The star & director of Handsome Devil chat choreography with Brian O'Driscoll, LGBT in 2017 Ireland & inverting film stereotypes
This could be the best Irish film of the year...
To mark the release of Handsome Devil, one of the most anticipated Irish films of 2017, we sat down for a chat with John Butler and Fionn O’Shea, the director and lead actor.
Rising star O’Shea, formerly of Gonzaga College, is starring in his first lead role, while Butler, working on his second feature film after 2013’s The Stag, has written and directed Handsome Devil from a semi-autobiographical point of view, adding an Irish twist to the immensely popular high school movie genre.
In Handsome Devil, we are greeted by Ned (O’Shea), a flame-haired music lover and misanthrope among his rugby-mad schoolmates. Ned’s life seemingly takes a turn for the absolutely dreadful when he is forced to room with the school’s new rugby star, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine).
However, the pair form an unlikely friendship, exploring the bounds of relationships in a hostile boarding school where rugby is king. The film features fine supporting roles from Andrew Scott and Moe Dunford (both portraying teachers) and contains rugby scenes choreographed by none other than Brian O’Driscoll.
Check out the terrific trailer right here...
Clip via TreasureEntertain
JOE: Hi John and Fionn, it's great to meet you. Both of you went to rugby-playing schools, so how much was the story of Handsome Devil part of your life?
John Butler: Well, it stems from my childhood and it was based, initially, on a memory. The sights and sounds and smells of that era are evoked in the film, but it’s not a period film.
The message resonates in 2017: I’m gay, I’m really into sport, but always felt as a younger man there’s a choice to be made there.
You have to be the music guy or the sports guy, it wasn’t possible to be all of those things. There’s still no out Premier League soccer player or elite rugby union player so that choice is still felt to be made by people.
JOE: We’ve seen a couple of American sportsmen come out recently, and Nigel Owens is also flying the flag for the gay community in sport. How much are they doing to help the perception?
John: They’re great – Gareth Thomas is also doing great work and his memoir is superb. But there is a very rigid worldview in sports where the ref isn’t seen as a figure of masculinity. The most entrenched form of masculinity in modern sport is found in the Premier League. What we need is a Premier League soccer player to put their hand up and say “This is me and it doesn’t come at a cost to my strength or masculinity.”
If they’re not currently playing in the Premier League, then the only question to be asked is “Why not?”
JOE: The film really captures the current mood of Ireland and the LGBT issues running through Handsome Devil will really strike a chord with young Irish people today. How did you realise this?
John: The Repeal movement is really the message of the film in many ways. Very often in high school films, all the knowledge comes from this wise figure of a teacher, whereas in my films all the adults are completely lost and bumbling and in need of guidance. The marriage equality referendum passed because young people influenced the older generation.
JOE: What can you tell us about Brian O’Driscoll’s role in the film?
Fionn O'Shea: I didn’t even get to meet him! Most of the rugby players in the film had never played competitively, apart from Nick (Nicholas Galitzine, who plays Conor alongside Fionn's Ned) who played for Harlequins.
Suddenly the Whatsapp group got flooded with pictures of Brian O’Driscoll and I was like, “Oh… great.”
John: He was great at choreographing seven or eight moves that 30 guys can repeat so that we can get the shots and not kill any actor. It was like herding cats, blending actors with rugby players – but the man just commands respect.
You could hear a pin drop when he walked on set.
Can I just say though, I’ve seen Fionn nail what must have been a 38 metre drop goal, dressed as Ned… so this kid has got the chops. Not even wearing boots!
JOE: I was like Ronan O’Gara with the school shoes on. Put on boots and it was a disaster though. What was the weirdest moment on set?
John: Yeah, we nearly lost Nick on the very first day! On the very first move, the action vehicle drove straight into Nick and basically ran him over. On the first day.
Fionn: Someone came up to me on the first day and introduced himself, then he looks at Nick and goes, “OK, so you’re playing the Handsome Devil”, then looks at me and goes, “so what are you?”
I was like, “Oh… I guess I play the other guy then…"
John: Cultural differences are amazing. There’s a fight at the beginning of the film and in Toronto the audience was completely aghast, whereas in Glasgow at the fight scene the audience erupted in laughter. They thought it was like a comic set piece.
JOE: What was the most difficult part of the shoot?
John: We shot an assembly scene with about 350 people and I had a strong flashback to my schooldays. It’s feral. That hum of malevolent chatter in the background, it’s like the jungle or a wildlife programme. It’s still so shit to be an LGBT kid in an isolated place living under the roof of parents who maybe don’t understand or appreciate what’s going on.
JOE: Speaking of schooldays, growing up, what was the scene that changed your view of cinema?
John: For me, it would be the scene with Anthony Michael-Hall in The Breakfast Club, when he tries to lie and say that he slept with Molly Ringwald’s character and the cool guy, Judd Nelson, calls him out on it. Suddenly, he’s exposed and you learn that the guy you think is cool is actually a bully and the nerd is actually a beautiful, three dimensional human being. Stereotypes are inverted and the film comes alive. I remember seeing that as a kid and thinking they all start as familiar caricatures, and are all inverted.
Fionn: One film that stuck with me is The Truman Show, which is still my favourite film. I think that show could actually happen now – with reality TV, I would not be surprised if that was a show that now existed
John: We should also go on the record and say that one of Fionn’s career ambitions is to play Scrappy Doo…
JOE: You’re a bit too hairless for Scrappy Doo, no? There's a lack of tail too...
Fionn: Well, you don’t know about that, do you?
JOE: Wow. Those trousers hold secrets. Favourite film? If you say Citizen Kane you may be asked to leave.
John: Oh god, it’s not even in the conversation. I do have three if I’m allowed. Election, The Ice Storm by Ang Lee, and The Apartment – a perfect film. The romantic storyline is perfect, the writing is so smart, it’s really cynical but also is full of great heart.
Clip via xirstom1
Fionn: Seeing as you got three, I’m throwing The Big Lebowski into the mix. And Django Unchained.
JOE: What’s the most difficult part of actually shooting a film?
Fionn: Putting up with the writer/director is pretty difficult.
John: That’s low.
JOE: And when the air conditioning doesn’t work in the Winnebago?
John: Mine is pretending that everything is OK. Nobody is a bigger actor than the director. You consider the mechanics of quitting – going over and shaking the hands of the producers and apologising to the cast… but you just realise that would be harder than quitting.
But that’s not a moan, it’s the best job in the world as well.
Fionn: For me, the hardest thing was the enormous pressure of, “God, I don’t want to mess up this whole thing.” My first time playing the lead, there was the added pressure of thinking, “When reviews come out, they’re probably going to say my name”.
JOE: What would your advice be for Irish people that want to get into film and acting?
John: Interesting question. I don’t think that training is necessarily a good idea. I think dogma can be imposed on you that restricts you, and though there are lessons to be learned, I’m wary of training. Nowadays, you can actually start working with short films etc. Work is the key and don’t get hung up on validation.
Fionn: I think when you’re trying to get into it, it can be really daunting. I was lucky – I kind of started young and kept at it. There are so many ways to get into it. Even if you’re going to an improv class or a drama class you never know when a director or a casting director might be there. Also, just sponge it all up. You can never know enough.
JOE: Can you imagine the size of your brain in 20 years?
Fionn: It’s going to be huuuuge.
JOE: What was the break that changed your career?
Fionn: Siege Of Jadotville. I was in college going into a business course as a backup degree, wondering if I finished the course am I able to go back and keep going? Then I got cast, John’s friend saw me and then Handsome Devil happened.
Clip via Netflix UK & Ireland
John: I moved to San Francisco after college, literally before the internet, and the way to get a job was to get the Golden Pages, get the name of every TV company, print your CV, get a map and a bus pass and drop your CV at every TV company.
I did that every Monday for about three or four months and I remember about six or seven weeks into that process, the front security guard from the ABC affiliate in the city saw me coming, ran out to meet me and he knew me. He wouldn’t let me near the building, but handed me a letter and I thought, "Oh, wow! I’ve got a job!"
It was a cease and desist letter.
JOE: You sure this is a big break story? It sounds like you were getting your dreams crushed!
John: Well, he stood there and watched me read it and I’m mentioning it because I did eventually get a job through that method, moving furniture at a smaller TV company and it all went from there, but it made me realise that persistence is key. It was a real eye-opener – it showed me how much I wanted it.
Fionn: That was a lot better than my story.
John: Yeah, "Like I woke up one morning and this director just offered me a job and then this other guy thought I was deadly and now I’m in his movie…"
JOE: Fionn, speaking about you being deadly actually, you’ve been cast in The Aftermath. What lies ahead there?
Fionn: Well, we’ve actually finished filming – I had a month in Prague and then a couple of days in Hamburg. It’s set in Hamburg post WWII. James Kent is directing, it stars Keira Knightly, Jason Clarke and Alexander Skarsgard.
JOE: And O’Shea, let’s put in the real big names.
John: O’Shea, Knightly, Skarsgard.
Fionn: That’s the poster actually.
JOE: What about you John?
John: My career is over. I had a great run, I got to make two and seemed to get away with it..
JOE: Yes, I’m about to whip out a cease and desist letter.
John: Ah no! My next film, Papi Chulo, is a comedy about loneliness, about a young, white, gay weatherman who hires a straight Latino elderly married grandfather because he’s lonely and wants a friend, and begins to become obsessed with him and continues to hire him to be his friend. There’s a big language difference..
JOE: Sounds like Sligo.
John: It’s exactly like Sligo. But it’s about two people in a big city trying to be friends.
JOE: Any chance of a return to Your Bad Self?
John: No, I don’t think so, it was a really long process to get it on screen in the first place, so once the first season wasn’t renewed that was kind of the end of the road.
Fionn: It’s so good, I’m always on YouTube looking it up. You know the horse one?
John: Domhnall Gleeson wrote that. We had to tranquilise that horse which ethically is a bit dubious but look… we actually had a lot of trouble finding a horse that would play the part.
Clip via Benedict Kelly
JOE: What comedy are you watching at the moment?
John: A ton of it. It’s the most relevant form of how I see the world. Louis CK, Search Party.
Fionn: Bo Burnham, I always go back to.
JOE: I can see a bit of Bo Burnham in you. What about closer to home?
John: The last season of Catastrophe I thought was brilliant.
Clip via Channel 4
JOE: Social media is how people see you and your work these days it seems. I really liked your tweet about the train, John.
John: He ended up taking off his shoes, and ended up eating those crisps unbelievably loudly in the Man United shirt. It is NOT A COINCIDENCE that it is a Man United fan. I’m looking at Fionn O’Shea here. He finished the crisps and then went up to the snack carriage and came back with Pringles. What a disgusting person. I was wearing noise cancelling headphones and I could still hear him.
JOE: So Fionn, United’s chances next season?
Fionn: I think Champions League. Big time. Huuuge win against Anderlecht. I think we could win the Europa if not, we’ll get into the top four.
John: I’m a Liverpool fan so I think anything Fionn says is utter rubbish. I just think Man United are detestable – crisp-eating, train-users.
JOE: Are you Leinster fans?
John: Yeah, just a fan of the Irish provinces really. I don’t have any parochial attachment to Leinster, I’m equally mad into Munster when they play. It’s interesting, I was thinking the other day, I always cry or get unbelievably emotionally invested in the Lions. It’s amazing. You go down to the Southern Hemisphere and there’s such a great cast of villains down there.
John: Bakkies Botha, Burger gouging Luke Fitzgerald, you know, I never actually got the opportunity to get Brian O’Driscoll, sit him down and ask who are the biggest assholes in world rugby.
JOE: Who would yours be?
John: I just want to know is Botha as dreadful a person as he appears from his on field persona.
Fionn: Umaga, just from that tackle.
Clip via Mark Conroy
John: Fionn’s granddad actually played for Ireland
Fionn: Yeah, he was a prop, Kennedy O’Brien. It’s funny, I played for Lansdowne until I was about 11, and then tackling became a thing. I perfected the art of pretending to try tackling.
JOE: I used to love talking to people...
Fionn: I know, that happened when I played GAA as well, you only want a chat! Then the ball comes over and it’s like, “Oh we’ve got to be enemies again!”
John: The funny thing about rugby in schools is the idea of valour. Like in my school the songs had a kind of quasi military sound that was very World War One. I don’t know whether that nobility thing in sport really exists or is it defunct. They try to almost make Marvel superheroes out of guys like Messi and Ronaldo, but the multi-dimensional sports star is the one we want to watch. That’s why we all love Paul McGrath.
JOE: Or Paul O’Connell. Who’s your favourite Paul?
John: Ronnie Whelan. *grins*
JOE: What about your sporting hero?
Fionn: Kennedy O’Brien, my grandfather. And Damien Duff.
John: Ronnie Whelan, seriously. And also Roy Keane. He’s our guy.
JOE: Guys, thanks so much for stopping by, it's been an absolute pleasure.
Fionn: Thanks JOE!
Handsome Devil is released in Irish cinemas from 21 April, so make sure you go and check it out. In the meantime, here's the trailer one more time. Go on, you know you want to...
Clip via TreasureEntertain