John Butler is the director of the sports comedy Handsome Devil. In this piece he discusses why two of his characters didn’t need to hook up for the film to work.
There is nothing coy about telling a story about two young men who aren’t straight, where those two men don’t hook up. Nothing coy at all.
In my life, I have had many gay friends that I’ve never wanted to sleep with, and who have never wanted to sleep with me, and it never felt like much of a sacrifice to either party. When it came to making my feature Handsome Devil, I was determined that the story would run along the tram lines of a buddy comedy, because even if you believe both the young leads are gay, or not straight (by no means a certain thing, itself), then the fullest expression of that friendship, of homosexual friendship, of any friendship is… friendship. No more and no less. Why can’t someone be gay in a story like that?
The dominant narrative of mainstream and alternative cinema alike is romantic, be it the eight million boy-meets-girl stories, or boy-meets-boy exceptions, as in the sublime Weekend and last year’s sensational Moonlight, or girl-meets-girl as in Blue is the Warmest Color or Carol. Leaving aside the hegemony of the romantic narrative of every hue, the buddy movie remains the least invigorated subgenre of all—sadly still powered more often than not by childish and reductive gay panic which, way more than being offensive, is just dreary.
When it comes to orientation, we no longer live in the age of black and white, so the job of films—mainstream and alternative, comedy and drama—is to explore and prod at that ambiguity. If homosexuality is an identity, then only part (an important part, but only a part) of that identity revolves around sexual activity. So why can’t someone be gay in a buddy comedy? I loved the sensational Other People so much because of the authentic, “felt” subplot of the friendship between John Early’s and Jesse Plemons’ gay characters. It reminded me so much of me and my friends. I love stories of male friendship and no one can tell me that they are not a story worth telling—precisely because they occur so often in the real world, yet have been seen relatively rarely onscreen. If people have trouble with the seeming ambiguity of a platonic friendship involving one or more LGBT characters, then it only makes the telling of that story more worthwhile.
In Handsome Devil, when Conor and Ned first bond, it is in their dorm room, down the middle of which Ned has built a “Berlin Wall” made of wardrobes, books and other items to keep Conor away from him. We lit this room softly, with each sitting on beds on either side in perfect binary symmetry, and as the boys begin to talk, they begin to “see” each other through a gap in the wall. In this scene as throughout the film, there is no black and white—a visual rhyme for the idea that in life you can be anything, and that one needn’t pick a side. In fact the only time you see black and white are in the opposition’s shirts in the final match. Our cinematographer Cathal Watters, designer Ferdia Murphy and grader Matt Branton worked hard to work the blue and yellow palette throughout, along with lenses that give the film a slightly milky look that I so love.
As the scene plays out, the boys intuit that they’re not that different and the incidental song playing from Ned’s side begins to assume greater narrative importance. Originally it was “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” by Them, but that felt too melancholy. For a while it worked with “A Pair of Brown Eyes” by The Pogues, but ultimately a song more directly concerned with attraction better served the ambiguity of the scene. Men are attracted to their male friends, attraction is a part of the equation of friendship. “Desire As” by Prefab Sprout and, in particular, the lyric “desire is a self-figured creature who changes her mind” makes people feel something between the boys that is enjoyable to create and then play away from.
At certain juncture in their best work, my favorite filmmakers seem to know what the audience is thinking and then respond to that assumption on the audience’s part in a way that wrong-foots them and implicates them deeper in the action. Take one of my favorite buddy movies, Sideways, by Alexander Payne. After a set-up in which we identify so deeply with weary Paul Giamatti’s predicament, he steals money from his lonely mother and, because of our identification, we steal that money just as much as he does. We are implicated.
In the scene from Handsome Devil in which Ned discovers Conor’s secret and they play guitar together, I wanted to read Ned’s insecurity in tandem with his fondness for, and possible identification with, Conor’s predicament. I’m a disciple of Billy Wilder’s screenwriting rules and this scene is a classic mid-point, in which what one considers the direction of the film to be reversed. Handsome Devil is not a coming-out story, but a film about male friendship. I always accepted that this film would be known by those walking into the cinema as “the gay rugby player film” and in writing a screenplay it’s vital to know what information isn’t yours to withhold.
Directing the scene, it struck me that, very often, young men have a deeply ingrained aversion to maintaining eye contact with each other, to be alone in close company, in a moment that might convey signifiers of romance. We men enjoy displacement activities—watching sport, playing golf, driving—for the lack of pressure that direct eye contact often presents. In the scene I remember asking Fionn O’Shea to look at—to really study—Nick Galitzine as they sing in this scene. It took a few goes (“Look at him, Fionn. Look at him!”), but Fionn is a very mature and sensitive guy, and I think there’s something provocative about the open-ness of his gaze in that moment. Added to that, the song they’re singing is “Think For a Minute” by The Housemartins, in which the singing is so febrile that it would feel like the ultimate othering or feminizing part for any young man. In other words, perfect. Whoever or whatever you think Ned is at that point is who Ned is. And if you don’t know, so much the better!
Any film with sports in it lives and dies on the quality of the sport. This film was always going to conclude with a rugby match but, unlike the real annual school’s rugby final in Ireland, I felt this one had to take place under lights, at night, and we searched long and hard for a stadium with one stand and nothing but foliage on the other three sides. Not only does it feel more gladiatorial and dramatic, but the film was a low-budget one and this improved our chances of making the bleachers seem packed with extras. (They weren’t!)
Ireland’s most capped rugby player, Brian O’Driscoll, is a friend of the production and choreographed eight or nine written moves the boys could run over and over again. More than that, though, he commanded the kind of respect and attention earned over a decade and a half of being Ireland’s greatest sporting hero. Everyone listened. Our Steadicam operator was strapped into a Gator (those wee trucks that carry off injured players) and away we went. It took four nights to shoot—four out of a 25-day total shoot in a film of 1.1 million-euro budget. My great fear was that the action would read as staged, and with respect to all involved in it, Invictus was mentioned more than once as what we didn’t want. Friday Night Lights held up as our exemplar.
Everybody can feel what’s going to happen at the end of a movie like this—that is the point. Some people alighted upon the ending of this film as a “fairy-tale ending” or one that was somehow weakened by its narrative propulsion towards a clear outcome. But not everything needs to be subverted in order to make a progressive argument. For me the film is a comedy or comedy-drama, and an outcome of that nature is subversive precisely because of its adherence to convention. To me it ought to be the entire point of an LGBT comedy film in 2017.
Our stories belong in mainstream story telling arena just as much as they do along the margins. Besides, the ending of Handsome Devil represents an eminently achievable outcome for any young LGBT kid who holds the line and stays true to their own identity. Why not? We shouldn’t classify happy endings in our community as being out of reach or belonging in the realms of fantasy in any way. For too long our narratives have been framed dramatically with desperately sad endings. What would a negative outcome here offer us that hadn’t already been offered by the bleak, traumatic gay narratives of decades past? We ought to reject the assumption that our stories need to be flagged as “mature” or rendered in dramatic form, or that our queerness necessitates an expression that is inherently marginal. In 2017, it is time for everyone, ourselves included, to think differently, and to use different lenses to tell our stories. MM
Handsome Devil opens in theaters and On Demand June 2, 2017, courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures.