alia shawkat wrote a masterpiece about two women having sex all the time
We sat down with 'Duck Butter' stars Alia Shawkat and Laia Costa to find out how they accidentally made a NSFW feminist masterpiece.
Still via YouTube.
Male critics don’t understand Duck Butter, but Alia Shawkat is fine with that. The co-writer and co-star of the film, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and is in select theaters now, says she isn’t surprised that all the less-favorable reviews of the film seem to be written by men. “It’s kind of a score, in a weird way. Like, yeah! Men don’t get it! That’s fine with me!” she laughs. Laia Costa, her co-star, who’s curled up in a worn armchair next to her in the lobby of a Tribeca hotel, just rolls her eyes.
In any case, it’s not a man’s movie to understand, although it was directed by one – Miguel Arteta (who also co-wrote the script). Duck Butter is a modern experimental romance about two women who meet at a bar and instantly hit it off and, after going home together, decide to spend the next 24 hours together, in an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of regular dating. And to make it more fun, they make a pact to have sex every hour.
Alia – who’s been expanding her repertoire since starring as Maeby Fünke on the long-running comedy series Arrested Development, which returns for its fifth season this year – was awarded Best Actress in a US Narrative Feature at Tribeca Film Festival for her role in the film as Naima, her pragmatic counterpart to Laia’s lustful Sergio.
Maybe the men who criticized the film feel threatened because they’re being replaced? Sergio was originally supposed to be played by a man, but Alia says they couldn’t find one who could pull it off. “We met with a lot of male actors and it just wasn’t really clicking. A lot of the guys we met seemed off-put and uncomfortable – no one was jazzed about being like, ‘Yes! I’m going to throw myself in and share a story about intimacy, and what it means to almost over-expose yourself to somebody!’ Whereas Laia responded very differently, she understood it right away.”
Surprisingly, changing one of the central characters’ genders didn’t require any edits to the script. “It actually cleaned up a lot of the issues we had had as screenwriters,” Alia says. “Not wanting to see a penis on camera as much, worrying about how many times a guy can come – all of these things that were distracting from the story, but would have had to be a part of it if it was a guy.”
And featuring two women as opposed to a man and a woman allowed them to avoid it becoming another “‘men and women are different” story, Alia says. “We didn’t want that at all. So it actually solved a lot of our problems.”
They shot the bulk of the film – the 24-hour romance sequence – in near-real time, in one 27-hour shoot. So the two characters’ unravelling as they spiral into exhaustion is real. Alia says, “It was intense, in a very fun way though. The energy levels we had were all genuine, so as we were feeling them they guided the tone of the scene, instead of usually the other way around, where you’re consciously choosing the energy you want to have for a scene.”
This authenticity also comes through in the characters’ conversations, which span everything from how they first masturbated, to their dsyfunctional relationships with their mothers, to their negative sexual experiences with men. In watching that last scene, it’s hard not to recall the recent allegations of sexual abuse against prominent men in Hollywood. Alia says that all happened after the film was made, so it didn’t inform it. “But it’s interesting how work happens sometimes, where all of a sudden it comes out and you’re like ‘oh, it’s more relevant now.’ Like the way that Naima talks about the world ending, and the news – that was before the election.”
Viewers will likely relate to Naima’s doomsday mentality and inability to escape the unending negative news cycle. Early on, Sergio physically drags Naima away from a conversation with three baby boomers, who she’s blaming for ruining the planet. That’s not the only jab the film takes at older generations – later, Sergio’s mom brags to Naima about her sexual adventures with an air of superiority. The scene is like a sexy wink – little do they know what freaky stuff we’re getting up to! Sex every hour affords many opportunities for experimentation.
But Naima and Sergio don’t just fuck. Their romantic moments are so sweet they border on saccharine, however they’re executed with such tenderness and attention to detail that it’s moving. Both the actors and their characters had immediate chemistry upon meeting – Laia and Alia are now close friends, which is unsurprising considering what they went through to make the film.
Laia says their improvisations on the script added to the natural feel of the characters’ blossoming romance. “We were talking about a lot of stuff that was helping us to make it deeper, and you can see that in various small details, I think,” she says in her animated Spanish accent. “You can see that in Naima’s tears, and how they look at that in the mirror, and suddenly you realize it’s maybe more important to her than we thought.”
Duck Butter shows tenderness well, considering it was birthed from the idea of exploring how we expose “gross” things in relationships, both mentally and physically. In the titular scene, Naima tells Sergio about a man who went down on her and was disgusted by her “duck butter”, and then refused to have sex with her. In her reaction, Sergio turns the subject matter into a symbol of empowerment rather than embarrassment, and the scene feels like a powerful reclamation of Naima’s sexuality. It makes sense that the writers would want to name the film after this.
Alia says, “We always thought the name was great, but that people would be weirded out by it. And then we were like no, it has to be that name, because it represents all the gross shit that you show to each other – either you accept it or not.”
Her choice of words is apt, as Sergio has a penchant for attacking people with actual shit. Laia says this isn’t the first time she’s played a character that goes to the bathroom a lot, recalling her award-winning role in the 2015 drama Victoria. “It’s so funny – in this movie, I poop a lot, and in the other movie I pee a lot. Like I pee five times on screen!” She and Alia dissolve into loud laughter. “Laia Costa: brilliant actress! She’ll poop and pee, anywhere!” Alia announces.
Their persistent poop jokes prick the ears of a woman sitting behind them, who’s turned her head to listen to our conversation. Laia notices, and turns in her chair to ask the woman, “Are you listening to us?” The woman replies quickly, “No, I’m not. I mean, it’s hard not to see who’s talking about pooping a lot.” Everyone laughs, and Laia turns back to our conversation and says: “I think it’s a funny thing, everyone gets so excited about it, you know? ‘Oh, poop and pee!’” The woman turns again and asks what their movie is. “ Duck Butter?” she asks. “Now I understand the movie. I’ll let you do your thing.” Alia shakes her head, mumbling, “Whatever draws you to the movie.”
Unfortunately, it’s still rare to see two women star in a rom-com. Alia blames “the patriarchy in general”, but says “it’s definitely changing. Because women are deciding that their stories are valuable, and the truth is we’re the only ones that have to know that.” She hopes that “younger queer audiences and younger women” will see Duck Butter. “Obviously the film could be for anybody, but I do feel like it will relate to them more.”
“But fuck those male critics.”