Doing His Devil Best: Interview with John Butler

Set in a rugby-playing boarding school, Irish director John Butler's new movie Handsome Devil is a superb buddy comedy that explores issues of identity and sexuality. He talks about his youthful adventures in San Francisco, challenging traditional notions of masculinity, and why he wants to be a mainstream comedy director.

Talking to the endlessly empathetic and sharply intelligent John Butler is always a pleasure, and before we even mention his shining gem of a buddy film, Handsome Devil, we immediately start bonding over our shared love of San Francisco. I’m phoning him from my home off 24th Street, just blocks away from my local, El Rio. It’s a bar he frequented a lot when he lived in this city from 1995 to 1999 – a time he describes as vital and formative.

“It so fucking mad and scary and interesting and real,” Butler reminisces. “My mind was at its widest aperture then because I was 19-years-old and I came back home and missed it horribly. It was the most exciting place on earth. Ending up at 3 in the morning at clubs listening to house music that was only becoming big in Ireland. It was heaven for a young person.”

Living in San Francisco in the ’90s, before the tech boom and its current wave of gentrification hit, Butler was able to experience the city in all its open-armed, welcoming glory. All genders and identities were embraced and celebrated. This idea was invigorating for Butler, who was learning to navigate his own sexuality and desire to push back against ideals of masculinity.

“It does fascinate me, the supposed value of masculinity,” Butler agrees. “I grew up in a very rigidly binary world, and went to a rugby playing school in Dublin where the most rigid rules were enforced. And in going to San Francisco when you’re that young and your mind is that open and a bit squishy, you were suddenly being exposed to this unbelievably vibrant and unapologetic LGBTQ community. There was a real sense of personal freedom being more important than any sense of enforced commitment to your country, or any particular organisation – it seeped into me so deeply. I don’t think you can live in San Francisco for any real amount of time and not absorb some of the aspects of liberal society. I came home and tried to write, and finding my authentic voice took time, but the seeds were sown there. I’d experienced that liberal counter-culture in California, and I was trying to get back to that emotional place where you can be exactly who you want.”

The search for an authentic voice is a big theme in Handsome Devil, a buddy comedy about Ned and Connor, two lads in a rugby-playing boarding school. Ned (Fionn O’Shea) is ostracised because his peers think he’s gay, and is wary of new kid Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) who’s a star rugby player. But as the two young men become friends, they realise that they’re both fighting to assert their true selves in a world filled with assumptions and limitations.

The story is inspired by Butler’s own youth and his resistance to the binaries being placed upon him.

“As a kid I loved sport but knew that I was gay, and found it impossible to reconcile these two seemingly disparate aspects of myself,” he says. “I couldn’t embody them. It felt very clear to me that a choice had to be made, and everywhere I looked that idea was being enforced. And still is, I think; this isn’t a period film. It’s based on something from my own memory, but in 2017 we still don’t have an out Premiership soccer player, or a gay rugby union professional, so the need to make that choice is still obviously being presented to people. The struggle to choose was my childhood. I’m 50% Ned and 50% Conor; I was a very pretentious music-obsessed kid on the one hand, and then gay and manly and obsessed with sport on the other. It was nice to drag those two sides of myself out in an explicit way, then watch them drift together. It’s a story about my personality, in a way.”

Butler’s point about the homophobia and machismo still rampant in sports culture is well made. One only need look at last year’s shaming articles about gay Olympic athletes, who were outed by a straight journalist who stalked their Grindr profiles, to see the homophobia that permeates our idea of what male athletes “should” be. Meanwhile, examining the amount of domestic violence and rape committed by NFL players in the United States reveals a toxic and dangerous masculinity that’s supported and enforced by sporting culture.

This sadly isn’t new or unique to sports. As evidenced by widespread homophobia and sexual and physical abuse in the military, and society’s acceptance of the misogynistic “locker room talk” of President Trump, a certain amount of toxic, machismo-based groupthink is often condoned and even expected within male-only spaces. And these often override individual identity, preventing alternative expressions of masculinity or sexuality. Butler’s experiences of being in a rugby-playing school clearly illustrate how sports can enforce this type of gender conforming.

“Rugby is the most masculine, in one way, of the sports – and I use that term here in its limited binary sense – though there is also this sense of homoeroticism and intimacy as well, which often goes unexamined,” he muses. “I think with team sports there’s a greater pressure to engender this community spirit, and that often is at odds with recognising who you are as an individual – and there’s another choice to be made.”

Butler does have hope in our ability to progress, however, and much of it is due to the deep faith he has in young people to push social discourse in a more open, empathetic direction.

“I do believe that young people are much more open and have an emotional intelligence that is then slightly bred out of you,” says Butler. “Or you become more cynical as life teaches you tough lessons. But I think there’s a point in your youth when you really are so emotionally intelligent, and you have much to teach even people who are older than you. I always think that education flows upwards in a way we don’t recognise – young people teach older people more progressive attitudes, if only we listen. Even in terms of the marriage equality referendum, I think that was carried and passed by young people who were also teaching their mums and dads and aunts and uncles.”

The young characters in Handsome Devil are smart and witty and supportive of each other, and they push the adults and teachers around them to be better – a portrait of teenagers finding their voice and using it for good. I ask Butler when it was that he discovered his authentic voice.

“Oh god, that’s still a work in progress!” he laughs. “I think a lot of it was connected to my coming out. Once that happened, I became obsessed with telling the truth and being emotionally vulnerable and allowing that to be seen by other people. Once that really took hold, things started happening in my career that weren’t happening prior to that. When I was in twenties, I used to write a lot, but they were always stories about men who wanted to disappear, and I was unable to see what that was saying to me. Once I began to engage with the more personal type of writing that was connecting to one’s own weakness or sense of vulnerability, I got a column in the Irish Times and started then to make TV stuff. Everything started to happen much more quickly, and that was an important lesson in terms of embracing openness and vulnerability. People really do need it and respond to it because they see themselves reflected in it.”

Butler’s upcoming work continues to examine gender, desire and relationship, as he’s currently working on a comedy series about a gay 11-year-old boy in the ’80s, and a dramedy called Papi Chulo, about a lonely white man in America who strikes up an unconventional relationship with an older, Latino migrant worker. He stresses that both projects are comedies – an unfortunate necessity for projects that focus on LGBTQ characters. Butler says he is a huge fan of films like Moonlight and Weekend that feature gay characters – however he notes that many films that focus on LGBTQ characters are either arthouse films or very serious dramas that only reach certain elite audiences. This is yet another binary that Butler is determined to dismantle.

“I’m on a bit of a quest to hold two ideas in my head at the same time,” he says, “in that I want to write about LGBT characters, but I also want to be a mainstream comedy director, and don’t want either of these things to contradict the other. I’m hugely proud to be gay, it’s almost like a privilege, but at the same time I’m refusing to let that lock me out of mainstream commercial cinema. Right now my question is why can’t gay stories be funny? Why are they not permitted happy outcomes? I would love to see more mainstream comedy films where gay characters are treated the same as straight characters, in that their sexuality is just a part of their identity. Someone asked me the other day ‘Is your film a gay film?’ I had to break it to him that films don’t actually have a sexual orientation!”

 

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