This week, I had the good fortune of talking with local Arizona author Erin Jade Lange and director Paul A. Kaufman. Both Lange and Kaufman have much to celebrate this week. Today, Feb. 25, “Butter,” written and directed by Kaufman and adapted from Lange’s book, debuts in select theaters.
“Butter” follows the life of a sweet, saxophone-playing high schooler named Marshall (nicknamed Butter) who faces complex adversity because of his obesity. In an effort to reclaim some semblance of control, he makes a proclamation to “eat himself to death” live for all to see on New Year’s Eve. Despite the heaviness attached with the subject matter, “Butter” manages to be heartwarming and humorous. You can read a review of the film here.
During our conversation, Lange and Kaufman illuminated some of the behind-the-scenes details about bringing “Butter” from the book to the big screen. And, Lange shared why the Valley serves as the backdrop for both the book and movie.
“I was living in Arizona at the time [of writing the book],” Lange says. “And they say — of course — write what you know. But what I thought is really interesting about Arizona is we do have these communities where students/children are growing up in privilege. We have a lot of privilege in this area, but I think sometimes there’s a thought that this translates to a problem-free situation, but it comes with its own set of pressures.”
For Butter, the pressures he experiences from peer ridicule and cyberbullying take center stage. So much so, that he resorts to drastic measures in an effort to harness some type of control over his life. But, in addition to exploring the more obvious pressures faced by Butter — beautifully portrayed by Alex Kersting — the film explores several other adversities frequently felt by teens. These issues, ranging from detachment and abandonment to sexual exploitation and judgment, are subtly revealed throughout.
Cookie-cutter characters are — refreshingly — exempt from “Butter.” As examples, the school bad boy has his reasons (however inexcusable) for acting the way he does; the bad boy’s entourage each have a sweet side to counter their punkish ways. And, even the nerds don’t automatically aid the protagonist in his angst, as is usually the case with teen-movie tropes.
“I think the emotions that Butter feels are really universal,” Lange says, “like everyone who is a teen or has been a teenager, and it doesn’t matter if you are too big, or too small, or too rich, or poor, or different, or anything that can make a young person a target for bullying.”
“I think everybody felt disenfranchised in high school in one way or another,” Kaufman adds, “even the popular kids or the kids who were socially popular or socially accepted. They go home and they have big issues.”
Speaking with Lange and Kaufman, kismet clearly plays a role in their unification and continued working relationship. Lange, whose portfolio includes several other published books — “Mere Mortals” and contemporary young adult novels: “Dead Ends,” “Rebel Bully Geek Pariah” and “The Chaos of Now” — was actually sought out by Kaufman back in 2015. At the time, the book had already been optioned. According to Kaufman, he continued to regularly check in with Lange. Eventually, right-timing aligned the stars and the two were able to move forward. And, to the delight of both, courtesy and collaboration remained a running theme throughout the process of transitioning Lange’s characters from the page to the screen.
“I’ve heard of authors that kind of cast their book and put their dream actors out there if their book were ever made into a movie, but I just didn’t ever really dare to dream that big,” Lange explains. “So I hadn’t thought about seeing them embodied. So much of this cast is amazing. And so many of the characters are even more alive on the screen than in the book, partly because the way Paul has written them and expanded some of the characters like Butter’s mother, played beautifully by Mira Sorvino, is a richer character on the screen than even in the book. And the young people in this cast blew me away.”
Keeping Lange’s characters and storyline as true to the book as possible is something Kaufman prioritized. “More often than not, when writers and screenwriters option a book, they take the book and run with it,” he says. “I’m a little bit different. I’m a little bit more of a collaborator.”
Kaufman’s other collaborative works and cinematic accomplishments are varied and diverse, including an Emmy Award for best director for “Run the Wild Fields,” a film featured on Showtime that takes place during WWII, showcasing the talents of Joanne Whalley, Sean Patrick Flanery and Alexa Vega. Additionally, Kaufman has an extensive list of TV directorial credits, which include “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Grimm,” “The Mentalist” and many more.
“I kind of look at myself as being an adoptive parent, and the writer is the one that gave birth to the book baby,” Kaufman adds. “I had a few conversations with Erin about some things that I was doing — if I was going to add a scene or if I was going to maybe run some dialogue by her to see if that was true to who the character was.”
And now, like most proud parents, Lange and Kaufman get to share in the success of their sweet, tender offspring, for which “Butter” certainly is. And you can enjoy the fruits of their labor as well by seeing the film in theaters now.