IFTN caught up with John to talk about his superb new buddy comedy, working with producers Rob Walpole and Rebecca O'Flanagan at Treasure, impressive young Irish acting talent, John Hughes, and how inspiring young people are.
Produced by Rebecca O'Flanagan and Rob Walpole for Treasure Entertainment, Handsome Devil is Butler's second film, following his 2013 feature debut The Stag.
Starring Andrew Scott, Moe Dunford, Amy Huberman and Ardal O'Hanlon alongside Fionn O'Shea and Nicholas Galitzine, the film follows the story of the unlikely friendship of boarding school roommates Ned (O'Shea) and Conor (Galitzine). Despite taking an instant dislike to each other, they are encouraged by their English teacher Dan Sherry (Scott) to find their own voices and defy the status quo of their rugby-obsessed school. As the two bond over music, an unlikely and inspiring friendship begins to blossom.
IFTN: You assembled a great cast for the film – tell us about that and about working with Casting Director Louise Kiely.
John: Louise Kiely casts in Dublin and found the ensemble very quickly. The young guys are fantastic and were found from putting themselves on tape, for the most part. Roy O'Conor and Jamie and Mark and Jay-- all those guys are amazing.
Jason O’Mara recommended a young guy [Fionn O’Shea] who was on The Siege of Jadotville, with him in South Africa, so he had put himself on tape from Johannesburg. Fionn’s tape was so good and it was just so obvious.
Nick [Galitzine] put himself on tape from London and his accent was so good that I rang up Curtis Brown and said, "I've never heard of this Irish actor over there in London." And they were like, "No, he's from Putney!". I did a Skype with him, and he was great. And then once we got Sean and Nick and the other guys into the room together, just even physically, it all made sense. It was a great process.
Then for all the grownups, I always had a wish list in mind and it was just a matter of reaching out to the right people.
I just think we're coming down with acting talent in this country at this point. It's kind of incredible. What a golden age, look at A Date for Mad Mary for example; Seána Kerslake and Charleigh Bailey are amazing. Seána is just luminous in that role. Young men and women in their mid-20s are just such good actors at this point. So it's great to see it.
Louise Kiely is amazing to work with. She's willing to think outside the box. I like how she is in a room. I think it's intimidating for young people who haven't a huge number of screen credits to do that process. But I think the way she runs it is really good and warm. Because you do want people to do well. I never understood that idea of the cold audition process. You want to make them a bit comfortable at least, you know? Self-taping is the way of the world now. You do get tapes, and you do a long shortlist, and then start to see people. But then as you go through the process, so you can see 30 people a day and it's really interesting. I like the process, actually. It's long, but I really enjoy it.
It really makes you interrogate your script when you hear it being read by people in all these different ways, you know? You need to be very confident in your work!
IFTN: Tell us more about your writing process, and how that compares with being on the set:
John: The writing thing is really personal. And then on set you switch hats. I always say that nobody on the set is a bigger actor than the director. You have to project the kind of film that you want to make to people. You have to sell them on that idea.
And then with the actors, you have to make them understand or feel warm enough to give off themselves. There's a huge performer element in that as well, which is the opposite of what you do as a writer. It's like jet lag. It takes a while to get over, to get yourself in that new mode. But I love both of those sides of it. I really enjoy writing. I absolutely love it. The writing side of a writer-director is very strong. I like scripts that work. And comedy writers-- comedy films have to have that kind of structure. I really enjoy that.
IFTN: Who are your go-to people to read your scripts?
John: It's different people sometimes. Obviously, Rob and Rebecca [at Treasure]. They're great with notes and they have the right level of intrusion and respect. They're very good at nurturing a script. They would obviously be the first readers. I have a couple of friends like Peter McDonald who'd always give me a good read and some very good notes. I have a couple of friends who aren't directly in the business but will also read and return notes. I don't show it to a huge number of people. Because I always feel like you finish it, you put it away, and then you wait, and the answers come to you eventually. I always think it's done when I put it away. It's like, "Oh it's done. I'm a genius," and then two weeks later you're like, "Oh no, there's five million problems," and you have to go back. But as soon as you let it out of your hands, then the critical process begins. It's almost like your mind switches and you allow yourself to really be critical. Whereas when you're in it, you're like, "Now we’re at the end. Great." So, yes. I do always put it away. I write in bursts. But I'm a big outliner as well.
IFTN: Tell us more about the production itself.
John: Rob and Rebecca are creative producers in the sense that we would all be driving towards the same thing. So you have a certain amount of money that can facilitate some things, and not facilitate others. And then you have to creatively answer the question of what is needed. That's how we make this stuff, like on Handsome Devil. The creative solution to the problem of finding a school, was to find a school where we could also have our production offices running and that we could also shoot in and around our production offices.
Castleknock College had a building that they weren't using during the summer and we found that we could shoot interiors there, do our production office, and our wardrobe, and the props, and all that in there. And we could access extras from the school. So that to me is really creative producing where you solve the problem. That's the creativity of producing a film.
The HODs and crew on the film are really nice people who are creative and good with actors. Cathal Watters is the DP; Hugh Fox is the sound man; Kathy Strachan did the costume, Louise Myler did the hair and makeup, Ferdia Murphy was the Production Designer; John McPhillips composed the score, and John O’Connor (at Windmill) was editor. Facilitating actors is what I think it's really all about. Although they have to be good at the specifics of their job, you at least have to have one eye on how they interact with people who are trying to be creative. That's a really important part of the job. All those people I've mentioned are really good with actors and have heard that from the actors themselves. And that's really important to me because there's no point in having some genius in some department who can't help them be creative. That's their job as well.
IFTN: What was it like working with so many young actors?
John: I hadn't worked with a cast that young before, but they're just amazing. They're so self-possessed and smart and camera-aware. They know their stuff. I was such a basket case when I was that age. It's just phenomenal to work with 18-year-olds who have that level of self-possession. It's really inspiring, actually. They're so smart and really compassionate about stuff. It's just a joy to write a film at this minute. I have a cast walk onto the set who affirm what you're trying to say, which is that young people are-- have a lot to teach upwards, in terms of age. And it really was borne out by the experience of making a film. I learned a huge amount from all of them. So yes, it was great. The shoot was a joy.
The film is getting some lovely notices and I think it's because it has something to say to young people, maybe. I certainly hope so.
What I loved about John Hughes, the filmmaker, was that he didn't speak down to kids. And it was really such a goal of mine-- obviously, I don't know whether that's been achieved or not, but that's massively important to me. In his films, the adults were always bumbling and unsure and the kids always had this level of wisdom that was far beyond that of their elders. And that's really what I was going for with Handsome Devil. It's great after a screening to have a young person say that they can feel the truth of the film in some way.
The best example is the Marriage Equality Referendum; that was carried by young people coming home to vote, talking to their grandparents and parents about emotional intelligence and acceptance – young people are emotionally very smart, and it gives you hope. People are taking now about building walls – there are all sorts of indicators that the world was a more liberal and accepting place two years ago than it is now. When I made the film, retrospectively, maybe that was the zenith of liberal tolerance in the world. The battle has still to be fought in a way, but young people are amazing at seeing that and recognizing that good is good, and certainly in terms of rejecting those binary definitions that bog people down and that we seem to be obsessed with - young people are willing to be friends with ambiguity and identity, it’s really brave and it’s so inspiring.
Handsome Devil was written and directed by John Butler, produced by Rebecca O'Flanagan and Rob Walpole at Treasure Entertainment, and funded by the Irish Film Board.
The film goes on release today nationwide, and is distributed in Ireland by Eclipse Pictures for Icon Distribution.