Thursday 20 June 2019

A special relationship: American dreams and the art of friendship in John Butler's new film

John Butler's new film weds two great interests - the US and male platonic relationships. Hilary A White spoke to the Dublin writer-director

Director John Butler
Director John Butler

Director John Butler and (below) the stars Matt Bomer and Alejandro Patino

You wait all your life for things to start happening, and then they happen all at once.

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That's the lesson currently being taught to John Butler. Papi Chulo, his third feature film and the title set to break him as an indie filmmaker of note in the US, is about to be released.

It could be argued that the 46-year-old Dubliner should be out on the campaign trail right now, pressing flesh and making sure that exposure is as wide and vigorous as possible so that a project he has spent two years on has the best chance possible of getting noticed in a world of gaudy Disney remakes and John Wick.

Instead, Butler is spending most of his time in a room in London writing a show for the BBC with the mighty Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras). Once that's done, there are meetings in the US. Then Ireland. Then the US again.

"It's all quite busy at the moment but it's good to be busy and I do mean that," he says.

"You make a low-budget Irish feature film presumably because you have something to say but it's very hard to make a living from it. They take two-odd years each to make and you can't really do much else while you're' doing them, which is probably why I've made three on the bounce. I'm now beginning to approach my working life slightly differently in that I'm now okay with writing something that somebody else directs or directing something that somebody else has written. It's just about changing it up."

Change, it seems, is also no bad thing when you're a film director. It is a profession that is famously prone to stress and anxiety, understandable side-effects when you are effectively helming a ship that is expected to cover the substantial costs that have been poured into it. If it's a success, your name goes up in lights. If the thing bombs, however, you might find it harder to secure funding for your next project.

Leaving aside these consequential fears, the actual job itself is essentially, as one famous director put it, an exercise in answering questions from an array of people about everything and anything, morning noon and night. At least with writing, you and your dramatic intellect can be left in peace to do your job.

"That's an interesting way of putting it," Butler agrees. "It's true, yeah, but directing is also highly intellectual in that you're trying to figure out what the tone of the thing is, or where you have a very tense moment where a hundred things are happening all around you and you're just trying to focus on what's in that little box in front of you on the screen. You have to make an intellectual judgment about what its value is. I find directing incredibly stressful - I think maybe all directors do. But then at the end of it you're like, 'yeah, I want to do that again'!"

As far as Butler is concerned, it's all about getting the audience "on the hook" in some way, making them lean forward into a story and its characters. Spun with comedy, charm, poignancy and an occasional cut of devilment, his work is concerned with setting up an archetype before our eyes and then playing around with it, whether that's a chiselled school rugger-bugger or a boorish lad on a stag weekend. "I've always been a fan of comedy and comedy drama, films that often seem to offer a clear knowledge of the rules and then flout them."

Papi Chulo was met with glowing praise at screenings at both Toronto and the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival (where it was the opening gala with stars in attendance). It tells of a lonely gay weatherman called Sean (Matt Bomer) who suffers a live-television meltdown. Ordered to take time off, he decides to get some work done on his patio in the LA hills. During a visit to his local hardware store, he sees the customary throng of Mexican migrant labourers all jostling for cash-in-hand work. He picks up one of these, Ernesto (Alejandro Patino), and hires him for the day. A language barrier exists but it is easily overcome. Less straightforward is Sean's increasing reliance on Ernesto for companionship as he begins to bring the family man out on excursions.

Following on from The Stag (2013) and Handsome Devil (2016), it continues Butler's fascination with male friendship and the ways that men relate to one other, or, more pertinently, don't relate to one other. It is less overtly comedic than the other two films, however, and even carries some tones of darkness and exploitation that bring added depth and tension to the story.

"I agree," Butler says. "I think that comes from an exploration of privilege and the ways the protagonist is exploiting the relationship. It puts the audience into a difficult place. When you set off at the start of a film with your lead character, as the story unfolds it brings him to new places, and therefore you too. Sometimes, this can be a place where some of your assumptions are hopefully challenged."

"What is it about men and their relationships? I don't know!" he hoots. "Nobody's more surprised than myself! It's the idea of a 'buddy movie' first and then the deeper theme of male friendships second, maybe. I'm fascinated by platonic friendships, and platonic male friendships especially. My next film has three female leads so maybe that'll be different, but in terms of what I've made so far, I'm interested in the lack of or different types of intimacy men use. I just find that endlessly funny. There's something fascinating in the tension between straight-identifying and non-straight-identifying people. The ambiguity of that is interesting, like between Sean and Ernesto.

"I'm a man of questions rather than answers. If sexual attraction exists on some kind of spectrum and not everyone is 100pc straight or 100pc gay or even 100pc bi, then what percentage can a friendship be platonic? It's probably not 100pc, but I don't know, I'm just making the inquiry because it adds tension to a buddy movie in some ways. Like When Harry Met Sally, which was such an amazing film. Can two human beings be just good friends?"

LGBT themes have also always had a presence in the work of Butler. He has spoken openly about his schooling in Blackrock College and the difficulty he had fitting into any school-corridor category by virtue of being both gay and a lover of sports (this forms a core seam running through Butler's warmly received second outing Handsome Devil). Ireland in that era was a strikingly different place to what it is now, Butler nods, something its gay community is acutely aware of.

"What an amazing couple of years we've been through here," he sighs. "Hopefully we can keep it going in some way, and maybe this 'Green surge' that we've just seen is a continuation of that. It's interesting to have these things happen here when America and the UK are swinging to the right. That said, our homelessness crisis is a pretty egregious factor that runs counter to how liberal we like to think we are at the moment. That's a very obvious sore thumb that's sticking out here.

"But in terms of the Ireland I left back then, the idea of it being one of the first in the world to legalise marriage for gay people would have been unbelievable. I left Ireland when it was illegal to be gay. And I went to San Francisco where people were just aggressively claiming their identity in a way that was completely mind-blowing to me. That idea of having any agency in those decisions was just phenomenal. Even later, beyond the fact that it was hugely liberating to me on a personal level, there was also the cultural element of the brashness and colour of American society. If that country gets you at the right age, then it's under your skin for life."

Butler fictionalised his time in San Francisco in his excellent 2011 debut novel The Tenderloin ("It was basically a piece of memoir. It was really such a mad time to be writing about"), and the States have held a special place in his heart ever since landing there after his studies in Dublin (English and Greek & Roman at UCD, followed by a masters in film studies). Working as a TV runner in the US opened his eyes to the potential funding opportunities that he could access back in the smaller pool of his homeland. TV work back in Dublin with RTE and TV3 led to promos and shorts and, by turns, feature film making.

The essence of America never left him, however, and it means a great deal to him to finally get to shoot a feature film there.

"I'm fascinated with America and it's been good to me," he says. "It's obviously in this really interesting moment where it's accountable for a lot of really terrible things, but I love America, and California and LA in particular. I've probably lived there for a total of five or six years of my life now. It hooks into you. I think LA is such a haunted city because of the vastness of it, the natural features of it, the hills and canyons and the seclusion. I've also always been intrigued by gay culture in LA and the interaction of the white and Latino communities there as well, so I always wanted to make a film that was set among that like Papi Chulo."

Papi Chulo is in cinemas nationwide from Friday. Cert: 15A.

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