With Americans pondering the current state of the economy, the upcoming presidential election next month and how politics are affecting their lives, entertainment is often quick to satirize the condition the country is in. However, an unlikely and unexpected place to find political satire is in a butter carving contest in the Midwest. But that’s exactly what the new ensemble comedy ‘Butter,’ which is now playing in select theaters and on VOD, does through its diverse set of overachieving competitors.
‘Butter’ follows Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), the 15-year reigning butter carver at the Iowa State Fair. When the contest’s officials feel it’s time for someone else to have a chance at winning, he graciously steps out of the contest, much to the dismay of his competitive wife, Laura (Jennifer Garner). Since she has a driving ambition to once again bring home the championship, she enters the contest herself, despite her ever-growing strained relationship with Bob and her step-daughter Kaitlin (Ashley Greene).
Laura receives surprising competition from several unlikely contestants, including bob’s number-one fan, Carol-Ann (Kristen Schaal); Brooke (Olivia Wilde), the stripper with whom Laura just caught her husband having an affair with; and Destiny (Yara Schahidi), a mature 10-year-old African-American girl who was just adopted by Julie and Ethan Emmet (Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry). Sensing her chance to win is slipping away, Laura recruits the help of her high school ex-boyfriend. Boyd Bolton (Hugh Jackman), a dimwitted used car salesman.
Several members from the cast of the ensemble comedy, including Garner, Wilde, Burrell, Greene, Corddry and Schahidi, recently participated in a press conference at New York City’s Crosby Hotel, to discuss the film. Joined by director Jim Field Smith and scribe Jason Micallef, who made his feature film writing debut with ‘Butter,’ the group discussed, among other things, why they were all drawn to the script; why they think the movie is being perceived as satirizing the 2008 American presidential campaign; and how they prepared to carve butter.
Question (Q): Why did you want to be a part of the film, and what did you bring to the script?
Ashley Greene (AG): Well, when I received the script, it was on the Black List, so I knew it was going to be good. They said, it’s about butter carving, it’s a quirky, outrageous, brilliant script. So I kind of went into it, looking for laughs, and I certainly got it. I thought all of the characters were really incredible, and they intertwined beautifully with each other, and I really liked that.
I thought it was great you could make a whole film centered around butter carving. It was hilarious, and had so many different elements. I loved it.
Jason Micallef (JM): I thought the script was amazing. (laughs)
Rob Corddry (RC): Do you want to answer for me?
JM: Rob was blown away when he first read the script, he cried. (laughs)
RC: When I get any script, I count my lines. (laughs) I was also aware of it from the Black List, and had read it before. I was very excited it was happening. There was no real thought that went into it, in terms of should I or shouldn’t I.
Jim Field Smith (JFS): I didn’t really like the script at all. (laughs) But I hadn’t worked in awhile, and there wasn’t much else out there, and I’m cheap.
But actually, I loved the script, and I didn’t think I brought anything to it, other than point the camera around. When I read the script, I was very fortunate to bring it to life, because it is an oddball movie, and not a lot of people are making these movies anymore.
Ty Burrell (TB): I will go out on a limb, and say I also loved the script. As far as the character, I felt as if I have never played anyone this passive, so that would be kind of fun. I hadn’t read anything like it. It was very funny and very different.
Olivia Wilde (OW): I loved the script from the moment I saw it. I wanted to fight for it. I was so thrilled when everybody else passed. (laughs) I really loved it, I thought it was so funny and smart.
When I heard all of these people were involved, I couldn’t get to it fast enough. I almost didn’t get to it, because I was stuck under the volcanic ash cloud in Vienna. (laughs) I was willing to swim across the Atlantic to get there, though.
Jennifer Garner (JG): My producing partner, Juliana (Janes), and I got the script before it was even on the Black List. I think the reason all of us are here is because the script allowed us to do something different. That’s why we have such an incredible cast.
I loved that the hero of this movie was going to be this unknown, surrounded by all these praise whores looking for something that we have never done before. But really, it comes down to Yara. Little did I know that we’d spend the next three years corrupting this sweet child. (laughs) But we do our best, thank you, Rob.
Yara Shahidi (YS): When I got the script, my mom read it first, and then I read it. There were some parts I had to skip over, as I was 10 at the time. (laughs) When I did read it, I really, really liked it.
Butter carving was something I had heard of the year before, at the Minnesota State Fair. I never thought there would be a script about butter carving. It was one of the most absurd things I have heard of, but I loved it.
Q: For those of you who have mastered the art of butter carving, can you talk about the experiences of your training? Did you actually get a chance to do the carving, and how are you going to apply that to your future endeavors?
JG: We spent a day with one of the prominent sculptors, his name is Jim Victor. He is known for carving anything; he can carve butter, pepperoni, chocolate, ice.
TB: He can literally handle all your carving needs, whatever you’ve got in your fridge. (laughs)
JG: We all spent a day together with him.
TB: I actually spent this morning with Jim Victor. We woke up together. (laughs) I did a talk show with him.
JG: With actual Jim Victor?!?
TB: With the actual Jim, on ‘Anderson.’ We had a butter carving contest, and I won. (laughs)
I haven’t gotten any better. I’m still the worst butter carver on Earth. In the film, we’d start with the flourish at the end. But he truly is incredible.
I think he had about an hour on the talk show to prepare these three cows he was carving. It was ridiculous and amazing.
OW: Well, I actually didn’t have to carve anything. (laughs) I did participate in the day of training, though. I hung out, and stuck my fingers in the butter.
RC: I remember that day, you and I and Alicia, after about five minutes, it was like, back away from the butter table. We were like, okay, do your thing, because we don’t touch the butter during the film.
YS: With the butter, the day of training was really cool. I took pictures for my class, and I made a truck.
TB: I think you were the best, if memory serves me right.
YS: When I was shooting it, I learned that you have to let the people who know what they’re doing do it for you, and teach you how to act like you’re doing it.
JFS: We had Jim Victor and this amazing team of sculptors in L.A. who were building the sculptures that you saw in the movie. Believe it or not, they’re not actually made out of butter, spoiler alert. (laughs)
So it was a combination of Jim Victor and the talented sculptors in L.A. They made the sculptures out of foam, and enclosed them in wax. It was called butter wax, a total coincidence. That enabled the actors to interact with the sculptors on set.
Q: Jennifer and Olivia, these women are so mean. Could you relate to them, and their obsession and rivalry?
OW: I thought Brooke was such a smart character, and I was really excited to play her. It was not easy to be cruel to Jen Garner. (laughs) It was not something I would ever do in real life.
But it was so much fun. It was something I hadn’t been able to do before, but I thought it was the most fun. It was my favorite role, and I would do 10 sequels, which I’m hoping to hear about today. (laughs)
JM: Yes, I’m writing it now, ‘Butter 2.’
JG: I play a lot of pretty, girl-next-door kinds of characters. I am a girl-next-door in real life, and I am sick of myself. (laughs) I’m so over it. So this, to me, was heaven on Earth. Except that she should not be emulated in any way. But as far as relating to the ambition and the competitiveness, I think it stretches it for me.
There’s a moment where Olivia looks at me, and says, I’m going to cut you. Every time we did it, I had a flight or fight in me, where I thought I should run, because she terrified me. She was terrifying. (laughs) She may say it was hard for her to do, but it wasn’t. (laughs) She went right for it, and she could have killed me.
OW: Her reaction was totally real. (laughs) I think it was our first day of shooting.
Q: There was a review of the movie that said it has adversaries for Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Jen, you’re a public supporter of Barack Obama, and are involved in the campaign, and fundraising. What are your thoughts on that, and what have you observed about the presidential campaign that made you appreciate the satire in it?
JG: I think we’ll start with Jason, because I am asked this question a lot. Did you see it as a Barack-Hillary film?
JM: I don’t think the specific people are important. What’s important is that they’re representatives and ideologies. I met so many different people-Michele Bachmann, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin. When I wrote it, I had no idea who Sarah Palin was. She was just the governor of Alaska.
What was important was not the specific people. To me, Jennifer’s character represents the conservative ideologies. Yara’s character represents more the liberal ideology. What we found with this movie is that both sides really love it.
I think that while Jennifer plays the villain, she sort of comes around in the end. I think her character is a character who, like most conservatives in the country, feels like the country was great, and is now going in the wrong direction. I think perhaps liberals, who are representative by Yara’s character, feel that the country is one way, and it could be better. Whether you agree with one of those isn’t the issue; that’s just how I tracked those character arcs.
With Jen’s character, she feels like things are being taken from her. Whether it’s the butter title or her sexuality, which is represented in the character Olivia plays, Brooke. That’s sort of how I approached it. The specific people are not important.
JG: When we made it, it was much more than watching any politicians. The people I obsessed over watching were Iowa, Kansas, middle of the country beauty queens and first ladies. I watched them on YouTube for hours.
Q: What is it about satire that you enjoy so much?
JG: Everyone’s self righteousness about it. Everyone’s faith and belief that there’s one side of the story, and it’s their side.
JFS: Also, if I could add into it, when I read the script, being British, I very much read it as non-American. I’ve spent a lot of time in America, all over the country. I really saw it, first and foremost, as this smart and weird and outrageous comedy. I also saw it as not being specific to any one person, but politics as a whole.
There are many themes in the movie that are just as relevant to politics in the U.K. and Europe and Australia. As Jason said, it’s very much looking at ideologies, rather than character types. Rather than us having a sniper rifle, and taking off individual targets, we just took apart the whole world of politics. That was my approach to it.
Q: There are parts of the film that are good for families, and other parts that aren’t good for families. There could be an edited and unedited version. Jason, where did you see the film landing? Who were you writing for?
JM: As a writer, I just write the story that I want to write. Other people kind of shape it into what works. That’s just the story that I thought was interesting.
I have nieces and nephews that are about 15, and they’re going to see it. They know everything in the film.
For me, it was about, how do you have this character that you love, Brooke, played by Olivia, who’s a stripper, not swear? It’s just not right. I think with any film, you have to make those decisions. I just write the story I write, and other people handle the rest.
Q: You weren’t thinking about global sales?
JM: No. (laughs)
Q: One of the most compelling aspects of basing the film on butter is that, with the exception of Destiny’s family, the characters have a dark side, who do these horrible things. Jason, what was it like crafting these characters, and justifying their actions? For the actors, what was it like playing these characters with horrible habits?
JM: It’s weird, I don’t think of them as that bad. I love Jen’s character and what she did with it, because she added so much more to it. To me, what I like about that is that I get behind her. I know she’s a villain, but I totally understand everything she does.
She goes off the rails. Her husband’s bad to her. I feel like it’s understandable. People do all kinds of stuff in real life.
Brooke is a stripper, but I think she’s one of the stellar people in the movie. I think she’s a good person. She has a good sense of honor.. If someone owes her $600, they should pay it. (laughs) That’s a great moral center. It’s just a matter of perspective.
TB: Sometimes, I think what you lose when you’re trying to make a movie PG-13 is the dark side. You have an incomplete character, and that’s what’s fun about this movie and other movies like this. You get to play the entirety of the person, which is why I think many of us love the script.
RC: Sorry to interrupt, but this is sort of like Phil Punphy when the cameras are off. (laughs) That dude would go to a strip club. (laughs) You can’t put that on ‘Modern Family.’
Q: What is it about the film that you think will resonate with audiences?
RC: I would say that it’s very, very funny. We’ve been talking a lot about the politics of it. It might be embarrassing for me to admit that I had no idea when I read this that there was any satire involved. I just thought it was hilarious and well-written and perfectly constructed. That’s what I think is the most valuable thing about this movie, is how hilarious it is.
JFS: It will be interesting to see how it resonates with audiences. Like what Rob said, on set, we were just having a fun time making this movie, a weird and funny comedy. Everyone talks about the politics of it all, and I think that’s great.
It’s up to people to take away from the movie whatever they want to take away from it. If people want to say, he’s that guy, that’s cool. But that’s certainly not my driving ambition to make the film. We just wanted to make something that was funny and has heart. We wanted characters who are down and dirty, but are also relatable.
I think Laura Pickler, which is attributed to Jen’s portrayal, is a relatable character. She’s awful, but she’s driven by very understandable goals. She’s a big fish in as mall pond, and she’s about to have her life taken away from her.
She’s actually doing a lot of things right. She’s trying to keep her family together, she’s trying to be a good mother to her step-daughter, played by Ashley. As Jason said, it’s kind of Bob that’s the bad guy in the relationship.
Jason actually cleverly structured the movie that Jen’s character is the hero, and Destiny is the villain. You wouldn’t think so watching it, but it’s classic movie structure. That’s kind of how it plays out.
You’re meant to sympathize with Laura Pickler. I hope that comes across in the movie. You’re meant to understand, but not necessarily agree with, what she does.
YS: I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a villain in a movie, so I thought that was really interesting. (laughs) It’s sweet and crazy. There are even morals that I saw when I was reading the script. I started getting all these things now that I’m older. (laughs)
Q: Jennifer, can you talk about how at the end, we end up kind of liking your character?
JG: Likes James said, this is a woman who has structured her entire life to be the queen bee of her world. Whenever you have a movie about a certain world, whether it’s butter carving or bird watching or a capella groups, or whatever it is, it’s just a micocosum of your universe.
Laura Pickler’s no different. She’s someone who has fought like crazy, and pushed her husband as far as she could push him to where he didn’t necessarily want to be. That’s probably why he has acted out the way he has.
She has pushed him very hard to be the king of butter carving. When that’s taken away from her, she’s losing her entire identity. There’s nothing left. She’s been at the top, so she has to go crazy to maintain her sense of self. She really is someone who’s on the brink. She’s trying to work as hard as she can, the only way she knows how. When someone gets in her way, it makes sense to her to squash them.
Q: One of the great scenes is when Destiny is in the car with Rob’s character, and she’s questioning if she should sign up for the competition. Was that improv? What was it like filming that scene?
YS: It was fun. The moment James yelled, Cut!, we’d have a completely different scene and thoughts and what we’d say.
RC: That was definitely my favorite scene to shoot. There was a lot of improv, but in a way, it was collaborative. Jim and Jason were both throwing out lines. It was really fun. It’s also not hard to act with Yara. It’s very easy to do a scene with her.
JFS: One of my great joys in making the movie was having an entire cast who was up for improvising, or looking for ways to find more chemistry. Everything was already there in the script. But we could identify sections where we said, we could have a little bit of fun here. We really pushed the chemistry between Yara and Rob’s characters. It was a lot of fun to shoot.
JG: We all competed for Yara’s attention. If Yara ever had anything to say, we’d all get quiet, and say, Yara’s speaking. (laughs)
Q: Can you discuss the difficulties of making the film?
JFS: Definitely not enough time, not enough money, not enough days in the week. Shooting in 95 percent humidity in Louisiana.
One of the biggest challenges for me in pre-production was figuring out, obviously, how to do the butter sculptures, and how to make them look real. I was very keen on not feeling like we just dumped amazing sculptures there. I wanted it to feel like they were actually creating the sculptures.
To shoot the different stages of the sculptures was tough. We tried to make it look legit, and like the characters you see on screen are actually making them. We wanted to see the inspiration behind what they created.
I had a lot of fun working with Jason and the sculpting team on what the sculptures were. I wanted to pick things that were very important to the characters.
For example, Laura carves a family dinner scene, because that seems to be the most important moral image she wants to create. But Destiny creates more emotional and symbolic things. That’s very much the theme in the movie. Laura picks what she thinks has to do with values and being American, while Destiny picks things that are from her heart, and are more idealistic. That’s why Destiny seems to have the upper hand with the judges and audiences, because she plucks at the heart strings.
Q: What advice does the cast have for inspiring actors?
TB: Don’t have any skills or the ability to do anything else. (laughs) You will fall back on it.
RC: If you have to have a temp job or waiting table job to pay the bills, don’t stay too long. Quit after a year, or actually get fired, because then you’ll get unemployment.
TB: Yeah, that’s why I got fired, strategically. (laughs)
JG: Work for free, do anything you can to get credits and experience on stage, or however you can, in student productions.
YS: Be yourself, don’t let anything change about you.
OW: Take risks, and take your clothes off. (laughs) Even if they don’t ask. (laughs)
AG: It’s about going outside of your comfort zone, and not giving up. It’s about always working and always moving forward, and not allowing yourself to feel comfortable. I think if you feel comfortable, then you’re not doing your job, and you’re not where you’re supposed to be. You should always have this adrenaline rush, and want to do something different.
Written by: Karen Benardello