Back to school: Director John Butler on bringing Handsome Devil to Belfast Film Festival
Following the success of his debut feature The Stag, John Butler's Handsome Devil is the Dublin writer/director's very personal contribution to the high school movie genre. Butler told David Roy about making the film, which he brings to Belfast Film Festival next week
THE 'coming of age' movie genre and its particularly popular, predominantly American sub-genre 'the high school movie', are familiar to every film fan.
From Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club to Dead Poet's Society, Dazed & Confused, Election and Mean Girls, the latter strand is peppered with pop culture-defining favourites.
Writer/director John Butler was all too aware of the high standards Handsome Devil, his new contribution to this proud cinematic tradition, would be held to.
"I grew up watching American high school films as a kid, and loving them so much," admits Butler (43). "John Hughes, Dead Poet's Society, Election, all those films. I always enjoyed that kind of sub-genre but I wanted to do one where it was slightly updated.
"I guess it helps when you feel that there's something you want to say about the world now, so it's not just an empty exercise."
Handsome Devil is the Dublin film-maker's dramatic comedy about music-loving sport-hating outsider Ned (Fionn O’Shea) and rebellious rugby star Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), two mismatched teens who form an unlikely friendship while attending an elite Irish boarding school.
For his first feature credit as a lone screenwriter, Butler drew upon the somewhat idiosyncratic nature of his own school days as a gay, music-loving sports fanatic at Dublin's Blackrock College during the 1980s.
"I went to a fee-paying rugby-playing boarding school of the kind you find all over Ireland," he tells me. "I'm gay and I love sport and I found it very difficult to resolve those two things or to reconcile them when I was young. Looking around I couldn't see anyone else who was doing that either, actually.
"This is not a period film and even now that issue remains, where there isn't an 'out' premiership soccer player or professional Rugby Union player. It makes you realise that this idea of being forced to choose one thing or the other persists, in a way."
Having premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year to enthusiastic reports, Handsome Devil had its Irish premiere as the closing film at the Dublin International Film Festival last month, where it won the Best Irish Film award from the Dublin Film Critics' Circle.
As mentioned, Butler was determined to bring this 1980s-born genre up to date for a modern LGBTQ-aware audience, kicking against some of the less savoury elements in his teenage film favourites.
"The John Hughes films are interesting," he tells me. "They don't date well in terms of homophobia. And also, there's a couple of characters in the films who are gay in every sense in terms of their plot function and everything – except that he isn't permitted to or didn't have a way to name it back then.
"So it's interesting to see how times change – and indeed how times don't change too."
Despite being labelled 'the Irish Hangover', Butler's 2013 feature debut The Stag managed to be a very different beast from the 'gross-out' Hollywood hit.
Co-written with one of its stars, Peter McDonald, this low budget and frequently absurd laugh-fest was character-driven, tapping into the complex dynamics which can exist between even the closest of friends while remaining palatable for those simply in the mood for 90 minutes of male misadventure.
As with his latest film, Butler found a way to make familiar material say something that mattered to him.
"If you're a comedy film-maker, I think you're always working in a sub-genre, so you have to acknowledge some of the things that have gone before you," he says. "But then you're always trying to write in your own voice, so within that form you're trying to do your own thing."
Handsome Devil also features a couple of returning cast members from The Stag in Amy Huberman, who plays Ned's stepmother (Ardal O'Hanlon plays his father), and Andrew Scott, who takes the role of Mr Sherry, an inspirational schoolteacher in the John Keating mould.
"I love working with Andrew, he's great," enthuses Butler. "I'd never met him before The Stag, but we had a great time working on it and we're good mates now. I actually wrote the part of Mr Sherry for Andrew, so I was very lucky he was able to do it. He's great fun to work with – any actor who can balance comedy and drama like he does, I'm interested in working with."
In Handsome Devil, Ned and Conor are forced to share a room, quickly subdivided by a makeshift wall of furniture to represent their deceptively oppositional characters.
"I wanted to have one from either side of the spectrum," explains Butler of how he created the characters. "I knew that Ned would be a sensitive, pretentious music fan – kind of like I was – and Conor would be an alpha rugby jock.
"It's kind of my Id and ego, if I'm honest – they're both different sides of me, in a way. The 'wall' in their room is a way of representing the seeming vastness between those two sides, where actually in truth we all contain multitudes.
"You can be into the strangest art in the world and also enjoy kicking a ball about. So it was kind of fun to put Ned and Conor really far apart at the start and then watch them drifting together."
The sporting element in Handsome Devil puts it into a further sub-category of the high school movie, the high school sports movie, alongside the likes of Varsity Blues, All The Right Moves and Teen Wolf.
Citing the latter infamously sport-inaccurate basketball-centric Michael J Fox flick as one of his favourites, Butler reveals that he wasn't too worried about making sure Handsome Devil's rugby scenes withstood close scrutiny – and not just because they had Brian O'Driscoll on hand to help co-ordinate the on-field action.
"I met the producer of Jerry Maguire while I was editing and he told me something I never forgot," reveals the director.
"He was like, 'listen: the reds run left to right, the blues run right to left. That's all you need to know.'
"He was making the point that it's the universality of the thing that's important. So long as you're using the sport as a story beat, you're all set."
:: Handsome Devil will be screened on Wednesday April 5 at Queen's Film Theatre as part of the Belfast Film Festival. John Butler will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A, tickets and full programme details via Belfastfilmfestival.org.