Irish director John Butler is heading to Perth as for a Q&A (March 3rd & 4th) for his latest film, Handsome Devil. The schoolboy comedy-drama about life, rugby, music, and growing up gay in an all-boy’s boarding school is screening as part of the Lotterywest Festival of Film for PIAF. Butler spoke to DAVID O’CONNELL about inspirational teen films, music, and how his own experiences helped him to write the script of the film.
Handsome Devil is the story of Ned Roche, an openly gay musically inclined boy with a love of punk aesthetics (played by Fionn O’Shea), who’s life is thrown into chaos by the arrival of his new rugby playing room-mate. The two form an unlikely friendship, but it is tested by the pressures of the school.
“The inspiration came from my school days,” Butler admitted. “I went to a rugby playing, fee paying, all boys school in the eighties. I’m gay, and I’m very into sports, and I had a lot of trouble reconciling those two things for a long time. That’s the idea for the two main characters in the film. Also the films I loved growing up, were the American high school sub-genre (Dead Poet’s Society, School Ties, a lot of early John Hughes). I loved them, and wanted to do a high school film of my own, and this was the opportunity.”
Indeed, Handsome Devil, has a number of nods to the culture of the past. From The Breakfast Club title card, to hair inspired by Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, to the guitar emblazoned with “this machine kills fascists”, Butler has thrown in a lot of film and music references. As with many of the films of this genre, music plays an important part.
“We got a lot of our first choices for songs,” he says. “The box of records Ned finds, is meant to inform the sound track. It’s not a period film, it’s set in the here-and-now, but Ned romanticises the past. It reflects Ned’s state of mind. Pretty pleased with the soundtrack, it’s a very important part of the film, as it is for any childhood. Music, clothes, and hair are three contested areas when you are young. Three ways to express yourself.”
On the other side of the coin, rugby provided some of the most challenging scenes to film. Fortunately they had help. “The rugby scenes were a nightmare. It was four nights work, really difficult to shoot, and without a doubt the hardest part. Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland captain 2003-2012) helped us choreograph those scenes. He knows a little about rugby,” said Butler slyly. “He helped with the action and the plays, and gave us six or seven moves we could repeat while we moved the camera around on the vehicle.”
So with the benefit of hindsight, would Butler consider himself more of a Conner or a Ned? “That’s the point of the film, I was both in a way. It was hard as you had friends that would want you to be one or the other. I was listening to The Velvet Underground and figuring out how to be a Beatnik, but also into playing sport. If you cut me down the middle I’d be half Ned and half Conner.”
To that end Handsome Devil excels at setting up binaries, but establishes a much more nuanced approach. “Once you start to tell a story about two sides, it starts to come in at every sense,” Butler says. “You start to look at the binaries; teacher/ pupil, young/ old, wisdom/ innocence. Any story about binary differences, and you can see them wherever you look. In the beginning of Handsome Devil, I was showing the world in yellow and blue (the school colours), and introducing the full spectrum of colours at the end to show the blending. It’s nice to see the world as this beautiful shade of grey, rather than black or white.”