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How Art Meets Advocacy: An Interview with ‘Butter’ Writer-Director Paul A. Kaufman

'Butter' writer-director Paul A. Kaufman speaks with Script about the adaptation process, his emotional connection to the material and main character, his filmmaking journey, making a movie with a purpose, and the grassroots campaign for the film.

A lonely obese teenager everyone calls "Butter" is about to make history. He is going to eat himself to death, live on the Internet, and everyone is invited to watch. When he first makes the announcement online to his classmates, Butter expects pity, insults, and possibly sheer indifference. What he gets are cheerleaders rallying around his deadly plan. Yet as their dark encouragement grows, it begins to feel a lot like popularity. And that feels good. But what happens when Butter reaches his suicide deadline? Can he live with the fallout if he doesn't go through with his plans?

Small movies with a big message seem to be far and in-between in the movie viewing experience these days. Luckily, filmmaker Paul A. Kaufman has taken the creative-advocate helm to bring us Butter, based on a book of the same name, a movie with grand plans on making a social impact on both the younger and older generations around the stigma of shaming, obesity, depression, and suicide. The messaging is subtle yet the impact is big and should not be taken lightly. 

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Paul about the adaptation process, his emotional connection to the material and main character, his filmmaking journey, making a movie with a purpose, and the grassroots campaign for his new film Butter.

Butter. Photo courtesy The Kaufman Company.

Butter. Photo courtesy The Kaufman Company.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How did this book initially come across your desk and did you have an instant emotional connection to it?

Paul A. Kaufman: I was looking for a new chapter in my life, where I could be the person that would decide what films I get to make. I have a great career doing television shows and TV movies, but I wanted to start a new chapter. I've always been a filmmaker, but I got caught up in television, and then I had to pay for my kids to go to school and pay for baby diapers, then all of a sudden you're in your mid-50s and you go, ‘OK, so whatever happened to me being that filmmaker? I made a great living being a director, and I'm really proud of the stuff that I've done, but what do you really want to do? And so that new chapter was I'm going to write and direct films that I want to make; I'm going to make films from this point forward, that have a social impact. I didn't know what that social impact was going to be but I started looking for books; some dealt with bullying, some dealt with mental health, some dealt with drug addiction, and I just went through lots and lots of books. I’d go on Amazon, and I look for books, and I found Butter. I was gobsmacked when I read that logline; it's about a morbidly obese teenager that tells everyone in his class he's going to eat himself to death on New Year's Eve. What an amazing jumping-off point. So, it wasn't available - I followed up with her a year later and it was - I optioned the book. I wrote the script.

Paul A. Kaufman

Paul A. Kaufman

I had some opportunities to work with some smaller studios, larger production companies. And I just kind of felt like I'm going to go back to people telling me what I can and cannot do. So, I'm going to make a nice little film. I raised the money privately all from like-minded people, all from people that themselves maybe lost their child to suicide or teen mental illness, or they themselves were bullied in high school. We raised a million and a half bucks, shot it in LA got over $4 million worth of resources from Panavision giving us our cameras, to free office space and studio space at Santa Clarita Studios, because they were all like-minded. None of us made any money. And the actors came on board because they were like-minded. Mira Sorvino is amazing, and she gets to play the kooky mom, but she brought something to this part that you've just really never seen her do before. And it's really fun to watch her. And we found Alex [Kersting], a needle in a haystack. This first-timer carries a movie on his shoulders, and we're really proud of the film, really proud of the outreach that it's going to have in the schools. After it has its life in the theater, it’ll be streaming it in schools and health classes talking about mental health. To me, Butter is art meets advocacy. Make a film about art and let's do some good in the world.

Sadie: I love that mission behind this movie and that you’re taking it on a journey.

Paul: It is a journey and it's already saved a life. We did a screening in Napa Valley for a high school up there and a girl came forward saying that she feels her friend might be suicidal and the counselors and parents reached out. So, the girl actually wrote an email, saying that after she watched the film, she became empowered. She felt it empowered her to recognize and understand friends or people around her that might be in crisis. And she stepped up and the girl got help, and it really did save her life. We really do hope that Butter will start the conversation. We are working with Seize the Awkward. It’s a mental health team that’s part of The JED Foundation non-profit. And when you go and you watch their videos, they're really funny, because they're two awkward teenagers kind of looking at each other and they're both depressed, but neither one of them can have the conversation. And then this guy pops up out of the cushions and says, ‘Is this you and your friend? Maybe you need to ask your friend, ‘Are you OK?’ Our outreach on our website is R U OK? Ask your friends, ‘Are you OK?’ Because teenagers commit suicide, and some people don't even know why; parents don't even know. Always check in with your friends, adults, alike too.

[Creating Emotional Balance with 'Not Going Quietly' Filmmaker Nicholas Bruckman]

We have a very powerful message, and that's the advocacy side. And on the art side, go watch a film. We did test screenings with high school kids and they said, ‘There are no movies for us in the theater like this, there's Spider-Man and Nicholas Sparks,’ a romance every now and then that's it. I had John Hughes. I had the Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, which were all movies about teenage angst and not fitting in, but they were funny. And the teenagers today don't have those. It would be nice to see Butter do well so people make more of these movies for the kids.

Sadie: I would be interested in seeing if books like Butter will become required reading in schools.

Paul: Yeah, there are some schools that Butter is read and it is a curriculum. Napa Valley High School did a curriculum for us and for the movie. They said, ‘This is a film that should be seen in every high school across America.’ And we have an outreach program right now with teachers and we probably have 100 schools already lined up that are going to once we start streaming, that are going to play the movie in the classroom and do a curriculum. I'm going to come in and do some Zooms, and with some doctors and mental health experts are going to be part of that. It really does help.

Sadie: With the adaptation process, what was that undertaking like for you? Were you in communication with the author or were you off on your own writing it?

Paul: I was off on my own doing it, but I did talk to the author. I mean, she created these characters and some of the dialogue, and I really kind of wanted her blessing. I wanted to stay true to the book and I did. Regarding the humor, the book does go to some very dark places inside Butter's head and I felt that I really wanted to make a film that was more accessible commercially and I couldn't go too dark; I needed that PG or PG 13 rating. But the process of writing that screenplay, I had written other pilots and screenplays before and I was just ready, just this new chapter, I was just ready. I think I had so many failures before as a writer with writing stuff, and maybe not selling it - it's a craft, and you get better and better and better. And you have a book, you have so much laid out for you already, you have the story that I loved, it had the characters that I loved, and I was probably more of a dramaturg, knowing how to fix something. I really am proud of a lot of the writing that I did in this script, a lot of the humor, and a lot of the new scenes that I brought to the movie and structurally; writing the script was really a joy from a writing perspective.

From a research perspective, it weighed on me very heavily, talking to parents who had lost their children. It’s an epidemic now. That was quite difficult as a writer to really go to that place and talk to these parents and talk to these teenagers and mental health experts and doctors. And then I kind of felt so much pressure - OK, you're trying to create something that's going to help - how do you help something that's so big? It's bigger than you. It's bigger than everybody. And mental health and depression, it's something that I personally can relate to in my life as an adult and as a child. It's a heavy subject matter to write.

Sadie: With you being a parent as well and writing these characters, especially the father-son dynamic. Did you find yourself pulling back at times?

Paul: It was close to the relationship that I had with my father, that I was Butter, rather than the other way around. My father just did not understand me, and never thought I was going to become successful. And I think, unfortunately in my father's eyes, he was just maybe so worried about me because I was such a rebel as a kid. I barely made it through high school; I didn't go to college. He passed away 30 years ago, so he never really got to see my success. But I think in his eyes I was a disappointment. And so, I really related to Butter in that way. Also in high school, I drove a Mustang and I raced it around. So of course, Butter has a Mustang. [laughs] But there is a lot of me in Butter in this film.

Sadie: I really enjoyed how the music comes into play for both the film and his character. I love that he plays the blues because he certainly has the blues and but there's also something about being a musician, it’s cathartic and therapeutic with the instant release of playing music. Was that originally in the book or was that something that you added to it?

Paul: It was in the book. And then when I read it, I’m like, ‘Oh God, kids aren't gonna like jazz. They're not gonna like the saxophone. I'm going to make him a guitar player or a keyboardist or something,’ and then I thought about it now - the saxophone is Butter. And when we did these test screenings for the kids, I was so surprised because they all wanted to see and hear more saxophone - they loved it. They're more mature than I am. [laughs] They just loved it. I think that maybe it's something that they feel that they discovered through the movie. And they loved that he was so good at it.

Alex Kersting as Butter. Photo courtesy The Kaufman Company.

Alex Kersting as Butter. Photo courtesy The Kaufman Company.

Sadie: What was the process like in getting Alex Kersting on board?

Paul: It was a worldwide search. I had to find someone who had the weight. I didn't want to take a well-known actor or take someone and do the prosthetics. Also, the relatability factor; Alex and I could talk on the set about what it's like to be that size and his personal story. So, from a director to an actor and an actor to a director, we had some amazing breakthroughs and communications regarding moments in time about his own feelings about what he has gone through and his own experience with being the size that he is. We looked everywhere. We were in England, we were in Australia, we put out public calls, any color, any race, and Alex emerged out of Las Vegas. He was a bouncer at a casino. And he carries this movie on his shoulders and he shines. He's surrounded by great actors and great people, but there aren't a lot of people that could do that. So, it's a breakthrough for him. And he's a breakthrough star, everyone should go see him.


Sadie: What influenced you in wanting to become a filmmaker yourself?

Paul: When I was a kid, my father did not like all of my crazy dreams - he would call me Walter Mitty. I'd say, ‘I'm going to do this, and what about this?’ And he would say, ‘Oh, Walter Mitty, there's Walter Mitty.’ I've always kind of gone internally inside my head, and maybe it came from the difficulty I was going through as a child, I would kind of live those other worlds and listen to music - music is a big part of my directing, you could tell in Butter, the soundtrack and how I use it.

I became a messenger at the age of 18 for Go-Between delivering breakdowns to casting director offices for $135 a week. And then I started hanging out with actors. And then I became an assistant agent. Then I was a manager to Josh Brolin and Esai Morales. And then I was like, ‘Well, I want to tell stories. I want to be an actor.’ I studied acting at The Actors Studio. And then I wanted my career to be dependent upon the success or failure of my own career, so I left management. And then I became a TV movie producer, and then in my mid-20s, I was a showrunner as an executive producer of these movies, and I was really kind of learning the trials and tribulations of what movies really are. And when I discovered what a director did and saw what a director did, I was like, ‘That is me. That is what I do.’ And Showtime gave me my first break as a director on Run the Wild Fields, with Joanne Whalley and Alexa PenaVega, a family film that took place in 1944 about the effects of World War II on a mother and a daughter in North Carolina on a farm, but the father is missing in action. And I was like, ‘OK Paul, this is your test, two million dollars, go to Toronto, and hit it out of the park.’ And the movie went on to be very successful. I did win an Emmy Award for Best Director, I was up against Robert Wise and Peter Masterson and people whose movies just really inspired me. And that kind of launched my career into directing.

['Endangered Species' Little Movie With a Big Message]

Sadie: What do you hope people take away from this film after they watch it?

Paul: There's a couple. I've grown from this film. It's easy to look at someone, and your instincts and teenagers have these instincts instantly, that person is different, I'm threatened by people who are different, if they're different from me I don't understand them, I'm going to make fun of them. Adults do the same thing. Whether you believe it or not you see someone who's morbidly obese, and maybe they're eating food or whatever, and the trigger reaction in your head is going to be, ‘Oh, well, that person did it to themselves,’ you're not truly going to understand that person. I'm at a point where I no longer think that way. And I love it. I mean, if I see someone wearing wacky socks and shorts and weird shoes, or whatever, I'm like, ‘That person so rocks it!’ And some people are like that today from a young age. God bless them! I hope that people stop themselves as they're thinking things when they see people based on how they look. Don't judge a book by its cover, we are all much more than the way that we appear. And so, that's one of them, which also is the same as 'be kind.' It's an exercise. When I go to the supermarket, it's so easy to just get lost, you don't really get involved with the person that you're interacting with. Take a moment, look at their name tag. Look them in the eyes. Realize that they are somebody's son or someone's daughter, someone's parents, brother, sister - just connect to the world in a better way. That doesn't mean there aren't assholes in the world that you should stay away from [laughs] because there are [laughs] but once they prove they're an asshole, just stay away from them.

Also, the message really is to be empowered by reaching out to people and reaching out to friends, and asking them if they're OK. Because if you say, ‘Are you OK?’ And they’re like, ‘I'm fine. Why are you even asking?’ I don't know, you've been a little bit depressed lately, it’s OK, we'll talk it through. But then they might think, ‘I should reach out to my friend.’ And it's that age-old saying, someone passes away, and it's like, ‘God, I wish I would have said I loved you more.’ Look out for the people who are around you. Even if it's a stranger, be kind to strangers. Try not to judge, because if you really study yourself, the more you judge someone else, you're really more judgmental of yourself. It's all about growing, and we learn these things. And by the time we figure it out, we're 90, and you wake up and you're dead. You don't learn these things when you're young, and if you do, you're empowered.


Sadie: I'm excited that you’ll be taking this film out on the road and inspiring kids and having this conversation with them. It's so important.

Paul: Our grassroots has been incredible, because we have very little money. We're reaching out to teachers, we have 11 volunteers going through like 4,000 schools within the area and sending each teacher an email. Right now, we have posters hanging in 300 schools, and on that post are QR codes to see the trailer. R U OK? is an outreach if you're in crisis, and you can win a laptop, because Dell came through and gave us a bunch of laptops to give away, because they were like-minded. We'll see what happens. I know it's a little film and I know the reality, but I do have this little moment of that fantasy - Walter Mitty - that the movie is going to do really well, and the headline in Deadline is going to be Butter vs. Batman

Butter is in Theaters Friday, February 25, 2022.

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