Jason Micallef Talks Butter, on Blu-ray and DVD this week
Directed by She's Out of My League's Jim Field Smith, the timely comedy Butter arrives on Blu-ray and DVD this Tuesday, December 4th. The film follows a group of butter carvers and the intense competition that brings them all together. The screenplay, which made the 2008 Black List, is from Jason A. Micallef, who caught up with us for a chat about the movie (which features an all-star ensemble that includes Jennifer Garner, Hugh Jackman, Olivia Wilde, Ty Burrell, Alicia Silverstone, Kristen Schaal, and Rob Corddry).
Jason took us through the process of landing on the Black List, and what it has meant for his career. The competitive nature of screenwriting, and he also opened up about his work on the failed feature adaptation of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
Here is our conversation, which began shortly after someone brought up a bad review of the film Butter that praised the writing and nothing else.
What's the deal? Are people more open to bringing up bad reviews to screenwriters than they are to directors or actors?
Jason A. Micallef: I don't know. That was the first time anyone has ever brought that up to me. I am bad, because I don't ever read that stuff. I'm ill informed.
Maybe I saw the same review that you guys were talking about a minute ago. Where they said the movie was really bad, but the script was great. They specifically pointed you out as being the only good thing about the movie. I thought that was a little strange...
Jason A. Micallef: Yeah. That is just a super weird review. That particular review, someone just happened to email me. You can't block yourself out from that. Its super weird. I don't know how they would be able to tell. I just don't know. Its like someone telling you...It's a weird feeling for me. Because I love this cast. And the studio. And the producers, so much...This was akin to someone being like, "I love you, but I hate your wife." I'm like, "Oh, great." There really is no response to that.
It was awkward to read that from a third party perspective. A lot of writers nowadays are deeply involved with productions, even though there is a misconception that they're not...
Jason A. Micallef: Yes, sometimes writers are very involved. I was very involved with this film. I'm sure there are projects where I will send in the script, and that will be the end for me. It all just depends on what works best for the film. I'm happy either way.
Butter is a screenplay that wound up on the coveted Black List. Can you take me through the process of landing on that list, and what it means to, and for, a writer?
Jason A. Micallef: My first experience with that was...I had actually won a scholarship from the Academy Awards with Butter. Then, a few weeks later, my new agent was like, "Oh, you made it on the Black List." I didn't know what that was. I actually thought it was bad. It's called The Black List, like back in old Hollywood, where the screenwriters were banned. But then he told me what it was. It is helpful. I think it's nice. This is a subjective business. I know there is a lot of people that bag on Hollywood executives. A lot. But it's all truly subjective. There is no arbitrator of what is good or bad. So it is nice to hear, "Oh, yeah, everyone else likes this one too." You know? I think that is the main thing for that particular list. Because it's helpful. It's hard when you get into writing, and you are reading about film, because there is a herd mentality. You know, just from talking with your friends, that people like different things. And they don't like certain things. But if you are in the position of being like, your job is on the line for green lighting things, then yes, The Black List is really helpful for a writer. Because it reinforces to people that the thing you like is good.
Is there any downside to being on The Black List? Is there any particular stigma that comes with it?
Jason A. Micallef: I don't think so. Maybe within a small community. But I don't think the general public has any idea it even exists. Like, my mom doesn't know what it is. I don't think there is a stigma about it. I think it is really helpful in getting a writer's project made. Whatever happens after that has nothing to do with the Black List. Some projects take certain roads, and other projects take other roads.
What was your process of working with the actual butter while you wrote the script?
Jason A. Micallef: I am the worst writer when it comes to research. When you write comedy, it's not necessary. If you were writing a political thriller based on true facts, than obviously you need to get that right. But comedy? It's all about characters. I did go through and Google, and I visited the sculptures at the Iowa fair...But for me, it's not about that. Also, the people making the sculptures, all the craftsmen, they will do all that. I didn't want the movie to be about that. I didn't want it to be about an actual butter-sculpting contest. I don't even think they have a dramatic competition like they have in the movie. Its just, someone puts a blue ribbon on the winner. Its that kind of thing.
You didn't even put a cube of butter on your desk for inspiration?
Jason A. Micallef: I don't know. I did go to the Iowa State Fair, and I saw those sculptures. They were pretty awesome. I am a big fan of butter. I eat it all the time. Unfortunatly.
Were you looking at this script as a parody or spoof of the sports genre?
Jason A. Micallef: Yeah. You are the first person to ever ask that, which is shocking. Because I think that is most obvious about the script. People get hung up on the political stuff, and usually they are wrong, what they write about it or what they say. For me, it is just a story about competition. It's a statement on a lot of things, but mostly competition, and how that can either bring out the best or worst in you.
What do you think competition brings out in you?
Jason A. Micallef: It's funny. I think that you can look at these characters...I used to be really competitive. I'm not so much anymore. I don't think it's great...It's great when you are competing against yourself. But when you are competing against other people, I think it reinforces the notion...I think its fine in some fields, but as a writer and an artist, you don't want to get into this belief that there are a fixed number of resources, which is the basis of competition. Meaning, one person wins, one person loses. But that is not the way it works for artists. There is not just one great movie, and then one bad movie. There could be hundreds of bad movies, and hundreds of great paintings. And maybe, there are zero great paintings in a particular year. Competition for an artist is the opposite of where you want your brain to be. It predisposes that there is a pie, and there is only so much in that pie. Creatively, as an artist, my pie is more infinite. I open a word document, and it is blank. It could become anything. There is now finite things. I was trying to get to that idea with the character of Destiny (Yara Shahidi). I don't know how successful I was with that. Whether she won or lost didn't really matter to her. I think she was using that competition to emotionally gain a family. Does that make sense?
Yes. Now, in terms of certain writing circles, it always seems to me that there is more collaboration than competition. They are usually excited to see and hear about what the other person is working on. Has that been your experience?
Jason A. Micallef: Absolutely. My friends that are TV and film writers are my best friends. We all hang out. There is never a single bit...I wouldn't even fathom that...I think that goes back to what I was saying earlier. Just because someone else had success in writing doesn't mean you won't. They aren't taking anything away from you. It's not a closed pie. Its not the Super Bowl, where the person kicks a field goal and you lose. The competition thing doesn't really affect us. But I think that idea is worth exploring. That is a sad thing about our culture, where we think that there is only so much. You see it in everything nowadays. Especially with the arguments, politically, about taxes, and budgets. The whole precipice is predisposed upon the idea that there is only so much. Some people need some, and some people don't really get some. I don't know if that is really true. It just doesn't feel right to me. I feel that there is another way. Hopefully, the character of Destiny carries that storyline. Whereas, the character of Laura (Jennifer Garner) is a storyline of, "There are limited resources." You know? Does that make sense?
Yes. It certainly makes sense. What I've noticed about writers is that they always want to work together as opposed to working apart...
Jason A. Micallef: Absolutely.
How did this cast shape up for you? Does this look like the group of characters you had in your head?
Jason A. Micallef: I don't know. I don't think for this project I can answer that question. This being my first project, I was so, "Ahhh!" I was just so thrilled...When I write, when a writer writes, I don't think they imagine people. They may say they do later. But, you are just imagining the character. You are imagining people you know, in a weird way. Or more extreme versions of the people you know.
So, Butter is based on some real-life people that you've known? Or maybe someone you saw in the Butter isle at the store...
Jason A. Micallef: Yeah, it's not based on specific people. But then, for certain projects...I am doing this film for Disney, and it's a big romantic comedy. So many of the things that certain characters say are things that friends of mine have just started laughing about, and you don't really know why. I wouldn't say it's based on someone. I think it means more, when it's more personal. You are never sitting down, and being like, "Okay, I am thinking of Brad Pitt right now. That is probably not the best way to write.
You are writing a romantic film for Disney. That would be one of the Star Wars films, right?
Jason A. Micallef: Yes. You make a little joke, but it is half set in space. It's Seth Gordon, who is great. I have worked with him before, and he is going to direct it. We'll see if they greenlight it. I just turned in the second draft. We're not quite on the casting road yet. Seth Gordon had done a great documentary called The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. That is how we met. He hired me to write...At one point they were going to do a movie version of that...He had hired me to write that. We became really close. I am writing a pilot for Fox right now, and he is going to direct that. Knock on wood, if they decide to make it. I am still writing it right now.
We heard about the theatrical feature that they were going to make, based off King of Kong, but it quietly disappeared. What happened with that?
Jason A. Micallef: I have no idea. That is more of a question for someone else. I loved writing it, though. I loved writing that whole world. It depends on which version of the movie they wanted to make, but I didn't really know. I was hired to re-write the script. Sometimes on projects, you come in, do your time, and leave. Other times, you are much more involved. I don't know the answer to that question.
You say that some people are looking at Butter as a political film. Are you interested in writing a straight-up political film?
Jason A. Micallef: No. I am not interested in that. I watch politics as entertainment. To me, it has just gotten so ridiculous. So sort of sad, that it has turned into a shit show instead of a real discussion of ideas. To me, I think its funny. Right now in my career, I can't imagine having to find the seriousness in it. Because it is just so ridiculous. That is just how may brain works. I see it and think its ridiculous. Another writer may see stuff like that, and it seems like a great thriller. Which is awesome, that there are two different views of the same event.
Butter is available on Blu-ray and DVD December 4th.