ARRIVALS: Martin McDonagh Takes On Tarantino With 'Seven Psychopaths'
If there's a case to be made that turning one's dark, twisted fantasies into plays and movies is good for the soul, Martin McDonagh is Exhibit A. The platinum-haired Irishman has given the world some breathtakingly black comedy, such as his 2003 play about a child serial killer The Pillowman and, as of Friday, the slightly lighter Seven Psychopaths. But if he's nursing a tortured soul, there was very little evidence of it when I interviewed him at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
McDonagh, who looks like a character actor from a Bond film, laughs easily when he talks, often at his own wit. He's also cheekily confident about his writing, which he should be. His 2008 directorial debut, the hitman buddy flick In Bruges was cinematic poetry, and his bloody but surprisingly deep follow up, Seven Psychopaths, easily propels him into Tarantino territory. I smell a Bond film in his future.
There's been plenty written about the plot of the movie, so I'll get right to the interview in which McDonagh talked about the unwritten film-industry rule that it's okay to kill women but not pets in movies, his plans to take a break from psychopaths in the near future and why the next project we see from him will likely be another play.
Movieline: What a cast you have. Were they hard to line up?
McDonagh: No, strangely I knew four of the boys from before. Obviously, I know Colin [Farrell], and Sam [Rockwell] and Chris [Walken] and I did a play two, three years ago in New York, A Behanding in Spokane. Actually, I knew Sam for about five years before we did that. Woody, strangely, I’ve known for about nine or 10 years because he’s a big theater fan. We hooked up in Dublin about 10 years ago and have stayed in touch since. I’d known a couple of the other actors socially. I met Abbie [Cornish] a year or two before and Olga Kurylenko a year or two before. And they were all first choices.
With Woody, there was a situation with someone else. He almost did us a favor really because he came in at the last minute and knocked it out of the park. And Tom Waits I knew a little bit before, too. Chris and Tom have been heroes of mine since I was eight or nine. I got Swordfish Trombones when it came out. I was 11 or so. He’s more than a musician or an actor. He’s an idol and a icon of American letters.
So, to make an offer and have Tom say, "yes" made me go ‘Fuck! I’m going to have to direct these people! What am I going to say? I know nothing! [Laughs]
The role seem tailor made for each of the characters. Is that a function of how good a writer you are?
Yes, let’s go with that. [Laughs] None of these parts were written for those boys because the script was written about seven or eight years ago. It was written just after the script of In Bruges but before I made Bruge. I knew at the time that I didn’t have the wherewithal to make this as my first film because there’s so much going on in it and so many cinematic aspects to it. I thought it was best to go with something small-scale like Bruges where you have three characters in one town. It’s almost like a play really.
I think it’s a credit to how good they are as actors. They just take it and make it feel like it’s completely natural, as if they’re making this stuff up on the spot. No one talks like Chris. No one breaks up a script like he does. Even with the play we did, I can’t hear anyone else’s voice in that character ever again. Unless the next actor broke it up exactly like he did, it would feel wrong, But, you know, none of that is on the page.
Seven Psychopaths is framed by two suicides: You've said this movie is about the deranged and the spiritual, and one of the suicides is deranged. The other is spiritual — a sacrificial statement made in an effort to end violence. But isn’t suicide an act of violence?
No, I don’t. I mean, it’s horrible, but I could never — I guess lots of my heroes went that way: Kurt Cobain, Richard Brautigan, the Beat writer. But yeah, I could never criticize it. It’s terribly sad, obviously, but I guess there’s some aspect of me that finds something honorable about it.
For a movie in which a woman gets shot in the stomach and a head explodes, the final scenes are quite surprising. After all of this outrageous violence and black comedy, it’s quite spiritual and moving.
That was the hope: to have all these crazy comic elements but still totally go to that place. I’m glad you felt that way. I kind of feel like we did get there, and I'm happy about that. It's a much crazier movie than In Bruges was. Bruges was more simple and funny but melancholic and it’s own thing. But this is a crazy bag of lizards — on fire — that had to be spiritual. [Laughs]
I loved Sam Rockwell's riff on Gandhi's "eye for an eye" line. [See the trailer below.] Is that something you’ve been thinking about for a long time?
No, That just came out on the day when I was writing the script. I don’t think there’s anything I could have done about it, but the next line — the punch line almost — always gets missed because there’s a big laugh. Sam says, ‘Gandhi was wrong’ but then what gets missed is “but no one’s got the balls to come right out and say it.” I think that would be good to go on a poster.
Violence is a big theme in your work. Where does Gandhi’s pacifism fall into your worldview?
I’m a big believer.
I just saw Alex Gibney's Mea Maxima: Culpa Silence in the House of God, and I was thinking you'd be great to direct a dramatic movie or a black comedy about that subject. Can you make a black comedy about sexual abuse these days?
I think it’s almost impossible, although what’s that one with Phil Hoffman that Todd Solondz did? Happiness. It’s black and it’s funny, but fuck. That kind of stuff is just too horrific for me to ever want to fool with. Stuff like that is just too depressing to even get into.
In the movie, Christopher Walken's character Hans tells Colin Farrell that psychopaths "get tiresome after a while." Since your work has dealt with quite a few psychopaths, is that you sending a hint that you're thinking of moving in a different direction?
Probably not! Psychopaths are so much fun to write about. Like Sam’s character in the film: if he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s going to say or do next, then you don’t. That’s a joy as a writer. Although I do want to get away from it a little bit. Gunfights and shootouts are exciting, but I think the next film is going to be much more of a quieter character piece and quite female based. There’s going to be a strong female lead — an older female lead, too. The script is already written.
Do you have an actress in mind?
Yeah, but I should talk to her first. [Laughs]
What else can you tell me about it?
I think that all I can say is that there’s a very strong female lead and two other male characters.
Do you have a title?
It’s convoluted deliberately: Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri
You really seemed to be having fun with thriller movie conventions in Seven Psychopaths. Christopher Walken tells Colin Farrell that the his dialogue for women is so terrible.
[Laughs] Yes. I admire that. My own plays have very strong women characters, so, thankfully, I know that the next movie is going back to strong female leads.
I wasn’t accusing you of doing that.
Well, you should. It’s true. [Laughs] The female characters are terrible in this. The actresses are fantastic, but they all die. They all have only a scene and a half.
Rockwell's character also a cites a rule that "you can't let the animals die in a movie. Just the women." Is that an unwritten rule of movie-making?
It is. There were [studio] notes about a gun to a dog’s head and killing or not killing the dog. Not a word about shooting a woman in the stomach. That’s the way it works. How many dead animals have you seen in the last year in movies? And how many dead women have you seen? I know what I’m putting my money on.
Did you put that line in before or after the notes?
You’ve worked with Colin Farrell twice now. Why do you like him so much as an actor?
We have a shorthand — we don’t really have to speak. We hardly saw each other for the three years or so in between films, and when we got together to read the script for Seven Psychopaths at his house, it was like not a day had passed since the last day of shooting. He’s very honest and very open to going anywhere and being truthful. And he’s very supportive. With the last film, I came in not having made a feature before. And he was the star. But every day, he’d help me through it. He’s just a lovely guy as well. Not starry at all.
Did you have as much fun off the set as you did on it?
It was lovely. Colin drove Sam and I out to Joshua Tree about four or five weeks before shooting because you can sense it if people are playing friends or lovers and there isn’t any kind of chemistry. So, I wanted to make sure. They didn’t know each other terribly well before the film, so I wanted to make sure that they were both safe with each other. So we went off for a little weekend. And Sam and I drank too much, but we worked through the script in these little cabins in the desert. It was quiet and real and proper work. But it was also the drive out there. Colin went into a service station and he got Sam that hat he wears in the movie.
Right, and the cheese puffs and chocolate milk.
Eating cheese puffs and drinking chocolate milk was Colin’s idea. Even when we were doing the play, Sam loves acting and eating at the same time. And there are like ten scenes of him doing that.
At the Toronto premiere they had their arms around each other. It sure looked like they had bonded.
Yeah, I think they’ve stayed in touch. I’d like to do something with them again, too. And Chris and Sam are the same way. They are really good friends. I guess the play helped, too. So, for me, it was just capturing that love and chemistry, and I hope it’s one of the main things that comes through.
What’s your relationship to theater right now? I remember you saying not so long ago that you “respect film and disrespect theater.”
I used to say that because it was true. I grew fond of a type of theater that I or Tracy Letts or Mamet or Shepard do. I was disrespectful of that snooty, shitty English type of theater — or shitty American theater. It’s so expensive and sometimes it exudes that snottiness from the stage. So, that was what I was always fighting against. But I won the fight. [Laughs] And I’ll keep coming back to it because it’s fun. It's also easier to write a play. Or it was. I'm going to go off after this and not do anything for a bit and let whatever story comes to me come. If it’s a play, fine. The play I did with Sam and Colin was done after making In Bruges. It was very easy to do. The good thing about a play is you can get in and out and do one in the course of six months. A film is two straight years. But I kind of like the fact that, having finished a film, it will be there for good. Some of the plays I’ve done in the past — as happy as I’ve been with them, or as well as they’ve been received, they’re gone forever. I could never show you Sam and Chris’s performance. It’s just gone. So, there’s that aspect of it.
When you say "after this," do you mean after the next movie you’re making?
No, I’m going to be really lazy. [Terrence] Malick was always one of my heroes and not just for the movies themselves. He could just stop for ages. And now he’s doing the opposite.
So we could see a play from you next instead of a movie?
Possibly. I think it will probably be the next thing I will write. I’ve probably got two films that are sort of ready to go. And at the same time, I’d like to write something again for all the guys in this film. Whether it’s a pairing or three of them. When you’ve got a relationship like that, you want to keep working with them.
I’m dying to know. Have you and Quentin Tarantino ever met?
That’s interesting. Given that you share a lot of influences, like Sam Peckinpah, for instance, I'm guessing that you guys would either love each other or hate each other.
Yeah. I wonder, too. [Smiles]
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