Papi Chulo

#Interview: Scannain Talks Papi Chulo with writer/director John Butler

A few heads curiously turn as John Butler takes leave of his seat, twisting his limbs flamboyantly in an illustration of his own distinctive mannerism he asked Matt Bomer to adopt for an early scene in their new film Papi Chulo. Playing Sean, the handsome LA weatherman reeling from the end of a relationship, Bomer projects a certain discomfort as he shops for painting supplies in a sprawling Home Depot. I’m curious about the film’s understated approach to the way queer men operate in traditionally masculine spaces. “That’s a very gay thing,” Butler says, still standing, legs crossed and arms clenched to his chest, “like a folding in of oneself which is protective maybe. But it also feels a tiny bit performative, like – tada! – a little bit.”

“Tada! – a little bit” seems an apt descriptor of Butler’s work to date: his are unabashedly gay films planted, like Sean, in spaces stereotypically coded as masculine. But his canny queering of genre, be it the buddy comedy dynamic of his debut The Stag or the school-sports structure of Handsome Devil, has facilitated a steady emergence as Ireland’s most commercially-successful queer filmmaker. “I have a self-imposed obligation to tell queer stories,” he tells me. “I really want to do it and I really want it to be in the mainstream.” I wonder then if it’s a conscious effort on his part to use genre as a vehicle to bring these stories to wider audiences than might be expected of more niche narratives. “Once you’ve done [the coming out story] once in any form you’re done, and I’m happy with that[1]. But I like buddy movies, I like comedy films as well so those two things together position you into a more commercial space.”

Papi Chulo feels like a next step – not only for its move from the first features’ setting in Butler’s native Ireland to a drought-ridden LA, but also in its development of queerness from a core concern explored by way of broader frameworks to an aspect, here, that serves to inform more universal ideas of loneliness and loss. Will the specifics of gay experience that Butler’s script trade in have wider relevance? “I was reading a lot of essays around the time that I wrote this about the peculiar strain of gay loneliness that has been triggered and incubated by the apps, the closing down of queer spaces, the atomisation of the community, the sense that we can become alienated from each other just at the moment in our history when we need to be together more than ever,” he says. “I don’t think it is a loneliness that is exclusive to our community but some of the markers of it are there, so I was definitely playing around with that.”

That core idea of shared human connection across distinct social lines defines the film’s central conceit, as Sean’s initial employment of migrant day-labourer Ernesto to finish his paintwork gives way to an emotional understanding that transcends the language barrier between them. I wonder, given the film’s own earnest invocation of immigration issues and knowing references to Driving Miss Daisy and even Pretty Woman, if Butler isn’t to some extent pre-empting questions around an uneasy class dynamic. “It’s about the unthinking casual racism and objectification of the ordinary Joe, even and especially in LA, the idea that people will see two people and they will map a set of projections onto them. I knew there was going to be a lot of criticism of this film in terms of its racial and sexual politics, I knew that absolutely.” But does he see any merit to the critique? “The initial engagement, as long as that checks out for me in terms or rationale and ethics, whatever happens afterwards is as a result of their relationship development.”

It’s a lot to ask of Bomer and co-star Alejandro Patiño, both of whom Butler praises repeatedly as we talk for their work in navigating the loaded dynamic they share. Casting is crucial here, as both actors play against each other while performing a separate set of misunderstandings and misreadings. Was there a challenge in sustaining sympathy for Sean as he sometimes seems to show a lack of self-awareness? “Yeah, I mean there’s some comments from people like ‘I just don’t buy that Matt Bomer would ever be lonely’, and that really is a revelatory thing to say because it presupposes that we can be happy like for example if we’re rich, and we all know that’s rubbish. The reason I loved working with Matt so much is that he was willing to walk into the fire and not want to add any sense to his own character or performance that he knew that there was something awry, and that’s all you want from an actor, that sense of bravery.”

Butler seems to have seen in Bomer both opportunity and challenge in creating this character, playing with the expectations and projections that come with his star persona. I concede a certain surprise at the range of his physicality here – he spends a good portion of his screen time alone – and the way the film interrogates the kind of Ken doll figure, to quote the Magic Mike films, he’s been cast as before. “You can’t cast an actor without knowing that they’re bringing what exists beyond the screen,” Butler says. “Whether you choose to engage with it or not, you have to know what’s there. Matt himself is fantastic at understanding what he brings, he’s an absolute realist about that stuff. He and I had amazing conversations about campness and the performative nature of it, things that come from his knowledge as an actor as well as a human being and a gay man, and so he has all those things in play at any given moment and you want that, you want someone who’s not in denial about what they represent, which is such an important part these days. I think too often actors are in denial about that because they think it’s a kind of pigeonholing and I don’t think it is, I think it’s just a question of knowing how you’re seen and then subverting it if you want to. It just gives you more tools to play with.”

That sense of subversion applies too to the movie’s presentation of gay culture: its gestures to the apps that offer a catalogue of bare torsos and the transactional sex they suggest doesn’t preclude the tenderness it locates in a later hookup sequence. “That comes from experience,” Butler says. “I’ve experienced great kindness from meeting people on the apps in environments where it has changed from being one thing to another, and I’ve made friends on them that are friends to this day. So you’re met by whatever you bring onto those things, if you want to hook up you can hook up, if you think you want to hook up and you don’t want to hook up, someone who has compassion can read that and know that won’t help you.” I’m fascinated by the film’s toying with expectations here: we similarly see Sean reliving his relationship through his camera roll; the older man he pines for strikes me as deliberately at odds with the kind of queer couples mainstream depictions typically comprise. “That’s a line I was very conscious of wanting to draw,” Butler says. “If Sean was just mooning on his phone about some other West Hollywood ride, it’s harder maybe to see beyond the physical manifestation which is all you get with a photo.”

It’s not just in his scripting that Butler has tried new things here. I suggest that Papi Chulo seems more aesthetically fully-formed than either of his earlier works, more tightly-framed with more of its characterisation playing out in visual cues and codes. He’s working for the second time, following Handsome Devil, with cinematographer Cathal Watters, whose contained spatial style similarly enriched last year’s Rosie. “Yeah this is a really stubborn little film in the sense in that it demanded to unfold at its own pace,” Butler says. “Certain things became resistant to any of the kind of things I was trying to do with it. Cathal is generally brilliant, he and I talked it up and down beforehand it’s all stuff that was engineered with him and he’s very much at the forefront of that. Your job as a director is to hire a DP who has vastly greater knowledge than you and then to extract that from them.” That collaborative sensibility extended to setting too, as Butler credited his location manager with challenging him on the right LA setting for Sean’s hilltop apartment. “There is this beautiful symmetry to all the indoor spaces in the house,” he says, “and it’s just a question of draping Matt into them and asking how do we play with the order of the space and his mental state, and it became so much fun to keep going back to those setups to get that rhyme going throughout the film.”

As queer cinema has seen greater moves into the mainstream in recent years with a string of high-profile critical and commercial hits, it’s encouraging to see in Butler an Irish queer voice literally arriving in the Hollywood Hills. But will we see that success trickle down to native narratives? “It’s so funny how the successes are always being rationalised as exceptions,” he says. “Moonlight is an independent film that vaulted into the mainstream and won all the awards – and I love that film – but it’s never used as an example. It’s a conservative financial model, so even with the success of Call Me by Your Name people are reluctant to get on board with these things. It must also be said that our national broadcaster is just… I mean, I think Screen Ireland are doing a huge amount for queer representation, I should point that out, but I can’t think of anything on RTÉ in the drama space and fiction space. I think there would be an audience for that, so hopefully that will change as well.”

I’m reminded again of Sean in the hardware store, of Bomer’s emulation of Butler’s stance, an effort at once to fit in and stand out that seems a hallmark of the confident queerness at the heart of his filmmaking. It’s a moment that chimes with the gay characters of The Stag and Handsome Devil before it, and the tendency of those films, like this one, to fixate on how queerness situates itself in spaces – physical and cultural – that once sought to exclude it. What keeps Butler coming back to this? “I don’t really know,” he says, “maybe it’s just an attempt to answer certain questions about myself and how I see myself, and how I’ve tried to find my place in the world. But it is a recurring interest of mine, and I really seem only to have questions about it rather than answers.” When those questions are formed in films like Papi Chulo, we have to hope Butler just keeps asking.

Papi Chulo is released in Irish cinemas from tomorrow, June 7th.

[1] Butler’s debut novel, The Tenderloin, was published in 2011