Black List Script #3 – Butter by Jason Micallef
MAJOR DISCLAIMER: Since these scripts, bought or not, are currently unproduced and/or in the midst of long, tedious development processes, they may not make it to the screen for up to three years, if ever. You should know that the synopsis contains MASSIVE, EARTH-SHATTERING SPOILERS, even though this screenplay may not resemble the finished film (if any) in any way. Read at your own risk.
Secondary Disclaimer: I refer to what follows as “coverage” by the loosest definition of that term. In keeping with this blog’s tradition, I’ve crammed the notes so full of rancorous rants, it’s 1/10th as concise as actual coverage, almost falling into the category of a review. However, since I’ve included the loglines and a detailed synopsis, it’s close enough to coverage for my purposes. Deal with it.
Logline (provided by The Black List): “A small town becomes a center for controversy and jealousy as its annual butter carving contest begins.”
Dueling voiceovers introduce us to the two main characters, LAURA PICKLER (40s, shrill, trophy wife) and DESTINY (12, black, orphaned). Laura narrates the story of her husband’s success. For the past 15 years, BOB PICKLER has won the blue ribbon in the butter-carving competition at the Iowa State Fair. His most recent sculpture was a life-size take on Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Destiny narrates the story of her struggles in the foster-care system, which has led her to a number of bad parents. After visiting the butter-carving display, Destiny goes to a nearby 7-Eleven to buy a stick of butter. She takes it back to the Last Supper display and carves a perfect replica of Jesus’ chalice. Bob notices this and is genuinely impressed by her talent.
Destiny is introduced to a new set of foster parents, yuppies ETHAN and JILL. They awkwardly introduce Destiny to her new home. At the State Fair butter gala, committee judge ORVAL ANDERSON makes a jokey speech, then plays a video tribute to Bob Pickler. He congratulates Bob on 15 years of wonderful service to this art form. After bedtime, Destiny sneaks to the beautiful, modern kitchen and searches the refrigerator for butter. All she finds is soy spread. After the speechmaking section of the gala, Orval approaches Bob and Laura. He gracelessly suggests that Bob should step down and let someone else have a chance to win. Bob’s fine with it, but Laura is not, so Orval has to put his foot down and ban Bob from competing.
At the Pickler home, daughter KAITLEN (16) watches Laura flip out about the decision. Bob tries to gently calm her down and make her see reason, but Laura wants to take a petition to the governor. She accuses Bob of not standing up for himself, says she should have married the more ambitious BOYD BOLTON because he would have fought for this. Laura storms over to the Andersons’ home, where Orval and wife HELEN watch Deal or No Deal. Hearing her bang on the door, Orval hides in the basement and forces his wife to cover for him. Much later, Orval sneaks out and drives away. Laura roars that this isn’t over.
At a strip club, Bob gets a lap dance from BROOKE, who’s clearly manipulating him for money. As Laura drives, babbling paranoid rants to herself, she notices Bob’s minivan outside the strip club. She cautiously approaches and finds Bob and Brooke having sex inside. Laura plows her SUV into Bob’s minivan. She drags her husband home, insisting that he’d better get a good night’s sleep (on the couch) because tomorrow they need to get butter. Bob reminds her that he’s not competing. Laura tells him she is.
A month later, Ethan takes Destiny for her first day of school. (He’s a teacher at the school.) HAYDEN, a blond boy, takes an immediate shine to her, as does the art teacher. Destiny’s weirded out by all the white people treating her so well. After school, Destiny asks Ethan for butter. Ethan chuckles that Jill means well with her soy spread and other assorted healthy, organic foods, but if Destiny wants butter, Ethan’s more than happy to buy some. Destiny asks for 200 pounds.
Laura springs the notion of her competing on Kaitlen, who mocks the idea, reminding Laura she’s never made a butter sculpture in her life. Laura notes that she’s stood by Bob for 20 years, so she thinks she’s more than capable. She goes upstairs, and there’s a knock on the door. Bob answers — it’s Brooke. She wants more money and thinks she’s entitled because she let Bob do it with her. Kaitlen catches sight of her briefly and asks who she is. Bob says, “Nobody,” which Brooke overhears. Enraged, she pounds the minivan with her purse, which Laura sees from upstairs. Bob rushes out and tells Brooke that Laura controls his money. Brooke is baffled that Bob would dare let his wife come between them. She delivers some vague threats before leaving.
Laura signs up for the county butter-carving competition. NANCY tells her she’s the first to arrive and that registration ends at noon. It’s after 11. As Ethan drops Destiny off, he notices she’s nervous. He tells her to think of all the bad things that could happen — the absolute worst thing — and then consider the likelihood of any of them really happening. Then he asks about the worst thing that could really happen — she could lose. How bad does that seem compared to racist ninjas or a mass murderer who only kills little girls? A little more hopeful, Destiny hops out of the car.
CAROL ANN STEVENSON, a heavyset Pickler sycophant, registers for the competition. She’s thrilled to see Laura there. Neither are thrilled to see Destiny sign up, but since they don’t know who she is, they assume she’s no real competition. Just before noon, Brooke shows up to register. Before leaving, Brooke informs Laura that Bob owes her an additional $600, then chastises Laura for getting between her and “her man.” Laura laughs, noting she’s just one in a long line of whores. Brooke seems genuinely hurt by this remark, but she’s going to stay in the contest because it clearly enrages Laura. Laura and Carol Ann try to convince Nancy to ban Brooke from the competition, but Nancy refuses.
A montage follows, showing the three days of the competition as each character works on her sculpture. Laura’s intense, Destiny’s laid back, Carol Ann quickly realizes she’s out of her league and doesn’t finish, and Brooke doesn’t even show up until the last day, where she makes a few cursory carvings in a hunk of butter before leaving. Destiny’s sculpture is of a train and Harriet Tubman, symbolizing the Underground Railroad. In voiceover, Laura ridicules Destiny for playing the race card. Laura’s sculpture is also fairly well done — it’s of a happy family at a dinner table, praying.
At the judging, Nancy introduces each competitor and allows them to give a brief speech. Carol Ann’s is all about kittens. Brooke arrives in a surprisingly dainty Sunday dress, looking not-at-all stripper-like, and talks about how an absentee father led her down the path of sin, but she is now born again. Next, Destiny’s long, wise-beyond-her-years speech describes the greatness of the Iowan people and the greatness of a country that allows a poor orphan to participate in such a prestigious competition. The audience is blown away. Laura’s speech to the crowd is all about family, but afterward, she delivers an impassioned, vaguely racist tirade to the judges, about how this is about butter and talent, not overcoming adversity. Despite this (or maybe because of it), Destiny wins the contest, which means she gets to compete in the state fair.
Afterward, Laura’s racism is no longer vague. Kaitlen calls her on this, which leads to Laura hurling insults at her daughter. Kaitlen, upset and angry, wants out of the family. Hayden shows up at Destiny’s house the next day with body lotion for Destiny, as a gift in honor of her winning. Meanwhile, Laura vandalizes the house with a spray-painted YouTube URL. The video shows Jill, in 1991, vandalizing a Land O’ Lakes (sponsors of the state competition) dairy farm for PETA. Later, Laura goes to Boyd Bolton’s Ford dealership under the guise of replacing the minivan. Instead, she makes lewd advances until he sleeps with her. Back at Destiny’s house, Jill and Ethan try to scrub off the paint. Jill breaks down, afraid she can’t handle motherhood. Destiny overhears the whole conversation.
Kaitlen gets high as Brooke throws rocks at her bedroom window. She asks to come up. Brooke asks Kaitlen if she knows where Bob keeps his money. Kaitlen insinuates she might tell Brooke if they played a game of Truth or Dare, but before Brooke can ask anything, Kaitlen dares Brooke to go down on her. She raises her price to $1200, which Kaitlen says she can get as long as Brooke doesn’t stop.
Nancy calls Ethan and asks them to come down to the county moose lodge. There, they’re greeted by Laura, Bob, Orval, some judges, and a rep from Land O’ Lakes. The rep asks if Destiny denounces Jill’s actions. Destiny refuses, noting that, although she wouldn’t do what Jill did, Jill is entitled to express herself however she wants. The rep is moved and allows Destiny’s win to stand. Laura brings out the big guns — Boyd Bolton, who reads from an index card explaining that he snuck into the moose lodge late at night to sculpt Destiny’s butter on her behalf and that he’s coming forward out of guilt. This puzzles everyone, but they have no way to prove it’s a lie, so the win is up in the air. Laura suggests a butter-carving rematch. Destiny agrees immediately, flummoxing Laura.
At home, Bob tries to talk Laura out of her proposed butter sculpture — it’s far too ambitious for a novice like herself. Meanwhile, Destiny pitches a variety of concepts to Ethan, Jill, and Hayden. In the midst of that, Carol Ann shows up to apologize for supporting Laura. She throws all her support behind Destiny and gets involved with the pitching process. Eventually, Destiny comes up with an idea that impresses all of them.
After another sapphic tryst, Kaitlen finally hands Brooke the money. Brooke peels out and seeks Destiny. She drives her to a Williams-Sonoma store and presents her with a very expensive set of knives. Brooke gives a speech about how she could spend $1200 on Victoria’s Secret, but she thinks it’d be put to better use helping Destiny beat Laura. Destiny thanks her. Later, a woman from Human Services arrives at Destiny’s house to inform them that they’ve finally located Destiny’s biological mother. Although she’s passed on now, they did manage to track down a single photo — taken shortly after giving birth, cradling Destiny. She’s suitably touched. That night, Destiny prays to the spirit of her mother, showing forgiveness and understanding for her abandonment and hoping that, if she’s not too busy, she has time to watch Destiny kick Laura’s ass.
As Laura and Destiny carve, sculpt, and mold, an ever-increasing crowd gathers. Destiny’s final sculpture is of a new mother cradling her baby a la Da Vinci’s Madonna with Child, obviously inspired by the photo. Laura’s carving, on the other hand, depicts a frame from the Zapruder film, with JFK’s head in mid-explosion as Jackie O. crawls behind the limo. Laura herself wears a pink Jackie O. dress and pillbox hat. The crowd hates its tastelessness, which nobody but Laura finds surprising. Mysteriously, before the judging, “somebody” sabotages Destiny’s sculpture by melting it with a blowtorch.
Despite this, Destiny wishes Laura good luck. Laura’s rude, noting that Destiny’s young but this is all Laura has — how dare she take it away. Orval announces the winner, Destiny. In front of the entire crowd, Destiny thanks Laura for making her a better competitor. She hugs Laura, who breaks into a genuine smile for the first time in 20 years. Laura narrates a parable about a penniless, elderly loser who went on to become Colonel Sanders, over a montage of Bob divorcing Laura, Kaitlen trying to rescue Brooke from her strip club, and Boyd throwing his blowtorch into a pond. Destiny narrates a montage of her getting second prize at the state fair and being permanently adopted by Ethan and Jill.
In the end, Destiny and Hayden ride their bikes through a cornfield cluttered with cows. The camera hangs on a cow as we fade out.
Setting is important. Remember that, because I’m about to attack Butter’s choice of setting. It’s important to note that Micallef writes, more than once, that Iowa City (apparently) qualifies as suburbia. It’s a very important distinction, because parts of these story and some of these characters could work in a story set in a bona fide suburban environment. But let me ask: if Iowa City is a suburb, what exactly is the urb? Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second-largest city, is 30 miles away (and that 30-mile stretch contains little more than cornfields and little shithole towns, not suburban sprawl). The Quad Cities are 80 miles away. Des Moines is over 100 miles away. I’ll be exceedingly generous in describing towns like Coralville and North Liberty as suburbs of Iowa City, but they aren’t, really. Iowa City is reasonably large by Iowa standards, but Iowa’s a funny place: its larger cities are basically just small towns with lots of people. In attitude and values, in architecture and politics, Iowa City has much more in common with Tiffin than Chicago.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Iowa, which instantly affects my opinion of this script. It has many problems beyond its setting, but for me, choosing Iowa as the location is a big sticking point. Micallef didn’t choose Iowa because he hails from the state or has spent any time there. No, upon reading the script, anyone who’s ever set foot in Iowa — even for 30 seconds — will spot how off everything feels. It serves as a lazy, generic shorthand for “Middle America,” and he could have just as easily substituted Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin… Any Midwestern state. Even though the script still suffers from numerous problems beyond the choice of setting, the attitudes and behaviors of the characters would feel a lot more at home in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Chicago, or the Twin Cities than it does in any square foot of any rural environment.
Little things add up: Destiny goes to a 7-Eleven instead of a Kum ‘n’ Go (that’s not even a matter of preference — there are no 7-Elevens in the entire state of Iowa), everyone’s driving SUVs and minivans instead of pickup trucks, both Jill and Laura shun all dairy products for health and political reasons, a strip club is empty except for Bob and its employees… I don’t want to generalize too much, but Butter is little more than an over-the-top, verging-on-slapstick satire that treads largely on suburban stereotypes. So if we’re gonna talk stereotypes, Micallef could at least get the small-town stereotypes right. Helen’s appalled by the idea that Orval would be fishing at night (that’s his excuse when Laura shows up unannounced)? Night fishing is incredibly popular in the Iowa City-Coralville area. Even if Orval doesn’t do that, it’s not like it’d be some ridiculous, unheard-of excuse. Possibly worst of all, the last shot hangs on cows grazing in a goddamn cornfield. I’ve never set foot on a farm in my life and I know how retarded and wrong that is. All this bugs me because, hey, I don’t even live there and I know these things. Thirty seconds of cursory research would solve 80% of problems like this. Iowa is a state with three million people, and probably three million more who have spent significant time there (attending college and/or living and/or working). Screenplays don’t have to be 100% realistic, but let me tell you, nothing alienates an audience more than filmmakers getting little details wrong when the audience knows better. The script’s imperfect, but I probably would have suspended much of my disbelief had the setting felt even a little authentic. It never does. Ever. You wonder why Hollywood has such a bad rap among conservatives, who accuse the industry of being nothing but liberal elitists who pander to Middle America? Screenplays like this lend credibility to that belief.*
That rant aside, Butter has bigger problems. It’s an incredibly unsubtle take on the Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama primary duel. How unsubtle is it? Consider, first, the character names. “Destiny.” Subtle! “Pickler” is almost subtle, but think about it for a moment. Think about a cucumber. Think about a pickle. Think about Bill and Hillary Clinton, then about Bob and Laura Pickler. Yeah. Subtle.** Then there’s the amazing Destiny-Christ imagery: when we first see her, she buys a stick of butter and, presumably for the first time, has the talent to shape it into an exact replica of the Holy Chalice (which, I’ll casually point out, isn’t even in Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting! — see, setting isn’t the only thing Micallef couldn’t get right). At the end, Destiny is inspired by a photo of her birth mother and her newborn self to create a butter rendition of Mary and the newborn Jesus. Subtle! (On a semi-related tangent, holy fuck should all these “Obama is Jesus” people be shot. I voted for him and hope he’ll do a good job, but that’s the problem: those people make people like me seem like fucking nutcases.)
So when Micallef isn’t ripping off the vastly superior Election, we’re treated to obvious yet inept symbolism and caricature surrogates of real political figures who can’t quite stand on their own two feet. If you strip away the obvious metaphors, you’re left wondering why Laura is so obsessed with this butter-carving contest? Other than reflected glory, what’s in it for her? I can understand her desire to keep the legacy going, I can understand her overly assertive tendency to defend her husband at all costs, but I can’t figure out why this — more than anything else in her life — is so important. We don’t find out much about her life outside the butter contest, so we never get answers about what drives her. Because she has no motivation, I spent the entire script just waiting for an explanation or, even better, a depiction of her otherwise-empty life. Instead, she tearily admits this contest is “all she has.” Why?!
Destiny has similar problems. I don’t know if anyone other than Spike Lee is allowed to use the phrase “super-duper magical Negro,” but if any movie character is one, it’s Destiny. In addition to the unsubtle name and the Christ imagery, she has near-supernatural artistic talent, alarming insight for a 12-year-old of any race or gender, and she spends about 80% of the script silent, looking poised and wise. On the rare instances when she speaks, she says exactly the right things in exactly the right way. I know she’s supposed to be a metaphor for Obama, but I’m pretty sure the man didn’t come out of the womb giving elegant, off-the-cuff speeches. His eloquent speech on race relations, which is parodied in this script, certainly was nice, but it wasn’t off-the-cuff. I understand it makes no sense to give a 12-year-old butter sculptor speechwriters, but imbuing her with such gifts, without any explanation for where they came from, forces Destiny to fall prey to this stereotype. (Another random tangent: I always love it when writers assume that, because someone is gifted in one art form, it’ll automatically translate to another. Like a guitarist who’s magically an expert violin player just because they’re both stringed instruments, or a sketch artist who can perfectly sculpt butter and make brilliant collages. Artists can excel in multiple media, but it takes a shitload of effort.)
The Bob-Laura dynamic could have been interesting, especially once Brooke comes along, but I had a hard time buying any of it within the context of their relationship. Bob fucks a prostitute because Bill Clinton’s a horndog. Laura is a frigid shrew because that’s the way Hillary Clinton is perceived. Why doesn’t Bob pursue “artificial” women like strippers and prostitutes so he can regain the power in the relationship? Or because he wants somebody who listens to him without browbeating? Maybe Laura’s masking the intense insecurity that comes from being the assertive half of the relationship without getting the glory for Bob’s success. Micallef doesn’t give us anything like this, so the Picklers never feel real. Same goes for bit players — calling Brooke “inconsistent” is a polite understatement, Ethan’s effectively Bob Saget’s Full House character, Jill’s a liberal hippie, and none of the other characters matter much. Everyone just has to fill a role so the story can chug along as an analogy to the primary battle.
The entire second half of the narrative feels like wheel-spinning. Gripping the real events so tightly, Micallef doesn’t seem interested in how boring and pointless the “rematch” is. Of course, without the rematch, the script would be about 65 pages long, but maybe he could re-inflate the page count with novel concepts like character depth and real conflict. This is one of those stories where a bunch of shit happens at such a frenetic pace, you’re almost tricked into noticing it lacks anything resembling drama, aside from its treacly Full House moments and the laughable “Destiny’s big heart wins over Laura” scene.
Maybe it would help if Micallef had any sort of satirical aim. Butter is overstocked with broad jokes and toothless social commentary, but I can’t even figure out the overall agenda. Is he trying to say that politics in general and primaries in particular are as pointless as a county butter-carving competition? Any election year in which two old white dudes face off to see who can bore America into political apathy, I could buy it. Not this election. Not even this party, as the first viable female and African-American candidates duked it out for the nomination. Based on the hostile portrayal of Laura, it seems as if Micallef believes Hillary Clinton is outrageous for daring to stay in a competition against Jesus II. I did not support Clinton and, on a couple of occasions, she did seem to play a little dirty… But not nearly as dirty as Laura Pickler, so if that’s the aim, he stacked the deck more than a little unfairly.
Maybe Butter, like Election, wants to show how petty and juvenile people can act in a competition like this. Despite lifting from Election on several occasions, I don’t think Micallef lifted the theme because, well… Nobody in the script acts juvenile or petty except Laura. Everyone else, including Bob (whose real-life counterpart said much harsher things about Obama than Hillary did — whether she put him up to it or not, feel free to face that reality), is all about order and fairness and “may the best man win.” Going back to Destiny’s absurd “magical Negro” qualities, she has a few moments of anxiety but never has a moment of anger, pettiness, irritation, or disappointment. Again, Obama’s a politician, and a charismatic one, but to think he never felt any of those things during this election season is absurd. The most even-tempered people on the planet don’t just let shit roll off their back. Either they internalize everything and explode, or they follow this much healthier course of action: bottle it up in public, shout obscenities behind closed doors, then calm down, then go out publicly and give articulate speeches to win back favor. Despite what you may have read, Obama’s only human. If nobody saw his clear irritation during the debates with McCain, they weren’t paying close enough attention.
So what is it? What’s the goddamn point? Figure that out, and maybe this script can work.
The Bottom Line
Despite how much I hated it, this script can work. Election wisely took a look at its characters and made them people, eschewing the obvious parallels to the 1992 campaign (which are much more prevalent in the novel) in favor of just telling a story. Since Butter lifts enough from that movie already, maybe Micallef can take it a step further and fashion it into a story about slightly crazy people with believable reasons for doing the things they do. Locking the narrative to real events prevents any of these characters from being more than a chess piece participating in one of those one-man games they print in the newspaper: they can’t waver in their plot function because the real events have preordained the narrative path. Fuck the real events. There’s a start here, but now it’s time to go back and make it work on its own merits. Dig deeper, find out who these people really are, and let them behave like something more than a symbolic construct. Oh yeah, and set it in Generic Suburb, U.S.A. Pretty please!
*For those of you questioning my professionalism — and you should be — if I were writing this coverage professionally, I may have ignored the setting completely. It personally offends me, but it’s not the worst thing about Butter. It just adds insult to injury. If I mentioned it at all, I would have taken a sentence or two to note that the rural setting is unconvincing. [Back]
**To give Micallef some credit, he isn’t the only one falling prey to the “least subtle names imaginable” problem. Let’s not forget Walter Black from The Beaver, and Winter’s Discontent features an elderly main character named Winter. Subtle! [Back]