Handsome Devil: Can one movie help bring gay rugby players out of the lockers?
Forget former All Blacks French follies and Sonny Bill's lapels, John Butler hopes his new rugby-infused movie will inspire the talking point of 2017.
The Irish writer-director admits he has allowed himself "a little idle daydream" that a professional rugby union, league or soccer player would watch his film and decided to "come out".
Speaking on the phone from Sydney, where his teen tale closed that city's Mardi Gras Film Festival, the affable, sporting-mad and proudly gay Butler says having a 22-year-old megastar come out "would have a seismic effect on our culture".
"People would really have to examine what it means to a man, because the things everybody associates with being a man currently, they don't associate with being gay and I think we should just tear down all those binaries at this point."
It will come as no surprise then to learn that Handsome Devil is semi-autobiographical tale. It's the story of two boys forced to share a room at a rugby-mad boarding school. But while Ned (Fionn O'Shea) has always been pegged as an outsider, Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) is Woodhill College's great hope. A first-five second-to-none. But it slowly becomes clear that Conor has more in common with Ned than any of the other boys in his team.
Butler admits that yes, he did go to a fee-paying, rugby-playing boarding school in Dublin in the 1980s. However, while that meant he was forced to play rugby until he was 13, it was the round-ball code where he later excelled.
"I still play in a gay soccer team called the Dublin Devils. Really I've been a sport guy my whole life, but I came of age in a world where gender role were very rigidly defined – particularly in terms of sport and sexuality.
"All through my childhood I thought I couldn't be gay and good at sport. I looked around for role models but, as is the case now, there were no 'out' top-level soccer or rugby union players, which is an incredible state of affairs in 2017. I don't think it's because they're aren't any. I think it's because the world isn't ready to accept them for who they are – which is very sad.
"When I came out. People were like – 'I can't believe it, you are into soccer. I can't believe you are gay'. Which almost kind of reinforces what I thought myself – that you can't be both."
Keen to break down stereotypes, Butler says that with Handsome Devil he was keen to make a gay story that didn't involve a "tragic doomed romance and outside vilification".
"We belong at the centre of the culture – just as we are in the real world."
He says he knew he wanted to make a film that both echoed and subverted teen films he grew up watching, like Dead Poets Society, Class, School Ties and John Hughes movies like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, as well as British films like This is England, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and If…
"When you look at John Hughes' films now, there's a lot of homophobia in there that needs to be updated. I find it fun to work in a genre and then try to invigorate it."
One of the other things Butler was desperate to get right was the rugby action. Around a sixth of the shooting schedule was devoted to it, but there was the spectre of too many on-screen depictions of the sport being very unconvincing.
"Oh God, Invictus," sighs Butler. "That whole close-up shot of the guy running with the ball. You can tell nobody was near him in terms of tackling."
Fortunately, Butler had an ace up his sleeve – his good friend Brian O'Driscoll. Ireland's most-capped and beloved rugby player was more than happy to help choreograph all the action.
"He basically helped us drill two teams, that were half actors, half rugby players, in about seven different moves that you could repeat over and over again and made sure the impacts looked real."
Another bonus was that the English-born Galitzine, whose next film is the Christchurch-shot supernatural thriller The Changeover, had a bit of experience with the oval ball.
"After we cast him, I suddenly thought we should call his agent just to see if he'd every held a rugby ball in his hands before," says Butler. "It transpired that he had played for Harlequins' Academy side as a kid. That was a real help, because it meant we didn't have to use a double for him at all."
Describing making the film as "a joyful experience", Butler says having to work on a tight schedule actually gives rise to a certain energy that plays out on screen.
"I would never describe making films like this as easy, but they can be much fun – you get such an adrenaline rush out of making them. And I had a cast who really understood what they were getting into and really gave it their all. I was a lucky man, I have to say."
Handsome Devil (M) opens in select New Zealand cinemas on April 27.