Arizona author Erin Jade Lange brings her book to the big screen
This week I had the chance to speak with a local author from Arizona Erin Jade Lange and director Paul A. Kaufman. Lange and Kaufman have a lot to celebrate this week. Today, February 25, “Butter,” written and directed by Kaufman and adapted from Lange’s book, debuts in select theaters.
“Butter” follows the life of an adorable saxophone-playing high school student named Marshall (nicknamed Butter) who faces complex adversity because of his obesity. In an effort to regain some semblance of control, he makes a proclamation to “eat himself to death” live for everyone to see on New Year’s Eve. Despite the heaviness attached to the topic, “Butter” manages to be heartwarming. and humorous. You can read a review of the film here.
During our chat, Lange and Kaufman shed light on some of the behind-the-scenes details surrounding “Butter’s” move from the book to the big screen. And, Lange explained why the valley serves as the backdrop for both the book and the film.
“I was living in Arizona at the time [of writing the book]”, says Lange. “And they say – of course – write what you know. But what I found really interesting about Arizona is that we have these communities where the students / children grow up in privilege. We have a lot of privilege in this area, but I think sometimes you think that translates to a no-nonsense situation, but that comes with its own set of pressures.
For Butter, the pressures he faces from being teased by his peers and cyberbullying take center stage. So much so that he resorts to drastic measures in an attempt to exert some control over his life. But, in addition to exploring the most obvious pressures Butter faces – beautifully portrayed by Alex Kersting – the film explores several other adversities commonly experienced by teenagers. These issues, ranging from detachment and abandonment to sexual exploitation and judgment, are subtly revealed throughout.
The cookie-cutter characters are – refreshingly – exempt from “Butter”. For example, the bad boy at school has his (even inexcusable) reasons for acting the way he does; the bad boy’s entourage each has a soft side to counter his punk ways. And, even nerds don’t automatically help the protagonist in their angst, as is usually the case with teen movie tropes.
“I think the emotions that Butter feels are really universal,” Lange says, “like anyone who is or was a teenager, and it doesn’t matter if you’re too big, or too short, or too rich, or poor, or different, or anything that can make a young person a target of bullying.
“I think everyone felt disenfranchised in high school in one way or another,” Kaufman adds, “even the popular kids or the socially popular or socially accepted kids. They go home and they have big problems.
Speaking with Lange and Kaufman, kismet clearly plays a role in uniting them and continuing their 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 in 2015. At the time, the book had already been optioned. According to Kaufman, he continued to check in regularly with Lange. Eventually, the right moment aligned the stars and the two were able to move on. And, much to the delight of both, courtesy and collaboration remained a recurring theme throughout Lange’s process of transitioning characters from page to screen.
“I’ve heard of authors who kind of threw their book away and put their dream actors in there if their book ever made it into a movie, but I’ve never really dared to dream that big,” says Lange. “So I hadn’t thought of seeing them incarnated. Much of this cast is amazing. And so many of the characters are even more alive on screen than in the book, partly because the way Paul wrote them and developed some of the characters like Butter’s mother, played beautifully by Mira Sorvino, is a character more rich on screen than even in the book. And the young people in that cast blew me away.
Keeping Lange’s characters and storyline as faithful to the book as possible is a priority for Kaufman. “Most often when writers and screenwriters choose a book, they pick up the book and run with it,” he says. “I’m a little different. I’m more of a collaborator.
Kaufman’s other collaborative work and film accomplishments are wide-ranging and diverse, including an Emmy Award for Best Director for “Run the Wild Fields,” a film featured on Showtime set during World War II, showcasing the talents of Joanne Whalley, Sean Patrick Flanery and Alexa Vega. Additionally, Kaufman has a long list of TV director credits, which include “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Grimm,” “The Mentalist,” and many more.
“I kind of consider myself an adoptive parent, and the writer is the one who gave birth to the baby in the book,” Kaufman adds. “I had a few conversations with Erin about some of the things that I was doing – if I was going to add a scene or if I was going to maybe start a dialogue with her to see if it was true to who the character was. .”
And now, like the proudest of parents, Lange and Kaufman can share in the success of their sweet and loving offspring, which “Butter” is sure to be for. And you can also enjoy the fruits of their labor by seeing the film in theaters now.