John Butler, director of “The Stag”: Interviews from the Vaults

As I approach my 1000th interview for FRED Film Radio, I have decided to begin transcribing a series of noteworthy interviews that I have conducted throughout my years of activity as a film reporter at various international film events. The first of these is my first interview ever for the radio. It was with John Butler at the 2013 Torino Film Festival, where he presented his film, The Stag.

You can click here to listen to the podcast version of the interview on FRED Film Radio.

MATT MICUCCI: Can you tell us a little bit about the story first of all?

JOHN BUTLER: Absolutely. The Stag is the story of a bunch of modern, enlightened men who feel that the idea of a stag is old-fashioned, outdated and a little barbaric, and they don’t want to do it. But when Fionnán gets engaged to his missus, she decides that actually, what he might need to do is go up the side of a mountain with some men and reconnect with his masculinity. Because he’s getting a little too obsessed with the wedding plans, the details of the wedding

So, she engineers a stag weekend for them where they go walking in the wild of Ireland, in rural Ireland. And, as is always the case with stags, the brother-in-law has to be invited, even though they know him by reputation. He’s a man called The Machine. And he lands in the middle of this group of very civilized men and tears their world apart over the course of a weekend. And they learn some valuable lessons about themselves and each other.

One of the questions you must get asked a lot when attending these film festivals in different parts of the world is, does this actually happen in Ireland? What’s a stag intended in the Irish sense of the term?

In the mid-1990s, when there was a lot of money in Ireland, stag parties became a huge part of Irish life. People would go on weekends, as opposed to just having it over the course of a single night. And the idea was, traditionally, obviously, that you would be saying goodbye to your male friends because you would be moving into a new phase of life with your wife. But now that that doesn’t exist, all that remains is intense partying. So, that’s the idea.

One of the best elements of the film is the exploration of the theme of masculinity. Especially considering that the lead characters range from the old-school masculine to the effeminate metrosexual.

The idea is that masculinity is constantly moving and the masculine idea is constantly changing. Modern culture tells women that they should want their men to have an element of sensibility. To be able to connect with their feelings, to be able to cry and to be able to relate to each other, and to have a refined worldview. But then, at the same time, there are certain traditional elements of masculinity that are also cherished. Strengths and all the other stereotypes.

So, the idea is, what is a man? And what about masculinity has value? And can you have some of the old and some of the new? Where do some of the good things start to become a fault? So, that was the jumping-off point for Peter [McDonald] and I, as writers. To try to start pushing around those ideas and see whether it’s possible for men to change and to see what kind of person would force that change for them.

Is this a theme that interests you, considering also your background as a writer? You were talking during the press conference about the importance of the story in getting your point across.

Yeah, I’m fascinated about masculinity and how it’s perceived. The gay couple in The Stag who, I would imagine, have some of the more traditional aspects of masculinity themselves. Their journey is kind of significant too. It’s a constantly moving thing and I suppose, ultimately, the idea is just to be a good person independent of your gender. But then, at the same time, you can’t escape certain of the more traditional aspects of your gender role. And that is endlessly fascinating to me.

I just enjoy stories about humans trying to connect. Nothing is more important to me than that, and I think all the good stories go to the heart of that in some way.

There is also a distinctly Irish side to the story. How do you see this within a more international context, such as screening the film at an international film festival would be?

Well, I think always with storytelling, you write the specific stuff and then you hope that out of that, something universal will emerge. The idea for me, say with the music, was that the first act of the film, which I place in an urban environment, is where they’d be listening to all the kind of modern contemporary dinner party types of music. And then, as they progress into the wild and as their modern accouterments are stripped away, the music becomes more and more traditional and stripped back. The idea is that the trappings of modern culture are binner and ultimately, they’re just left with the sound of a bodhrán, as they move towards the truth.

But I think Irish masculinity is possibly extreme in some ways. I think men from other countries, including Italy, are certainly more connected to certain more modern masculine ideals than Irish men. I think there’s a really traditional masculinity in Ireland that can be harmful.

More conventional?

Yeah. I don’t believe in the cliché of us drinking and fighting so much. But there’s an element of traditionalism that maybe isn’t helpful. I don’t know… I mean, I don’t have any of the answers but I do like to poke around in that area as a writer.

The Stag surely gets a lot of laughs but I also appreciated the more tender moments and their balance with the more comedic side of the film. There’s a particular scene that really did strike me. When they’re sitting around the campfire, singing songs, and one moment we’re all laughing and the next, it gets really intimate. Are these moments and this sort of balance challenging to achieve in comedy? During the scriptwriting but also during the filming.

Well, I mistrust any story or any art form that doesn’t admit some humor into it, some light. Because the world is ludicrous and we’re going to be dead forever. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that the world is ridiculous is not being truthful. And for me, as a person who reads and watches films, that’s the only thing that’s important. What is true? What is real?

And so, I’m always interested in humor and sadness bumping up against each other. Because that’s what we witness a million times a day in our lives, you know? And all you’re hoping for is somewhat of a recognition from the part of an audience, when they go like, “Yeah, I know what it’s like to laugh at something that is also desperately sad.” And briefly, that might make you maybe not feel like your own life is so ridiculous.

Sure, the ability to find comedy in the tragedy of everyday life.

Yeah, and I think the filmmakers that I love… and I keep banging on about them but guys like Alexander Payne are stunning at that because their films have an effect where you start then, as a viewer, to have this dialogue with the film. Because you’re kind of going, “I think this about this character.” And then, in the next moment, it’s all being flipped and it really draws you deeper into the story. And I love that. I think all good films do that and I have huge respect for people who can do that well.

One of the other elements you hinted at earlier is the economic crisis that’s also examined in a way through the characters. Is that a challenging theme to explore?

Yeah. I remember about six, seven years ago, a lot of Irish journalists were wondering why no Irish novelist had addressed the boom and bust. So, I think you need time and distance, probably, to approach those things. And I would find it very hard to write about that head-on. But I think that if you start writing about characters who experienced it, then it will feed into the work in an indirect way.

I guess what I mean is that the mechanics of the boom and bust don’t interest me. But I think the story of somebody who lives through it has some appeal. I don’t have any ability to write as a representative of culture but I can have a stab at writing from the point of view of somebody who’s stuck in the middle of it.

I guess one of the things we have to talk about is this screenwriting collaboration with Peter McDonald, which I think might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, at least cinematically speaking. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Yeah. I’ve known Peter since I was 16. So, three years? [Laughs] I’ve known Peter for a quarter of a century and we’ve worked together on a lot of things. We did a sketch show together called Your Bad Self, which was on Irish television. And we’ve done some other shorts. We’ve always talked to each other about stories and we’re interested in the mechanics of scriptwriting and filmmaking. And actually, Peter was going on a friend’s stag and we started to talk about, “God, what would it be like now that our big partying days are over? What would it be like to go on a stag?” And it really sprang from there. So, yeah, our friendship was at the center of this film and I loved working with him.

Another thing we should talk about is the cast. They’re absolutely brilliant. Some of the actors you’d already worked with on the series that you talked about.

Yeah. I hadn’t worked with Andrew Scott, who’s a supernaturally talented actor. He plays Moriarty in Sherlock and I think people will know him from a huge amount of roles. But he’s one of those actors who can embody the comedy and the drama of a single character and unify that. He’s a joy to work with.

And the other guys, I’ve worked with on different stuff down the years. And they were all a pleasure. You know, when you don’t have time and you don’t have money, the best thing that you can do is to kind of create a kind of company feel with the cast. So, you rehearse something and bring it together, so that there’s a great degree of naturalism among them. And I think the guys were really wonderful in that regard.

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