Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Carson note: I don't think I've come across a script that's caused more controversy in the last few years than Butter. Butter is a 2008 Nicholl winner that's inspired all sorts of hatred - most of it directed at the contest which anointed it one of the five winners of its prestigious competition. Much like yesterday's script, The Visitor...I mean The Tourist...I mean The Visitor -- whatever the hell I reviewed! - opinions vary widely on this one. Which side of the fence do I fall on? Well, let's just say that after I read Butter, I removed all butter from my fridge and vowed never again to eat any butter. Like, ever. The script felt too cute for its own good, quirky for the sake of being quirky, and preachy enough to start its own congregation. The central conflict didn't even make sense as the reigning Butter champion - a man who lived to make these sculptures - quit the sport simply because someone asked him to. But all of that's irrelevant because today the stage belongs to my buddy Ralphy - the only man in the world who reads as much as I do. Ralphy was originally supposed to review this two months ago but you know what they say: Better really really late than never. Ralphy, what did you think?
Genre: Quirky Comedy
Premise: A 12 year-old butter sculpting prodigy takes on the uber-competitive wife of Iowa’s best butter sculptor in a butter carving contest of epic proportions.
About: This script was a 2008 Nicholl finalist as well as #3 on the 2008 Black List.
Writer: Jason Micallef

Let’s face it: At some point in our lives, we’ve all looked at that stick of butter in the refrigerator and said, “Damn, I wish I had ten thousand of those so I could make a likeness of David Bowie. Or Ronald Reagan. Or Barbara Strei— Wait, no—Angelina Jolie! Ooh, ooh… a Ferrari! Angelina Jolie driving a Ferrari!”

Which is why a script about a cutthroat butter sculpting competition in Iowa is pretty damned brilliant. I mean, it plays on one of our deepest desires: the desire to create art out of food. Think about it. How many of us have sculpted our mashed potatoes into Devil’s Tower thanks to that one short (yet vital) scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? And how many of us have done it EVERY TIME WE’VE EATEN MASHED POTATOES? (Bonus points if you’ve said “This means something” on five or more occasions.)

See? Now how many of us are going to turn that half-used, semi-rectangular glob of Land O’ Lakes into a miniature Roger Federer, mid-swing, if Jason Micallef’s Butter ever hits theaters? I know Carson will. And I imagine at least fifty million more of us will do SOMETHING weird with it seconds before we spread it on our toast. Or use it to make cookies. Mmmmmmmmmmm… cookies.

But I digress.

Here’s the thing. This script was a Nicholl finalist for a reason. The story is pretty simple: 12 year-old Destiny, a black girl who can’t understand why white people act the way they do, has been passed around from foster home to foster home, never quite finding the right fit. Her latest foster parents, Jill and Ethan, are seemingly perfect yet somewhat dysfunctional white suburbanites. Oh, and Destiny is a brilliant butter sculptor. As is the husband of feisty, bitch-on-wheels Laura Pickler. Bob’s his name, and no one has or will ever beat him in the annual butter sculpting competition. (They all live in Iowa, where butter sculpting competitions are very serious business.) When Orval, the main judge of the Iowa State Mastery in Butter Committee, asks Bob to step down this year and give someone else a shot, Laura gets mighty pissed. So pissed that she berates Bob endlessly when he won’t fight the decision. And then she decides to take butter into her own hands and enter the competition herself, at which point she becomes an archnemesis of sorts for Destiny. And thus, the story is born. Or sculpted.

I won’t bore you with plot details. The script follows the classic sports film paradigm, culminating in a showdown between Laura and Destiny. But along the way, it also manages to be a quirky, dark comedy as well as a moving character study.

Much has been made about the oddness of the concept. People wonder why anybody would want to see a movie like this. Well, why not? As far as I’m concerned, it’s cinematic as hell. I mean, look at the fantastic sh*t people have made out of butter. For example:

Also, according to Wikipedia, butter sculpting is an “ancient Tibetan Buddhist tradition” used in religious celebrations. So not only is it wicked filmable, it’s Buddhist!

And the script itself has that irresistible Little Miss Sunshine indie charm. The characters all come alive on the page, worming their various ways into our heart valves like so much cholesterol. And the tone achieves just the right marriage between satire and homage; between comedy and pathos; between American Beauty and… well, American Beauty. If the right director and cast get involved, this could be another critical darling that finds a sizable audience outside of arthouse theaters. Juno, anyone?

Yes, I’m saying this could be another Juno. Or American Beauty. Or Little Miss Sunshine.

Does the script have its problems? Of course it does. Don’t be silly. For one thing, characters undergo major changes of heart that aren’t warranted by the events which precede them. It’s almost as if the writer’s invisible hand were… Well, by now you get the idea. For another thing, not all of the tonal shifts are seamless. But these are fixable problems in a script that is otherwise bold and unique.

Now, I’m sure by this point most of you are thinking, “Wait a minute—sometimes this Ralphy character sounds awfully sarcastic and sometimes he sounds really sincere.” To which I reply (because I can read your thoughts), “I am merely attempting to mimic the tone of the script to give you an idea what you’re in for.”

And on that note, I bid you all farewell. It’s been a great, gooey mass of graven fun. (They keep them in giant coolers, by the way. You know, so they won’t melt. In case you were wondering.) I’m sure Carson will never, ever let me write a guest article for him again.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Well, I didn’t really learn anything because I already know everything there is to know about screenwriting. But one thing this script illustrates is the importance of voice. Butter has it—in droves. But it’s not “voice for the sake of voice”; it’s the type of voice that suggests a film that will also have its own voice.