The venerable Irish playwright Martin McDonagh is finally back on screen this Friday with “Seven Psychopaths,” a darkly hilarious follow-up to his Oscar-nominated screenwriting and directing debut, “In Bruges.”
Like “In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths” is laced with zany developments, memorable one-liners and a whole lot of violence. What’s different this time is that the locale has shifted from Europe to the U.S., and that it finds McDonagh working with his biggest ensemble yet on screen. In “Seven Psychopaths,” Colin Farrell plays Marty, a writer suffering from a major case of writer’s block, attempting to complete a screenplay, titled, you guessed it, “Seven Psychopaths.” Two pals, Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken), try to help, but Marty finds himself in a tailspin after inadvertently pissing off a local mobster (Woody Harrelson) when Hans steals his beloved Shih Tzu. Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Gabourey Sidibe, Michael Pitt and Tom Waits round out the cast.
“It’s less a love letter to the writing process than a satire of those obsessed with it,” Eric Kohn said of the film in his review out of Toronto, where it world premiered. “Even if McDonagh doesn’t mean to imply that writing is a psychopathic behavior, the proof is in the gory pudding.”
McDonagh sat down with Indiewire in Toronto to discuss his second film outing, working with the legendary Walken, and why he gives his female characters a hard time.
Just to get it out of the way: Colin Farrell’s character shares the same name as you and he’s a writer. Coincidence?
His attitudes towards filmmaking, we share… you know, wanting to do something that’s not just glorifying violence. I was just thinking, “Let’s just screw with people’s heads a little bit.” It’s a fun thing to play around with.
Lately, you seem fascinated with the States. Both this and your latest play, “A Behanding in Spokane,” are set in America. Why the change of scenery?
I’ve always been writing things set here, they just haven’t been quite good enough or didn’t get through or I was working on other stuff. But most certainly in cinema, most of my favorite films have been American. Probably playwrights too. I was a Mamet fan… Sam Shepard. As soon as I came to New York with my first play, it just went so well and every year since it’s been fantastic. So I’ve always had a bit of a love affair with America. I’m intrigued by the darker aspects too as probably the film showed.
The film revels in the not-so-lovely parts of Hollywood. Did you set out to skewer that world?
Not so much. I mean, it skewers a type of filmmaking, but maybe not. I’ve never, luckily, had to play the Hollywood game. I’ve never had to do meetings, or be there, or live there. So I don’t have any disdain. As I said, I’m not snooty about American films. I look at them as they’re my first love. Everything from Peckinpah, Malick to Scorsese, De Niro, and back to Orson Wells. So no, I guess it skewers just a type of filmmaking, but not all American.
What’s your stance on violence in film? The film has some fun with the argument by being unabashedly violent, while at the same time having the characters comment on the gruesome acts as they unfold.
I love violence. I mean, I love good films that happen to have violence in them. I would never really seek out violence for the sake of it. The greatest editing ever was in “The Wild Bunch” I think. Even something like “The Night of the Hunter” is quite a violent, dark film. It’s classy and it’s smart.
Unlike the film’s you’re referencing, “Seven Psycopaths” is a comedy.
There are killings in the film, but I see it as a big comedy. It’s just taking the piss out of both sides of the argument. You know, this loving, peacenik Marty is just as ridiculous in some ways as Billy, but I hope by the end with Hans’ final story, that Marty’s viewpoint has won out; that there can be peace and love in the world.
It’s important to note that “Seven Psycopaths” does feature more women than your debut. Still though, you give them a pretty short shrift in the film. How did you land actresses like Gabourey Sidibe, Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurlylenko, for such small parts?
Gaby was always one scene, so she knew what she was getting into and I think she knocked it out of the park. She’s lovely. Olga and Abbie only had one more scene each and that was cut, which is a bit of a shame.
There was a whole strand that just kind of slowed everything down and it almost became more of a love story about Marty and Billy, similar actually to “In Bruges,” which is more about the girlfriend relationship, but then it became, in the editing, all about Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. I had to write and tell Abbie that. She was fantastic in these two other scenes that were quite emotional and sad, but she came to see it and she loved it because she loves the film so much and that’s kind of a testament to how cool she is.
The reason I bring this up is there’s a line about how women in films of this nature are totally disposable.
Even looking at the script even with the other scenes cut in, it’s still a film about boys with guns and at that point in the film, all of the things that Marty didn’t want to be around. So he needed Christopher Walken’s character to skewer both me, the film, and puncture Colin’s bullshit about that too.
Not every screenwriter would skewer himself in his own movie.
But, you still kind of get away with murder because you’ve done that.
About Walken, what’s it like working with him? This marks your second time together following “A Behanding in Spokane” on the Great White Way.
It’s like a dream. Doing the play, you have an idea that maybe we should send it that person, never dreaming they’d read it or it would get through or whatever else. Most days on set, you’d get in the morning and you’d be talking to Chris and give him a little bit of direction and you’d go and pinch yourself, “Oh my God Christopher Walken’s in my film!” Even now, seeing him appear in the room, he’s a god, a crazy beautiful American icon. Maybe it’s because we did the play together that he kind of trusted more to just go with the dialogue, but his cadence, his way of delivering a line is almost poetic.
Did you write for him initially?
No, it dates back around eight years, the script. So, it was written just after “In Bruges,” but before “In Bruges” was made.
So why did you choose to make “In Bruges” first?
There was too much scope to this that as a first-time filmmaker, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get my head around it. The size of the cast, the flashbacks, the cinematic aspects of it were beyond me at the time. “In Bruges” is three characters, one town; it was almost more like three guys talking.
This was jumping around in time and backstories and stories within stories, car chases, and gunfights. Even just looking at the two scripts before I’d made them, I knew I would fuck this up if I did this first. But after “Bruges” was made, I felt like it’s still going to be almost beyond me, but I had to give it a go. I couldn’t have given it over to someone else. I’m happy with what’s up there.
Do you see yourself writing a screenplay and actually giving it over to another director?
I’d always have to take care of it. Like with plays even, I’ve never directed a play in my life, but you’ve got so much control over them, like a word can’t be changed without your approval, no one can be cast without your approval either and you can always be in the rehearsal room every single day. Whereas a screenwriter in the mix of Hollywood is like the lowest of the low and has no power.
I thought about at one point, because I’ve got a backlog of two or three scripts that I know I’ll never get around to. I was thinking about going down that path, but I came to the realization that I’m just too much of a control freak to ever see a bad version of that film script. So I’ll always stick to doing them myself, I think.
With regards to film, what are you first and foremost: a writer or a director?
I think in my heart I’ll always be a writer who happens to direct. I’ve always been proud of being a writer and what that entails, what it means. Directors get away with murder, but I’m proudest of being a writer, I think. Almost the whole thing of becoming a director was not letting someone screw up a good script. And even when I’m directing, I have to force myself into the visual aspects of it at a later stage. The story doesn’t flow in images, it flows in characters and what they’re saying and that’s a whole other aspect that I always have to learn each time.
Whereas it’s so free and easy with the language and characters that most of my job with directing is making it clear why that character’s saying that at that particular time, and giving the actors as much ammunition as they need to go off and nail it. As opposed to trying to come up with motivations and that stuff, I’m not that kind of director. It’s almost more getting them cleanly into the words.