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After winning an Academy Award for his short film Six Shooter, playwright Martin McDonagh made his move to the world of features with the movie In Bruges. While the title failed to get any real traction domestically at the time of its theatrical release, it garnered a great deal of critical praise, earned a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination, won Colin Farrell a Golden Globe and has since taken on a cult following. It’s been a long for years for fans who have awaited McDonagh’s return to the silver screen, but finally that time comes to an end this weekend.
Last week I had the opportunity to take part in a press day for Seven Psychopaths where a group of journalists and myself had the chance to talk to McDonagh about his latest film. Check out the extended interview with the writer/director below in which he talks about the development of the story, the impact In Bruges had on the making of this one, the experience directing Christopher Walken’s voice, and working with the animals.
And beware of the last page, which is full of spoiler goodies
What is the attraction to psychopaths and killers and rabbits?
Rabbits? That’s a definite one, I love them. Psychopaths and killers not so much. I guess I share Colin Farrell’s character’s feelings towards psychopaths and killers in the film. That I know how cinematic they are and how interesting films can be with them, but kind of question the morality of only having films about guys with guns. It’s that, playing those two ideas off each other is my interest in them. Also, I was thinking about this the other day, if you’d written a film called Seven Accountants you wouldn’t really get much interest. Christopher Walken wouldn’t be the same in that part [laughs].
This movie operates on so many different meta levels. I’m curious, was this the story you set out to write from the beginning?
Yeah, this is exactly how it developed. There wasn’t a time when it was just the central story and I was looking out for it. I think I had the Quaker’s Psychopath short story, and then I had the title of this, and then I was stuck with Colin’s character and didn’t know how to come up with the others. I wanted it to be about love and peace, then his two friends show up and the dog thing it just kind of snowballed. It kind of developed naturally like that and then the meta things came. If you’re writing a film that’s about a writer in Hollywood that doesn’t want to write a film called Seven Psychopaths it’s going to be meta no matter what you do.
Were you actively trying to move away from doing it like a play?
I think, just in writing the scripts, I’m always trying to be as cinematic as I can. To do on film what you couldn’t so on stage. I think more and more I’m trying to go in that direction. I mean, I’m going to go back to writing plays too. I think that the difference between the two are becoming more and more polarized. If it’s a story and it’s going to be set in a room, it’s going to be a play. If there’s going to be rabbits and dogs, it’s going to be a film.
You’ve worked with Colin before. How much of the cast did you have in your head as you were writing this?
As I was writing, none of them really. It was actually written seven years ago. Just after I wrote the script for In Bruges, before I made the film. I’ve loved all the actors in this from a long time ago. Maybe Sam Rockwell. Sometimes I write with Sam’s voice in my head because I love him as an actor, and I love the way he can go from comedy to darkness on a dime. But I never dreamed I’d be in a place where I’m doing a film with Christopher Walken or Tom Waits...
I did a play with Sam and Christopher about three years ago in New York, so I knew them. Woody I met like 10 years ago because he’s a theater guy too. We almost did a play together. Tom Waits we almost wrote a fucked up musical kind of thing, which we might go back to. So first day of shooting was like family. So it wasn’t as terrifying as working with a cast this big might appear to be. It was fun every day on set. I think it’s kind of palpable in the film how much fun we were all having. No one was heavy or starry; there were no issues from anyone.
As a writer, when you have Christopher Walken saying the words you wrote, and he has such an interesting cadence in the way he delivers his lines, are you constantly surprised? Are you like, “I had a period there”?
It’s the periods and the commas that you forget about. But, conversely, he memorizes the script word for word like 6 months before hand. And the words never change, the intonations change, and you can never imagine that a line or a word even could be pounced in that way, but it’s still the words you wrote. So there’s a joy and a surprise to all that kind of stuff. And now after this and after the play I can’t imagine any other way to say those lines. He’s really the only one in the world that can do that I think.
Does he do something like that intentionally or is that just how he pronounces it?
I think you’d have to ask him. I don’t think so though. I think he knows how screwed up that stuff is. How can he not? If it was an accidental thing, I think it would be different on each take and it’s not. It’s always deliberately wrong on each take. But I’ve learned the trick. The next time I want him to ask a question, I won’t but a question mark there, because he’s going to do the opposite of everything. And if I don’t want it to be a question, I’ll put a question mark there.
Because you wrote this way back before you did In Bruges, did you experiences on In Bruges affect the script at all?
Not so much in that way really. If they did it was just about tightening scenes up and feeling like you didn’t have to go on ad infinitum. I think the editing process of a film is quite shocking as to how much you can easily get rid of that you never thought you could on the page. Conversely, when we started shooting I had trimmed it down, hadn’t changed much at all, but I trimmed it down and I thought “Well, there’s not a scene that we can lose from the script.” So we shot every scene. But, again, in the editing loads and loads were cut. There’s probably like 25 minutes of material cut from the first cut of this which will probably end up in the DVD extras. But like when they go to the desert there’s like 20 minutes of real fun scenes, but it just slowed everything down. It really was like the film was put on pause and they were just chatting in the desert. And you can do that for a little bit, and we do that for a little bit, but you’ve got to get Woody back if you’ve set him up so strongly. So no, in script terms it didn’t change much after Bruges. But I guess I did learn how to work with actors from Bruges, which is ideal for this.
Working with animals always presents a challenge in and of itself, but on top of the multitude that you have, you’re also shooting out in the desert in some protected areas out in Joshua Tree. What kind of challenges did all of those combinations present for you as a director and for Ben Davis, your cinematographer, planning out what you were going to do?
The animals, honestly, they were a dream. Bonnie, the dog, was lovely. She was quiet as a mouse; it was like she was on marijuana or something, which made two cast members. Kidding! And the rabbits were great. But out in the desert, yeah, it was freezing cold for all the night shots, like minus 16. And there were a lot of nights out in the desert. But we shot one day in the Joshua Tree national park itself, but as you said there are so many restrictions on what you can do there that we had to find places that look very similar, where you could explode a car or have a car chase or have a gun fight. But Dan Davis was fantastic. I think the film looks beautiful and that’s all down to him really.
We storyboarded an awful lot before we started. Well, I did for like 6 months before we started prep even. That kind of got my head around the whole desert shoot.
And the 2 of you selected to shoot on film and not go digital with this. Was there a particular reason for that?
I’m kind of old school; I just think it looks better. I don’t think digital really speeds things us, and I definitely don’t think it looks better. I don’t think it’s cheaper yet, when you add in all the extras that you need. So yeah, I just think film looks better.
You mentioned the test screening in San Francisco and there was a great scene when they’re in the desert and Sam going on his explanation of the story, it felt like, Chris Walken and Colin were the test audience for him. It got me thinking, obviously being the writer, being the director, were those things of your own experiences that you kind of got to pepper in the script?
Not so much, not so much. But that was probably one of the most fun scenes to do. It’s about a 10 minute monologue and Sam had it off by heart. We had about two weeks of rehearsal before we started, and he acted out the whole thing from start to finish and he was getting down on the floor to get shot and coming back up, and just watching it I was just in hysterics. It had kind of been written that most of that was going to be voice over. So we were going to film all of the actual cemetery shoot out and you’d head bits of it and see a couple images of Sam doing that, but it was so good that you didn’t want to…you could almost have just had the camera on him and Colin and Chris’ reactions, and that would have been equally valid.
So yeah, because he was so good it was kind of half and half now, were back with Sam just as much as in the cemetery. Another good thing about the cemetery was that continuity didn’t matter, if it looked stupid or fake or phony, because it’s Billy’s idea of an ending. It didn’t matter if it was completely over the top or gory or gratuitous, but it’s not me, it’s Billy.
Was the Walken gag coming out of the coffin in the script, or was that something you guys did on set?
It was kind of a vague thing in the script but when I was storyboarding it I thought “That would be a good idea.” We didn’t tell Christopher about it until the night and I was kind of dreading it. We built the coffin and it was like one in the morning and I was hoping “God, I hope he thinks it’s okay.” We had the stuntman show him it was completely safe. “Chris, do you think you could do this?” “Yeah, cool!” We did it in one take. He had to come up, boom, and the squibs went off perfectly. It was one of the most joyful bits. We showed it to him back at the monitor and he just smiled when he saw the bloody heads and how cool he looked. It’s one of my favorite images from the film, I think.
On the subject of the cemetery shoot, and feel free to call me crazy, I could have just been seeing things, but did I see that it said “Rourke” on one of the gravestones?
[Laughs] Um, yeah, we just happened to be filming in a graveyard that happened to be filled with Rourkes.
So shall I press further about that situation?
You’re the first one that’s spotted it so…that’s your scoop!
With such eccentric characters, how much did the actual actors bring to their roles? Like with Woody eating strawberries for example. Was that something that was in the script or was that something that you guys kind of talked about beforehand?
That was Woody on the day, and the tattoo on his neck, that was Woody. He was trying to get some big funny teeth as well, but we thought that was going a little too far. He did, too, once he saw them. It kind of made it a little too comic. We all stuck exactly to the script, but they’re all great actors so they’re bringing all their brilliance to every part. If you mentioned any others I could tell you who brought what to each thing.
Tom Waits, his costume was kind of all of his idea. He felt that he had been home for years and this was like his job interview. He was dressed up quite nicely, but it just wasn’t quite fitting well enough. Sam and Colin and I drove out to Joshua Tree to just spend the weekend, to just get to know each other and read the script and bond a little bit. Colin was driving and he popped into a gas station and got bunch of crappy food and bought the hat the Sam wears, and he said he was kicking himself afterwards when he saw it in the film. Even the hat is a scene stealer.
In Bruges got such a great critical reception, and there’s tons of huge fans. I’m curious, was there a degree of pressure on you following that up?
No. I’m really lazy anyway, so after Bruges I just kind of went off and traveled. I wrote a play and we did it in New York and that’s where I got to work with Sam and Christopher the first time. I remember saying to Colin, “It’s going to be 3 years at least before the next one.” I think he believed me, but his people were thinking “But this is a success. Why would you do that?” But it’s going to be the same after this one, too. I’m just going to travel and write and grow up.
It doesn’t feel like four years since the last one. I think it’s more so I won’t get burned out. This was an enjoyable experience to do. I can’t imagine doing them back to back. Because, pretty much, this has been two solid years working on this, at least a year and a half since I started checking out locations here and finalizing the script. It was exactly a year ago, I think, this month that we started shooting. And the editing has been almost every day since then. So it’s not like it’s hard work like a coal miner or a nurse or something, but it’s concerted work, and I don’t like concerted work. I’ve got a script that’s ready to go for the next one. I just know it won’t be for a while, but I’m fine with that.
Will you direct the next one yourself?
Yeah, If I can be bothered [laughs].
Can you see yourself ever directing someone else’s script?
No, no, because it takes so much time I think you’ve only got so many stories to tell, I think you should just stick to your own stuff. I feel confident that I can keep coming up with stories.
At the end of the day, what have you personally taken away from this experience?
I think after Bruges I was really happy with how it went, but I did think it was kind of hard work. After this, it felt more fun. We had an awful lot of fun on Bruges too. But I feel like I love working with actors. Like I said before, I couldn’t have dreamed working with these kinds of actors. And now I know them and they like how it’s turned out, so I know that they’d be happy to come back and do more stuff with me. So that’s the main thing I think I’ve taken from it.
SPOILER ALERT!Talk a bit about the casting. Not to go into too many spoiler territories, but there a lot of really small parts played by fantastic known actors. I’m curious about that choice and also casting those parts.
Well Ogla and Abbie, there was probably more to their characters on the page. We shot at least 4 extra scenes with them. But the focus in the edit became more about Colin and Sam’s love affair. Particularly Abbie’s character, there was more about their break up and his alcohol problems in relation to her, but it just wasn’t what this story was about. So it wasn’t an intentional thing to write bad women characters.
But even Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg…
That was different. We haven’t really publicized much that they’re in it. I wanted the audience to say “Oh, fuck. I didn’t realize they were in the film.” Then bang they’re not in the film. Harry Dean was just a dream to get him to play that part. We screened it in San Francisco I think, and we haven’t really advertised he’s in the film, it was a first ever audience, and everyone went “Ah Harry Dean’s in it!” And it was good, that’s what we were going for. He was ideal. I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d ever make a film with Harry, Christopher and Tom Waits. They’re icons of American cinema and music, so that was kind of joyful.
The Vietnamese Priest not a Priest…that’s a very interesting character. Where did that come from? Because there’s so many layers and elements and really stands out as the Buddhist setting himself on fire in that sequence.
I kind of had the idea of the first part of the story, of a crazed, or is he crazed, that’s the question, Vietnamese soldier coming back to wreak havoc on a group of people who tore apart his village. I thought that was kind of an interesting story. But kind of like Colin says in the film, it’s just about revenge and bloodshed. Why go there? So that was all the story I had of that to begin with.
But then it was interesting to bring it to a place that he would like to have brought it to, a place of love and peace and pacifism I guess, but have Christopher’s character take it to that place. I felt that kind of embodies the place I was trying to get to with the whole film, that it can be about guns and bloodshed but actually the real moral heart of it is the antitheses of that. It’s anti-gun, anti-war. I hope that by the end of the film we’re left in that place rather than the psycho place.
And don’t forget anti-alcohol.
No, I think it’s pro-alcohol [laughs]. Isn’t there a saying where if you drink a lot you’ll come up with a really cool film?
You’re talking about the eccentricities of the characters, and because of the nature of what the story is do you feel like you got to do things that in any other movie would have been really absurd?
Well, especially in the cemetery shootout you can just go crazy. You couldn’t be too big almost. When what happens to Woody’s character happens, that could be as gory and crazy and gratuitous and barking mad as you wanted it to be. But the rest of the film couldn’t be like that, and I hope it isn’t so much.
I guess Tom Waits’ back story is quite dark and bloody and graphic in some ways, hopefully not gratuitous but it’s graphic. But it still, hopefully, has a different tone. It’s still more truthful and more about how horrible violence is than the cemetery shootout which is more about how cinema treats violence, I guess, without being wordy or heavy.
But even in the comedy scenes you just had to, and that’s the truth of all comedy I think, just play it for truth rather than trying to make people laugh, or trying to be funny. Like Colin or Chris and Sam, there was never a point where we thought “Well this will be funny.” Or “This will make them laugh.” It was always “Is this true to what my character would do now?” And if you set the characters up to be kind of out there anyway, it’s more fun to bring it down and play it truthful, because what they’re doing it outrageous and comic anyway. So if you play the truth of that, hopefully there shouldn’t be a disparity when you get to the darker, more serious scenes.