Interview with Jonathan Butterell
Loyola Phoenix: So how would you describe the experience of directing your first film?
Jonathan Butterell: Exhilarating and terrifying, both in equal measures. I mean I’ve been a theater director—I worked in theater for 30 years—so I’m used to telling stories. That’s what I love. That’s my passion. So it’s just another vehicle for telling stories. What I loved about it was the scale that film can give you. It allowed my imagination to completely open and fly in a different way than what stage does. Also, this particular film is set in my hometown, so I feel a deep affinity to the vista of that town and how it looks, both in its scale of view and in its particularity of something that could be quite small. My Auntie Joan lived on this street, for instance, so I knew it from the inside out really. Unlike theater, where there’s always tomorrow, there’s never tomorrow in filming. It’s got to be there, done, finished, over and done with. So you’re always against that amazing ticking clock that’s suddenly going in one direction, and then things that you kind of know, like weather and things like that, are suddenly eating at that time. And suddenly you’ve got 15 minutes to shoot a scene that really should have three hours to shoot. Those moments are terrifying, but the exhilaration you get is just also amazing. And the detail that film can give you, the story you can tell—the minutiae—is something you can’t quite do on stage, and I loved that. So the scale actually sometimes can come in what is so small as well.
Columbia Chronicle: I know the story of Jamie is based on a real person as well as a documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. Since there was another adaptation of this real-life story, why do you think there was a reason for you to create another adaptation of [your own]?
JB: You mean in terms of transitioning from stage to film or taking from the documentary itself?
CC: Why create this version of the story? Why do you think it was important?
JB: For me, I literally was watching TV and stumbled across the documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. And it’s a story that—when I looked at it and saw this work-ing-class, young 16-year-old boy get off a bus and reveal that he was wearing heels and say, “I want to be a drag queen” in a particularly working-class community in the north of Britain—I went, “This boy has such courage,” and I wanted to tell that story of that courage. That obviously is very particular, and I thought, well, that that speaks to me. I get that, and I’m not of Jamie’s generation. And I thought this story demands a wider audience, and because I’m a theatre-maker, I thought I’d like to tell the story. I would really like to take this story. When we first started working on the story, we’d never met Jamie or Margaret, deliberately so because we wanted to take the inspiration of that story but let our own imaginations fly. So Jamie Campbell, for instance, doesn’t have a best friend, Pritti Pasha. Those are invented characters. And actually [for] the documentary, they weren’t actually allowed to go into school and film. So all the school life, again, came from our own school experience. I went through a working-class, what we call comprehensive school, in Sheffield, so I knew that world, although it’s quite a few years ago, it still felt very similar. My brother’s a teacher, and I was constantly in schools. I knew what they looked like. And I just thought, this feels like a universal story to tell. Also, it felt natural to me that it would sing because of Jamie’s exuberance. Because of what he wants to be, it felt very natural that he would lift into song.
Chicago Maroon: Were they any particular challenges that came with creating a story based upon a real-life person and real story, both in adapting the story to the stage and to the film?
JB: Not necessarily challenges. I wanted to, as I said, I wanted to honor the inspiration behind it. I wanted to honor Jamie Campbell and Margaret Campbell. But the reason we also created Jamie New and Margaret New, as in the characters in the film, is that Jamie Campbell and Margaret Campbell could distance themselves and say this was inspired by a story, but it isn’t ours. So if they wanted to kind of remove themselves and say they felt awkward in any part of our storytelling, they could distance themselves. They did quite the opposite. I remember Margaret Campbell saying to me when she initially saw it, the first words out of her mouth were: “How did you know?” And I said we didn’t, we used our imaginations. But there was something so deep in that relationship that I think everybody knew, everybody recognized. We all know those, we all have those deep relationships. And we all have our relationships, parental or between friends, or between what might seem like adversaries, we all know those dynamics. So I think it felt very natural that they played themselves out.
LP: So making your debut as a filmmaker, I was interested in that. You mentioned this is just another vehicle of telling stories. Do you feel like you were ready to drive the vehicle from the first day of filming? How did you prepare for the unknown?
JB: I prepped. I felt I prepped within an inch of my life. But the one thing you just said there is you can’t prep for the unknown. And your first time stepping into something, it’s full of unknowns. I did as much reading, as much research, as much as I could possibly do, but it took the people around me also to guide me, and I was open to being guided. I felt like I had 1,000 hands on my back saying, “We support you. We’re holding, we hold you.” And I trusted that. As a director, you’re expected to, in essence, lead. You are holding that space and you’re saying, “OK, I’m holding the story. I’m holding all of us.” And I felt I could do that. I felt I had the transferable skills from theater in order to do that. Some of the technical skills I had to learn along the way. I had the most amazing DP [director of photography] in Chris Ross, who would offer things to me. He would say we can do this, we can do that. He went through a whole series of what camera we could use, what lens we could use, all the detailing of filmmaking—he just took me through. Some of them I’d researched. I never expected to be making a film or be a filmmaker. Now [that] I’ve made one, I’m hooked. I really want to stay and tell stories in this medium because I just loved it.
CC: I know that the actors who played Jamie and Pritti, they’re new to this as well. What was it like to work with people who never were in the industry before? Was it hard? Was it easy?
JB: I loved every second of it. I like working with actors. And although Max and Lauren hadn’t done anything before, they were innately actors. Lauren really hasn’t had any training. And Max, we pulled him out of college, so he was in his training. They are innately actors. They had that within them. I just love enabling them to tell their story and talking to their imaginations. When our casting director put out on social media, anybody, please, anybody who’s interested in telling this story, send something in, I think I saw overall about 3,000 young people want to be in this film. And Max sent a little tape, not acting, just telling us about himself and his interest in drag, his interest in makeup, and I just remember seeing that video and going “This young man is magical.” There’s something, he’s got some magic in him. And yes, he did go through a whole massive audition process. He came in, we read together, he danced, he sang, he danced again, he sang again, we put him in drag, he worked in heels. It was a long audition process for him. And he’ll tell you about that. But I kind of knew from that first little video that we’d found it. And also, it’s a story about a young effeminate hero. And I feel I’ve never really seen that story being told. The effeminate young man is always off on the sideline: either he becomes the victim or [he] is the comic character. And to put this young man in the center of the story to be unashamedly himself, I knew Max had that within him because he’s unashamedly himself. Same with Lauren. Lauren I call “Pretty Yoda” at times, because she feels like the most intelligent, wise person there. When I first met Lauren, she turned up in front of me in like an anorak and backpack, and it had been raining. She wears glasses herself so all I saw was that little face with glasses this big and again, I just went, “This is a creature.” And you could just see in her eyes that she was this person. So of course we read, but that initial spark is there in this result you’re seeing.
CM: In terms of adapting from stage to film, you said that what you really like about film is how your imagination can run wilder, the scale is broader. What parts of the story were you most excited to be able to scale up and depict in a more fantastical manner? And were there any things that you had to give up in the stage-to-film adaptations that you maybe liked about the stage adaptation more?
JB: I didn’t have to give anything up. I think it allowed me to deepen some things. One, because as we talked about the scale, you can deepen just by being closer. You have an actress like Sarah Lancashire, who can do something so enormous with her eyes. She has such an inner life. You get the camera on her eyes, and the whole story is told within one moment. And there’s in addition to this, [in] the film version, a new song that we wrote called “This Was Me,” for Richard E. Grant’s character, Hugo, who back in the day was this great drag queen in London. He’s returned back to his hometown, Sheffield, and kind of given up and lost his joy, really. And this young 16-year-old boy walks in and says he wants to be a drag queen, and [that] ignites a little fire. And so we wanted to make sure that the stories were told cross-generationally. So we created this, and I am of that generation that Hugo is—a little younger—but essentially that generation in which the struggle to find yourself in the world was just different. I remember being in marches in which you had to literally fight. There was a law passed in Britain, called Section 28, in which the promotion of homosexuality was banned, so it marginalized gay, lesbian, queer, transgender people to some real sideline so that it wasn’t even acknowledged that they could exist. And so we went out, literally went out into the streets and marched. And that was also at the time when HIV was so prevalent, and we were losing friends. And I just wanted to make sure that that story was told and communicated to this generation. And so that was an opportunity to use the film to tell their stories.
LP: With that driving you and also Jamie, like you said, he’s unashamedly himself, and he has this exuberance being a 16-year-old teenage boy, then there’s also these deeper traumas with his father and schoolmates bullying him and intolerance. How did you try to balance these? Did you try to keep that on set or was it hard sometimes to not let deeper emotions in?
JB: For me, they’re essential. Those deeper emotions drive you. The essence of this film is joy. The tagline is what Pritti says, “A little bit of glitter in the gray,” but the gray exists, and in the gray, there’s darkness, as in the last song, “Out of the darkness/ Into the spotlight.” So you have to have the balance of light and dark. I never wanted to tell a story in which Jamie was a victim. I didn’t want to tell the classic story that suddenly, he had to overcome the bully. And Dean, the character in school, I don’t see as a bully, I just see as a dick. He’s just a dick. He’s just an idiot, and he says stupid things. And actually, if you look into his own life, he’s struggling himself. And I’ve lived with bullies, and if he’s the extent of a bully, he’s a pretty pathetic bully. And Jamie could handle him, and Jamie can take him down. Jamie knows that. For me also, it wasn’t a coming out story because I feel like those stories have been told and been told wonderfully, but I didn’t want to tell it again. So I wanted to tell the story of a 16-year-old boy who is openly gay. He hasn’t arrived in himself fully. I’m not 16, and I haven’t arrived in myself either. But it was getting that balance of telling the story of this 16-year-old boy but also what underpinned much of that. What really underpinned it is his relationship with his dad, as we did explore. But even then, I wanted to make that not just entrenched in some binary, black-and-white thing. His dad behaves badly, his dad leaves him, his dad walks out on him, and his dad doesn’t support him. And his dad did shame him, and his dad put shame into him, but even in that opening, the second song of the film, “The Wall in My Head,” Jamie explores his place in that. Of going, “OK, shame went inside me, but I’m continuing to build that brick wall in front of me, and it’s my responsibility to bring that brick wall down. But as I’m trying to bring it down, I’m also building it again at the same time.” So it’s just an exploration of what happens when shame goes in. I wanted to try to explore Jamie’s dad in a nuanced way as much as I possibly could. And so his argument with Jamie’s mom, Margaret, that he has is that he did struggle, he does struggle having an effeminate, young gay boy as a son, and he acknowledged that struggle. He says to Margaret, “You wrapped your arms around him so tightly to protect him that I was kicked out.” And so I wanted to know that there is a conversation to be had about people who struggle, and hopefully in that struggle, there can be a shift. There wasn’t a shift in Jamie’s dad’s story. And I was asked at times to find closure, and I didn’t want to, because people don’t always find closure. You have to find your way of working through trauma or shame. And I think that’s how I wanted to let the world know that those things happen, and we still can struggle and still have to find our way through them.
CC: I noticed that, I guess by choice, there was no love line between Jamie or anyone in the school. But at the end he kind of befriended the bully and they even hold hands. Was there a hint for it? And why was there no romance?
JB: For me, there’s no hint at that moment in time. For me, it’s not about sexuality. So to put sexuality at the front of it would make, oh, this unrequited love of the bully who’s really gay. I don’t see Dean as a gay character at all. I don’t think he’s trying to hide anything. I just think he’s a young straight man who’s a dick at 16. And I don’t think romance would have helped us in any way. It wouldn’t have advanced Jamie’s story. And actually the story’s really simple. Maybe it’s unconventional because his challenges are small. He is a young man who is supported by his mother, who instantly gets a pair of shoes on his birthday. He finds a drag shop and an owner who is willing to support him. He gets his drag show. Yes, some idiots from school turn up and try to spoil that, but actually, they don’t spoil it. He’s fantastic. Heuristically, he turns up at school thinking he’s it, he’s made it, and he’s fabulous. And I think in that, that’s his little downfall where he thinks actually, he’s arrived. And he discovers he’s not arrived. Being a drag queen isn’t who he is. It’s part of his expression, but it’s not necessarily who he is. And I think for me, that’s how it goes. I think if we added romance into that, I think it would have actually taken something away from the story. And it’s not for me to control how an audience view it. I can tell you that I don’t think Dean’s a gay character, and I certainly don’t think there’s unrequited love there at all. But I can’t control an audience’s view on what they see. They’ll decide their own story.
Interview with Max Harwood and Lauren Patel:
CM: You both are first-time actors. Could you talk about that experience and how working with more experienced actors like Richard Grant and Sarah Lancashire helped you with this experience of being a first-time actor in a film?
Max Harwood: For me, I went into this whole process from the audition as the process of learning. I don’t feel like I’m ever going to be in a stage where I don’t have anything to learn. That is absolutely a perspective I have now upon reflection. And it was those actors like Richard and like Sarah that gave me space to learn and mess up and to just be in the moment and to listen. Yeah, I learned so much.
Lauren Patel: Yeah, I mean, you said it best, really, it was just a whole learning process. And we had a wonderful acting coach. I haven’t done any training or anything, so it was very, very new. I never acted professionally, so [it’s] all very new. And so just absorbing as much information and being surrounded by wonderful professionals, both in front of them [and] behind the camera, who could support us through the whole thing and guide us in the right direction was absolutely invaluable.
LP: Whenever you’re on set, and then you’re going home after a long day of makeup, heels, production, and sound checks, what was a good first thought whenever you got back or left set?LP: What am I having for dinner? How long until I need to be up again?
MH: How many hours of sleep am I going to get tonight before the car has to pick me up?I mean, obviously, I was on set every day for 12 weeks for 12-hour days. So I had to be extremely prepared in advance. I couldn’t come home and not think about what I was doing the next day because it would often be a dance routine or it would be a three-page scene of dialogue. And there’s no way that, as an actor, that you can have a go on set without being prepared. Different people prep differently in terms of how they learn their lines or how much preparation they do, but whatever your prep is, you have to be ready to do your job when you go on set. And it being our first job, I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we wanted to be giving a good impression and making sure that we were prepared.
LP: Yeah, and going all in because it’s not like we were about to go on to another job. This was it. This was our big chance to give it everything we got. And I hope we did that.
MH: Well, we did give it everything we got. It just depends on whether it will be any good. I shouldn’t say that really.
CC: We’ve been told that you got hired by sending videos talking about yourself and [that] after the audition process, they had to pull you out of college. What was that like, and what was the process like for you?
MH: Well, it ended up being a choice of mine. I could have stayed at college for my third year. But actually I was busy. And I think college is much like making a movie. College is an incredibly busy time in your life, and you have to give it everything you’ve got. It’s lots of hours. For me, I did professional dance and musical theater, so it was lots of hours in the studio working on technique and doing ballet and doing acting prep work and learning scripts. And it would have been not very good of me to my fellow classmates [if] I would have to miss rehearsals, and so I made the decision to not go back. But luckily, that meant I continue to use my work as a place of learning and place of training. And I don’t know what it’s like in the U.S. for vocational acting training, but in the U.K., there’s a real mix of opinions on whether you need to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds or dollars on professional training or whether you can, like you did Lauren, [go] from no experience to learning on set. And every job you learn new transferable skills to take on to the next. But every job continues to be different. On the job that I just came off of, I was covered in blood and screaming, doing things that I didn’t do in this film.
LP: No spoilers, but there’s none of that in this film.
MH: So you learn to navigate different things. And drama school is an amazing place to build skill. And college is an amazing place to build skills, but I think truly nothing can prepare you for being on set for 12 hours of the day.
LP: I didn’t get into drama school. As I was auditioning for Jamie, [I was] doing drama school auditions at the same time. I got rejected from all of the ones in London, so it was like, “I’m never going to be able to do it, and my life’s over.” So dramatic. And then I got this job in like 20 days. And then a month later, I was doing it. I had a place at a university and I was like, “I don’t want to go and do education for three years.” Because also in the U.K., it’s very much if you are doing acting training, you’re not allowed to also work at the same time. I mean, it’s not everywhere, but a lot of places, that’s the kind of vibe. And I was just like, “I’m just going to enjoy this for what it is. And then I can go to school when I want to.”
MH: If you need to.
LP: If I need to. Because I wouldn’t be able to come to Chicago if I had university stuff to do, if I had an essay.
MH: You’d be absolutely overwhelmed.
CM: This isn’t just your first film experience; you also had to be singing. I’m curious about that. I assume you were recording the vocals in studio?
MH: We sang live every day on set, really, again, a great challenge. We worked with an amazing vocal coach. We laid down some demos of all of the songs before we go to shoot. That’s pretty standard. So you have a guide track so that the producers and the director can know how many seconds they’ve got and what emotional scene beats they need to get. That’s very standard so [that] they can start building the picture. And then specifically, the way that lots of movie musicals work now is that you sing live on set so they can utilize live vocals to build into the studio recordings which we do so that it doesn’t feel too stilted and doesn’t feel like you’re jumping so far into something completely different.
LP: Yeah, so we’d have the one that we recorded before we shot playing in an ear-piece in our ear. And then they’d also record it live on our microphones and kind of mix the two and it depended on the scene. I know these scenes with Max and Sarah—some of them—and scenes with me and Max, the more intimate little songs whereas the big dance numbers if you use the audio for the day, it would be terrible.
MH: Well, it would’ve been fantastic, but we want to give big production vocals. Lots of those songs are more studio-based. Like “And You Don’t Even Know It,” the opening song, where we go into Jamie’s fantasy world, those are moments where they can push reverb, they can push vocal processing, they can push all of those elements of the music to give it that pop essence. Whereas the music as you go through and you get to the end and you do “[It Means] Beautiful,” which is Lauren’s song, and the scene in the kitchen with me and the mum, that’s intimate vocals, so it’s smaller. And, you know, film editing is crazy, and Lauren [and I] would not be able to tell you what’s live and what’s not live because so much is live and so much isn’t and it’s movie magic. It’s movie magic. It’s crazy.
LP: What’s unique about this film to you personally?
MH: In terms of it being a queer story, I think it’s unique in the sense that it’s not a coming out story. That Jamie is already gay. There’s no trauma about that, and he’s not a victim of his queerness in that sense. He is very firm in his sexuality and can stand up to the bullies, to Dean. At no point are we really making him the victim. He’s the hero of his own story with all of his flaws, with all of his journey to discovery. It’s very specific. It’s set in Sheffield, which is a city in the north of England, which is so specific in terms of accent, in terms of the people that live there. I’ve not seen any other movie musicals about kids in Sheffield. So that’s also quite unique about it.
CC: It’s a small town?
MH: No, it’s not a small town really. It’s a city. It’s small, comparatively, to somewhere like Chicago. We’d have to find out how many people live there. I don’t know. I can’t—I guess it’s, like, small but not small. Big but not big. That makes no sense.
Marketing: It’s the fourth-biggest city in U.K.
MH: What’s the biggest?
Marketing: London. London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield.
MH: So the fifth. I don’t know. It’s a city. It’s not as big as Chicago.
LP: What was the question?
LP: What was unique to you?
LP: Yeah, I think for it to be our first job and for it to be something that is such a wonderful story, with so much heart and love in it. For it to be a queer story made by queer people. And to be able to play Pritti, a character who is a brown hijabi Muslim girl. Obviously there’s elements of her identity that resonate with the story, but she doesn’t have to be any of those things she just happens to be. And the fact that the Year 11 class reflects what a Year 11 class looks like in the U.K. in terms of diversity. And being a northern, working-class girl who loves musicals, it’s very lovely to be a part of a northern, working-class musical.
CC: How do you guys relate to your characters, if you relate at all? How are you different from them?
LP: I think that not just with the character, but with the general themes of the film, I was finishing college, which would be high school [in the U.S.], and going into university, which would be your college. And [I could relate to] the whole end of the film, with people having to decide where they’re going to be in the world and what kind of place they’re gonna have, what kind of space they’re going to take up. I got this job when I was 17, and I’m 20 now, and I feel like I’ve really grown up with the film and with Pritti and with Jamie. Being able to promote this after such an odd time is a really lovely thing. And the community aspect of it—we all kind of leant on each other. And it was all very new and scary, and Jamie is trying to navigate that also.
MH: Yeah. I think I’m similar to Jamie in the sense that my head was always out the classroom. I’m quite a creative person. I write as well as act. I write music, and I’m writing a screenplay at the minute as well, and I’m just being creative in that sense. And that’s something that I want to continue doing in my career. It’s very different in terms of this is a kid who’s 16, and when I was at school when I was 16, I wasn’t out. I was anything but gay. I was like “no.” And I think he’s incredibly brave. And I think me now being the age I am, I am similar in that sense. I am brave now, but was I at 16? Probably not.
CM: What it was like to be in a film based on a real story? How did you tackle that and what responsibilities did you feel to the Campbells and their story?
MH: It’s a huge responsibility when you’re taking anyone’s life, whether it’s an inspiration or whether it’s a direct retelling of their life story, you have to be so sensitive because these are real people and their feelings. We were incredibly lucky that the Campbells really stepped into the Everybody’s Talking About Jamie musical world so fully and felt really connected to it. They were a huge part of this process. Within my creation of my version of Jamie New, I wanted the essence and energy of Jamie Campbell to be at the center of it, so I did lots of watching [of] the documentary, and I got to meet him, which was lovely, and got to observe him, and he was on set. So I’ve managed to hopefully tap into a place that feels really authentic and true to the original but is expansive in terms of thematic cinematic plot points. I really want to go on and do more biopics. I love doing research and stuff like that. It’s always really good as an actor to not have a blank sheet of paper to create a character from, so I really use everything around me, environment and people, to create characters that I play for all of my films.
LP: I was curious about this balance between this very youthful story about a 16-year-old wearing a dress to prom and just his life at a very young age, then also these deeper challenges with his father. Then both of you have these scenes of beauty and identity at such a young age. How do you balance those more sorrowful moments with these fun dance musical numbers?
MH: I think music is the key in this film to doing that because with film, you can be so incredibly detailed. You can get up right close, really close to the eyes, and you just have to really be in the moment and be with each other and exist for the director to capture what’s going off inside you. And that’s where the emotion lies in these scenes, like the talk with Pritti in the bedroom, doing the song “Beautiful” [as] opposed to how you’re required [to] in those larger scenes, the joyful scenes to create crazy shapes, this big screaming shape that I do in the lip sync. Those are huge, huge shapes. And the only way I think you can really cleverly pull that apart is really good filmmaking and filming and direction. I wasn’t expected to worry about that aspect of it, if that makes sense. I wasn’t expected to worry about whether it was too big or too small; I just had to worry about being present and existing. And in the moments where you do those fantasy scenes, the direction from Johnny wasn’t bigger. It wasn’t “bigger, go bigger”; it was “enjoy it.” This is the moment of joy, [so] be joyful. Whereas talking about the more intimate moments, we often suppress those moments, so we do less showing. And that’s just what humans do. But for me, it really truly is the music that ties all of that together beautifully because you get that balance as opposed to big pop numbers.
LP: And just everything from the direction to the sets to the costumes made us feel like the transitions were so easy and having the switch between live vocals and recorded vocals and stuff like that. Yeah, I lost my train of thought.
MH: Basically, there was an amazing team, and we didn’t have to think too much about it because the material already was great. To be honest, it was good writing.
LP: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. Tom [MacRae, screenwriter] always says, in terms of the stage show, if you want to add something in, it’s an added line or an added song, but whereas in the film, it can just be a 0.3-second little beat or a glance or a shot or a sigh. And so it was easier to root it in the real world, and setting it in Sheffield helps it stay really grounded because it is a really human, grounded story. And then there’s lots of glitter.