Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Liam O’Connor-Genereaux is a filmmaker from Northern Vermont. His new feature film “The Butterfly Queen,” a movie by WalrusDice Productions, is a fairytale about a set of best friends coming of age in small-town New England. After a months-long festival run, the movie will be available for streaming for 24 hours, beginning at 1 PM ET on Saturday, August 12th.
Enjoy our conversation about the hills and forests of Vermont, the joys of hitchhiking, and the importance of “queer-inhabited” adventure stories, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Can you tell me a little about yourself and your path as a filmmaker?
Liam O’Connor-Genereaux: I was born and raised in Vermont and I was also homeschooled. I was given a little camcorder when I was like eight years old by my folks, and just started making little movies on that. And because I was homeschooled I got to spend the best part of the day making little videos with my siblings and friends. And those have honestly really just snowballed and gotten larger and larger, and involved more and more people, and more talented people, to the point where I’m at right now. “The Butterfly Queen” is my second feature film. The first one I made, back in 2015 or 2016, was called “Zephyr” and it was about a gang of thieves who have to become rock stars to escape the mob. And I had done a bunch of shorter and like long form short films prior to that all through my teen years.
This film, “The Butterfly Queen” is the biggest project that I’ve ever undertaken. I started writing the script in 2017 when I was 22. We started our festival tour like eight or nine months ago and really trying to bring it to a larger audience this year.
So yeah, I was homeschooled and raised in the backwoods of northeastern Vermon on a hay and sheep farm. It was a pretty bucolic childhood. I was always in the woods as a kid, so it was really cool bringing that setting to “The Butterfly Queen.” A lot of the story takes place in this magical world that’s an enchanted version of the forests of Vermont. And so to be able to go to all the places where I literally played in my imaginary magical world as a child and create a magical fictional space out of that was a really cool experience.
DY: That leads really directly into one of the other questions I have about the film’s setting. I read elsewhere about what an effort it was to bring all of the materials your team needed into the place where you filmed, given that a lot of those resources were located a long drive away in Boston. That amount of difficulty made me wonder how important rural Vermont was to your vision for the film. Did you ever consider filming somewhere else?
LOG: I have a two-parted answer to that question. So on the one hand, Vermont and the rural experience that I had growing up has been hugely impactful on the way that I think about stories and the way that I think about “adventures.” So those kinds of forests and that small town atmosphere were really important to me. I really wanted to conjure the way it feels like everything is so large and small at the same time in rural New England. There’s a specific kind of feeling there where the hills are closing in on you so the world feels like it’s very, very large and very intimate at the same time.
My second answer is that yes, a lot of the resources for filmmaking don’t exist in Vermont or are very hard to come by, but the specific resources that we were able to use to make this kind of indie film are actually present there. There was a huge amount of community support for making the project happen that we just could not have gotten anywhere else. So for instance, anybody on our cast or crew who was in from out of town was put up by really generous neighbors in their guest rooms. That was really crucial because there’s not very much Airbnb or hotel space there. The community stepped up and just took care of that. A local diner did the catering for us and we had lumber donated by a local timber frame construction company. The local mechanic built this sort of Mad Max style pickup truck for one of the characters to use and then was the stunt driver in the film. We had locations donated, the list goes on and on and on about the ways in which the community gave us the support the film needed. So, short answer, I would never have been able to make this movie anywhere else because so much added value came from this really generous community support.
DY: The two main characters in the movie have a dynamic that I think will be familiar to a lot of people who grew up in small towns: after high school, one of them really wants to leave and one of them really wants to stay. Is that an argument that’s played out in your own head? Is it based on real relationships you’ve had?
LOG: That is definitely an argument that I was having, and honestly continue to have within myself. Casey, the main character, is a small-town artist. They’re a cartoonist, I’m a filmmaker. And so the conversation early on in the movie that Casey has with this mentor-figure saying, “You kind of need to get out of dodge in order to follow your dreams,” is almost verbatim a conversation that I had with a similar mentor figure while I was writing the script. This guy who’s a fixture in the local film scene was like “You have to go, you can’t do this here.” It is difficult to make art a reality in a rural space. In all honesty, I’m still trying to figure out how to do that and I would say that Vermont as a whole is trying to figure out how to do that. There’s been a big push recently to make filmmaking, specifically, into a viable industry in the state. So I’m feeling really really hopeful about that. And then the other best-friend character, Robin, up and leaves and hitchhikes across the country and isn’t as satisfied as she thought she was going to be. I’ve also sort of had that experience. Researching and writing and film, I hitchhiked across the country. I’ve traveled quite a lot around North America, and Europe as well, and it never feels like I actually find what I’m looking for doing that.
DY: You literally hitchhiked across the country as research? How was that?
LOG: It was really cool. A lot of what you hear about hitchhiking is that it’s scary. And at least for me, having the presentation that I do – I’m a tall cisgender white man – is a different experience than a lot of other people have hitchhiking. It was really eye-opening because the people who pick you up, the people whose lives you’re passing through, tend to be really open and immediately want to talk about whatever is on their minds. As a hitchhiker you really seem like a free agent, someone they’re never going to see again. They can really tell you what it is that they need to speak about. It’s pretty surreal. It feels like you hear things from people that you would never hear in a more stable environment.
DY: In response to the character in the film hitting the road, I was definitely like, “Huh, I didn’t know you could just run off like that.” But it’s really interesting to know that it’s based on real life experience.
LOG: Yeah and it’s interesting, too, because a lot of the fairytales that I read and that were read to me growing up involve a lot of running away from home, kind of without any forethought. That’s a pretty common fairy tale trope. And with this film, I was trying to create a version of a fairy tale. So I was thinking, “Okay, so, if in modern times you wanted to just up and leave, how would that work?” And traveling I have definitely met people in Robin’s position, people who have left home because there isn’t anything there for them. That does exist. That is an experience that all kinds of people have. And people all the time do it by hitchhiking, without very many resources, relying on people’s generosity. So with Robin’s experience of doing that, I wanted it to be like, she thinks that it’s going to be this really romantic experience and then the weight of the lifestyle sets in. Year after year, day after day, you have to continually figure out where you’re going to spend the night and where you’re going to get your next meal. The character loses a lot of that romantic idealism and becomes much more cynical before her story’s over.
DY: I also wanted to ask about this descriptor you’ve used for the film, “queer-inhabited.” I think it’s a really good phrase for what you’re talking about. Can you just elaborate on that term and what it means in the context of “The Butterfly Queen”?
LOG: It’s queer-inhabited in the very literal sense that it has queer characters. Casey, our main character, is nonbinary and there’s another significant character who’s trans. But what I wanted to do with this movie was have queer characters just exist in this fantasy and adventure story and let it be a fantasy adventure story first. I didn’t want the identities of the characters to do the work of moving the story along. Stories and films about the queer experience and queer-identity-specific struggles are really, really crucial, but this is another piece of queer representation. It’s a fairytale and it happens to be one about queer characters.
DY: We were talking before this interview about the recent flooding in Vermont. Have any of the places in the movie been affected by that disaster?
DY: Well, one caveat is I’m not in Vermont right now, I’m actually on a road trip with my partner, one of the co-producers on the film, Seana Testa. But I’ve been in contact with folks back home and obviously, keeping tabs on the state of the state. The farm where I grew up is totally fine. It’s up on a hill. Down in the valley, there was some flooding on one of the main roads in one of the towns where the film was shot. Obviously the capital, Montpelier, and a lot of other cities on the Winooski river are really quite badly flooded, or were. But again I’ve been seeing this really strong community spirit. Everybody needs help in the state right now and everybody, anybody who can pitch in to help is really trying to do that. The Vermont Community Foundation has a flood relief fund that they’re raising money for and you can buy some really cool t-shirts and the proceeds go to relief efforts for the flood.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.