence from somebody to make the first one. Then, once you've made one and then it lands in any kind of meaningful way, then the path becomes marginally easier.
How important is having a good producer?
I think it's everything. I'm fortunate to work with what I would call creative producers which, is to say Rob Walpole and Rebecca O'Flannigan at Treasure Entertainment, who understand scripts and are motivated by how a story makes them feel as much as they are by its prospects in the market, and they can contribute at every stage of the way in terms of making sure that I get to tell the story that I want to tell, you know? I'm a writer/director, so that means that they have to invest fully in what I'm trying to do. And I think that partnership has been so helpful to me down the years. It got me over the 'execution dependent' hump of how to make the first film (The Stag), and they've really stuck with me since then.
Building relationships in this business that work is a massive part of the director's job. I think, getting people to buy into you and finding a working methodology and people that you'd be able to work with again. I think that's really important. You can be kind of a lone gun, and make your career that way, but my sense is is that it makes it harder and lonelier. I think the most successful directors seem to work with the same producer or producers over and over again. I don't think that's a coincidence. It's a collaborative medium.
As a writer/director, you initiate your own projects. Is that important to you, or do you feel like you'd like to engage with somebody else's work?
At the moment I have these stories that I'm trying to tell, and I'm really obsessed with trying to tell them, but maybe that won't always be the case. You know, I'd love to write for another director as well and I do re-writes for other people currently, and I'm a curious - I suppose, in every sense of the word - I'm a curious individual. I'm interested in other people's points of view and how they see the world, and if I find something that kind of chimes with how I see it, then away we go.
It's all about story for me, ultimately. I'm at least as much a writer of film scripts as I am a director of them. I'm obsessed with the structure and pace and mechanisms of the film script. I think that's so important. So, yeah, I'm happy being a writer/director for now, but curious about what else is going on, too.
In terms of experience gained over these two features to date, what advice would you have to offer to the first-time film maker?
I think experience is what you get when you don't get what you want, if you know what I mean. The greatest experience of all is the repeated disappointment and knockback, and the repeated sense of not being able to do things exactly the way you want to - and what that teaches you is how to adapt and survive and not always compromise the core of what you're saying, but put different clothes on it. Or to negotiate. It's like emotional intelligence, you know? You write a hard film, nobody bites, but your obsession is with making this film, so then your next step is 'How do I adapt this in a way that is still consistent with what I want to do, but gets over that hump?'
I think the experience of getting knocked back is everything. The other thing is, if there's anything you can do instead of this, do it. It's an intensely difficult and frustrating business. When you make one film that does well, the doors to Hollywood or whatever aren't flung open and the money does not flow in. Certainly, not in my case. So, if you can do anything else... I hear novelists say this all the time, and I totally agree. If you find yourself able to do anything else in the world, do it. Like, if you can find a way to be happy doing something else then go for it, because it's such a mental business. I'm doing it because I can't do anything else. Literally, I have no other capabilities other than in what I am currently engaging.
So, it doesn't feel like a choice to me. When I talk to people, like when I talk to my parents about the way this business operates, their jaws are on the floor. They're like 'You're kidding me, that happens?' And you're like, yeah, but then kind of go 'God, that is quite mad, but we're all mad and that's why we're in this business.' It doesn't seem mad to us. So, I think if you can find your way out of this, run. Run for the hills and a pension.
The Stag was shot on a very low budget. Give me an example of a situation where you had to find a creative solution to a film-making problem?
Well, in the writing of the script which, I co-wrote with Peter McDonald who's in it, and who's a great friend and a great writer, we made a lot of those very practical decisions to try and preempt the disappointment. We knew with that film we weren't going to get more than 350 or 400 grand to make it, so that rules out helicopters, and we'd come to a scene where the men are lost in the woods and they're naked and I'd be like, 'Okay, they're running and then they just run off a cliff' - and Peter's like 'Well, how do we shoot that?'
if there's anything you can do instead of this, do it. It's an intensely difficult and frustrating business.
So, this intensely practical approach to executing your story is the thing that you learn when you're trying to make that work, but on a more practical level I would say that you don't shoot night work, if you can avoid it, you keep your crew very small and you work with people who know how to work in that model. You cast actors who will embrace that company feel, who won't be looking for Winnebagos and who are attached to the film on the basis of the quality of the script and the people involved. When you don't have money, what you do get is the opportunity to build a company feel that will get you over the line - and we were certainly lucky in that regard with The Stag.
The constraints have to be turned to your advantage. You have to go 'Okay, there are all these things that we can't do, but is there a little opportunity here to feel slightly subversive.' That way you're kind of storming the walls of the system with this little film, and getting in there and having a little moment - and that's a really cool thing. You don't get that when you're like... What's the opposite of an underdog? An overdog? You don't get that satisfaction of having done something that feels a little kind of punk rock, or a little bit subversive.
There are tiny little things that you do every day that are problem solvers. The weather imposes a certain way that the film has to look, and you run with that rather than downing tools for 12 hours until the clouds parse, you know? Those are the decisions that a director makes every hour of the day, but I just think on a bigger level you kind of recognize the limitations and then go 'Okay, how do we turn this to our advantage?'.
How important is it, then, for the director to be able to communicate his vision?
I think it's everything. I think the tone of the film is everything and that's what a film is to me, is a totally consistent piece of work. So, as a director, then, you're policing that tone. That's your job more than anything, and I think you have to do that at the level of personal relationships. You have to find a way to get your production designer to work with you within a limited budget where he understands that the props and the design have to convey the jokes - as opposed to satisfying an idea that they have, or a film that they want to look a certain way for their resume.
You have to find a way to make them feel invested in what you're doing. It's like running a football team or an army, I'd imagine. Everybody has to buy into what you're doing. You can't have people who are trying something else. It's important that everybody understands with absolute clarity what type of film you're trying to make, and that they like that type of film, and can see it on the page and that they're all going in the same direction.
With those meetings, as a director in prep or when you're interviewing HoDs (Heads of Department) and trying to figure out who to hire, you can kind of look into their eyes and really see whether they know what you're trying to do, or whether there's something else at play. So, it's interesting. I don't think it's always a question of persuading people. It's more like just presenting what you're doing very clearly, and then putting it back on them and going 'Are you in?' or 'Is there something that you'd rather do?' So, it's quite open in that regard.
It's like running a football team or an army, I'd imagine. Everybody has to buy into what you're doing.
I don't believe, as a director, in this idea of seducing and hoodwinking people into a position that they don't automatically want to hold, and I think that goes for actors as well. I never bought into this idea of wringing an uncharacteristic performance out of an actor. I think you have to cast the people who are most likely to give you that performance, and then directing, I don't think, is a super-muscular thing where you kind of work an actor into this place where he releases something that he didn't know he had. I think you're working in tandem. It's more like a kind of a dance where you're kind of going 'Doesn't this feel right? Doesn't this feel right?'
I work with guys like Andrew Scott and Peter (McDonald) and Mo Dunford, terrific actors who are buying into what you're trying to do and then adding on to it. So, they're not pulling it away from what it ought to be. They're all moving in the same direction. So, everybody's gotta buy into the idea, and if you present that clearly then you've got a really good chance. But it all stems from being clear in your own self about what you're trying to make. That, I suppose, is everything.
I wasn't one of these guys who wanted to be Martin Scorsese. I never felt like I was wired in that way. I was more interested in trying to figure out how to tell stories, and then the form came to me as I went through it.
Do you have a particular audience in mind, one that you're trying to engage?
I'm obsessed with the audience, I have to say, and I think this is perceived in some quarters as a kind of non-artistic point of view, but I don't think a film is made until it is witnessed, in a way, and I think the audience's relationship with the film really has to be respected by the director. I think you have to anticipate where they are in a certain moment, and then try and run with that, or continue to ask them to lean into the story, you know?
I do a lot of test screenings on films, and it's beyond fascinating. When you put a cut up on the screen and there's 50 people in the audience, I think sometimes people perceive that as a lack of confidence, but I think it's actually the opposite, in a way. You go for an understanding between the audience and the film. It's not like you're asking them what film you should make, but you're trying to make something that exists between them. I think the film makers that I love, I can tell when I'm watching their films that they know what I think in any given moment, and then they subvert or develop or drive you away from that thought, and make you even more interested in what's happening.
You know, like when a moment occurs and you go 'Okay, well he must now behave in that way because that's what logic dictates...' - and then they bring you over here, and you're like 'Oh my God, he knows what I'm saying...' Then there's like a - you can feel it in the cinema - this charge of kind of electricity that's created in that kind of communion between the audience and the film. I think it's magic. I think that dark room, that group of people in the room and the thing on the screen, I think what exists between them is magic, you know? And you do get it in your living room on your TV, as well. As a director, that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking to try and create a feeling - and that feeling is everything. Paramount.
Does it feel like Irish film is having a moment? And what do you think is fueling that right now?
It does feel like a moment. Those are just some extraordinarily confident Irish films that have come in the last four or five years that I've just been blown away by. I think it's because we're no longer obsessed with telling stories about ourselves. I think what's happened is that filmmakers that happen to be Irish are telling stories with universal resonance, that are not concerned with looking inward and trying to examine who we are.
I think the film industry in Ireland, or in general, is evolving to a place where our confidence as storytellers transcends that. I still think there's a great place for films about Irishness and the Irish experience, but if you look at films like, off the top of my head, like Room or John Carney's films or some of the stuff that I'm doing, they're not about the Irishness. There are elements (of that) in them, of course, but that element isn't the whole kettle.
I think it's important to feel confident and they're just making films for the world, and I think that's the big change that's happened in the last five or six years is that our film-making community seems to have found that confidence, to make a film that goes out into the world and finds a place with all the films from Hollywood and from France and from the UK, you know?
That's very good to see. It's definitely a great moment for Irish film. Long may it continue.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Find out more about the Screen Director's Guild Of Ireland here.