‘Handsome Devil’, the sophomore feature from Irish gay filmmaker, John Butler, has secured the praise of critics and fans alike, with its heartwarming exploration of identity.
The theme of being true to one’s self in the Irish school system has been at the heart of Butler’s work since he came out, and in the current world order, the film has an unexpected political charge.
In 2014 the Irish film The Stag, made for just €600,000, was a surprise international hit that brought in big bucks on the other side of the pond. Re-christened ‘The Bachelor Weekend’ in America, it might have been marketed to audiences who enjoyed the comedy franchise The Hangover, but its sensibility was very different, not only in its innate Irishness, but in its attitude to homosexuality. Whereas The Hangover and its sequels displayed a familiar squeamishness when it came to all things gay, The Stag had a male couple in its mix, and a small subplot in which a homophobic father comes to accept his gay son.
As it turns out, the inclusion of gay characters who hold their own in The Stag is part of an agenda its writer/director John Butler intends holding fast to as his career progresses. “My obsession is with having LGBT characters in films and not being ghettoised,” he tells me over coffee in Dublin’s city centre. “I’m aggressively determined to be a mainstream filmmaker, and I’m equally determined to have LGBT characters in those films. It’s not up for debate.”
The word ‘aggressively’ doesn’t tally with Butler in person. He’s very apologetic for being just a few minutes late, soft-spoken, self-effacing and, unlike many an interviewee, open to a two-way conversation. But then again his second film as a writer/director, Handsome Devil, is closing the Audi Dublin International Film Festival this month, and he’s already onto his third, which will be filmed in America. Butler is clearly on an upward trajectory.
“I pretty much always wanted to be a storyteller, rather than specifically a filmmaker,” he tells me. “The films that I loved and that moved me as a kid were the ones I wanted to emulate. I was obsessed with John Hughes films, with comedy generally speaking, with coming of age films.”
I mention the 1989 coming-of-age classic Dead Poets Society in relation to Handsome Devil, which is the tale of an unlikely friendship between two boys in a Dublin school, one a sensitive nerd and the other a rugby jock, and their teacher, played by gay actor, Andrew Scott. Butler becomes excited. “The thing about that film is that the Robin Williams character didn’t learn anything,” he says. “In Handsome Devil the teacher the boys come into contact with has a lesson to teach them about finding one’s authentic voice, but it transpires through the course of the film that they have something to teach the teacher as well.
“Kids can really teach us things. There’s a point of innocence when they’re emotionally at your widest aperture, at their most accepting, so I wanted to write something about that, where the kids have something to teach the adults.”
The kids who largely make up the cast of Handsome Devil had something to teach Butler himself. “They’re a superb bunch of actors who are all in their late teens and early 20s. If you take them as a cross section of young people in Ireland today, they have such confidence, such emotional intelligence. It’s cool to find inspiration a generation down, it’s more inspirational than finding it from older people because it makes you feel so hopeful. I was a basket case when I was 20, a real mess.”
Having grown up in the Dublin suburb of Goatstown in the 1980s, after leaving college Butler went to America’s west coast to work for a TV company. His semi-autobiographical 2011 novel, Tenderloin takes the contradiction of moving to super-liberal San Francisco and deciding to stay in the closet as its central comedic theme. “It was an important staging post on the way to learning to write about things truthfully,” Butler says. Indeed, expressing the true self is at the heart of both the novel, a regular newspaper column he had in the Times, and Butler’s two films so far.
“The minute I came out I began to be able to write,” he says. “I became obsessed with telling the truth in all departments. When I was writing the films or pieces for the newspaper, the idea of revelation, of being true to who you were, became addictive and alluring. It’s almost as if a really clear path opened up of how to express myself, how to tell stories that move people. It all felt to me to be connected to coming out.”
At the core of Handsome Devil there’s a theme about full acceptance of the self, but it’s not in a way that’s usual for a film that might be lumped into the ‘gay coming of age’ sub-genre. “It’s a modern film about rejecting all forms of binary definition, the idea of being true to one’s own self rather than picking a side and defining yourself as one thing or another,” Butler explains. “The bravest thing is to completely yourself.”
After a debut screening for the film at last year’s Outfest, Butler found himself surprised by how politically charged its audience found Handsome Devil to be. “People were coming up to me afterwards saying it’s a very interesting film to be bringing out in Trump’s America. Acceptance of the other and liberal compassion are suddenly becoming political ideas. The message of the film is being true to oneself and being compassionate to everybody, and suddenly that’s become a controversial thing. Those supposed liberal values are something that people are arguing against, whereas I would have thought it’s just base human decency. It’s an interesting time to be making art, there’s an obligation on all of us.
“Before George Michael’s tragic passing my friend Dave and I used to remind each other about when he got caught cruising on Hampstead Heath and he shouted to the police and the paparazzi, ‘This is my culture’. We say that to each other all the time. The idea of it is so important, its defiance and confidence.”
Next up for Butler is another film about an unlikely friendship, this time between a lonely young, white, gay weatherman and an older, straight immigrant worker in San Francisco. The agenda to have LGBT characters in his films continues, but Butler admits it’s going to be an uphill battle as his career progresses.
“It’s not a problem at the level that I’m at now, where you’re making films for half a million or one million,” he says, “but the more money that becomes involved the more conservative it gets, and then you come to the position where the movie execs will say make the wedding planner gay, rather than the grooms.”
There’s a glint of defiance in his eye, and I’m reminded of his use of the word ‘aggressively’. I think those execs will have a battle on their hands.
‘Handsome Devil’ is on general release now. This piece first appeared in GCN 326.
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