PAPI CHULO – Interview with Irish director John Butler

The maker of Irish box office hits ‘The Stag’ & ‘Handsome Devil’ returns this month with his Hollywood debut PAPI CHULO. The film, opening on June 7th examines the unlikely friendship between Sean, a young, gay, TV weatherman (Golden Globe winner Matt Bomer) and Ernesto, a middle-aged Latino migrant worker (Alejandro Patiño).

Like your previous film ‘Handsome Devil’ (currently on Netflix) the film looks at unlikely friendships. What is about these themes that interest you?
I have always loved buddy movies; films like Scarecrow, Sideways, Swingers have always been close to my heart. There’s something about how it is the lack of intimacy itself in a friendship between men that allows them grow so close that I find funny and interesting.

After setting ‘Handsome Devil’ in Ireland did you always want to look abroad for your next project?
Not necessarily – and I’d love the next thing I do to be back here. It’s just a question of telling the story that’s at the end of your nose – and for me, after Hansome Devil, that was Papi Chulo.

You’ve mentioned previously that you were inspired to write the script after seeing latino workers lining up outside an American hardware store looking for work. How did the film develop from that image?
I researched the realities of life as a day laborer, talking to people who hired and were hired, and I then I put myself in both men’s shoes, and then I took it from there.

Do you often look to real life events and encounters for inspiration?
Not always – but I do look for a strain of emotional autobiography – a sense that I have lived these moments in one way or another; however distantly the events of my life seem to match.

Tell us about the casting of your main characters, you managed to avoid the stereotypes that might usually be associated with a gay man or Mexican migrant worker on screen.
Matt, Alejandro and I were very conscious of the stereotypes and were excited to play around with them in mind. I was very lucky to find those two men – the experience was a joy from soup to nuts.

You’ve been praised for the films depiction of latinos, did you work with Alejandro  to properly define his character?
Of course. Alejandro brought aspects of his family story to bear on it, and when you work with a guy that’s as smart and interesting as him, then you’d be mad not to use that. One is always hyper-conscious of issues around representation, and at the same time, one has to hope that stories can continue to be told from specific perspectives, rather than from above.

Sean is a gay man but his sexuality isn’t his defining trait, was this important to you?
Massively important. There’s a spectrum of gay male identity, even within the spectrum of the LGBTQ spectrum, which is a spectrum within that of humanity. With that in mind, it’s reductive not to try to see people as people.

How much time did your lead actors spend rehearsing and working on their chemistry? 
We did about a week’s rehearsal, and that was very beneficial – when you’re filming in 21 days you have to hit the ground running. The two guys got to know each other, and both are so giving and generous that we were all on the same page by the time we started filming.

When writing the script, how were you imagining these two different men who speak different languages communicating with each other? Was it difficult to plan their dialogue?
All I knew (apart from what I’ve already answered) was that when the two men spoke to each other, despite the language barrier and the fact that they’re speaking in two different languages, there would be no subtitles. Everything flows from that idea.

Why did you want to avoid the glitz and glamour of Hollywood even though the film is set in LA?
Because it’s been over-represented. Everyone knows about Pinks hot dogs and Bel Air and Baywatch. The LA I know and love lies further east, away from the ocean, and it is more diverse, more queer, more Latino and more interesting that life west of the 405. I don’t like Santa Monica and Venice. When I’m there I feel like a capitalist ghoul.

The film has played globally at a number of film festivals, how have different audiences reacted to it?
People have loved it! It went down very well at Guadalajara, which was important to me. Nearly as important as Dublin!

As a Suede fan, I always wanted to ask about the Suede poster in ‘Handsome Devil’, it was surprising to see the band pop up in an Irish film. Were you a fan of the band and did you ever encounter any backlash for your music tastes when you were younger?
I loved Suede when I was young but originally wanted a Smiths poster in the room. But certain shifts in the political outlook of that band made it problematic. Suede were a great number two! When I was in school both Suede and The Smiths were definitely music for fags. I do not miss the 80’s half as much as I think I do.

PAPI CHULO is at Irish cinemas from June 7th