In normal times, Erin Jade Lange probably would still be on Cloud 9.
After all, it isn’t every novelist who gets a movie made of one of their books – and then gets to watch it at a popular regional film festival.
But for the Ahwatukee author, the experience of being at the premier of the film version of her most popular – and first – young adult novel, “Butter,” left her with mixed feelings that may haunt her the rest of her life.
This isn’t because the movie was bad.
It was unveiled in the first week of March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was circling its hands around America’s throat.
Indeed, organizers of the two-week Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival last month in San Jose, California, called off the second week of the independent film festival until mid-August.
“The movie premiere was the last thing I did before everything started falling apart,” said Lange, who under her married name, Erin Helm, is spokeswoman for the Kyrene School District and a former Phoenix television reporter. “I associate the experience with COVID-19 in a way because it was a bit of a dark cloud over the whole thing, but I am still so grateful for the experience.”
“Butter” is about a 423-pound lonely teen who won that nickname after an incident in which he was bullied into eating an entire stick of dirty butter. Constantly belittled and sick of life, he goes online to announce that he will eat himself to death during a live webcast on New Year’s Eve – and suddenly finds himself invited to hang out with the “it” crowd, which includes the girl of his dreams.
Their morbid curiosity and fake friendship combine to egg him on in his suicidal plan, create deadly bucket lists for him and place bets on what he will eat for his last meal. The page-turning plot – and Butter’s intentions – go through a series of roller-coaster twists and turns.
“This book seriously packed a punch,” wrote one reviewer.
It also attracted the attention of Emmy Award-winning director and producer Paul A. Kaufmann, who has produced 23 movies and among other things directed the top-rated CBS television series “Criminal Minds” as well as the highly acclaimed TV movie “Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story.”
Kaufmann had been shopping for a film festival to premier “Butter” when he was invited to premier it at the 30-year-old Cinequest Film Festival as one of the 130 films from around the world that it introduces to the world annually.
Lange had been eagerly anticipating its showing, especially since it had a cast that included Oscar winner Mira Sorvino as the mother of Butter, played by Alex Kersteig.
“I’ve seen the movie twice now and it is so difficult to be objective when it is based on your own work,” Lange said. “I did like it – because how can you not love seeing a story that used to live only in your head, and then on paper, come to life on the screen? Amazing.”
“The best part, for me, were the performances,” she said. “The entire cast is wonderful but I was especially blown away by Ravi Patel and Mykelti Williamson, who play Doc Bean and Professor Dunn, respectively. They were so true to the characters I wrote but also made them come alive in new ways. The casting was just excellent, overall.”
That’s not to say the movie reflects everything and that everything in the film matched her novel.
“There are a couple of things that unfortunately just don’t translate well from book to screen,” the mother of 5-year-old twin girls said. “The book is full of dark humor but that could come across as just dark on screen, so they understandably leaned into the levity in the film version. Also, the end of the book is open-ended, very intentionally, but in film, an open ending is not as satisfying for viewers, so they did give it a more pat ending, which I understand.”
None of that came as a surprise, though, because “the director was so gracious about sharing his changes and the reasons for them.”
“He let me consult on the script early on, which many authors do not get to do,” Lange said. “I am so grateful to him for that.”
Besides, she was gratified that “The movie is true to the characters and most of the dialog and inner monologue is lifted straight from the book.
“As a writer, that makes me proud,” she continued. “But I also love the nuance of the characters that can be depicted better on screen. A meaningful eyebrow lift in a book takes me a sentence or two to explain. On the screen, it’s a couple of frames and it says everything.”
“I never dreamed that the movie would actually get made, so I came in with very few expectations. I certainly never imagined there would be an Academy Award winner in it.”
Lange said the festival felt the impact of the virus ramping up – especially since the week after the second week was postponed, schools in Arizona were shut down.
“A theater we initially anticipated would have spillover to a second viewing area instead had fewer than 100 people in the audience,” Lange said. “The festival’s red carpet and other gathering spots were all very thin on crowds. They ended up closing the very next day after the Butter premiere.”
“I feel terrible for the filmmakers from all over the world who did not get to premiere their movies as a result,” she added.
But she’s heartened by the fact that she could see the audience’s reaction to the movie.
“The audience applauded at the end and participated in a Q&A session,” Lange recalled. “It was very cool to interact with them afterward and to help answer questions.”
For now, “Butter” is hung up as far as reaching the general public is concerned.
Lange said it had been scheduled to be shown in a half-dozen film festivals across the country over the next few months but those festivals have been called off.
“Reviewers are able to watch the films online, but it’s not the same experience for the audience,” Lange said, who’s hoping Kaufmann can secure a deal with a distributor so that “Butter” can be released in theaters or on a streaming service.