29 October 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
     
GO WILD IN THE COUNTRY
21 Feb 2014 : Paul Byrne
John Butler
A hit at Toronto, a sell-out in Dublin, and already sold to 7 territories (including US deal with Tribeca Films) - The Stag is proving to be the little Irish film that could. Paul Byrne talks to its director and co-writer, John Butler.

Having made his name both as a novelist and as director of one fine TV comedy sketch show (namely 2010’s IFTA-winning ‘Your Bad Self’), John Butler takes a step into the big bad world of the big screen with The Stag. Luckily for Butler, he’s got his lifelong buddy, Peter McDonald, along for the ride, the latter having not only co-written the script but also taking on a somewhat central role in this low-budget Irish comedy that, thankfully, scores pretty high on laughs.

The plot sees the metrosexual Fionnan (Hugh O’Conor) being forced to go on a stag by his betrothed, Ruth (Amy Huberman). In charge of getting the mild-mannered groom-to-be well out of his comfort zone and into the wilds for a camping trip is best man Davin (Andrew Scott) - who just happens to be still in love with Ruth, even though they separated six years ago. If that wasn’t bad enough, Ruth insists that her brother, simply known as The Machine (McDonald), be included. Even though he can, as one unhappy camper points out, “make your s**t turn white”.

Already a hit at the Toronto Film Festival last September, packed the house at its first Irish screening on Feb 4th at the Irish Academy Member’s event and IFTA discussion (with Butler, O’Conor, and producer Rob Walpole) and a sell-out as the closing film for this year’s JDIFF on Sun Feb 23rd, The Stag looks set to become one of Irish cinema’s bigger success stories of recent years.

PAUL BYRNE: You and your long-term friend Peter McDonald were searching for an idea for a film. Once you had that idea - five hobbits and an orc going on a stag in the wilds of Ireland - did it take long to get it up on screen?
JOHN BUTLER: I was in Budapest at the time, and Peter was in Dublin, and it took about three months of outlining. Once the script was done a month later, Treasure Film submitted it to the Irish Film Board a month after that, and then, one month after that, we were in pre-production. So, from that initial idea, where Peter and I were discussing stags we’d been on, to shooting was under six months.

Did that surprise you? Often, from idea to script to shooting can take something close to a lifetime. Was the swift turnaround here because both you and your Oscar-nominated buddy Peter already have form in this area?
I don’t think our names are big enough to get anything greenlit. I think everything emanated from the script, and from the clarity of the idea, everyone just felt that it was going to work. It was apparent to Rob [Walpole] and Rebecca [O’Flanagan] at Treasure [Entertainment] that the story was going to function, structure-wise. I don’t think our reputations really had much to do with it. Peter’s getting to that point where people will be happy to finance a movie because he’s in it, but for now, it’s all about the idea. And you can tell whether or not you have something that will work just at the outline stage.

Had you got any movies in mind here for inspiration, or as reference points? The Hangover will spring to mind for many people, but you could just as easily see Deliverance here. Or Predator. Or Sex & The City. Or The Idiots.
Peter and I actually had three films in mind when we wrote this. The type of film we wanted to make was a comedy about male friendship, so, Swingers, Sideways and Diner were the three films that we talked about. On the surface, obviously, it’s a stag film, but personally I feel that that’s all it really has in common with The Hangover - a stag takes place. In our film, we wanted find a way to talk about men and their problems, and talk about men who are broken in some way, and who need each other, to get fixed. Peter and I thought the only way to approach a stag film too was to populate it with people who don’t actually want to go on a stag weekend. It’s not funny if they want to.

When it came to shooting the comedy itself, did you follow Woody Allen and Judd Apatow into letting your actors just improv to their funny bone’s content, or is what we see what was on the page?
It was all on the page. And that’s really all down to the budget, and the time constraint. We spent all the free time developing the outline so that it worked. Obviously, actors create their own ideas, and you’ll find something new on the day, but there was very little improv. Everyone was happy with the script, so, we were happy to just get that on film.

How much of a budget was it?
It was extremely low. I’m not sure of the exact figure, but it’s definitely under half-a million.

Irish films are a notoriously hard sell when it comes to Irish audiences - was that a consideration here? Think universal, think international.
For Peter and me, and for Treasure, it’s all down to making something we believe in. And that should travel, just down the road or thousands of miles overseas. If someone pays a tenner to see your movie, they’ve entered into a contract with you. This is a contract that doesn’t exist in television, but it exists in cinema. We owe them a story that works, we owe them a story that functions, that goes somewhere, and gets somewhere. I think the films that do well fulfil that contract.
You may have a miniscule marketing budget compared to the other films opening that same weekend, but if you deliver a film that works, you at least have some chance of catching fire. And that’s really what Irish films need. With Adam & Paul, with The Guard, and all the other Irish films that made it abroad, such as Once, they did so not because of clever marketing or big stars but because the story worked, and those films delivered. Plain and simple.

You welcomed the test screenings here, right...?
Absolutely. The beauty of it is, you can always ignore the suggestions that come through, if you feel that particular audience member just didn’t get it, but there are truths that break through. Timing in comedy is everything, and you get to recognise where something needs a longer pause, or an earlier punch. That kind of stuff is invaluable, just being able to move a few frames left or right on a scene. We did four test screenings, and we learned something from each of them.

Can you let the film go now? Or do you still keep seeing another edit that would make a scene work better?
I don’t think you can ever truly let go. I’m a novelist too, and I just know that you never look back and think, ‘Do you know what, that scene is too short!’. Even with a sketch show such as Your Bad Self, I can look back a year later and see where a scene could have been tighter. That’s the interesting thing that always happens with me - I’m always trying to get back to the bone. Our film is 93 minutes, and that’s a proper length for a comedy. It’s lean. Having said that, ask me in a year, and I’m sure I could take a few more minutes off.

Was the balance between the 21st Century man issues and the broad comedy always easy to maintain? You could have gone full National Lampoon’s Deliverance here, having Pat Shortt stroll on, stage left, with a pig under his arm.
Definitely aware of them, but for us, as the writers, it was really the characters that dictated the script. All the action was based on how the characters would behave in each scenario. These guys who don’t want to be there will encounter these things - now, how are they going to deal with them?
We would have loved to have Pat Shortt stroll on with a pig under his arm. That would have been amazing. He’s the kind of actor who can access a character and makes decisions as that character. He’s a wonderful actor.

The Toronto debut last September went well - were you happy with the response?
It’s hard with comedy when it comes to festivals. You need a big audience for comedy, and that’s something Toronto always has. The Stag just wouldn’t have worked so well in Cannes, for example, where they’re not predisposed in the same way. So, it went brilliantly in Toronto, and the screenings were full. We accept that people have preconceptions about comedy, and we’re not going to chase any laurels for our poster. The laurels are there for dark dramas, not a bunch of Irish lads going wild in the country.

You do bring in some dark drama here, namely through Andrew Scott’s best man, Davin, unable to commit to any relationship mainly because he’s never gotten over Amy Huberman’s Ruth - who’s about to marry his somewhat geeky best friend, Fionnan, played to metrosexual perfection by Hugh O’Conor.
You’ve hit on the most important thing in the film, and it comes through in Amy’s performance in the film. There’s no doubt that Ruth is marrying Fionnan. She loves Fionnan; he is the man. So, in editing, and testing, it was important that that played the right way. We didn’t want you to doubt that she truly loved him. Davin is just a man who’s in love with regret, and his problem is that he needs to get over himself. He’s the Morrissey of the piece, and he needs to get into the ring and have some real fun and real pain again.

There is an appetite now for the short-sharp-shock these days, the viral hit - that has changed how films are made, especially comedies. You need to deliver a money shot on a very regular basis.
Yeah, the tempo has increased, and it comes back to the idea of the contract between you and the audience. You have to respect them, and not have them getting ahead of you too far. You’ve got to keep surprising them, taking a left when they expected a right. That goes for plays, novels, films, TV shows - you have to treat the audience as smart, and keep the ball in the air all the time. And that’s something you notice strongly at test screenings - they tell you when a scene is over, or when they want some more.

Given the positive response to The Stag, I presume Hollywood has come a-knockin’...?
Yeah, it has actually. I’ve gotten some scripts from America, and, hopefully, something wonderful will come out of that. But time will tell - I could be still reading scripts in two years time. I’m just really glad to get to this point, to have a film out there that I’m proud of.

Read Una Mullaly’s coverage of the IFTA Members’ screening and Q&A of ‘The Stag’ in the Irish Times here

‘The Stag’ is distributed by in Ireland by Eclipse Pictures on behalf of Arrow Films.

‘The Stag’ hits Irish cinemas on March 7th.



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