The Director’s Take: John Butler and Hugh O’Conor

Posted June 7, 2019 in Film Features

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Directors John Butler and Hugh O’Conor have been pals for many years. As they release their respective feature film this month – Papi Chulo and Metal Heart – they sat down to consider their industry and careers.


“The main furnace of your own career has to be your imagination.”

John Butler and Hugh O’Conor are friends going back years. John has directed Hugh and they’ve written together. They share early drafts of scripts with each other, seeking insights and reassurances on their direction and efforts. Now with Butler on the cusp of releasing his third feature film Papi Chulo and O’Conor about to break virgin territory with his debut Metal Heart, these singular talents sat down to reflect on their relationship and industry in which they have made their careers.

O’Conor has been immersed in the game since childhood. Butler recollects an image of him looking into the viewfinder of an enormous camera on the set of Lamb which he stared along aside Liam Neeson as a ten-year-old back in 1985. “I remember having a video camera of my dad’s and making shorts with my brother Keith. We make re-makes of Home Alone where he died every time. I would edit them together on video recorders or cut in camera. I loved doing that even then,” recollects O’Conor.

Butler found his way behind the camera via the world of TV promos, returning from a stint with a start-up in San Francisco to Dublin to work as a promo producer in the nascent days of TV3. O’Conor’s first foray in the world of shorts was Guilty of Love in 2001 which Butler remembers seeing before Conor McPherson’s Saltwater in the IFI. “I was really impressed,” he tells O’Conor to which he replies “Ah thanks very much. Well remembered.” Their chats are peppered with a lot of this mutual admiration and references which clearly show how rooted they have been to the development of the film scene here. They reference Damien O’Donnell’s 35 Aside and Lenny Abrahamson’s 3 Joes as influential and inspiring shorts for them.

They co-wrote the 2008 short Spacemen 3 which O’Conor directed. “We had a discussion about two guys having an argument in space. So John very kindly let me try that. I look at it now and think I did so many things wrong but you learn from it.”

In fact the process of consistently putting work out there, making mistakers and learning from them is a unifier between these two. Far from the bar stool pontifications of the shoulda, coulda, wouldas of this town, both these boys are prolific in their output. Butler has been a writer and director on his three films to date: The Stag, Handsome Devil and Papi Chulo while O’Conor is on stage and screen as an actor as well as an accomplished photographer.

“I look at stuff I did earlier in my career and think it’s extraordinarily naive,” reflects Butler. “The pressure to put work out there that will be judged for all time and fort all posterity as representative of you is so great. I much prefer to keep going and failing better, have a permission to fail and not be in jail career wise.”

As to whether it gets easier is a moot point. “You get more experienced,” says Butler. “But you still question why you do it? It’s so fucking scary the night before you start or every night if I’m honest. You get home and you are already in a rush to get to bed. You get the bare amount of sleep. There’s a hundred things that are terrifying you about the next day. My first waking call every morning when I’m shooting is FUCK, i can’t believe I am doing this.”

One of O’Conor’s concerns whilst shooting Metal Heart, his coming-of-age story, was the national concern that is the weather. “I remember on ours we were hoping for sun and every morning we would try every weather app. You’d still be getting up going ‘Oh thank god, it’s not pouring rain’”

This is one concern Butler didn’t have to contend with given he shot his heartfelt friendship between a weather forecaster and Mexican labourer in LA. However, reaction to working in the ‘traditional’ film industry is as changeable as the ‘what’s hot and not’ considerations of the social media season.

“Everyone in LA is an ‘influencer’ now. You might be in a restaurant with six people and say I’m a film director and they’ll say ‘Oh my god, that’s cute, what a fun thing to do.’ I feel there’s been a paradigm shift in that town. They all work in snapchat or TV. In some company, I feel like the weirdo guy making penny dreadfuls having made three features.”

However, they both are aware of being arbiters of their own destiny. “Ultimately you have to generate your own stuff because the main furnace of your career has to be your own imagination,” says Butler. “It will be three years of your life to make a film so you have to desperately want to make it. You have to hedge that bet in a way because you can put everything into it for a year and a half and then it’s turned down.”

Both are connected by their producers Treasure Entertainment run by couple Rebecca O’Flanagan and Rob Walpole. “It is important to understand producing is highly creative. You look into the whites of each others eyes, it is important that you trust producers enough to produce it. They shield you from things. They know what type of film you are trying to make, a comedy about loneliness in my instance.”

They both bemoan time as the greatest constraint on a shoot. O’Conor remembers “anally timing every shot so I could send to the first AD every night.” On a 21 day shoot, there is “never a moment where you are not freaking out about it” says Butler, “you make economies while shooting, you can buy back time but you never get more.” In contrast he enjoys the “calm’ of the editing suite where you can “work things out”.

Therefore, casting is of utmost significance. “You can’t make a good film with bad casting. It’s impossible. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of casting. It’s just everything. You can write a brief for a character but until you get to work with them and figure it out, then you can have real confidence about the thing. They show up, off book. ready to play, hit the marks, give you options, you fall in love with them,” says Butler.

Another salient point is what fuels the decisions of directors. “It needs to come from your heart or it won’t affect everyone else,” says O’Conor. “An audience knows. you can tell when they are bored or fidgeting. There’s a constant reappraisal of what I do but have to find something you believe in.” He cites Joanna Hogg’s steadfast and personal film-making which lead Martin Scorsese to becoming an executive producer on her latest film The Souvenir.

One distinguishing feature of both their films are superb soundtracks with Metal Heart clearing a Velvet Underground track from Lou Reed’s estate and Papi Chulo landing Madonna’s Borderline for a central scene. The tenacity and resilience needed for this cannot be understated.

“Madonna’s a dear friend. She’s so good to me,” jests Butler. “She sent an e-mail saying she loved the clip and loved for it (Borderline) to be in the film. We had a plan B and C and shot three different songs. Matt (Bomer) did a good bit of work, then Treasure, you kind of need it to be for five minutes everywhere she turns someone is telling her ‘you need to think of this’ with her saying What is it? fuck it, give it to them,’” he laughs.

As for releasing their respective features after the festival circuit to a hometown crowd, Butler is under no illusion about its significance. “Anyone who doesn’t say it’s important is not being entirely truthful. We grew up here. This is where we were formed and the audience you most want to connect with. As a writer, much of this is to get a sense you are not alone. You write something and it’s like a distress flare you are putting out into the world and hoping other people see it. That is massively important.”

Papi Chulo is released on June 7 and Metal Heart on June 28.

IG & Twitter: @mrjohnbutler @hughoconor

Words: Michael McDermott

Photographs: Aoife Herrity


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