Exclusive Interview with Director and Producer Joshua Butler

Photo Credit: Brant Brogan

Over the course of his career, award-winning director, writer, and editor Joshua Butler has built a reputation for himself due to his creative vision behind the camera. He has showcased his talent as a director for episodes of a multitude of hit shows, such as The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Light Liars, Ravenswood, Twisted, State of Affairs, The Following and Crisis. Directing eleven episodes of The Vampire Diaries since then has given him a large following and loyal fanbase. Butler recently has gone on to direct an episode of the feature film turned television series Limitless, produced by Bradley Cooper. Butler’s next directing credit will be in the March 21st episode of the criticially-acclaimed Syfy Channel series The Magicians, titled “Homecoming.”

Besides directing, Butler also has a deep love for producing. After attending USC Film School, he and one of his former classmates started a production company called Kinetic Pictures, which sold and executive produced ESPN’s first original scripted movies, A Season of Brink, chronicling the life of legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight. Shortly afterwards, he started his current company Iceblink Films to continue developing and producing projects. Since then, he has executive produced a hit trilogy of films for MTV called My Super Psycho Sweet 16 and a horror film called Even Lambs Have Teeth, which premiered at the Mile High Horror Film Festival.

In addition, Butler has produced and directed numerous music videos under the Iceblink banner, such as a music video for the Canadian band MENEW’s latest single “Baby, You’re Like a Drug,” in which Joshua Jackson of Dawson’s Creek fame puts in a moving performance. Butler also directed Ryan Star’s video Bullet, which received praise from Billboard.

Outside of his love for directing and producing, he is also a strong supporter of the organization Scenarios USA, which helps the youth of America have a voice inside and outside of the classroom. The organization co-produced his short film House Not Home, a LGBT short about a transgender teen struggling to survive an intolerant father and violent high school bullies. The short premiered on Showtime and continues to be a part of prominent film festivals. Furthermore, he directed, edited and executive produced the murder mystery short Doghouse, which recently premiered at the HollyShorts Film Festival.

Altogether, Butler has had a varied and successful career defined by remarkable directing and producing achievements, of which I hope his upcoming episode of The Magicians joins the ranks. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Butler about The Magicians, his love for Stanley Cooper’s 2001 Space Odyssey and his advice for aspiring directors. Check it out below!

As a director, you’ve worked on a variety of shows over the years. What is one thing that you aim to bring to each project regardless of its subject matter?

I like big emotion. I like obviously earning genuine emotion. I don’t like the artificial emotion mentality, so I think that in all of the things that I do, even if they are in bizarre, science fiction, fantasy worlds, I try to find the human component. I think it’s important to find the nuances of the performances and the genuine human emotion that viewers can respond to and relate to, and I think that the shows with the more complex mythologies work the best. The audience has to believe in the characters and feel something that’s relatable coming from the screen. In those situations, I think they accept the more outlandish plot twists and stranger mythologies.

Are there any directors that you really look up to or try to emulate?

Well, the director who I grew up with, who inspired me to do this and be here talking to you right now, is Stanley Cooper and his film “2001 Space Odyssey.” That was the movie that made me want to be a movie director, so there’s that, and I also really admired Woody Allen’s early work in the 70s and 80s. So, for some reason, I ended up as some kind of strange, cinematic love-child of Stanley Cooper and Woody Allen (laughs). Here I am, trying to negotiate both sides of cinematic philosophy: the neurotic, comedy of it all and the intense, formalist, epic drama of it all. So it’s a unique balance.

What has been your proudest moment as a director so far?

That’s an excellent question…my proudest moment was when I directed a short film for Showtime last year—actually, it’s still airing on Showtime quite a bit; it’s called “House Not Home”—and I was asked by an organization called Scenarios USA to be a part of a program they’ve been doing since 1999. They basically solicit high schools around the country to submit short stories about their lives or inspired by their lives and then they pair those young writers with Hollywood directors to develop and make these short films. Then, in conjunction with Showtime, they produce the films. So I got paired with a Cleveland, Ohio teenager who is transgender. Basically, my writer was born biologically female and came out as a male in his sophomore year of high school. The story was about the experience of being a trans-teenager in a small town in America.

I worked with him for two months in order to develop this very moving story about being a trans teen into a film, and it turned into the short film “House Not Home.” It’s premiered at a bunch of festivals, such as the biggest LGBT festival in New York City, and it’s still premiering all over the world. It’s amazing to have told this story, which suddenly now is the zeitgeist, as trans issues are becoming very discussed finally and people are talking about the trans film, so our film could not be more timely. To be able to tell the story of someone who lives in Cleveland, Ohio and share that person’s voice—to be able to give that a national film treatment and to be able to make it into something that’s changing minds and promoting conversation—I think that’s definitely my proudest moment so far as a director.

What is the biggest challenge that you’ve faced as a director?

Well, I think the biggest challenge is that, especially when you work in television, you are often asked to tell very complex stories in a very, very short amount of time and with a very limited amount of money. I think when television first came out with their basic schedule and their basic budget, they were inspired by the year of television which included “L.A. Law” and “ER” and the early David Kelley shows, and the reason why those shows were often shot in courtrooms and in hospitals and in police stations was that they were very obtainable; it was very easy to tell those stories in an eight-day shoot, which is what a typical episode of television takes, but as the years have progressed, TV studios’ and TV networks’ vision has gotten a lot greater and directors are asked to essentially make miniature feature films in that eight-day period. Therefore, it’s getting increasingly more challenging to direct shows where, in the course of the twelve hours in which you have to shoot during one day, you have to create very complex, action-packed, production value shows. It’s difficult because schedules really haven’t changed over the last few decades. The requirements for a director—what they are asked to do—is getting much more complex so that’s the biggest challenge for me.

You’ve directed several iconic episodes of “The Vampire Diaries” which really struck a chord with fans. What did you enjoy the most while working on those episodes, and what makes those episodes special for you?

I enjoyed the epic emotion of the show. I feel that what Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec extracted from the books were those heightened emotions that teenagers feel when they’re growing up, falling in love and getting through high school so they really understood that. I mean, Kevin Williamson has always understood that from when he created “Dawson’s Creek” and even in his “Scream” movies, so he was always really good at writing teenagers who were going through those big, epic moments, you know? So what “The Vampire Diaries” did so well is take the mythology of the vampire and kind of use that as a backdrop and put forward characters that are incredibly relatable.

They also created these incredibly romantic moments and heightened moments of connection and longing and disconnection and reconnection; it’s like the cycle that we all recognize from our time in high school and college. So that was what was so great about being able to work on that show—be able to work with these emotions and I think what made the episodes considered iconic to be iconic is the musical choices that I made as a director in terms of the choice of the song that would elevate a sequence and take these emotions and put them into a whole new stratosphere. When you pick the perfect song with the perfect lyrics and the perfect melodic progression, it just really resonates with an audience in a big way and becomes in the age of viral videos something that could be a scene or a moment that could be replayed and enable the viewer to conjure up that emotion no matter where they are.

You also recently directed an episode of “The Magicians” which is going to be airing soon and I’m really excited to see it. Can you tell me about the episode that you directed for “The Magicians”?

Yeah! It’s airing on March 21st and it’s an episode that delves into one of the main character’s family life, and what’s great about it is that the show uses magic as a metaphor for someone’s special talent or someone’s special—something that makes them distinct and unique and in some cases misunderstood and in the worse cases ostracized. I mean, what’s great about the books and the show is that magic is not a gift that you use in a super heroic fashion. It turns out to be a burden as they’re coming of age and dealing with a life of sex and drugs and academic achievement, and then they have to deal with this extra ability, so it’s interesting how that ability can make some characters better and lead a lot of characters astray.

My episode is a really interesting glimpse into a family of magicians and I was able to use a lot of my own family experiences growing up. I connected with a lot of the drama and I was able to draw on that emotionally as I directed the episode so I’m very proud of it. There’s something very personal about this particular episode for me and how much of myself I was able to put into it.

That’s really cool. It adds another layer to the episode, too, that you were able to take your personal experiences and use them to add depth to it. It makes me even more excited to see the episode.

Yeah, you know, being a filmmaker, the best moments are when—especially when I’m asked to direct a piece of material that is not my own—I always try to find ways to bring myself to the party and bring my sensibilities. Obviously, when you’re talking about television, you don’t want to completely reinvent the wheel in your episode—when you’re directing, you need to respect the show that has been created—but you can have the freedom as a filmmaker to use your knowledge and your creativity and your life experience in your work.

Is there a character on “The Magicians” that you find yourself relating to more than the others?

I’m definitely invested in Quentin and Alice and think they’re relationship is so relatable in so many ways. I think, for me, both Quentin and Alice—I mean, I’m probably more Team Alice because she definitely reminds me of myself growing up in terms of how she’s dealing with wanting to stand out and be distinctive in a world where you aren’t always granted the proper respect for your talents and your ambitions, but I think she handles it beautifully and I think her relationship with Quentin is really the heart of the show. Not to say that I don’t love all the other characters! I think everyone is great. That’s the wonderful thing about the supporting cast, too. There are so many great and well-written characters that are being brought to life by this very talented cast.

What was it like working with the cast of “The Magicians”, and do you have any funny behind-the-scenes moments that you can share?

The cast is incredible; that’s what is so amazing about the way that John McNamara and Sera Gamble developed the show for television. They were very, very interested in getting extremely talented theater actors and actors from independent films. This is a very experienced young cast who are all so professional and so invested in their characters. It’s like working on a really intense stage play, when I was working with them. I mean, it’s hard—it’s hard—I don’t want to give any spoilers away from the episode that I directed. There were some great comedic moments that several of the characters have to go through, especially the awkwardness of family situations. The great thing about Jason Ralph and Olivia Taylor Dudley is that they are both wonderfully comic; they both have great comedic timing. Their dramatic work is excellent, too, but they also bring this great comedic take—this wry take—to some of the funny moments of this episode. There were a lot of laughs on set. While we were filming it, we were calling the episode “#Awkward” It’s actually called “Homecoming” but we really thought that unofficially it should be called “#Awkward.” (laughs).

I also just watched the music video that you directed for the song “Baby, You’re Like a Drug,” starring Joshua Jackson. How do you approach directing a music video versus directing an episode of television?

I think that when directing a music video, you have a five-minute story to tell and, in a way, it’s like taking a scalpel and getting very specific about nuances and emotions. In a way, you’re basically making a silent film. You’re trying to communicate the story to people with only the benefit of the song. When directing a music video, you’re telling a story visually through powerful images and nuanced character moments where you can read people’s faces and know the world of the story without having to get into the exposition or the backstory of it all. In this case, the focus was on the raw emotion of the breakup and pondering maybe what it could have been; that was the goal in this video, so it was really about working with Joshua Jackson and Megan Flather, who plays the ex-girlfriend and finding those little moments that were unspoken but that meant worlds.

What advice would you give to aspiring directors?

My advice is just to make movies, shorts, commercials, YouTube videos, documentaries or whatever it is that inspires young filmmakers. With the world that we’re living in right now, the technology has become so good that it has become so inexpensive compared to the equipment that I needed when I was growing up. I could tell people to go the film school route and spend years and years soliciting investors to make my movies for other people giving me money to make them, like I have, and it’s worked out for me, but if I was growing up now, I might make different choices.

I would basically take the time and the money that I would devote to an institution of higher learning and use it to make product because at this point, the best currency in Hollywood—the best leverage in Hollywood—is original content. So, the more original content that you can create, the more you can show what you can do with even just a consumer-rated camera and the more that you can create relatable stories through any medium, you’re on your way to becoming successful. Again, it’s so much more economically viable to do that than it ever was before. I mean, “Tangerine,” the film that won at the Independent Spirit Awards last year, was made on iPhones so we’re in that world now. So, there’s really no excuse for filmmakers not to make films anymore.

His episode of The Magicians, titled “Homecoming,” airs on March 21st at 9:00 pm ET/PT on Syfy.

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