Ashley: Welcome to episode #183 of the “Selling Your Screenplay Podcast.” I’m Ashley Scott Meyers Screenwriter and Blogger over at – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I’m interviewing Writer/Director John Butler. He’s a British film maker who recently did a film called, “Handsome Devil” which is a coming of age story about a Prep school that loves rugby. It’s a really excellent film. And not at all the sort of typical low budget genre film that I typically talk about. So, stay tuned for that interview.
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I’d just like to mention a free webinar I’m doing on Wednesday August 9th at 10:00a.m. pst. It’s called, “How to Effectively Market Your Screenplay and Sell It?” I’m going to go through all of the various online channels that are available to screenwriters, and give you my unfiltered opinion of them. I get questions all the time, about “The Blacklist” about “Ink Tip” about various screenwriting contests. So, in this free webinar I’m going to be talking about my experience with these various services. Again, this webinar is completely free. Don’t worry if you can’t make it to the live event. I will be recording this event. So, if you sign-up, you’ll get a link to the recorded event after it happens. To sign-up, just go to – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/freewebinar. And “freewebinar” is all low case letters and all one word. I will of course link to it in the show notes as well. Also, if you are already on my Email list, you don’t need to register. Anyone who is on my Email list will get all of the details so that they can attend this webinar if they would like to. So, once again, if this sounds like something you would like to learn about. Just go to – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/freewebinar.
So I am going to be recording a bunch of episodes so I don’t have any real updates to report on my film, “The Pinch.” But, I do want to mention a live webinar that I’m going to be doing in August, where I will be going through all the steps to producing a micro-budget feature film. The webinar is called, of all things – “The Pinch” Producing the Micro-Budget Feature Film.” I’m going to go, I’m going to do this online webinar on Wednesday August 23rd at 10:00a.m. pst. I’m going to charge a small fee to attend. But, if you are looking to produce your own
micro-budget film? I think you will get tremendous value out of this. I’m going to go through all and every aspect of production, how to write the micro-budget feature film script. How to raise money for it, a micro-budget project, pre-production, and every aspect of post-production. As I close in on completion of my own micro-budget feature film, “The Pinch.”
I think this is a great time to do this webinar. As everything is fresh in my mind. I will be answering any and all questions that you have about this process. I’m going to be going through my own budget
line-by-line, so you can get a first hand look at exactly where I spent the money. If this sounds like something you might like to learn more about it, just go to – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/class, again that’s – www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/class. Of course I will link to it in the show notes as well.
So, now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing, Writer/Director, John Butler, here is the interview
Ashley: Welcome John to, the “Selling Your Screenplay Podcast.” I really appreciate you coming on the show and talking with me today.
John: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Ashley: So, to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
John: I am originally from Dublin in Ireland, and growing-up in the 80’s as I was just like every other kid, I would like to go to the cinema. But, it wasn’t until my college days that I started to read. And get entrusted lot, really for two reasons, the Dublin Film Festivals started a program really interesting stuff at least. I used to take a week off of college. And non-be announced to anybody, and just go and train 4 films a day. But also at that point in my life the multiplex were starting to arrive in Ireland. And previously we only had 4 cinemas. But a couple of multi-plex’s opened my first year in college. So, the choice and range of stuff you could go and see just blew-up. So, really I saw films story telling really began there. I began to think about this possibly that I could try and do. Of course I kinda took along a circuitous road towards getting a written a for newspapers, and I’ve written model. I have written sketch comedy for TV. I have written in shop for TV, directed documentaries, and commercials so it’s easy to work there at all in story-telling. I think that’s kind of how I consider myself first and foremost, is a story teller. I guess afore mentioned fan first of all in feature films.
Ashley: Okay. So, maybe just break down some of what you just said, a little bit. It sounds like you were doing other types of writing, not necessarily screenwriting. But, maybe just take us through those steps of actually thinking about, hey this is something I could actually do to turning it into a profession. What were some of those steps and how did you eventually arrive at writing and directing feature films?
John: Well, there’s just the progress of a licensing you know, it’s a, especially back then. It was a very lofty ambition to be a film maker. And also I would in as many people are, very intimidated by the type of person they thought you ought to be to make a film. And this is changing somewhat. The arc of the type of personality who ought to be a film maker. Was, male, and straight and ego-centric, and obsessed with cinema. Obsessed with the language of cinema with the weight of the cameras used to take.
And tell a story in a very specific, very technical way, that’s kind of arching technical type of knowledge then, was quite forbidding. And if you are into comedy then you just wanted to tell and make films that are kind of funny than, I would say. Actually it’s quite a forbidding business to get into if you don’t see films in the same way as a lot of the same people who are making them. So, I always loved and you know, the films that I grew-up with that were in fact comedy. As a comedy film maker here, our kind of intention is to tell a story that’s funny. So, for me it was more important to just get going. Firstly, trying to make anything. But also to try and just remember a lot of comedy that I was into. So, my first job after leaving college was, as a runner for a television company in San Francisco. I immigrated to San Francisco after high school. And my first job was runner at a TV company which was, gave me a practical grounding to love really a more basic aspects of TV production. That was kind of the first staging parts of that, that way through out all of this figure i out. And trying to write, and figure stuff out and just took quite a long time. But, I moved up the ranks enough. TV production company, but by the end of the second year I was starting to make small little pieces for their marketing show, and directing and producing kind of one-minute segments for them, and their marketing show. And I did that for 3 years in total.
And after that we made a documentary. Which is my first kind of long form project. And I decided I wanted to kind of try and get back control of and make something myself. And we made a documentary in 1999, “The World Series of Poker” in Las Vegas. I followed 5 professional poker players through that tournament. And made a 1-hour documentary. That I managed to sell to the floor in the U.K. and in Ireland, and a couple in France, and a few other people. It was kind of my first good credit I would say.
Then, after that, I just continued along the road and made a couple of short films, which I had written. And others were by other people. I was starting to try and get experience as a director at this point. Because I knew, we at this point, it wasn’t just writing, but directing I was interested in. And after making a couple of short films, I was reading then, getting very interested in writing. And I had other longer form projects. And also been writing sketch comedy with some friends. One, and I got to write and direct with them, and a TV sketch called, “Your Boss Off.” Which took a long time to develop though. It aired on Irish TV, and did quite well. So, you can see by this point that I kind of jumped around through, like 4 different types of the, of writing. Just creation, I would say. The earl part of the story, had to take me a little bit of understanding of what had to make the film. So, when the time came for me to start. I went through 12, I had already amassed lots of experience. You know, it was my first feature film. So, yeah, it had come to that, kind of an interesting circuitous journey. Of course full circle now.
Ashley: So tell me, yeah. Now tell me about the, this TV series, that was called,
“Your Bad Self” is that correct?
John: That’s right, it was a sketch called, “British Show.”
Ashley: Okay. And just to talk, yeah, and just talk us through that and how you were able to get that produced?
John: Well, I some friends and I used to write sketches during the week in the evenings to kind of amuse ourselves. And when we had amassed enough to make a pilot. We approached Archkey, which is a broadcaster there in Ireland. And they funded a 15-minute pilot.
And so we, I directed 15 minute pilot. And in 2001, and then we kind of went into development, and helped actually. And believe it or not, it took a grand total of 9 years, for the second half of it, the pilot to be add/commissioned. And so, we had 2, 15-minute pilot, which then Archkey molded together, and broadcasted this, as a single half-hour pilot. And following the success of that they commissioned that, 6 by 30-minute series. So yeah, that was really long road. Plus, I had, sketch comedy was fascinating and great fun to write and feature, it’s also incredibly tough. So yeah, it was really, when I look back on it now, I think ah, we had so much persistence bunch. In the years between getting the first level 15-minute pilot commissioned, and then the whole show going on air. I was writing other things and keeping my career going. And working and directing from television commercials, and I was also making TV programs for a, an Irish TV network. So, you know, you will always be all of those things, you know, making TV programs, and directing personal films. And teaching the great lessons when the time comes as well.
Ashley: Yeah, sure, sure. Okay, so let’s dig into “Handsome Devil.” Maybe to start maybe you could give us a quick pitch or log-line for that film?
John: Sure. It’s about two boys who are in fact, forced to share a room together at their boarding school. And I think their lot different from each other. One is a Rugby star, and the other is kind of a thief and a sensitive musician. And their needs are total enemies. But, they come under the influence of an English teacher. He’s dire English scholar, often he is influence on them is one of making them realize they are not different at all. So, if body is of these two boys who become friends and then their friendship is tested by the authorities at the school. It’s really based in the American high school tradition, John Hughes or “Dead Poets Society” and things like that, and school ties or one of those films? but a bit of an advancement on those terms of the subject matter I think.
Ashley: Yeah. So where did this idea come from?
John: And, I went to school similar get off. In my jobless, in my mind and body about guys in a different way. You know, I’m gay and I love sports. And then on the inside of the equation. I was also very, kind of at peace and that pretentious part of music as a kid. So, I’m 50% each of it, two guys. And so it was kind of a quests of writing two different off sidings of Irish and body nation two different people. And then a line two different people draw together. And it’s not all about barricade. But I talk about a lot of emotional bunch of ideas. And truth in the hot portions as opposed to being in the head. A lot more facts of the story, but about the way it feels. And set in mind.
Ashley: Yeah, and take us through just the process. So, it sounds like you kinda started with some sort of experiences that you wanted to explore in a movie. But, at some point, there’s kind of the spine of the movie, which is sort of the specifics of winning this rugby championship. So, just take us through sort of your process of how you kind of arrived at these specific story. That this goes through with these characters.
John: Well, you know, character is the story. And so, they are kind of tells you what needs to happen. And I always believe that the most interesting thing about the rising.
Is that it’s Cartridge is not informed lost character, the character is the plot actually. Because certain things can’t happen. And if the consistency of the character don’t land. See, you have those two boys, and once yu have a teacher. And like, Mr. Sherry, the story tells itself, in a way. We began to manage a rugby coach who is a odds with the teacher. And then you have two sets of binders. You don’t have two boys who think they are at opposites, and then you have the two teachers. Who are parental provisions for the boys who also think the opposites. Once you have those four main characters the art of the story goes clear about who they are. The teacher, who’s interest in sport, who will be driven toward making sure the school’s rugby team wins. And because that’s safe for nature. And perhaps something that thwarted him when he was a pupil in the school. And the other teacher, the English teacher will cross extremes. Bullying at the hand of the sports people in school. So, he will trust divergent. Both of those things are around two boys who are trying to figure out how to be themselves in a school. So, I always feel like the character tells it, the story. And so, when you are writing it. A life line for a story than attention must be paid in who those characters are, anyone. So, any kind of strength and knowledge see.
Ashley: Yeah. I really enjoyed this movie, and one of the things that I just came away thinking about. Is exactly what you were talking of. This sort of idea of the story driving character, or character driving story. And one of the things I see repeat, a lot of newer writers, when they set out to write these coming of age stories. They feel very unfocused and a lot of the scenes you know, you don’t quite know why they are doing in the movie. And I just wondered if you can speak to that. Because like as an example, and again, I hear what you’re saying. Where the character is kind of pushing the story. But, as an example, you put these guys in a room together. And they literally put a wall down the middle of the room. And then, you know, yes it’s character driven. But, there’s a story spine behind that. As there’s two guys, who sort of bond. So, the scenes are not just about the characters. They are also about pushing the story. And I would just be curious to hear your process. Did you, do you write like, you know, was this script like originally 200 pages? And then you cut it down to sort of the main pieces that move, that also moved the story forward? Or do you just create a detailed outline that allows you to write these pieces, these scenes that are very much still tied to sort of the story’s spine.
John: Well, I don’t write it, anything until the entrance works. So, one rule that I have of the hard and fast is the? There’s no dialog at that times, because you can write a lovely piece of dialog that has the cracks in it, in a scene that otherwise has no dramatic function. And when it comes time to shooting or editing, or any of the hundred times where you have to target a valuable scene. Those in the middle of the scene the clue that your dialog is low. You’ll find it harder to make the right decision, which to lift it out. And I don’t, I think every scene now has to push this story forward. And if it doesn’t, than it has to come out. So I be a disciple a guy like
Eddie Wilder, you know, who I’m a comedy writer and director of a comedy/drama. So, straight drama is different so, you know, there’s room for ambiguity and for scene that don’t appear to do anything? For your asking the audience to own their own interpretation into it. And to figure out how they feel about a certain moment. If you have one of those scenes in a comedy film, the audience will start to dis-engage, if you have two you lose them. And usually you try to manage to get them back if you’re lucky. But, rough indulgences can’t be afforded. So, the first thing I do when I’m writing. Is to write a main that works. By working, I mean, each scene as a palate and a full description that I need dialog in it. And that description involves what it does, not just it’s function dramatically.
That’s because “X” meets “Y” and wants something, and he doesn’t really get it, or he does get it? Fine, and that moves the story forward, bond. And not until I thought of it, it works and checks out. In that every scene transforms the whole thing from falling apart. Finally when something works do I move to writing the scripts. So for me the age of writing is it, is in the add line. And it was often the last of it, takes so long to write. The script is the answer sometimes, in this 3 weeks, that’s why it takes 6 months. And the just of it, trying to stay true to the ad line until it works. And I don’t buy into the idea of writing a draft and then taking it from there, it just doesn’t work for me. What would work for me of course. I’m really just speeching complete piece of objectively I’ve got. For me, your ad line has got to work, you know it. You know where you’re going, and then what you do, you can relax, and you can write dialog in a way that feels right and true to the characters you know. Now, in another document, you can get into writing dialog and figuring out who the characters are? But, you know, the tension has to be good and to be ad line until then, the ad line works.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. And again, I’m at this point, I’m just kind of just trying to get your feedback on this? The way you just described it? That sounds very story driven. And the way we started the conversation was, you said, you know, the characters drive the story. And with sort of an outline, as you are describing it, it’s more about the story, the outline is more about the story than the characters, correct me if I am wrong. So, how do you marry those two ideas?
John: Before you write the outline, you have these characters. Because the characters are what give you the writers direction story at all, in the first place. So, your point zero is, waking up in the middle of the night and go, wait a minute, okay, sensitive musician, kids, are completely out In the world. And then, a rugby player. Who, for some reason, is actually alone. And those two forms are actually forced to share a room. So, the genesis of story is character driven. Point zero the starting point is, character. And it’s only from that you would eventually get them to interact. Because the characters are coming to you, you know, and I think that’s the point. By the time you’re writing it then you already have the characters. So it’s never, and I think you can come undone if you start, your starting point is a plot, an idea, you know. So, at my eureka moment of 4a,m. was a school where rugby is a religion. Okay, then I’m not in the right place to write the story, because, it’s not a character it’s idea. So, like I said, this objective I have obviously, and I think it was belongs in the line of comedy. But, for me to point of origin is character, and then once you have those guides away. You go, and the other characters will court you and do the story. And you know who you’re writing about, and they will tell you what the story has to be.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah, sure. What’s you take on voice-over? There is quite a bit of voice over in this movie. And I’m only just curious to get writers take on it.
John: And the story of Hunts and Darion is finding one authentic voice and being true to one’s self. And that is very verbose kids and because he uses words as his defense. Because he doesn’t have any physical strength. So, he is story actually, is of being truthful. But perhaps by not speaking. And so, the idea of the voice-over is dramatically rude, un-comically rude for that reason. Now he makes all the justifications at all in the world for who he is, by talking. And then the other side, you know, Connor who barely speaks at all, pitcher he uses a firm voice and his actions speak. So, he uses the common verb as it were, until the end of the film.
So, I would think once the spine as I was granted in that it was leads and it doesn’t motivate my character, I felt it was in this case.
Ashley: Yeah. So, let’s just talk about your writing process, as you just mentioned this, those that spend 80% of your time in the outline 20% maybe? The actual writing of the script. But talk a little bit of your outlining process, is it something that you spend 8 hours a day doing, for a few months? Is it something you kind of working on other projects, and then spend a few hours a day? Just walk us through your process of outlining and how you do that?
John: So, I write a story, yeah, it’s really that point in the process because you’re really trying to get, you’re really trying to stress test this idea, and see if it works at all. So, I spend 5-6 hours a day writing this. And I usually do that when something else is going on as well. And like you say, you know, I’ve got other projects always learning different stages of development. So, I’d be working on those too. Once you get the big picture, it’s easy to get the characters. You’re try to figure out their story is going to work. And then the outlining stage is really important. I give it a concerted effort, and 6 hours a day I would spend a day. And I would spend the mornings. And go up and down the pool all I’m doing is thinking about this, the characters. And stuff and certain situations, I always find physical exercise kind of shifts ideas, from the track, which is really interesting. So, I find that exercise is the thing that really helps me keep on locking the story. Because you sit in front of the computer, sometimes just for hours. And my writing is just solitary. I think it’s really-important to get out and to move around and get the blood circulating. Yeah, I’m pretty disciplined I’d say in any capacity outline stage. And once the outline is done, I think you kind of give yourself a few days off. And then you’re into this quick, well I could write usually an act a day, in the script for many, maybe a little less 10, 12, 15, pages a day in the script. So, and yeah, it’s funny how you can get, you go through a career, and you start to see how this is forming, and you page start to understand what kind of writer you are? And not very much the credit methodology I’d founded on man. And you know, it’s been trial and error because in the early part of my career when I wrote scripts, it just didn’t work? It was always a question of sitting down and writing, and then running out of steam on page 51, and then wondering, why? You know. That was always because I hadn’t really rigorously tested what I had wrote about. So, you know, Berry Rogers said, “If you have a problem with the 3rd act, it’s usually in the first act.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. So, how do you know your script is ready to show a, to other people?
John: A well. When I work with two producers, Rob and Michael Flannigan, and I will always give them a look. After I’ve done my first draft and polish. And I will have spoken to them.
John: About the idea that before then and make some changes. And share the ad line, and thus, if I am working with them, after the first draft polish, I’ll feel that there is nothing more to be done while mulling in the back of my head that there is, but of a place, and not being able to do it. I’m very active giving it to somebody on lock, so they can, it seems it’s out of your hands. When you start to, you kinda realize, oh, I want to change these 3 things, you know. So, I think it’s really important to risk the amounts of times you’ve given the script away to read.
I think you have the answers more often than not of course. I think they should be clear stated, you know, you’re a writer and your job is to write on your own, to solve things, you know. So, there has only 2 or 3 junctures in this script, like where I give it to producers for feedback. And I don’t really give it to friends and family. I have selected work there is to be done on it, the personal styles and pure moments, got the impulse and the light alternative to put a pulse creatively.
Ashley: Okay, so once you are done with the script for “Handsome Devil” maybe you can walk us through the process of actually getting it produced? It sounds like you have some producing partners that you already have kind of alerted them on working with. But, maybe you can walk us through that process, did you pitch this idea to them before hand? Where they already raising money? Just maybe talk us through the process of you turning it into a produced film as opposed to just a script?
John: Sure well, I guess it’s worth mentioning the distinction between my first and second films. Because my first film “Stag” I co-wrote with Ed. and me, and was written entirely on spec. and was finished, and completely finished, and before we managed two producers, and at point then they had Radish Loveless and the film board got it financed, and away we went. Very
low-budget, plus we finished that script, and were pleased with it. Then Robert Becket, were more than pleased with it. There were obviously huge challenges in just making it. In which they were and essential to. But, as a written piece we were quite pretty happy at that when it was done. And perhaps received development from the Irish Film Board. Yeah, the impulse came a little earlier, and plus I’m Irish, so you know, I’m very fortunate to live and work in a country where small films are easier to get money to develop here. And not in the form of allowments, we are able to the film board on the first day, and principle photography. So, it’s just a help to the writer, clear stage when you financially need it most. And what that comes with is you know, impulse from the development to making of the Film Board is well in advanced announced. And the fund is all managed through the producers. You know, so you’re not boxed in with multiple resources. And but rather at those key stages in development, you get that impulse. But once it’s done, I’d say, once you’re done on your third draft and you polish, and you feel like you’re ready to go. Then the submission is made to The Irish Film Board to for Production Finance. Which is the next stage, and then the producers are involved in matching what the Film Board offers, so you have the money to make it. But, you know, it’s funny talking to American writers and directors and that. Our model, it’s so different because there is no loan government money in your business here. So, it’s just a different type of thing. Plus, you know, our film from the beginning, you can see the best. Making sure we can tell our own stories, to ourselves. Also, that we can export around the world. So, it’s that diversion of artist and people who are trusted and meeting. So, it’s very different, you know, that the European model. How a comparison over here. But, it works really well, especially when you’re making films up from the lower end of the scale that is used, watch the book than. The production financed, and once that comes into the equation, it takes more time, and there is more voices. And there is less controls. So, you know, and more ad hock kind of working, than I am.
Ashley: Yeah. Just tell me quickly, these producers, whom you ushered into the Film Board. How did you meet them? Maybe just take us back, because I know that’s always a question for screenwriters is? How do you meet these producers that you know, have the juice to actually get something like this funded.
John: Yeah. They produced a sketch that actually all those years ago. And ones these guys I’ve know for a long time and I really honestly couldn’t answer to you? How I met them? That’s a great Dublin answer. But, I probably met them in a bar. And I think, actually, Peter who I
co-wrote on “The Stagg” with, is an actor obviously as well. He, his first screen credit was in a film called, “I Love Band” which Treasure produced. And so, as a friend of Peter’s I would have met Rob Paul and Rebecca all those years ago. And so, it’s a small industry in our, and you know, for a writer, the most important thing. I keep thinking, is making contacts, socially with people, and with actors as well. Because the actors, I think are kind of the executors of your dreams. Since they have the tools to do what you are already writing about. And so, you know, I was lucky to make friends with some really good people who are actors and they were the ones who were in my sketch show. And you know, a bunch of writing with one of them. It’s networking, but not in an overtly hardness, knowing way, or an industry way. But rather you’re a creative person you want to be surrounded by other creative people who are trying to do what you are doing. And I wasn’t really doing that, and in the early days of my career, with a real kind of what careers head on. As much as just trying to get a sense of comfort from the shared struggle, you know, so. In the Dublin film community, small world, everybody knows everybody. And it’s kinda nice to just have that common ground. And it’s not really just a question of passing your business card to a stranger’s hand, although, that can happen too. But, it’s really more about being around them, and you know, sharing ideas and going to see things. And you know, just fostering a kind of real relationship I would say.
Ashley: Can you tell me how people can see “Handsome Devil” do you know the release schedule?
John: Yeah, I do, it’s finished on the 2nd June, I don’t know when this is going out? It’s released on the 2nd of June. And it is, in New York and in L.A. and a portion of it is playing New Orleans and Miami.
Ashley: Perfect, perfect. John, As I said, I really enjoyed the film and I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today.
John: A real pleasure, great to meet you Ashley, thank you.
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On the next episode of the Podcast, I’m going to be interviewing, Writer/Director, Tony Germonono, he just did a low budget action, thriller, film called, “Bad Frank. And we talk through his entire process, how he funded this movie, how he wrote the movie, and ultimately, produced it and directed it. So, keep an eye out for that episode next week.
That’s the show, thank you for listening.