Alia Shawkat and Laia Costa on Duck Butter’s Sexy Queer Utopia

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Laia Costa and Alia Shawkat. Photo: The Orchard

Some spoilers below for Duck Butter.

What if, instead of wasting days or months or years of your life wondering whether somebody was The Right Person, you condensed an entire romantic relationship into 24 hours? That’s the concept behind Duck Butter, which premiered at Tribeca and hits theaters Friday: Los Angeles 20-somethings Naima (Alia Shawkat) and Sergio (Laia Costa) spend a full day and night figuring out if they’re supposed to be together. Oh — and having sex every hour, on the hour.

Over the course of Duck Butter (a large portion of which was filmed in real-time over 24 hours), Naima and Sergio fall in and out of love, try all manner of sexual positions, fight dirty and make up minutes later, and fling unmentionable items at one another. It’s a raw, funny, deeply intimate and utterly unique film, co-written by Shawkat and directed by Miguel Arteta, the man behind The Good Girl and last year’s Beatriz at Dinner. Even more impressive is the fact that it was almost entirely improvised — and was originally written to star a heterosexual couple. Vulture caught up with Shawkat and Costa in downtown Manhattan to talk about filming dozens of sex scenes in a row, falling in love with one another in real life, and putting together a movie full of “lesbians as far as the eye can see.”

As a bisexual woman, this movie seemed like a queer utopia to me. There were barely any men in it, and almost every character was gay. You two, your friends, the women at the bar where Sergio performs. What was behind that choice?
Alia Shawkat: Miguel always said, “I want lesbians as far as the eye can see!” Especially when I first meet Sergio’s character at the show, there’s only one guy there, but otherwise it’s all lesbians. We were at the oldest gay bar in L.A., Oil Can Harry’s, and we wanted older lesbians, too. It was just really important to Miguel: “No hipsters.” He just kept saying, “Lesbians as far as the eye can see.”

Where did the idea come from? Have either of you ever had sex on the hour, every hour, for 24 hours?
AS: When we first started writing, we were focusing on the idea of these relationships that you throw yourself into without questioning, and how they usually end in disaster. Miguel had done — not 24 hours, but a similar thing with his wife. He made a website about how many times they had orgasms before they said, “I love you.” They had to have 100 orgasms. And so his friends would be able to go online to see how many orgasms they had.

Laia Costa: I didn’t know they had a website!

AS: They’re an amazing couple. So Miguel and I we were like, “Wouldn’t that be amazing to have a 24-hour [relationship], where you have sex on the hour every hour?” To condense it. Originally that was just the first part of the movie, and then the relationship was supposed to be a year and a half when we first started writing it — and then we ended up just making it all about the 24 hours.

You first wrote the script as a relationship between a man and a woman, and then you later shifted it and cast Laia. When was the moment that you decided, “Okay, this isn’t working with a man?”
AS: It wasn’t working when we were meeting with a lot of male actors. They were talented, but they weren’t understanding it as much. And the script wasn’t working — the idea of seeing a penis that much on camera was bothering us.

Nobody wants that. 
AS: Nobody wants that. It was also reading as being too much about male and female dynamics. The thing about heterosexual stories is that we’ve seen so many of them, where it’s all about, “Men and women, they’re different!” Any characteristics we’d given Sergio as a guy, people would interpret it as him being feminine, or him being more masculine. Whereas if it’s about two women, it’s just about two people.

When we met Laia, we had offered her a smaller part, and then when we Skyped with her and talked with her about the 24-hours idea — and the way she responded to the material, Miguel was like, “You know who’s Sergio? Laia is.” We weren’t like, “We need it to be a woman.” We were like, “It needs to be Laia.” And then it just solved all these problems in the story, and it just came together.

LC: So the movie is for me.

AS: We made this movie for Laia! [Laughs.]

LC: I saved the story. Bad writing. [Laughs.] You needed a muse and I was your fucking savior.

AS: Damn straight. You saved our ass. Got me in the WGA, baby!

You’ve said before that men were frightened of the intimacy that the role required. Laia, why didn’t it scare you?
LC: I don’t know why they were scared. Why were they scared?

AS: I would have loved to film one of the meetings I had to show you how they reacted.

LC: I don’t know why. But I’ve done sex scenes with men — they are scared.

Why?
AS: I have some ideas.

LC: When you’re acting and you cry, you’re crying. And when you’re laughing, you’re laughing. But when you’re having sex, you’re not having sex. It’s the lie. It’s the biggest lie you can [tell]. And instead of enjoying it, for example, they just freak out. And then sometimes I go, like, “Let’s have fun! Let’s have fun!” And when you go like that, they get more scared, even.

That’s so interesting. Why do you think that is? 
AS: In general, for men and women — and in my opinion, sadly, even a little more for women — there’s a performative nature to sex: How you come, and pleasing the other person, especially in heterosexual dynamics. I think women have always been like, “I’ve got to please you.” And, like, “I’m coming. This is what it looks like …” Right? When in actual, healthy sexual dynamics, you’re really exposing yourself, so you’re the most vulnerable.

Acting, in general, is very vulnerable. But what I found when we were meeting with these men, there wasn’t a layer they could hide behind. When you think about sex scenes that you’ve seen a lot, it’s over-sexualizing the woman, so the guy seems like he’s taking the power over the woman. In all the 007 sequences or whatever, it’s like, he’s lying in bed and she presents herself and then she takes it off and he’s just sitting there reacting like, “Oh, boy!” So it’s like, for men to do that, it’s super easy because they’re like, “I’m the one who’s getting it.” And then it’s almost like they’re winking at the camera: “Aren’t I the lucky one?” Whereas this movie is not about that at all.

It’s about exposing yourself, and these two people having sex a lot and getting through that stage. It was really important, too, that the nudity was not sexualized. So I think a lot of the guys got weirded out by that. They were like, “So I’m gonna be naked, but how am I gonna be naked?” And I’d say, “Well, you on the toilet naked. Getting a beer naked.” I think just all of it really confused them. And thank god it did, because that fucking would have ruined the movie.

Laia, you said you were able to have fun filming these sex scenes. Which is surprising to me, because usually when you talk to actors, there’s always a little bit of nerves or awkwardness.
LC: I just get nervous if I see the other one nervous. And then I try just to make him or her soft, you know? For me, a sex scene, it’s never about sex. It’s always about something else. Sex is an art, and no one is an expert with sex because it’s not about sex only — and that’s what I like. You need to be connected, so you need to be very vulnerable. Maybe that’s why some people don’t want to do it.

I remember I was doing a sex scene once, and the director was like, “Okay, cut. But did you come?” And I was like, “No, I’m not coming because he’s not connecting with me.” And he was like, “What do you mean ‘connecting with me’?” And I was like, “Because you’re not here with me.” That’s what I like about Duck Butter. Every single sex [scene], something is going on.

How did you build that chemistry, become so comfortable with each other?
AS: Laia came to L.A. two weeks before we started filming, and we pretty much just hung out every day with Miguel and then with the DP, Hillary. We just hung out at my house and had every meal together and just talked through the whole outline and the beats of the film. A lot of it is luck. As people, our energies are different, but we balance each other, very similarly to the characters. And we both trusted each other a lot. Laia threw herself into it so much, like Sergio throws herself in, and Naima is just kind of like, “I’ll follow your lead.” So, it was kind of a similar dynamic.

LC: Also, I think it’s something about instinct, because the first time I knew Alia was [in the movie], I Googled her, and then I was like, “Mmm.” And just by the picture, I was like, “There’s gonna be chemistry there.” [Laughs.]

AS: I’ve got some good Google images!

AS: Sometimes you have to act more than other times. I really thought that I didn’t have to act that much in this. Other [projects] are like, “Okay, I’m gonna have to really act. I’m gonna have to fake it a little bit.” But that’s okay. It is fake. It’s not real. But this one, we were really lucky.

What struck me too about the sex scenes — beyond the fact that they felt so vulnerable and real and not exploitative — was that each one was totally different. How much of that was blocked and planned, and how much of it was spontaneous?
AS: The idea is that they’re dating for a year and a half, but in 24 hours, so we wanted to show how all the sex scenes are like a year-and-a-half relationship: It starts off really just physical, wanting each other, and then it gets really intimate and soft, where you’re really just looking at each other, really connected. And then it’s emotional and then it’s kind of angry makeup sex, and then you don’t have sex for a while, and then you do again, then one person wants it and the other one is like, “I’m not feeling it so much.”

We talked about that even in rehearsing: “This is the intimate sex, this is the post-mom-visit sex, this is the blah-blah-blah sex …” It’s kind of like a dance. You’re not thinking, “Okay, I’m going to move my left arm.” It’s just natural.

LC: And it’s so amazing to do a sex scene not knowing what’s the next move. It’s so playful. It’s so much fun. I fell in love with her.

AS: We shot a lot with just the DP, Hillary Spera, and us two. So Miguel wasn’t in the room. I was like, “You don’t need to be here. We’ve got this. Okay.” [Laughs.] Her instincts were so good, about how to show our bodies interlaced in the right ways. Obviously there was no male gaze. I was like, “That isn’t about that at all. I want that completely out of this film.”

You filmed this in only a few days, right?
AS: Ten days.

LC: Twenty-four hours. We were awake 24 hours.

AS: The second act was filmed in 24 hours. Like a live play.

Was it exhausting? 
LC: It was amazing.

AS: Yeah. It was so fun, though. It was like a sport.

What was the darkest point for you guys during those 24 hours?
LC: After the nap.

AS: We took a 20-minute nap after the first 12 hours, and then we had a second crew, because you can’t have a crew work that long. But we had the second crew setting up at my character’s house, and right when we woke up from the 20-minute nap, I was like, “Oh, I’m fucked. I can’t do this. It’s over.” And then Miguel made us take a little jog and we came back, and then all of a sudden we were fine.

Spending that much time together, did your characters’ changing dynamics bleed into your actual dynamic at all?
LC: Oh, I hate her. [Laughs.]

AS: Because we were doing it 24 hours, we were acting for 24 hours straight. I wouldn’t say we were being super-method, where it’s like, “Only call me Naima!” But we were still in the mode the whole time. But we were having so much fun. And it wasn’t about maintaining angry dynamics. We actually got closer, because the more fun we’d have, the easier it was to get emotional. It wasn’t like, “So now I’m pissed at you, so I’ve got to be pissed at you!” It was like, “Oh, my god, let’s do it again!” The energy was just there to [help us] get upset.

And then the last scene, the real kind of ending moment, that was the most powerful. And Laia is such a fierce actress. I remember, we did the first take, and she goes, “That wasn’t it, Alia. That’s not real.” And I was like, “Oh, my god!” We had been literally awake for 24 hours and out of it, and it’s the peak scene, and Miguel is like, “I hope it works out.” And Laia is just like, “That’s not real! Let’s do it again!” [Laughs.] And she leaves and comes back in, and then we did that last take, and she was like, “That was the one.”

Exactly how much of the movie was improvised? I know there was an outline, but —
AS: All of it. It was a detailed outline, meaning each scene had a little write up about the beats that needed to happen, or where it was going, but all of the dialogue was improvised

I’m really proud of it, because I really don’t think it seems like an improvised movie, which some people have said. I think that’s the best compliment.

What improvised moments are you both particularly proud of?
AS: One of Laia’s is my favorite — the “knock knock, fuck you.” When she’s over, convincing me to write. For our wrap party, we had a hat that said, “Knock knock, fuck you.” It’s the most brilliant thing ever.

LC: [Laughing.] I prefer the fart.

AS: The fart — that was real.

Was there anything that came out of your mouths when you were improvising that really surprised you?
LC: You know what surprised me a lot? There’s a moment that they are fingering themselves, and they are imagining some ex-boyfriend watching them. That was not planned — and we are watching at the same point, and we didn’t talk about where we should watch. So we were so connected.

I was like, “I should improv this game in my real life, because it’s working more here than in real life.” [Laughs.]

AS: It felt so real. I was like, “Holy shit, we’re both just like, doing this on camera.” Like it was very alive in that moment. We’re not actually like, you know, touching our clits, but it was like, we were both –

LC: Oh, you were not? [Laughing.]

AS: Wait, no. I mean, I was, but —

LC: Roasted! You remember, I was washing my hands all the time [Both laugh.]

What about the scene where you’re screaming at your imaginary moms? That must have been rough for your own moms to hear.
AS: I know. I had to tell my mom, “You need to know this is not you, this is not based on you.” And Sergio’s dynamic with her mother is very specific to the character. And maybe it’s just me, but I think the relationship with your mother is so definitive to how you are with friends and lovers. When you first get to know someone, especially romantically, you’re like, “So, what’s your relationship like with your parents?” My mom’s great, for the record. Naima’s mom is someone who’s kind of a bully. And Sergio talks about how great her mom is, and then you meet the mom and you realize her mom’s a fuckin’ weirdo.

LC: And actually we met the mom, the actress, onscreen.

Wow, why?
AS: I had met her before because we had cast her and Miguel, but Laia met her onscreen.

LC: Miguel was like, “Should we rehearse?” And I was like, “No.” And it was perfect.

AS: And also, they both speak —

LC: Catalan. And it was perfect. Because Sergio, she has all these masks. So when I met this actress speaking to me as my mom, in my mom’s language, it’s like suddenly like, “Oh shit, this is not a good idea, because my mask is gonna fall down.”

AS: One of my favorite scenes is how you react at that table. And you come back with the banana. My favorite. [Laughing.] After this weird meal, and she’s just teary-eyed, eating a banana.

LC: You only had bananas in your kitchen.

That was your actual house?
AS: Yeah. Naima’s house is my actual house.

LC: She has a cool house, huh?

That’s a good house. So talk to me about the poop scene. How much of that was improvised? And what was the poop made of?
LC: The poop, the poop, the poop? It’s chocolate.

AS: We were throwing it at each other at the end. That was always written in the script. I don’t think I can say it’s true to life — not for me, personally. But in the way that Duck Butter is the gross shit that gathers, uh, inside of you — it’s like, show me your grossest shit. Show me your duck butter, show me your poop. Do it, trust me, I will love you anyways. And then you show it, and you’re like, “Whoa, whoa. Actually, I’ve changed my mind.” Miguel and I like to talk about poop. I think it’s healthy.

LC: Sandra, my agent, told me the first time she read this script, “I’m just worried about two things: the title — I guess it’s a working title — and the poop.” [Laughs.]

When did you decide, okay, this is the real title, not the working title?
AS: It was always the title. We knew it would be, “How are we gonna convince people about the title and the poop?” But Miguel always said, “Once we get to that poop, if we make it to the poop scene and it makes sense, the whole movie makes sense.”

But yeah, everyone thought we would change the title. But the Duplass brothers were like, “Fuck yeah, you’re keeping Duck Butter, we love that name.” They gave us the money, so if they’re cool, then we are.

How did they end up doing cameos in the movie, playing themselves?
AS: They were always originally written in, before we even approached them to produce it, which is really funny. We kind of manifested it, because we always wanted Naima to get [cast] in something that was gonna be a big deal for her, and be an improvised movie. We thought, “Oh, who are the coolest improvised-movie people?” The Duplass brothers.

The end of the movie is very sad, but also a little bit hopeful. They’ve both changed in a specific but small way, but they’re not together. Or did you see it as leaving the door open for them?
LC: I really don’t know.

AS: I don’t either. We had different endings. There was a version where Naima kinda begged for Sergio back. When Miguel and I started writing it, it was an accumulation of relationships where you’re like, “Oh my god, you’re crazy! I have to get away from you.” And then being like, “Oh, I fucked up. I miss you, I need that high back.” It’s like a drug, those kind of relationships, where you know it’s not good for you but you want it anyways. But throughout the whole process, everything had to get leaner and leaner, so by the end, it was about showing how they both change — not completely, but just a little. And that’s what we wanted to show: In a relationship, you change. Not always a hundred percent, but a little bit, and that’s all you can do.

Has making this film changed the way that either of you look at relationships at all?
AS: Definitely. It was a very personal movie for me, [working through] how to be honest in relationships. I relate to Naima a lot, even though I hadn’t been in that exact dynamic. And by making it, Miguel taught me, “Make a movie about the shit you wanna work on.” It definitely gave me a different perspective on how to be more honest with myself and other people. By acting it out, I was going through emotions that were still very fresh from things I had been through. It was great therapy.

LC: I was all the time having this feeling of, Why can’t they be together and be happy forever? But the problem was about [them as individuals], not together. Naima, she’s not honest with herself, but Sergio’s not honest with herself either, and in a very different way. And it made me think: In how many ways I am not honest with myself because it’s comfortable, because it’s easier? And that affects relationships — mom relationships, friends. Because you put this shit into everyone.

Alia, you’re spoken a little bit publicly about being queer, and you’ve played a lot of queer characters lately. I’m curious if that’s something that you’re specifically looking for in your roles these days.
AS: I think it’s definitely important to tell those stories, just because there’s not enough stories. It was important to me, too, once we shifted this to a story about to women, to make a movie that was about two people, but not about them coming out, or how many men they had slept with before, or “When did they realize they were gay?”Or “What did it mean that they were gay?”

That’s an important story, but we’ve seen that. Eventually I want to get to the point where we’re watching movies and the story’s not about the fact that they’re gay, or about the fact that they’re black, or about the fact that they’re trans — they just are. And we’re just watching that person’s life. That’s how it becomes more normalized. Growing up in my parents’ generation, when someone was gay, it was like a whole thing. And for us, you don’t blink. You’re just like, “Right, okay. Great. You’re attracted to whoever.”

That wasn’t your experience of coming out — that it was a big deal?
AS: No. Not for me. I don’t want to belittle that journey, but I want to tell stories where it’s normalizing it, because I think that’s as powerful. A lot of the characters I get offered or scripts I read, there’s just more stories for gay characters that are better written — and I’m like, “Yeah. I’m gay. I want to play those roles.” But I’m open to all kinds of shit.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Alia Shawkat and Laia Costa on Duck Butter’s Queer Utopia