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Alia Shawkat Made ‘Duck Butter’ Queer After Male Actors ‘Seemed Uncomfortable’ With Intimate Sex Scenes

"When we changed it to Laia [Costa], everything just made so much more sense, as if it was always written for her," Shawkat told IndieWire.

Duck Butter

“Duck Butter”

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Duck Butter” may be about an experiment with sex and intimacy, but the movie itself became an experiment in putting sex and intimacy on film. Directed by Miguel Arteta (“Beatriz at Dinner”) and written by Arteta and Alia Shawkat, “Duck Butter” stars Shawkat and Laia Costa as two strangers who decide to have sex every hour for 24 hours in the hopes of accelerating their romantic entanglement. Naima (Shawkat) is the straight person (so to speak), an aspiring actor captivated by Sergio (Costa), a whimsical musician who comes up with the idea for the experiment.

“I wanna know you for real,” Sergio says, selling the plan to Naima. “I wanna come with you every hour. We can fucking skip time.” As the women fall further down the rabbit hole, they travel through the stages of a relationship as if in fast forward. They are tender and giggly, sharing stories of past relationships and artistic ambitions, but eventually the intensity is too much to bear and Naima finds herself locked in the bathroom for a little peace and quiet. When they invite two friends (the excellent Kate Berlant and Hong Chau) over for an ill-advised orgy, it’s clear they’ve reached the post-honeymoon phase sex slump.

Their inventive love-making, long processing conversations, and inexplicable crying fits are very specific tropes to relationships between women. Which is why it’s surprising to learn that Shawkat and Arteta originally wrote Sergio as a man.

Shawkat and Arteta, who have been friends since Shawkat starred in his 2011 film “Cedar Rapids,” began meeting with actors while they were still writing the script. “Something wasn’t fitting,” Shawkat told IndieWire during a recent interview. “The guys kind of seemed uncomfortable. They seemed to question things about it… We wanted to create this kind of intimacy, especially in the way we shot it…and all these men seemed very uncomfortable by that.”

Both Shawkat and Arteta admired Costa’s work in “Victoria,” and had cast her in a supporting role. When Costa asked to be on set during the 24-hour sex sequence, just to observe, they realized she not only understood what they were trying to do, but was excited about it. “She just seemed like Sergio. When we decided to change it to her, all of a sudden all these things in the script that weren’t working started to work,” said Shawkat.

Duck Butter

“Duck Butter”

The Orchard

By making “Duck Butter” a queer story, it became less complicated. “I didn’t want the film to be about men vs. women, and focusing on a masculine/feminine kind of thing,” said Shawkat. “Also, I didn’t really want to see a penis on camera, and how many times a guy can cum, and all these things that were distracting from the story… When we changed it to Laia, everything just made so much more sense, as if it was always written for her.”

Filming the sex scenes became much more comfortable, too. “I sleep with men and women, but on set, when I’m having a sex scene with a man or even just kissing, it’s so much more uncomfortable for them,” Shawkat said. “I think they become more aware of what the power dynamic is. Not that they’re bad people, but they’re just like, ‘In real life, what’s going on?’ I’m like, ‘There ain’t no real life part of this, dude. We have a thing to make together.'”

“With Laia, there was no weirdness… We’d be naked and holding each other, and then when we’d cut it wouldn’t be like, ‘Okay, back to your normal places because I just want to make sure it’s cool.’ It was like, ‘No, we’re still holding each other naked. It’s fine,'” she said.

Arteta was less involved with the sex scenes, which were a collaboration between Costa, Shawkat, and the film’s cinematographer Hillary Spera. “Miguel was looking on a monitor outside, but he would kind of just like open the door and be like, ‘Okay, it looks beautiful. Just keep going.’ I was like, ‘Get the fuck out of here,'” Shawkat remembered. “That’s why I felt like it felt so intimate, because it was.”

“Duck Butter” is currently playing in theaters. 

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