There was a strong likelihood John Butler was going to dedicate his next movie to his sisters regardless of its subject matter, but in attaching it to end of “Handsome Devil,” a raucous comedy loosely based on his own experience attending an all-boys’ school, it seems like an ideally subversive and sincere exclamation point.
“It’s another rejection of the binary,” says Butler, whose second film is full of them. “We’re all just people and hopefully, it’s an antidote to some of the bloke-ishness [of my previous films]…I need to pass the Bechdel Test as a filmmaker pretty soon, but I like to think my films are about uncovering the feminine in the masculine and trying to blend those two to what the perfect state is.”
Although there isn’t a proper pair of X chromosomes anywhere in sight of Wood Hill College, the higher education institution at the center of “Handsome Devil,” Butler is able to strike a balance of sensitivity and raucousness in the story of the two young men he follows there in roommates Ned (Fionn O’Brien) and Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), paired together by the dean in the hope as outsiders they will bond. That isn’t immediately the case, particularly when Conor’s rugby playing skills make him popular despite just transferring to the school while Ned’s bright red hair and equally effusive personality make him an easy target for bullies, who tease with demeaning catcalls that always threaten to become something more dangerous. Yet with the tough love encouragement of a new English teacher (Andrew Scott), both begin to find someone in each other they can lean on as they prepare to perform together at a local talent show and simultaneously begin to embrace who they are individually.
Having previously made the wildly popular and just plain wild comedy “The Stag” (known on American shores as “The Bachelor Weekend”), Butler hardly shies away from big, often testosterone-driven comic moments, but also dares to burrow inside of them to find the true ridiculousness of how fragile masculinity is and those that continue to insist on conforming to any number of idealizations of specific classifications when that is no longer the reality we live in. Though he drew on his own personal experience of adolescence as inspiration, the writer/director makes the film feel immediate with its vivid colors and equally luminous sense of observation and shortly after the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, where it received impassioned applause, Butler was joined by one of his stars O’Shea to talk about finding the gifted cast, creating duality in the film’s style to underline its substance and the silliness of bullying.
How did you cast your leads?
John Butler: My friend Jason was shooting a movie at the same time we were casting and said, “Well, there’s a guy over with us in South Africa at the moment who’s very good,” so Fionn put himself on tape and when we saw it, we were pretty sure that’s what we wanted to do. When he came back, we did some reading in a room with a bunch of other actors and he was terrific.
Fionn O’Shea: As soon as I read it, I loved it. John and I come from very similar backgrounds, so it was hilarious, but [it felt like such an] accurate and observant piece of writing that as soon as I read it, I was like “Oh my God, this would be a dream to play this part.” I was over the moon that they asked me to be a part of it.
John Butler: And for Conor, we looked at loads of Irish actors because initially I thought that was something that was important, but then we got a tape from a kid in London who did a beautiful read. He had a very convincing Irish accent and we also knew he was a singer, so we got to talking with his agent and I just thought to ask whether he knew how to play rugby, which is something I hadn’t dared hoped for. It transpired he was in the Harlequins Academy in England, so he was a good rugby player – I thought we’d shoot doubles, so Nick could do it all – he could sing, play rugby, good looking, smart, good actor, Irish accent – the whole package. When he came over to Ireland, we did a couple of days’ rehearsals with Fionn and Nick to learn the song and try and bond a little more generally. And it just clicked. We got very lucky.
Fionn, did you know the guitar before taking on this film?
Fionn O’Shea: No, I didn’t. [laughs] I had done a bit of singing, believe it or not, but I had never played guitar. I don’t know whether I told [John this], but I tried to take up guitar when I was younger and my music teacher was like, “Your fingers are too small…you’ll never be a guitar player.” This is like at six, seven years old…
John Butler: [laughs] Yeah, and you’re like I’m seven. And my fingers are seven.
Fionn O’Shea: Yeah, exactly. So Nick was very helpful and also one of my friends who played guitar taught me, and I’m semi-functional playing the guitar now, which is great – it’s such a great thing to come through at the other end.
John Butler: But you know what’s interesting and it bears out equally to both these leads is that nothing’s more important than being an emotionally intelligent actor. In today’s film business, so much emphasis is placed on preparation and everybody’s entitled to have their own process. But to be smart and to be able to act is everything. And these guys have that. All the other stuff can be grafted onto them in whatever way is required. To read a script and know what the character is and know how to execute that is everything, so I was never worried about much of that extraneous stuff.
The song becomes such a crucial part of conveying the evolution of these young men — each time you hear it, you get something different from it. How did that come about as the spine?
John Butler: That song is called “Think for a Minute” by the Housemartins, who were a band I loved growing up, and the idea is that all the music is sourced from that box of records Ned found in the little room. I wanted a song where the male voice was very high and febrile – and to sing high is a manifestation of femininity, which people perceive as weakness, but that’s obviously complete bullshit. And this is a film about picking at all those binaries – strong/weak, male/female, gay/straight, old/young, wise/innocent — that are increasingly [disappearing] in our world, and are of so little value. But if you go to an all boys’ school, you still have those drilled into you. So I wanted a song to require that exposure on the part of a singer — or an actor — because then you’re really getting to the heart of the story and telling it in ways beyond words.
You said after the screening, you actually based the color scheme on that same idea of binaries.
John Butler: Yellow and blue all the way. Like the flag was always going to be yellow on one side and blue on the other, the crest of the school says, “Out of many voices comes one,” and the [rugby] coach is always saying there’s one voice on this team, not 15, so the whole struggle of the film is how you’re told about the whole ethos of teamwork, but ultimately the struggle is to be an individual and are they compatible? You want to visually reflect that and the split-screen and the colors were always about trying to set these arguments against each other. In the middle of that, there’s a little spark like, “Oh, is it possible to be everything?” Once you get into that whole business of picking apart binaries, it becomes something that consumes you. You go, “Oh, what’s the opposite of this? Why are they in opposition?” Can they be embodied by the same person? Is there value in picking one over the other?” It’s an interesting thread to pull in the story – and you always want to do it on the visual side.
Fionn, was there some detail that helped you figure out who this character was?
Fionn O’Shea: John and I would chat about the character, and John knew exactly what he wanted, but we were both reading off the same hymn sheet. [Literally] there was a thing about finding a voice for Ned, especially in the voiceover – because it would be so easy for Ned to be sullen and moody, but he’s not. He’s genuine and still has a spring in his step despite everything that’s going on. That’s what makes him so likable. It would be very hard to watch this if he was constantly complaining.
John Butler: Yeah, what Fionn gets so well as an actor is this idea that young people will never show you how they feel. If they’re hurting inside, their response is “No, I’m absolutely fine.” He understood you’re playing two things there — like when he’s complaining to the headmaster, he’s [putting him on], but inside he’s like I can’t share with this guy. [Fionn] balanced that perfectly. We learn to be liars very young, right? Like three years old, we’re starting to lie.
Was this one of those intense shoots where everybody was living together in the same location at this school?
John Butler: Yeah, we were actually in a school that was working as a school at the time, so a lot of the extras were attending the school we were filming in. The rugby pitches were there, the gymnasium was there and the little music room — for me, it was really like being back in the school I had been to as a kid. I felt the same panic and anxiety. [laughs] Surrounded by 200 guys who, when your back is turned, are just saying or doing the most awful things.
It’s funny as an adult, school is such a distant memory, you forget how intense it is. It’s easy to think you can be whoever you want and everything’s great because you’re 44 years old and you’re living in Dublin or Los Angeles and everything’s lovely. But this is what school is still like for so many people, so this message is still [relevant].
Fionn O’Shea: Absolutely. When we were filming with a large amount of extras, that atmosphere and that testosterone-fueled environment was there and it was real. Obviously, I’m playing the character Ned in the film, but in reality, when we weren’t rolling, I was walking around in the costume with the hair and everything like that, and there was a little bit of the same kind of…
John Butler: People shouting at him, throwing things, ripping clothes…
Fionn O’Shea: But everything was great! [laughs] [I thought why] Ruairi [O’Connor] plays the part of Weasel so well is because what’s different about this, and it’s so relevant now [because of bullying] is that obviously, because he’s bigger than me, it would be easy to be physically intimidating, but most of his intimidation is a psychological intimidation, and that’s a lot harder to cope with. If someone punches you in the face, you can get up and go and punch them, but it’s a much deeper kind of thing [if it’s psychological]. It’s amazing.
John Butler: He’s an amazing actor.
Dare I ask if there was a particularly crazy day on this shoot?
John Butler: There was an interesting day where we rented a train carriage. In Ireland, if you want to shoot on a train, you have to rent a carriage and just go wherever the train is scheduled to go that day, so we when we went down to Cork [on a train], we filmed for three hours, got off, and spent half a day in Cork, and got back on the train and filmed the rest of the scenes going back. That was very hectic with loads of extras and train announcements are going on. You’re rolling through towns and the weather is changing — it’s extraordinarily stressful, but that’s just what it’s like.
Fionn O’Shea: The music room [at the school] was quite small.
John Butler: Yeah, that’s right. I nearly asphyxiated a number of people in that music room.
The production design in there, and in general, was extraordinary. John, did a lot of that come from your past?
Fionn O’Shea: That music room, something identical existed where I went to school! I know people would go in there and there would be a dartboard and a TV and a PlayStation. It’s usually underneath the stage.
John Butler: Always. And we were in there and it’s like this needs crash mats, fold-up chairs – all the things you feel from school days. The guitar has this “This Machine Kills Fascists” [sticker], which is what my friend has on his guitar and Woody Guthrie had it on his. All those details – that’s the fun of filmmaking. Our production designer is wonderful and we were all digging into our own memories.
There’s a particularly killer montage in the film where some of the boys are making this strange “Aruuuu…” howl to taunt others and you show how silly their faces look one by one – where did that come from?
Fionn O’Shea: The last face is brilliant.
John Butler: Yeah, the faces, especially the last guy…we just sat in the middle of that room and we had shot another scene and we had the camera on sticks, so we were like, “Who’s next? Who wants a go?” And the kids were like, “Me,” “Me,” “Me…” so we were just hoovering [the reactions] up.
Fionn O’Shea: Some of them just couldn’t do it, like “uh oh.”
John Butler: [laughs] People had a lot of different interpretations. I ADR’d two or three of those because I have such experience with that stuff. That was a noise that pervaded my school days and it’s just so ridiculous. Do you know Kenneth Williams, of the “Carry On” films? He’s a wonderful actor and he used to simper like that, he had that noise, “Ohhhhrrrhhh”, and I think it might come from there, like an affectation of extreme camp. I hate bullies, but I find something very funny about bullying. Their stupidity I find endlessly funny and interesting.