Handsome Devil revives the spirit of John Hughes' teen dramas

Talk of the devil

Writer-director John Butler plus stars Fionn O'Shea and Nicholas Galitzine discuss the film ahead of its Glasgow Film Festival the opening gala

'And these children that you spit on. As they try to change their worlds. Are immune to your consultations. They're quite aware of what they're going through … '

This seminal lyric from David Bowie's song 'Changes' turns up near the start of John Butler's Handsome Devil, the teen drama which opens the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival. Set in a rugby-mad Irish boarding school, Butler's feelgood drama is about two young men, Ned (Fionn O'Shea) and Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) in fierce conflict with their surroundings, until an inspirational teacher (Andrew Scott) gives them the strength to be themselves.

The same Bowie quote opens a classic teen movie, John Hughes' The Breakfast Club, and Butler admits he was very much aware of the reference.

'If people notice that quote, then I'm happy. I'm a huge fan of Hughes, I love the way his films describe teenagers who don't know who they are yet. But looking at his films again now, there's elements that don't chime so well today, like the lack of gay characters and the use of gay insults,' says Butler. 'At these moments, Hughes' liberal ideas roll over to reveal a conservatism behind them. So I wanted to update some of these ideas, and put sexual conflict at the heart of the drama.'

Butler's film deliberately blurs the cultural reference points of the era it evokes. 'It's not a period film, but it is firmly based on my own personal experiences,' says Butler. So while visible posters advertise the Boomtown Rats, the film's soundtrack ranges from the Housemartins to the Trashcan Sinatras. Such diverse musical appreciations run against the school's strict ethos, and identifying that conflict helped Galitzine to tackle the role of sports hero Conor.

'I felt honoured that John would cast me in a role that he felt so strongly about. When I read the script, I knew exactly what it was about; I went to a very similar school, very rugby driven, and even had a trial for the Harlequins rugby team,' says Galitzine. 'Conor is a great physical specimen, a strong guy who has the potential to do harm, but also someone vulnerable and frustrated by their circumstances. There's a high suicide rate among young men, and I think this film shines a light on why that might be.'

Off-screen, Galatzine is an aspiring musician, a useful talent because a large part of Handsome Devil's charm comes from Conor and Ned attempting to play as a duo for a school talent show ('I wasn't such a fan of 80s music, but John created a great playlist to help me get into character' says Galitzine).

Co-star Fionn O'Shea admits he doesn't share Galitzine's gift; 'I really can't sing and I'll never be a pop-star,' O'Shea laughs. But Butler had other plans for O'Shea, dying his hair bright red to imitate David Bowie's spaced-out outsider in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

'I can't even play the guitar!' says O'Shea. 'They told me my hands were too small when I tried to learn. Fortunately, Nicholas is a brilliant musician and that helped me get through any awkwardness in our singing scenes. That contrast between Conor and Ned is important. This is a film about not being a sheep and following the crowd, and that's something my mum has always told me, never to be afraid to go against the grain. It's all about finding your own voice, musically or otherwise, and I think that's why people relate so well to it.'

The catalyst for the boys' change is teacher Mr Sherry, a role which reunites Butler with Andrew Scott, an actor he worked with on 2013's The Bachelor Weekend, and instantly recognisable as Moriarty from the BBC's Sherlock. 'Andrew was a dream to work with, so generous and so inspiring … ' says O'Shea, and Butler adds 'You could say there's an element of Dead's Poets Society to that role, and it needs a special actor; we got one in Andrew.'

A key early scene in Handsome Devil shows Ned coming a cropper of the school's establishment when he attempts to pass off Lou Reed's lyrics as his own writing. It's a painful moment that smacks of real-life experience, and it's no surprise that it comes from Butler's own schooldays.

'Yes, that was me, told by my English teacher not to speak in a borrowed voice,' says Butler. 'I don't see myself as a political filmmaker, but I do think there's an important message here about the importance of finding your own voice. Even as the cultural climate seem to be changing against us in 2017, I hope that a message of liberal tolerance will still find an audience.'

Handsome Devil opens the Glasgow Film Festival on Wed 15 Feb.

Handsome Devil

  • 3 stars
  • 2016
  • Ireland
  • 1h 35min
  • Directed by: John Butler
  • Cast: Fionn O'Shea, Nicholas Galitzine, Andrew Scott

Ned (O’Shea) is a young misfit in an authoritarian boarding school, forced to share a room with good-looking, charismatic Conor (Galitzine), but who finds guidance from unconventional teacher Dan Sherry (Scott). Scott gives a lively performance and O’Shea and Galitzine are impressive, but the details are unpersuasive and…