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'Handsome Devil' Director John Butler: 'The World Is a Ridiculous Place'

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Wednesday Sep 20, 2017

Editor's Note: "Handsome Devil" will be screened on Sunday, October 8, 2017 at 7:30pm as part of Atlanta's Out on Film. For more information visit the Festival's website.

Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s, director John Butler was torn between what he saw as two very different worlds. "I went to a fee-paying, rugby-playing school in south Dublin in the 1980s," he told the Irish Times earlier this year. "I was gay and I was into sport. I had such trouble resolving those two things as a kid."

This past year he put those experiences into "Handsome Devil," his charming coming-of-age comedy set in an Irish school in the 1980s that follows the relationship between Ned, a much bullied non-conformist defined by his copper-colored hair, and Conor, a handsome, pouty-lipped transfer student and rugby star. Forced to room together, the pair are immediate adversaries; but over time become friends, that is until Conor's deeply-held secret becomes an issue.

"Versions of many of the key elements in Irish writer-director John Butler's 'Handsome Devil' are familiar," writes critic David Rooney in reviewing the film in the Hollywood Reporter, "from the geek pariah to the secret gay jock, the inspirational English teacher to the homophobic rugby coach, right down to the sports match as a test of outsider self-affirmation. But the sweetness, poignancy and breezy humor of this Emerald Isle Bildungsroman also make it pretty darn impossible to resist."

EDGE recently spoke to Butler about the autobiographical elements to his film, his love of John Hughes films and the importance of being authentic to oneself.

A lesson learned

EDGE: I read where the film is drawn from your own life, even to the point where you reference an experience you had in school when you were caught plagiarizing, like Ned is in the film. Did that happen to you in school?

John Butler: Yes. It was, a song called 'Gift' by the Velvet Underground. But it wasn't the only time. I definitely plagiarized more than once, and got caught more than once. It took me a while to find my own voice. I had a teacher like Andrew Scott's character in the film who was very stern about teaching me that lesson of not speaking in a borrowed voice. It is obviously something I really have taken to heart and remember a quarter of a century later.

EDGE: That teacher provides the film's best advice, that is to be authentic to oneself. Yet in some ways, he's not an ideal role model. He's secretive about being gay and pretty much remains in the closet...

John Butler: That's not necessarily his fault. It is incredibly hard for teachers to reveal those aspects of their personalities for any number of reasons. For instance, in a Catholic school you can be placed under a lot of pressure if your life represents contradicts the values of the school. But also just as a teacher, the more personal information you give away, the more grist there is for people to intimidate you with. There is a certain gentle hypocrisy at the heart of that character that isn't entirely of his own making. He has to teach the lesson of speaking in your own voice, but he isn't permitted to speak in a voice of his own. I don't really have a huge amount of judgment towards him. He is a victim of circumstance in that regard.

His school days

EDGE: Did you hate your school experience?

John Butler: I didn't hate it -- it was fine, but anybody that tells you that their school days are the best of their lives is really stupid. Even if your school days are good, things should automatically get better the day you leave, simply for the fact that you have more freedom. I didn't have the worst time at school or had the best time at school, but I knew that it would be better when I left school. And I think it's okay to say that these are not the best days of your life. They really shouldn't be.

EDGE: After school, you moved to San Francisco in the early 1980s. Was it the allure of the city as a gay mecca why you moved there, or was it for some other reason?

John Butler: I chose it because I wanted to go there. My friends were going there and we went en masse. I got a job in a department store selling girls' dresses. I was 19 years old and was living in a city where everybody was unbelievably individual and I found that massively inspirational to a kid who grew up in a conservative Catholic country like Ireland. To land in San Francisco in 1982 was mind-blowing to me and I came back home permanently altered. It was there I learned to claim my own voice and rejected the labels and restrictions that didn't apply to me. It was about authenticity itself, which is kind of the message of the film as well. Your sexual orientation is a huge part of your life, obviously, but claiming your own voice is even more important. And if any city in America embodied that to me it is San Francisco. It was such a fascinating time and place. I owe that city a huge debt.

The John Hughes influence

EDGE: So coming out was your way of finding your own authenticity?

John Butler: Of course it is. I think it is the dominant narrative of many LGBTs life. It gives you such comfort. It gives you such strength. It is very important part of who I am. And something that I am really proud of -- I am so proud to be a gay person and to be able to give that expression. And creatively I was able to connect to who I am as a writer. I was able to write about things that were emotionally true and connected to who I was. It has to do with everything. It is an aspect of yourself, but it bleeds into every part of yourself.

EDGE: 'Handsome Devil' is being compared to American coming of age movies. Were the films of John Hughes an influence?

John Butler: Massively. I was so into his films growing up. But I was also in the sub-genre of the American high school films -- the ones in the cloistered, ivy-covered buildings like 'School Ties' and 'Dead Poet Society.' The American high school was such an exotic place for an Irish kid because our schools are so different. And the idea that there was a cafeteria in a school where you got your food was something we didn't have them in Ireland. In America, you didn't have to wear uniforms. The music in John Hughes's films was so cool. All of that stuff resonated with me. And it was really fun to work in that sub-genre, but there are things that are dated, The homophobia in those films is kind-of hard to stomach now.

A sports film

EDGE: The music in your film is really terrific. How did you get the rights to many of the songs?

John Butler: By writing long letters to a lot of artists and begging them to let me use it. I really wanted to make sure to make the music as personal to Ned's character. Ned is the kid who thinks that the past is a better place and that modern life is rubbish. It was really important to me that the music was curated as well and in as picky a way as Matt himself would have done. It was motivated by his character and it took a lot of work that required an enormous amount of leg work.

EDGE: Your film is also a sports film. Are you a fan of the genre?

John Butler: I am a big fan of them. Not just sports films, but 'Friday Nights LIghts,' the television show, is definitely a reference that we used in preproduction for this film. I love the narrative drive of sports films, I love the adversarial nature of them, and I also love that school life isn't just sports and it isn't just music, it is everything. I wanted it to be like 50 percent a sports film, not 100 percent a sports film, because that is the reality of school life because like the school play is going on and a bunch of other stuff going on. It is almost a jumble of all the activities and I wanted it to feel that everything and everyone was jostling for attention.

Going mainstream

EDGE: Both Fionn O'Shea, who plays Ned, and Nicholas Galitzine, who plays Conor, are perfectly cast and have great chemistry. Where did you find them?

John Butler: They both put themselves on tape as is the way in 2017 with their iphones. Nick who plays Conor is a London actor. His accent was so good on the tape that I thought he was Irish. He was a great find. Fionn who plays Ned was filming in South Africa with a friend of mine who dropped me a line and said that there was this young man who fit the bill. He put himself on tape and his reading was so brash, yet well-measured that we immediately fell for him. When he returned from South Africa, he came into the room with the other actors and we knew our cast was complete. Casting is 99 percent of the director's challenge. Once you get that right, you have a real chance.

EDGE: Who came up with the idea to make Ned's hair so red?

John Butler: I did. It is very hard these days to manifest difference in kids these days, so we had to find a way for Ned to look different. It was inspired by David Bowie and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, another Irishman. It was Ned's way to strike out and look different.

EDGE: You have said that you want to become a mainstream director, but are determined to include LGBT characters in your films. Is that an issue still in Hollywood today? We aren't getting many films with LGBT characters in the lead. Has the current Hollywood paradigm of regulating gay characters to the margins broken down at all?

John Butler: Not really. I don't think it has enough. There has been great success in independent films that have found there way into the mainstream. 'Moonlight' won the Best Picture Oscar last year and that is such a fantastic film. That was a film made for very little money and found its success later. I would like to see a studio comedy with a realistically treated gay couple at its center where their sexuality isn't just mined for jokes. I think we are quite far away from that still. I think that when money is involved, people are conservative, so we have a long way to go.

My particular area of interest is in comedy films and comedy/drama films and I think there is an underrepresentation of LGBT people in these films. They just aren't real enough. My own personal interest is in writing more well-rounded LGBT characters. I don't think that orientation should necessitate that we be on the margins of society. There is a place for us on the margins and in the middle.

Speak in your own voice

EDGE: In the film you have such a light touch with the comedy. Where does your sense of comedy come from?

John Butler: It comes from my belief that the world is a ridiculous place and has no meaning. I don't find that dark at all. It gives me warmth. It just means the stakes are low. I always think of laughter at a funeral as the moment you feel most alive. And I think it gives life a kind-of levity. The idea that life doesn't have meaning doesn't necessarily feel negative to me. It makes me laugh. I also think it focuses one's attention on the massive importance of living well while you are here rather than projecting all your behavior into some potential of the afterlife. To be alive here and to find the humor and the warmth and the generosity of people is what the challenge of life. To speak in your own voice and to say very clearly who you are and then glide into the world and find people who laugh at the same jokes at you, I think that is the quintessence of life. It gives me a warm feeling. I obviously have an allergic response to religion, which is part of that to.

EDGE: Have you screened the film to school age audiences?

John Butler: Yes. Mostly in Ireland thus far. and it has been incredible. The most gratifying thing to me is people coming up to me afterward and saying that it is their life as well as mine. The worry you have is that you made a period film and I have no interest in doing that. That this is resonating with young people who are encountering these problems today and who see their world in 2017 reflected back at them just fills my heart. I do remember how clearly what it is like to be young, and I think John Hughes remembered how clearly what it was like to be young too, and that's the audience I am really trying to talk to. It is very easy for me to remember that feeling of like, 'look at me/don't look at me.' It's true for a lot of young people because you are struggling with that idea of being left alone and getting attention. It certainly a lot of what 'Handsome Devil' is about?

EDGE: I read where your next film is about the relationship between a gay weatherman and straight illegal Latino immigrant in San Francisco. Can you talk about it?

John Butler: It is called 'Papi Chulo,' and I hope to make before the end of the year. The way I describe is a comedy about loneliness. Again based on feelings that I have in Los Angeles when I was at a low ebb in my personal life. It springs from the same place as 'Handsome Devil.'

'Handsome Devil' is in limited release.

Watch the trailer to "Handsome Devil":

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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