Interview: JASON A. MICALLEF, Butter

The first “Butter Cow” in Iowa was made by sculptor John K. Daniels at the 1911 Iowa State Fair. The sculpture was sponsored by the Beatrice Creamery Company, now part of Con-Agra Foods. The exhibit, designed as a way to promote dairy products in the area, was a big hit with fairgoers. Because of its success, the butter sculpture was continued each year…

Who would have thought such a benign tradition could lead to a political satire starring Jennifer Garner, High Jackman an more? Apparently Jason A. Micallef thought so, because he wrote the script.

I had the pleasure to chat with him for a few minutes when “Butter” was released on DVD. This is how that went…

GS: Just so we’re on the same page here to start out, is it true that you started your Hollywood career getting coffee for Danny DeVito?

JAM: Yeah, I did. How did you know that?

GS: Just doing my research.

JAM: That was my very first job. I was a runner for DeVito’s company — he probably wouldn’t even know who I was, but maybe he would. But yeah, and it was awesome and he was such a nice guy. I was just watching “Ruthless People” the other day, which is my favorite of his films… he’s so great.

GS: Did that help you segue into being a writer?

JAM: Yeah, it did. Eventually I got a job for the company as an assistant, which put me in a position to read all the scripts they were doing. There’s nothing more helpful than that.

GS: Very cool. I find it’s not uncommon for someone to start out as a PA and work up to acting or directing…

JAM: I don’t know how much of it is luck, but there’s nothing better than just getting in there and start learning. It’s like a film school. I suppose or you could just go a real film school, depending on the person.

GS: Yeah. Let’s talk about “Butter”. The film is set in Iowa, and as a Midwesterner I have to know… why Iowa?

JAM: A couple reasons. Number one, at the time I was writing it, it was seen as a political satire and Iowa is seen as the kickoff for American politics. But also mainly because I took a road trip after college and we ended up at Butter Hall, which was the only place at the State Fair that was air conditioned. But Iowa was a place that said something political — a place that is “ground zero” for American politics in the beginning stages of campaigning.

GS: I have to be honest with you and say as much as I loved the film, it was the political aspect I enjoyed the least. I thought it was a good story about competition, but then had some Republican and Democrat overtones… maybe I was reading into it too much… but it seemed more political than it needed to be.

JAM: It wasn’t intended to be Republican and Democrat when I had originally written it. I wrote it before Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann were well-known. I had no idea who Sarah Palin was at the time. And now, I see people have made comparisons of the characters to them. But I think you’re right that it works best as a competition comedy with that other stuff left in the background. I will say in our defense, however, that when people talk about the politics — it seems like this struck a chord with journalists. During test runs, the audience never brought up anything political. The difference is, I think, that journalists are primed before they see a film. And that was interesting to see how that worked. No one ever, not once, brought up politics when we screened it. I don’t know…

GS: I’ve read the reviews that mention Palin and Bachmann and I understand why they made that connection. But that wasn’t even my concern. The first five or ten minutes are political and then it drifts away from that, and during that opening I was actually hoping it would change because it was uncomfortable to watch.

JAM: Yeah, totally. And that says something about our society and what happens when you bring up anything remotely political. And I feel the same way because the culture has just gotten so horrible. In the original script, there wasn’t that grand political opening… but as it was developed, it worked.

GS: The script was written a few years ago now, and then it was made and has an incredible ensemble cast and is getting plenty of attention. As a first time writer, did you have any idea it would get this big?

JAM: No. God, no. In a way, no one writes a movie about butter sculpting expecting it to be made. I didn’t think my mom would even read it, but she did. Now that I’ ma working writer for studios and stuff, I think about where projects can go, but when I wrote “Butter” I never did… I was super fortunate. The cast is all so good, and such great people on a personal level. That was a great experience, and I know from friends that it isn’t always the case. That made the experience a lot of fun.

GS: Did you get to sit in on casting?

JAM: When you’re casting stars, you don’t really audition them. All those decisions are made by the studio, the producers, availability and who is right for the role. We did cast the role of Destiny, played by Yara Shahidi. Director Jim Field Smith and I did sit in on the casting session for her, and we knew immediately.

GS: For those who weren’t auditioned, were you involved in the decisions at all? If these are your characters, surely you have an idea of what you wanted to create…

JAM: The producers were great and always kept me apprised of what they were doing, but no… well, they did ask me about cast lists, so I suppose they asked my opinion many times. I gave them a list of who I thought would be great for different roles. But the casting happens much more fast and furious than I think people realize. It’s much more based on availability than a group of people sitting around voting yes or no.

GS: With the film completed and reviews coming out, how much is coming back in your direction? I think writers often get overlooked in favor of directors and actors, and for me, the writing is the key part of any film…

JAM: Thank you. You know, there were reviews in various publications. “Variety” gave us a great review and singled me out, which was really nice. Then “Village Voice” gave us a really bad review. But at the same time, they singled me out, which is a little weird. Honestly, I didn’t read that many because it’s not very healthy. I tried to avoid it, but sometimes you can’t. As for screenwriters being marginalized, I think that comes more from giant studio movies where you have fifteen writers in one room. Here we had a smaller movie, so it rested firmly on me.

(Variety called Micallef “a talented new voice”. Village Voice wrote, “Jason A. Micallef’s script is humorless, but worse is its attempt to tug at heartstrings via Destiny triumphantly discovering her talent and finding a home.”)

GS: Jennifer Garner’s character has taken some flak for being one-dimensional. Do you agree with the criticism, and if so, how much responsibility do you take for it?

JAM: I haven’t heard that criticism, but like I said, I’ve been trying to avoid the reviews. However, if people are saying that, I would disagree. On the surface, she’s kind of a bitch. But later she pulls back… especially with the scene of her and Destiny in the bathroom. There’s this other side of her where we see that she’s really fragile. I don’t agree with that. I’ll take responsibility for the character, but deny that she’s one-dimensional.

GS: Works for me. Jason, thanks so much for your time.

JAM: Thank you.

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