When John Butler was a pupil in Blackrock College, he was caught plagiarising an English essay. In the margin of his copybook, his teacher wrote "Never speak in a borrowed voice."
In his new film, Handsome Devil, that line is delivered with frustrated brilliance by Andrew Scott. A school bell rings, interrupting the scene, before Scott, playing an English teacher, shouts stop. "You spend your whole life being somebody else," he roars. "Who's going to be you?"
Sitting outside Millie's Cafe in Silverlake, Los Angeles, during a late-September heatwave, Butler is still a little giddy from Handsome Devil's reception following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), a couple of weeks previously. California is a place he knows well.
His first novel, The Tenderloin, was based in San Francisco in the 1990s. In LA, he stays at a friend's house, and drives a car around that makes a ghostly whistle thanks to a stream of air getting in somewhere and trying to escape.
Butler's debut film The Stag made €750,000 at the Irish box office, more than its total budget. With The Stag, he proved himself a deft writer (along with Peter McDonald) and director, positioning a low-budget film in a commercial genre, laden with excellent jokes, a measured tone, and buckets of heart. If The Stag was about Butler and his friends, this latest film is about him growing up.
I haven't found a way to make things work that aren't personal
Like his films, Butler is sweet and funny, always ready with a joke, and holds himself with a confident vulnerability. “I’m not really able to write things that aren’t deeply felt by me,” he says.
“I haven’t found a way to make things work that aren’t personal. There’s always a sense of writing from a place of maybe emotional familiarity. It could be set in any time or place on any planet, but the feeling, the dilemma, the tension, the torment, the decisions that have to be made in it, they have to be felt personally and understood.”
Handsome Devil's premise is essentially his own biography: "I went to a fee-paying, rugby-playing school in south Dublin in the 1980s. I was gay and I was into sport. I had such trouble resolving those two things as a kid."
After the Toronto screening, Handsome Devil garnered good reviews. ScreenDaily called it "immensely likeable"; the Hollywood Reporter said, "The sweetness, poignancy and breezy humour of this Emerald Isle bildungsroman also make it pretty darn impossible to resist."
A few weeks after we meet in LA, a long line of people patiently stand in the cold outside the SVA Theatre in Chelsea in Manhattan for Handsome Devil's US premiere. The response is rapturous. The film smooths out some of the scrappy charm of The Stag without losing any of the heart that typifies Butler's work.
The next test is the most important one to Butler: the Irish cinema audience. "It's all very well in one way to go to Toronto or Sundance or Cannes and get a response from critics or whatever, but nothing is comparable to your people digging it. For me, that's the LGBT community in the whole world, and young people, because it's a film about young people, but also it's an Irish film."
On February 26th, Handsome Devil closes the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, and will be released in Irish cinemas on April 21st. Back in Dublin this month, and thinking ahead to the Irish release, Butler is no less restless.
“I’m really nervous. It’s unavoidable. You can’t get it out of your head. It might be different if I was living somewhere else, but living here as well there’s no way around it. There’s no way of overcoming that anxiety.
For a long time in my life I wasn't able to write things that exposed anything about myself
“I think for any art to be good, you have to feel extraordinarily vulnerable having made it. If you go to a thing like Toronto and you’re not incredibly nervous about what you’re exposing to the world, then you haven’t done anything of value. It’s really important. I think a part of that is not to be afraid of being nervous. For a long time in my life I wasn’t able to write things that exposed anything about myself, and I think that prevented me from finding an audience or finding a way for it to be out in the world.”
What changed that? “I came out. That changed everything. I kind of became obsessed with writing about the truth. In my 20s I used to try and write stories about men who wanted to disappear all the time. I was unable at that point in my life to realise that was saying something about myself. Then I think it all changed when I was able to come out and really fully try to figure out who I was, which is obviously still underway as we speak.”
I wonder what kind of doors The Stag opened for him. "Little ones," he offers. Fairy doors? "Exactly. By the skirting board. It's all so gradual. The one thing I learned about it is that you aren't admitted all of a sudden to an arena where everything is of amazing quality. There's none of that, or that hasn't been my experience."
Sometimes the best thing to do is make the story that's right in front of you
He met some people he wanted to meet, got sent some scripts, good and bad, but ultimately was guided by his producers at Treasure (Rebecca O’Flanagan and Rob Walpole) to make the film he wanted to make.
“Sometimes the best thing to do is make the story that’s right in front of you, the thing that’s at the end of your nose, just go for that, even if it feels different, or risky or not as ambitious in terms of size.”
Irish cinema is maturing. It has largely moved beyond moody reflections on identity, and given way to an independent sector that is eclectic and ambitious. A landmark year for Irish film in 2015, which included Brooklyn, Room, The Queen of Ireland and Viva, was followed up by The Young Offenders, A Date For Mad Mary, Sing Street and now, in 2017, Handsome Devil.
That Irish film seems to be travelling further and in more interesting ways is of massive relevance to a writer-director such as Butler, who makes genre films. The films that have emerged in this “wave”, if you can call it that, are ones that aren’t “so overtly about trying to figure out who we are, that there is a confidence to work within subgenres and not necessarily driven towards answering the question of what is Irishness. That’s a confidence in storytelling. Irish stories, I think, are stories told by Irish creative talent. I think that’s all that matters. What those stories say is something for everybody, hopefully, but I think those are the parameters.”
Butler's next film, Papi Chulo, is a buddy comedy set in LA about the relationship between a gay weatherman and a straight Latino migrant worker.
“It’s a comedy about loneliness,” Butler says, “being separate in a big city, the idea of ‘normal’ masculinity. What is a man supposed to be like? How is he meant to respond?”
When we meet in LA, the US presidential election is more than a month away. Now, this film about compassion for the other has taken on a deeper meaning. Given Handsome Devil's subject matter of growing up gay, Butler talks about how "bloody tricky" it is for LGBT children, even if there is a sense that in post-marriage equality Ireland, things are getting better.
“All these binary definitions are deeply unhelpful when you’re growing up,” Butler says, “and the most important thing is that you don’t have to pick any side and that it’s good to just be yourself.” He catches himself.
“I know that sounds like a fridge magnet, but it’s also deeply true in the way that fridge magnets sometimes can be. Those definitions, male/female, weak/strong, teacher/pupil, wise/innocent, they’re to be torn down, I think.”
Those binary definitions are often compounded in the conservative atmospheres of private schooling, “I can remember our headmaster and teachers preaching to us about how we were going to be pillars of society and captains of industry. That’s an absurd thing to say to a 14-year-old.”
Like many gay people, Butler’s journey of self-discovery and development seems to have been a long and winding trek. Now, his art is soaring. He talks about his films and the films of others with a great sense of fun and generosity.
Remembering that scribble in the margin of not speaking in a borrowed voice, he says, “It’s been the job of a lifetime for me to try and get to that place, but I feel it’s something I’m maybe moving closer to, just in terms of finding a way of expressing myself that is my own, whatever the value is that other people put on that.”
At an impromptu afterparty for the Handsome Devil New York screening at a gay bar in Chelsea, his smile is broad, his ear frequently leaning down to graciously take in praise from filmgoers.
Given the chance, what would he say to his 16-year-old self now? What message would he send to young Butler if time could be warped?
"It would have been Handsome Devil," Butler says conclusively. "It would have been this film. I hesitate to say it gets better, but Handsome Devil sums it up in a way: hold the line and be yourself."