Love and longing at an Irish boarding school
As the Dublin film festival gets into full swing, Paul Whitington talks to director John Butler and producer Rob Walpole about enlisting Brian O'Driscoll's help for their standout coming-of-age tale 'Handsome Devil'
The Audi Dublin International Film Festival is in full swing, with features, animations and documentaries from across the world being screened at various venues across the city over the coming week. The programme is full of interesting curios, but it's nice to report that one of the standout films is 100pc Irish.
Written and directed by John Butler, and produced by Rob Walpole and Rebecca O'Flanagan from Treasure Entertainment, Handsome Devil is a funny and touching coming-of-age drama set at a rugby-mad Irish boarding school.
Shy and withdrawn 16-year-old student Ned (Fionn O'Shea) hates his school, and things get worse when he's roomed with a new boy called Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), a winsome rugby star Ned immediately assumes is an enemy. He erects a 'Berlin Wall' down the middle of the room, but he and Conor have more in common than either might have supposed.
Andrew Scott and Moe Dunford co-star as teachers battling for the boys' souls in a film that sensitively explores the minefield of sexual identity. I spoke to John and Rob about how they made the film, and the state of Irish film in general.
"There is an autobiographical aspect to Handsome Devil," John tells me. "I went to a fee-paying rugby school, I was gay, I was into sport and I had great difficulty reconciling those two things. So it's sort of emotionally autobiographical - I'm Ned and Conor 50/50 if you like.
"It's an idea I've just dragged through from my childhood, you know the politics of picking a side versus being an individual. We thought long and hard about whether or not to make it a period film, it came up in pre-production a lot and the phrase I was always using was that we just wanted to dampen down the period so it didn't look too specific. You just don't want people to go, oh there's a mobile phone so it has to be post-1996 or whatever. We took a lot of care with that in the production design."
Early reviews of the film have tended to focus on the issue of gayness, but John believes his screenplay has a broader focus than that.
"I was talking to a gay newspaper a while ago, and they hadn't seen the film, and they were like so, one of the characters is gay, and I said no, more than one isn't straight. And that's the answer, it's about identity as much as sexuality, and that's a very contemporary issue, the idea that you don't have to define yourself, and that being brave is sometimes refusing all the labels."
Rugby plays an important role in the film, both as metaphor and dramatic focus, and John and his producers Rebecca and Rob went to great lengths to make sure the sporting sequences looked right. Rugby, because of its intensely physical nature, is perhaps the hardest sport of all to cinematically recreate: In Invictus, for example, which had a budget of $60m, Clint Eastwood made an absolute hash of it. Handsome Devil had just a million euro to play with, but their secret weapon was Brian O'Driscoll. "We were looking for someone who knew a lot about rugby and could corral 30 guys in a bunch of moves they'd be able to repeat identically over and over and that would look dynamic," John explains, "and I think it was Rebecca's idea to get in touch with Brian. And when we ran the first move on the day and he saw the actors trying to play rugby, he just whispered to me 'I wish Gordon D'Arcy was here'. Because the first centre had never played before and was running into contact with his hands down by his sides. Not a good idea!"
"It made a big difference that Brian was there," producer Rob adds. "Everyone came along because of the opportunity of a training session with Brain O'Driscoll. But the problem for John as a director was trying to knit those real rugby players in with a bunch of actors, most of whom had never stood on a rugby pitch before. And it was a challenge because you wanted to make it look real and impactful but you didn't want to hurt anybody."
Rob was worried when John decided that the film's climactic rugby match would need to be filmed at night and under lights, dramatically increasing costs. "I'd a lot of conversations with John about where I was going, you know, 'this is a bit tricky with the lights and all, this is getting a bit edgy from my perspective' - and then, of course, when I saw the rushes, I was like, 'John I'm really glad I had that idea about filming the game at night!' Because any idiot could look at it now and tell you it's much more dramatic."
Making a film with those kind of production values for a million euro can't have been easy. "You have to be inventive," Rob laughs. "We called in favours, we cobbled together extras using friends, my old school, Pres Bray, sent us a bunch of transition year students for those rugby scenes, and they were great. But as a producer you need to have that kind of imagination, and as a director, you need to be able to roll with the punches and work with what you've got."
All that ingenuity has paid off. Handsome Devil opens here in April, but will also run in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the most daunting market of all - the USA. "We went to Toronto with this last September," Rob explains, "and there's 400 films at Toronto, many of them with vastly bigger budgets than ours, and big stars, and it's very difficult to make an impact when you don't have a huge distribution company. And it's a sort of sweet desperation to stand at the precipice of that before you go into the cinema - it's thrilling, but it's also terrifying.
"The thing that was really gratifying for us was that it went in there with all those big boys, and it performed tremendously well with the audience, which was the first stage, and then we're getting requests right after the screening wanting to do an interview with John, and suddenly it was being talked about as one of the top films of the autumn season.
"And that's when you really know that you have something that can travel."
Handsome Devil is another step forward for an Irish production company that's made huge progress in recent years, scoring a solid hit with John Butler's comedy The Stag in 2013, and earning major critical kudos two years later with Paddy Breathnach and Mark O'Halloran's Cuban-based drama Viva.
Has making films in Ireland gotten any easier in recent years, I wonder? "It's not as tricky as it was," Rob says, "and I mean, suddenly, we have Irish films in contention for Oscars, and that's a big change, but is it easier? No, because we don't have what a lot of European countries have, an internal market that allows us to make those culturally specific films, and make them well enough for them to travel, because we don't have a Film Four or a BBC Films, alongside a BFI with market money from distributors. So, we have to cut our cloth. I would prefer if it wasn't such a struggle every time."
Handsome Devil will be the centrepiece of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival next Sunday night, at the Savoy, an honour that means a lot to Butler and Walpole. "Marching up and down O'Connell Street in the rain on a Wednesday when you should be in college, and sneaking into a foreign movie," John says. "That's what the film festival means to me."
"ADIFF is deep in the DNA for both of us," Rob agrees, "it's vitally important. But you know we've been the closing film for three of the last four years, so after this we may need to let someone else take that slot!"
The Audi Dublin International Film Festival runs until Sunday, February 26