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March 21, 2016

The Heart of the Matter

Director Joshua Butler seeks the mood behind the magic.

Brooke Carlock Miller

On any given day, Joshua Butler can be found behind the camera filming vampires, superhumans, and, most recently, young magicians. 

Yet, no matter how mythological his subject, Butler’s goal is always the same-- to find the emotion behind the myth. 

It’s not surprising, then, that deep emotion drove Butler into directing.  At just eight years old, he was so moved by watching 2001: A Space Odyssey that he left the theater vowing to make films for a living.  He started writing and directing home movies using his rubber duck collection as actors, eventually graduating to human subjects and making his way through USC film school.

“Directing is the only thing I ever wanted to do,” Butler says, “I officially had no back up plan, so if it didn’t work out…well… I just really, genuinely had no idea what else I would do with my life.”  

Luckily, Butler didn’t need a plan B.  His editing skills led to his first break in the director’s chair, and his creative vision led to opportunities to direct episodes on such television series as The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, State of Affairs, The Following, Limitless, and, most recently, SyFy’s new series The Magicians.  

Butler’s success as an episodic director came as a surprise:  “I set out to make feature films as a child.  I genuinely never believed that I would end up in television.  That said, television has turned out to be a wonderful diversion, and has turned into a wonderful place to work for a filmmaker in general. 

"I got lucky, because I didn’t expect TV to be what it’s turned out to be.  It’s actually a very challenging and unique and wonderful place for adopting feature film aesthetics and accomplishing those aesthetics on a tight schedule and a tight budget.  It’s a very, very high energy, fast-paced environment, and I really enjoy that.”

For someone who never expected to end up in television, Butler has made a name for himself as someone who can create emotional scenes in a short amount of time. 

As he says, “I always joke that I never really get the shows where people talk to each other in courtrooms or hospitals or police stations.  I’m not on those lists.  I’m on the lists that want the hard, complex stuff.  It’s good in the sense that it keeps my filmmaking on point.” 

Finding the deeper emotion in his characters and their situations can be a challenge when jumping in and out of a series as an episodic director, but Butler takes that challenge to heart.  When hired for a new show, or even when returning to a series, he prides himself on the hours he spends researching and preparing for the job.

“You have to do your homework.  You have to look at all the cuts of previous episodes.  You have to read all the scripts that have been written.  You have to really cram like you’re in final exam mode, so that by the time you start your episode you are so well versed in what has come before and where your episode fits as a piece in the grand puzzle.  I take that very seriously.” 

Of special interest to Butler are shows such as The Vampire Diaries, (for which he’s directed 11 episodes and earned a loyal fan base), and The Magicians, which feature young adults in emotional situations with supernatural or science fiction elements thrown in.  As Butler notes, “I enjoy those shows because they use the mythologies and the science fiction/fantasy elements as metaphors for other things.”

He continues, “It’s never just mythology for the sake of mythology.  The sci-fi elements aren’t just there to be cool. They’re integrated into the narrative in such a way that they function as metaphors for the characters as they’re growing up and falling in love and struggling with normal issues. 

"Those mythologies are really about epic love, and epic emotional yearnings that we feel as high school students, college students, or as young people… That’s what I love about the shows that I’ve been able to work on.” 

The characters on SyFy’s The Magicians, based on the cult-classic trilogy of novels by Lev Grossman, especially resonated with Butler. 

“These people who have unique and truly wonderful gifts are growing up feeling isolated and feeling like they’re not part of the status quo.  They’re not part of the ‘in-crowd.’ They’re having a hard time functioning and dealing with the world at large because they feel different. 

"There’s just so much interesting, deep human emotion that’s explored… You wouldn’t expect that from the channel that brought you Sharknado,” Butler laughs, “but it does.” 

Butler’s talents extend beyond the world of the supernatural, and he brings his hunt for the emotional world to other media, such as music videos, which he produces and directs under the name of his production company, Iceblink Films.   He most recently directed actor Joshua Jackson (Dawson’s Creek, The Affair) in the Canadian band MENEW’s poignant new video for the song “Baby You’re Like a Drug.” 

Once again focusing on the emotion behind the song, Butler describes the process of creating the music video as similar to making a silent film.

“You don’t have the benefit of dialogue to tell the story,” he says, “You have to find universal moments that resonate. 

"With Joshua Jackson and his costar, Megan Flather, it really was about finding nuances and trying to get inside this relationship, the good times, the bad times, and finding the emotion even if you don’t know exactly what they’re fighting about… Ultimately you hope to get this visceral feeling of what it’s like to be in their relationship.”

Given his focus as a director on portraying the realistic sentiments of youth, it’s not surprising that one of the highlights of Butler’s career involved giving a voice to the struggle of a real-life teen. 

Butler is an avid supporter of the organization Scenarios USA, a nonprofit created to share the often-untold experiences and feelings of teens across the country by holding a national contest for students in grades 6-12 to write their personal stories.  The winning writers are paired up with Hollywood directors, who then work with the students to create short films about the students’ topics. 

The shorts, which focus on social justice issues, are then shown on Showtime and distributed across the country as curriculum for schools.  According to Butler, Scenarios USA “uses the tool of cinema to allow those voices to be heard.” 

For his project, Butler says, “I was paired with a student from Cleveland, Ohio, by the name of Skyler Edge.  When I met Skyler, he was 16, and had written a story after having come out in high school as trans.”  The pairing led to the short film House Not Home, which tells the story of an African-American gender-fluid teen named Terran experiencing bullying and violence after coming out. 

“It was such a fresh and unique situation, a unique voice, and I was very honored to be able to bring that story to life.  I found Skyler to be an incredibly great resource to help me understand the trans teen experience… an experience that has not been well documented in cinema to say the least. 

"Scenarios USA is reinventing the educational film for the 21st century, giving the voice to the students and asking students what they want to talk about, the issues that they’re concerned about in their lives.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the subjects in front of his camera are mythical, magical, or marginalized; Joshua Butler strives to find the heart, the passion, and the sentiment behind their stories.

Butler’s episode of The Magicians, titled “Homecoming,” airs Monday, March 21st at 9pm on SyFy.

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