Artist Profile: Robert Joseph Butler

The second annual Detroit Independent Film Festival kicks off this weekend. Today, WDET’s Rob St. Mary introduces us to a young filmmaker who’s not only pursuing his own career… but is helping others like him in the process.

(click the audio link above to hear the story)

It started simply enough. When Robert Joseph Butler was a pre-teen he fell in love with movies. But while most 12-year-olds were looking to Hollywood for inspiration, Butler was looking across the ocean.

“Unlike other 12 year olds who were watching “Star Wars” I was venturing out and trying to find films by such European filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Antonioni. I was watching these filmmakers at an early age and that’s what really sparked my interest as a filmmaker.”

Now at the age of 28, Butler has completed seven short films in the past three years. His works have been screened in over 45 different film festivals nationwide with several of his projects garnering best picture awards. Butler says when considering a film… for him, emotion is more important than spectacle.

“Most often I see a lot of movies that have a lot of action or suspense… sometimes you’ll see like in a gangster film… you’ll see a shootout… or in other movies you’ll see a girl being chased around by a chainsaw or a knife or something. But for me what I think is more dramatic is internal conflict.”

Looking at Butler’s films… his interest in a visual and a surrealist interest in dreams is apparent. This is especially true in his early work. In the film “Solitude”… an intense love story turns out to be part of a movie… or is it?

“(sound from the film)”

In “Retreat”… a teenager who has a hard time connecting at home and school finds her solace in the wilds of Northern Michigan by communing with nature at Pictured Rocks.

Jeff Anderson is a reviewer with the on-line film site “Combustible Celluloid”. He says Butler’s early work was married very closely to his cinematic influences.

“A lot of young filmmakers do this, they sort of try to follow in the footsteps of their favorites… and Robert is very much clearly into both Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch… and he tried very hard to capture that kind of dreamy… sort of illogic of dream logic where it doesn’t quite follow real life waking logic. So, it’s a little on the existential, arty and experimental side.”

Doug Schultze is the head of the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan. He agrees with Anderson. He says when Butler came to his film school in Troy three years ago… his style was tied to his influences. But over time he has evolved as a filmmaker.

“He loved avante guarde, he loved the unusual, he loved non-liner from a storytelling perspective. And those films where great… and Rob stood out. Rob stood out. Actually, he stood out so much that he won the Best Director award at year’s end. But we were always encouraging Rob to continue exploring the avante guarde but to make the films a bit more accessible to the mainstream in order for him to find an audience. And I think a little begrudgingly he would admit… that he eventually saw the opportunity for a story that became a bit more narrative.”

The new project Schultze is referencing is Butler’s latest short film – “The Spirit of Isabel”.

“It’s about a struggling woman trying to make ends meet and she’s suffering financially… and she hits the streets as the world’s oldest profession… which is prostitution… and it’s about her internal struggle.”

“(sound from the film)”

The lead actress in “The Spirit of Isabel” is Aphrodite Nikolovski. She plays the title character.

“I believe she was a woman who had a normal life… had a child, had a family… possibly… just like anyone else… and she had to take up a profession that probably wasn’t what she envisioned for herself in the future but she had to make financial ends meet.”

Nikolovski has worked with Butler on three different projects. She says over time a bond has developed between them which has helped her as an actor. Nikolovski says that’s especially true in one scene in “Isabel” where she performed nude and had to be emotionally raw.

“He trusts me so much that it felt like I was alone in the room and not getting guided through that scene. We did it one shot. And he allowed me… he gave me the liberty of physically doing what I needed to do in order to be fully in it… in order to be in that scene. And those are sometimes the more difficult scenes to execute… the ones where you are by yourself.”

Another person who worked on “The Spirit of Isabel” is Detroit filmmaker Stan Bridges. He co-wrote the script with Butler. As a veteran of the local film scene for almost 20 years, Bridges says working with Butler is great because he is a talent director with a passion for the craft of moviemaking.

“He’s still young enough to have the enthusiasm and he’s far enough along… I guess… in making the shorts and stuff and getting a name for himself that hopefully he won’t get delusioned with the business end of it… because… especially for all y’all young filmmakers… it’s really… it’s a beast and it can crush your heart.”

Bridges says one way that Butler has reached out recently to help fellow filmmakers in Metro Detroit is through the creation of a film festival. The Detroit Independent Film Festival started in 2010. Butler says it was an outgrowth of his experience at other festivals around the nation.

“We see so many film festivals that are disorganized or don’t communicate well with filmmakers or filmmakers are put off to the side over parties or other big profile movies… and I see some festivals that really don’t say what they are going to do for independent filmmakers. So, I wanted to create a film festival that celebrated true independent films.”

Butler’s former teacher… Doug Schultze at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan says from a career standpoint the festival helps Butler to achieve his goals.

“It’s a great way for Rob to both support Michigan filmmakers and to network, honestly, as an independent filmmaker. So, I think it’s a brilliant and very supportive win-win for filmmakers and for Rob, certainly.”

Schultze says because of how Butler built his career, he has become an example for new film students.

“For us the litmus test is if you can get a film into a nationally recognized film festival… that tells you are doing something very right as a filmmaker. Rob has explored that and many, many of his short films have been recognized on the national level and so he’s very much ready to take the step and the great thing about it is he was very self aware of the length of time it would take before he… he made that leap and I think he’s there and I think he’s ready now. I can’t wait to see what he does from a feature level.”

As for the filmmaker, he says he’s ready for the challenge.

“Right now, I have quite a few different projects in development. Writing some screenplays that the moment. So, my first step is to finish those screenplays and… done seven short films… I really want to embark on features next. I believe that’s my next step. I’m looking forward to making feature films in the near future.”

If past performance is any indication of Butler’s ability it’s not a matter of “if” but when that will happen. And knowing his love of the area, when the cameras roll again…on a larger project… the state of Michigan will surely be in focus.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News.