Director Jim Field Smith, whose filmography includes the 2010 comedy “She’s Out of My League,” recently spoke with Phoenix Movie Examiner about his latest motion picture “Butter.”
In “Butter” which will be available beginning Tuesday, Dec. 4 on Blu-ray and DVD at retail stores and rental outlets throughout the Valley, Jennifer Garner plays an ambitious woman who is married to Iowa’s reigning butter sculpting champ (Ty Burrell) but decides to enter the race on her own when he retires. She is the shoo-in until an adopted young black girl (Yara Shahidi) discovers she has an uncanny talent for butter-carving and becomes a late-breaking favorite.
Question: I have to ask, was it real butter that the actors were working with and that the sculptures were made of?
Answer: Sometimes. But mainly it was a substitute that we used that wasn’t going to create chaos on set. It was this kind of wax that our sculpting team found out was the best to work with. It was a kind of wax that would stay a little bit soft at room temperature. I really wanted the actors to be able to work with it, interact with it and feel like they were actually making these sculptures for real so we had to find something that could stand in for butter.
Q: For those times that you were working with the real thing, did you learn anything in particular about butter?
A: Keep it as cool as possible because you have got about 30 seconds under film lights before that thing just turns into a river. Anytime we were using butter for real, we would try not to waste too much of it. In the real competitions, there is very little wasted because they actually keep it and reuse it. They are obviously very concerned about wasting tons and tons of dairy products. So when you go and see the sculptures for real, you go inside these coolers and the butter absolutely stinks. They just use it and use it and use it. But at least they are not wasting it.
Q: What kind of research did you do to maintain the authenticity of the fine art of butter sculpting?
A: We went to the Iowa State Fair – which is kind of the mecca of butter carving. I was keen for it to be as authentic as possible but the movie is not solely about butter carving and I didn’t want it to weigh down the movie too much so there is a little bit of artistic license. But what you see is generally pretty authentic.
Q: So did the cast ever get to do make their own butter sculptures? And, if so, what did they create?
A: We had a day where the cast made sculptures for real. Yara [Shahidi] did a sculpture of Jennifer Garner that was terrifyingly lifelike. Aside from being a fantastic actress and one of the most wonderful people you will ever meet, Yara happens to be incredibly good at sculpting butter. I think Olivia [Wilde] sculpted a burrito out of butter. Having gone from all of us thinking that it was kind of ridiculous and kind of a crazy and strange hobby, when you actually try and do it for yourself you see what these people can actually achieve with their bare hands and gain a huge newfound respect for the people who can create these incredibly detailed sculptures.
Q: All things butter aside, how did you get the members of the cast into character? There are some fairly quirky personalities in this, after all.
A: I tried to cast people who – with the possible exception of Jennifer Garner, who is very much playing a character – were already in the space of where their character is. That is not to say that everyone is typecast in the movie because that is certainly not the case. But I always try to find people who already have some element of that character in play. For example, Yara has this incredibly worldly attitude. She is very calm. She is very adult. She is wise beyond her years. And she has this great soul. You can do your best acting in the world but I think that when someone is already bringing so much of that to the party it just goes so much further on screen.
Q: Rob Corddry does an excellent job in the film. How did you know that he was right for this role?
A: I was really keen for the relationship between Yara and Rob Corddry, who plays her dad, to not dissolve into this really mawkish, sentimental relationship. I wanted to treat it almost like a grownup relationship, where he doesn’t patronize her or talk down to her at all. One of the reasons we cast Rob was he did sort of treat her as an equal. They improvised a lot together and there was just a very natural chemistry between them. I think that it is very hard to fake that.
Q: Ty Burrell is great in this, as well. Was it as fun to work with him as it looks?
A: Ty is just an absolute genius. He is a fantastic person to have on set. But, again, that is a tricky character. The way that character is written, he kind of goes silent halfway through the script. [Jennifer Garner] just kind of beats him into the ground. The amazing thing about Ty is that he is a great actor and very funny but he is also a fantastic reactor. He is able to be in these scenes where he has no lines but he brought so much with his reactions and his presence in the scenes.
Q: Where did the film’s tone come from? In other words, what was your inspiration?
A: I tried to just be true to the script and tried to work with the actors and find the tone that seems to work. The smartness of it and the fact that it is kind of edgy but also has this kind of warm heart is credit to [screenwriter Jason A. Micallef] because a lot of that is right there on the page. My job is just to make sure that comes across and is done in a way that is not too fake and feels real.
Q: Finally, is there anything that you learned about yourself as a direct result of having directed this motion picture?
A: I see making a movie as just a long string of mistakes. You look at stuff and say, “I could have done that differently,” or “I should have done that better,” or “Why did I miss this opportunity?” I think that is just the nature of being a director. Pixar has this motto that their films are never finished – they are just released. We shot this movie on an incredibly tight schedule and it was such a great atmosphere on set that I would have happily carried on for another few months filming it. But the reality is, at some point, you have got to finish it. And once it is finished, there comes a point where you have to say, “That is done now. I can’t ever change it. I am just proud of having done it.” You can step back from it and be glad that you had the opportunity to make it.