For most of her acting career thus far, Alia Shawkat has turned in indelible performances in supporting roles that enrich whatever story she’s a part of. But there’s more to her than memorable small roles, and this year she is coming into the foreground.
Puerto Rican prodigy Miguel Arteta’s latest feature, Duck Butter, acts as an open canvas to flaunt Shawkat’s strengths, as the concept demanded ample emotional intelligence and adaptability. Shawkat, who co-wrote the film with Arteta, was awarded the Best Actress Jury Prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival for the powerful showcase.
Delving into the chaotic romance in Los Angeles between an actress Naima (Shawkat) and singer Sergio (Catalonian actress Laia Costa), the project was shot over the course of 24 hours to reflect the time both characters spend together in the fictional narrative. After being fired from her job, Naima finds refuge in Sergio’s intensity. The young women make a pack to spend the next day together without falling sleep in order to deepen their burgeoning love: effervescent sex, brutal arguments, and soul-searching conversations pile on as the hours go by. Shot in real time over a 24 hour period, the film pushed its actors to the edge of their physical and mental capabilities and presented the production with unprecedented logistical hurdles.
Arteta told MovieMaker that the raw material for this collaboration was his long-brewing admiration for Shawkat, who he worked with on Cedar Rapids. “It was about working together,” he explained. “‘I want to have one of the definitive performances of her career [in one of my movies], so I told her, ‘let’s write something together.’” The screenplay consisted of a detailed outline that allowed them to follow the story beats, but forced them to improvise all of the dialogue, finding the characters’ voices on set.
The original 24-hour idea was only supposed to act as the guiding principle for the first act and dealt with a turbulent romance between a man and a woman. This eventually morphed into a queer narrative told entirely within the framework of a single day. “We kept changing it by cutting the fat, by asking ourselves, ‘What actually is the essence of this movie?’ Then, we decided to make the whole movie about the 24-hour segment, and then we changed the character’s gender,” added Shawkat.
The shooting was divided into two segments to make the arduous process manageable, as Shawkat noted: “We had two crews; one crew that worked the first 12 hours at Sergio’s house, and then we traveled over to Naima’s house, and shot the other 12 hours. There were a handful of us who stayed awake the whole time. The DP Hillary Spera, first AD Drew Langer, Mel, Miguel, Laia, and I all took a 20-minute nap. Then we woke up and did the next 14 hours.”
Shawkat also mentioned that executive producers Duplass brothers (who play themselves in a brief cameo), provided access to a crew that already knew each other. Instead of piecing together a crew from different sources, they worked with a group that already had an established relationship and short-hand, which was imperative for a endeavor like this since there was little time for everyone to develop a connection on set.
Everyone involved, in front and behind the camera, was affected by the raw energy and stripped down choices. Arteta felt that the constraints of working for so many consecutive hours helped him turn off his brain and navigate what was happening on set with primal sensibility. “A lot of creating art is turning off the inner critic and just letting it start coming from the gut. Doing this helped a little bit, because you’re literally running on fumes, and you don’t have any time to think. It’s all pure instincts.” he confirmed. This strenuous production schedule also shaped the two actresses’ performances and protected against inauthenticity.
“Normally on a set, you have to make the choice of what energy you have in a scene: Where did the character just come from, and where are they going? Are they drunk? Are they awake? But in this, our energy levels were completely what was honest for the scene, because they were actually awake for that amount of hours. We, as the characters, don’t think about the energy we have to play. We just are that energy already because we’ve also been awake for that amount of hours. If a scene was originally written as sleepy, but we’re amped, we’re going to play it amped, and vice versa, so we just have to listen to how we were feeling fully, and let that drive it,” said Shawkat.
To protect the intimacy of their process, Arteta was not present when Shawkat and Costa rehearsed and discussed how the sex scenes in the piece would play out. He opted for sending cinematographer Hillary Spera to be his eyes. “One of the biggest jobs as a director working with an actor is knowing when to get out of the way, and this was one of those cases because their chemistry was unbelievable. I wanted the sex to be very honest, and the best way to do that was to let them rehearse on their own.”
Although he is clear he will never understand the nuances of a love between two women, Duck Butter was a therapeutic undertaking for the director, who channeled his own hurtful memories about unsavory liaisons into this work. “I wanted to reckon with what it’s like to treasure disastrous relationships that have haunted you forever. In some ways it helped me let got of some things and love myself more.” Artistically, this also represented a breathe of rebellious fresh air for him. He had finished his previous project Beatriz at Dinner just 10 days before shooting with Shawkat, and the shift was groundbreaking. “It was wonderful to go from a movie that’s very formal and came from a very carefully planned script, and this was very free flowing. It felt like I was playing classical music, and then I was playing crazy jazz with the Ornette Coleman Trio.”
In January, Alia Shawkat also starred in Blaze, the Blaze Foley biopic directed by Ethan Hawke, which will be released theatrically later this year by IFC. Her involvement in Duck Butter is unlike anything she is done in her career, but she is glad both turns are redefining how she is perceived. “They are very different experiences. This one is lot more intimate, because it’s closer to the shit that I’m going through in my life, whereas that one felt like somebody else’s story, and yet I felt very spiritually attached to it.”
Meanwhile, while he has other things in the works, Miguel Arteta told MovieMaker about a dream project he wishes to one day find the resources to execute. “I would love to tell a personal story about my family, which comes from all over Latin America, and touches several countries and several generations, but I would need a lot of money to do that.” He survived a 24-hour moviemaking marathon, the next battle, hopefully, will be smooth like “manteca de pato.” MM
Duck Butter opened in theaters and on VOD April 27, 2018, courtesy of The Orchard. All images courtesy of The Orchard.