Interview: Director Jim Field Smith Talks Butter


We’ve all heard the term “as American as apple pie,” but another food-related American hobby not as many people may have heard of is that of butter carving. The odd-sounding craze is at the center of the dark comedy Butter, which shows what characters played by Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde and youngster Yara Shahidi get up to in order to win a prestigious Iowa butter-carving competition.

For what may seem like such a distinctly American film, it was quite a surprise for us to learn that the film’s director, Jim Field Smith, was actually British, maybe because the movie captures a smalltown American lifestyle so perfectly. Clearly it’s another example of how the long-time divide between British and American comedy is getting smaller and smaller over time, as the likes of Ricky Gervais becomes as big in the States as he has back home, and shows like “The Simpsons” start influencing British comedy writers.

To talk about this phenomenon and how it was applied to the movie Butter, sat down with Smith last week, shortly after talking to a good portion of his cast, the highlights of those interviews which you can watch here. It’s been a long road for this movie but I know it was a very popular script that was on the “Black List.” What was it about that script that made you want to go after it?
Jim Field Smith:
I think it’s rare to find a comedy now that’s smart and edgy and has heart that isn’t a formulaic buddy comedy or like a rom-com, so there was that element of it, but also, it’s very hard to find a comedy that’s set in reality, it’s not a CG-driven movie, it’s not animation, that’s set in a world no one’s seen before. I think the fashion is to make movies that are about relatable things like unemployed guy can’t get a girlfriend, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but when you find a script that is relatable in its themes and its ambitions and so on, but the world itself is completely new, as a director that’s really appealing.

CS: Jennifer mentioned that she already knew about this butter-carving phenomenon…
She’s rare, though. She’s in the minority there.

CS: But she did say it was a very popular thing so it’s surprising so many people would never have heard of it.
In the Midwest, certainly it’s genuinely a big deal. We actually shot at the Iowa State Fair, it’s actually in the movie, and it’s real. That is a real event, let me tell you. I’ve been to some strange events in my time but the spectacle, the shock and awe of the Iowa State Fair, I mean literally millions of people visit the butter sculptures every year. It’s a genuinely huge event, and lines of people around the block in the main agricultural hall. It’s impressive. So it is a real world for the people that are involved in it, so I think that’s why it works. I think you can see how Laura Pickler has lost all sense of what you would call reality, because that is her world, and she is the queen bee. Anything that gets in the way of that, for her, that’s destroying her whole way of life and yet for people in the movie who are not involved in it like Julie and Ethan, played by Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry, this sort of white liberal couple. They’re like “What the f*ck is this world?”

CS: Do they even have anything comparable to this in England?
There’s definitely stuff in England. We have our fair share of weird hobbies and skills. There’s like people who chase a cheese down a hill, and we have various festivals at Stonehenge, druids. I think every country has what seems to an outsider like a weird and wonderful hobby and certainly when I started to research butter carving, at first I was like, “Okay, this is odd,” but once you start really looking into it and you meet the people that do it and you look at the history of it and why people do it and what it’s celebrating… Really, butter sculpting is celebrating dairy culture and the dairy industry that for places like Iowa it’s absolutely everything. And it’s fun as well. In the movie, everyone takes it very seriously, but in reality, it’s fun.

CS: Were a lot of the ideas for the sculptures in the actual script?
Some of them were, yeah. Some of them were. I really wanted to push the American icon theme, so I put in Sam Shepard playing golf on the moon and Dolly Parton—I was quite keen to get her in there. I really wanted the sculptures to be a festival of Americana, but also because it ties into what Destiny and Laura pick as their sculptures in the movie. Without giving too much away, Laura thinks that she needs to pick subjects that are American and appeal to people’s American values. For example, she carves a family dinner where they’re praying before dinner, whereas Destiny picks things that are much closer to her heart or are more idealistic or abstract. I wanted the other sculptures in the movie to surround them, to feel like they sat somewhere within that world.

CS: And then you actually had to have someone make these sculptures.
That was one of the biggest challenges.

CS: But I’m going to assume they weren’t made out of butter.
They’re not made out of butter, no. We had an amazing team of sculptors led by a guy called Fred Arbegast based out of L.A. and they did a lot of research. We had this food sculptor called Jim Victor, who was a consultant on the movie and we talked with him and we did a lot of research, we looked at a lot of pictures, we visited the Iowa State Fair and we had to figure out a way of carving these sculptures because they’re big. These things are big, so we had to have them for real. Obviously, we couldn’t make them out of butter.

CS: Right, because you were shooting in Shreveport and I can’t imagine a butter sculpture would last long there.
Under movie lights in 90% humidity and I wanted them to look authentic. I wanted the actors to be able to interact with them and scrape them and use tools on them. The sculpting team and the production designer figured out that they could sculpt the sculptures themselves out of foam like they would sculpt anything for a movie if they’re sculpting a statue or whatever and then they would coat it in, ironically, what was called butter wax, which was a wax that was malleable at room temperature, so when the actors touch it with their thumbs and move it, it actually reacts to their touch, but it was solid but malleable at room temperature so it didn’t go rancid and melt and run everywhere.

CS: I’ve seen the movie a few times and even the first time I saw it, I was surprised by the casting. Rob’s playing a more serious and subdued role, so I was curious about how you came up with some of the casting around Jennifer.
When I came to the movie and Jennifer was going to star as Laura, that kind of led the rest of the casting process, because one of the reasons Jen works so well in the role is she is sort of America’s sweetheart, girl next door, and when you read that script raw for the first time, maybe not knowing Jen’s involved, it’s an incredibly unlikeable character, driven and evil in so many ways, but when you read it knowing that Jen’s going to play that character and when you come to shoot the movie and edit the movie and show it to people, what you appreciate through that process is she brings a huge likeability and empathy to the character and so you watch it, and you think, “I can kind of understand where she’s coming from.” For me, that drove the rest of the casting process and I decided that we should be subversive with the casting wherever we could. I’ve been a huge fan of Corddry for a long time and we’d met up quite a bit and was trying to find something to do with him. I read the script and suddenly I thought, “This guy is Corddry.” We should subvert who this guy is. He’s a well-meaning academic guy and I knew that Rob could do it. I knew that he had this good dramatic side to him.

CS: I didn’t realize that he had done Shakespeare.
Yeah, that’s his background and I knew that. The other reason I cast Rob was I didn’t want that whole storyline to dissolve into mawkish soppy, sappy sentimentality. I wanted to have an edge to it and what Rob brought brilliantly was this chemistry with Yara (Shahidi) where he treats her like an equal. He doesn’t patronize Destiny. He treats her like an equal and talks to her in a very adult way because she talks in a very adult way. Rob gave the character some real levity. He didn’t make it into this sappy dramatic role. He kept it light and funny and also I wanted somebody who could improv and Rob brings that in spades.

CS: What about casting Yara? It must have been hard to find a little girl like that who could carry the brunt of the movie.
Yeah, she does, and you know what? Jason was quite smart when he wrote the original script in that he didn’t give the character too much to say, because he was thinking it’s going to be tough to find this bit of casting. So I read it and I was like, “Okay, we’re going to have a little bit of a challenge on our hands.” At the time, it was written as a 12-13 year old African-American girl, so we started this search and Carmen Cuba said, “Okay, we’re just going to have to start looking.” So she starts bring people in and I think literally the second week in which she was looking—I was scouting in Louisiana—and she Emails us the next batch and I watch them and Yara pops up. They were all doing scenes from the movie and there’s a lot of stagey kids and kids that have been pushed into it. It’s always the way with kids’ casting; you get a really broad range—a lot of cutesy Nickelodeon-style kids—and then Yara comes in and she’s still and she’s tiny and she’s got these incredible eyes and this amazing ambient skin and she reads this scene and she reads it completely straight. I was mesmerized by it and I called up Carmen and I said, “This is Destiny. I know this sounds ridiculous but haven’t we found her? I know we were preparing to look for like four months,” but Carmen said, “Yeah, but she’s a lot younger than the character is written” and I said, “We’re going to rewrite the character for her.” So that’s what we did and we rewrote the entire character around her and we gave her much more to do because she was so confident in her own skin and so able, we ended up writing more stuff for her. She could improvise up there with anybody else in the cast and she’s an incredibly grounded person. I credit a lot of it to her Mum and Dad who were incredibly real with her and treated her with common sense and hadn’t pushed her into anything. She chooses what she does. If she reads something and she likes it, then they go after it.

CS: She must have loved the butter carving part of it.
Oh, yeah, she loved it, and it’s great to have a kid like that on set. It changes the mood for the cast and the crew are completely different. Everyone’s in a very different mode when you have kids.

CS: I also have to ask about Olivia Wilde’s character Brooke because both times I saw the movie I didn’t realize it was her.
Yeah, she’s something else. She’s my little hand grenade that we throw into scenes to kind of blow them up. When I first met with her and talked to her, I kind of said, “For me, you’re this hand grenade we’re going to drop into these scenes,” and she really ran with that. We love the idea that this tattooed, kind of skanky loud-mouthed ballsy woman is charging around this very well-meaning picket fences town showing up at the house and generally causing havoc. She’s the antithesis of Laura in every way and she’s Laura’s worst nightmare basically. So it makes kind of perfect comedy conflict.

CS: I’m sure her character was really well written in the script, but you really emphasized the comedy of that role with the music when she turns up.
Yeah, and Olivia was really involved when we were working on her tattoos and stuff like that. There’s a lot of stuff. Like she has written on one arm, she has written, I think it’s “Anis Bisextus” which is just Latin for “Leap Year” but I love the idea that she put that on her arm thinking it meant something much worse. You do have to look out for it, but it’s written on the inside of her right forearm. It’s a little Easter Egg to keep your eye out for, so yeah, we worked a lot on her tattoos and her crazy heels, the way she smokes, the sunglasses, the whole bit. It’s rare that you get a fun character like that to really dig your teeth into and she went for it.

CS: You shot the movie a couple years ago and you did quite a bit of testing and brought it to Toronto, so did the movie change a lot over the years since it began?
Not massively. It’s just with comedies, you gotta find what works and I think testing is an incredibly positive process. I think some might frown on it or shy away from it, but as a comedy director, it’s incredibly luxurious. You’re like, “What? So I get to try loads of different jokes and see what’s getting the best laughs. So obviously I’m going to do that.” I come from a background of sketch comedy, the Edinburgh Festival and doing sketch shows where we would preview and preview and preview and hone the show and go, “That bit’s not working, let’s cut it. Let’s figure a way to make it funnier. Let’s ad lib some stuff here.” That’s just in my bones.

CS: Both this and “She’s Out of My League” feel very American and have a lot of American humor. I didn’t really even know you were British until today. So is it harder to do a comedy for American audiences?
No, I don’t think of it like that, I honestly don’t. It’s like what makes me laugh? That’s all it is really and I watch a lot of American comedy. I think American comedy is heavily influenced by British comedy—at the moment it is—so I guess that’s helpful because I find that my influences tend to take the comedy in a direction that American audiences like at the moment. I think I have a turn of phrase… we do a lot of improv and I throw a lot of lines on set, a lot of Olivia’s lines and Rob’s lines are ones that I just throw in as we’re shooting. Not every actor likes the director shouting in the middle of a take, “Hey, say this!” but those two in particular responded to it pretty well, so when Olivia says, “I’m going to sh*t on the hood of your car” or whatever, that’s just me going, “Just say this.” Now when I’m saying that I’m not thinking whether American audiences will laugh. I’m thinking, “What’s funny to me in the moment?” Sometimes I’ll say something and an American actor will go, “What? What does that mean?” “Okay, obviously that one doesn’t work.” But I spend a lot of time in the country as well, which helps. It is a very American movie. It’s about America with a capitol A, it’s about Americana, but also, it has grand themes of jealousy and ambition and sex and blackmail and those are universal things that appeal to anyone from any country.

CS: Obviously, you finished this movie some time ago, so what are you doing next?
Yeah, I’m just about to start a new TV series with James Corden (star of the Tony-winning Broadway hit “One Man, Two Guvnors”) called “The Wrong Mans”—”mans” with an “S” at the end, sort of a Hitchcockian reference—which is a comedy-drama-thriller. It’s a miniseries for the BBC and it’s about two guys who are lowly office workers who get caught up in a massive criminal conspiracy. James is starring in it and he co-wrote it with a guy called Matt Baynton, sort of two British writer-comedians and we’re going
to shoot in the winter but we’re just in pre-production now. That’s a lot of fun. It’s like everything that you want as a director. It’s jokes but it’s also guns and helicopters and trains and car chases and villains and MI5 and the FSB and it’s a plot that just kind of mushrooms. It’s fun. I’ve done two features and a series of “Episodes” which has just finished for BBC and Showtime, so I’ve been flitting backwards and forwards doing features and TV.

CS: I was curious about that because I knew you had a background in TV.
I love features and I think it’s probably where my heart is because from a storytelling point of view, it’s more pure and also, it’s a director’s medium. TV is slightly less than a director’s medium. I think it can be a director’s medium. I struggle with that a little bit. This new series I’m producing and directing it so it’s my show, so I’m looking forward to that. It’s the closest thing you can get to doing a film on TV basically. I’ve been very fortunate because all the TV I’ve directed, I directed all the episodes of it, so the last series of “Episodes” I directed the whole thing, which is very unusual, but I can’t really conceive of it any other way ‘cause as a feature director, I can’t conceive of coming in and doing a piece of it. I love TV. I absorb TV like a sponge. At the moment, in the UK we’re big on the Scandinavian dramas like “The Bridge,” which is just one of my favorite shows of recent years, it’s so good. They’re remaking it and we’ll see how that works out but the original is just fantastic. It’s a Scandinavian crime-drama like “The Killing” and there’s a political drama called “Borgen” which is really good.

CS: I was curious about the VOD aspect of the release for this movie.
That’s been really interesting for me on this as a filmmaker, sort of getting my head around the whole VOD model and not going, “Well, this is going to be a pure theatrical release.” It’s been really interesting. I think ultimately where I come out on it is that if you’re not on board that train, you’re f*cking crazy. That’s how it’s going to end up. I’m an early adopter. I have Apple TV and I have iTunes accounts in the UK and the US so I can watch both and all this kind of stuff, so to me, it’s second nature, and I have a kid, so I don’t go to the theater nearly as much as I’d like to, particularly given that it’s my job. I think it’s fantastic. I think people over the age of 25 aren’t going to the movies, they’re just not. I think we need to find different ways of getting people to see stuff and particularly for movies like this. It’s not a tentpole movie. It’s got a great cast and it’s funny and it’s got a lot of things going for it…

CS: Sure, but when you tell people it’s about butter carving, they give you a blank stare.
Yeah, and you know getting people to see that in a movie theater, it’s tough, so if we can find yet another way of getting people to see it then I’m all for it.

As mentioned, Butter is on VOD right now but it opens in select cities on Friday, October 5. You can also watch video interviews with the cast here.