One of the most controversial and acclaimed playwrights of the 1990s, Martin McDonagh — the man behind stage hits like “The Beauty Queen Of Leenane,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “The Pillowman” — found equal success when he moved into the movies. He won an Oscar for his first short film, “Six Shooter,” and a few years later wrote and directed the hilarious, soulful black comedy “In Bruges,” which became a serious hit on the festival circuit and earned him an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.
This year, he returned to screens with the follow-up, “Seven Psychopaths,” a giddy, glorious mess of storytelling involving Hollywood screenwriters, dognappers, murderous gangsters, vengeful Quakers, killers on the run, and much, much more. The film opened in the U.S. back in October, but arrives on U.K. screens this week. We got to speak to McDonagh at the BFI London Film Festival in October, and dug into his transition from theater to film, the genesis of “Seven Psychopaths,” the genius of Sam Rockwell, and the music of the film. Check the complete interview out below.
You worked in theater for the first decade or so of your career, but was film always the end game?
It was always my first love, as a kid. I fell into the theatre because I felt I was doing it well, and I stuck to it for the same reason. That whole period, though, I was trying to write films, but they weren’t coming out as well as the plays were, so it made more sense to stick to theatre. Also, I knew I’d need to be in a position to direct them, to keep some kind of artistic integrity.
You’ve never directed your stage plays, right?
Yeah, I never have. With a stage play, they can’t cut a word, you can be in rehearsals every day, you cast it, you cast the director too, the amount of control for a playwright is almost infinite, so you have that control over the finished product. But in film, you’re the lowest form of life. So that was half of the job of directing, was not letting someone else come in and fuck it up. And then the other half is to learn how the hell you actually do it, which is another kettle of fish.
Was there ever any interest, either from you or from other people in adapting your plays into film?
From day one, I had a belief that it should never happen. I think it’s only ever done for money, they’re usually awful, and it usually makes the play look shit in the first place, which was probably the case. And I think if you’re writing a play, it should be its own end game, you’ll never get to do a good one unless you know it’s not a blueprint for a film, you’re not going to get the action right, and the story right. So I felt that was more honorable, to say that those stories are only going to be told in that box, in that room. And in that respect you can make them quite cinematic, I always wanted to bring as much cinema on stage as possible.
Yeah, “The Pillowman” in particular was very cinematic.
Yeah, [director] John Crowley was quite a big part of that. That’s as cinematic as you could get on stage. But even that I wouldn’t want to have made into a film, even though it’s the one that’s closest to being possible. It’s similar to “Seven Psychopaths” in a way, stories within stories.
I was going to say, they feel like companion pieces in some ways. Were they written at the same time?
“The Pillowman” I wrote in 1994, 1995. And it didn’t go on stage until… 2002. “Seven Psychopaths” came much later. “In Bruges” was probably the third script I wrote, and this was the fourth.
Had you always intended “In Bruges” to be your first film, then? Or could this have gone earlier?
I had “In Bruges” and this [“Seven Psychopaths”] ready to go, and this felt too big, and cinematic, and involved too many pieces that I didn’t have any kind of grounding in, as a first time feature maker. Whereas ‘Bruges’ was almost like a stage play in a town, just three characters chatting and walking about. So this felt too big, in terms of the geography and cast of characters, and shoot outs and car chases. But after making ‘Bruges,’ I felt like I had a grounding in enough of cinema to make the leap.
Was that the biggest challenge of this one, then? The bigger scope?
Yeah, just how to do a car chase, a shootout, how to tell a story that jumps around, with flashbacks. How to tell a story with images, because like the Tom Waits story, there’s almost no dialogue in those pieces, it’s all done through images.
Were there any films you looked at in particular, in terms of influences?
I think “The Night of the Hunter” has always been a touchstone for me, and that probably shows itself in the Harry Dean Stanton story. Almost too much. You see music videos sometimes that have totally just ripped off, without any kind of acknowledgment, a film that they’ve loved. So I didn’t want to do that, but maybe I did. For the Tom Waits backstory… I love film noir stuff, so there are probably details from old RKO film noirs in there. But nothing specific.
I think it does feel like its own beast, the film.
It was supposed to be something kind of wild. ‘Bruges’ is a pristine little box of a film, and this was supposed to be sort of mental and bonkers. Psychopathic.
In the film, Martin [Colin Farrell’s character], starts with nothing but the title. Was it the same thing with you?
Exactly. I had the Quaker psychopath story as a separate story, from around the time of writing “The Pillowman.” But that’s all I had, and the title, and a desire to write a film called “Seven Psychopaths,” but not to make it about violence and guns. So that was literally the third scene I wrote, when they’re in the rooftop bar, talking about the kind of film he wants. And it sort of expanded from there.
How much of your process is up on the screen, then?
A fair amount. Certainly by the time I got to the halfway point, when they’re driving off to the desert, even in the script, I thought “Why can’t they just talk for the rest of the film?” So in that respect, yeah, those meta aspects weren’t imposed, they just started springing out from the body of it. But at the same time, I didn’t want to get so meta that it wasn’t smart-alecky or smug. That was the biggest fear to be smug, to be smarter than your audience. So to walk that line, as smartly and joyously as possible, that was the idea.
You’ve worked with a few of the actors before — Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell on “A Behanding At Spokane,” Michael Stuhlbarg and Zeljko Ivanek on “The Pillowman” on Broadway. Were you writing with actors in mind?
No, I never really do that. Maybe I had Sam Rockwell‘s voice in my head, when I was writing Billy, because I’d always wanted to work with him.
He was meant to be in the Broadway run of “The Pillowman,” right?
Yeah, he came to see it over here at the Cottesloe, and I heard about it after the fact. So I met him at the National, and had a little read through, but he’d committed to something else, and couldn’t do two back to back. Michael Stuhlbarg than played the same part, and was fantastic. But yeah, I think Sam’s maybe the best actor of his generation, and definitely the most underrated too. So I always wanted to work with him. But apart from that, nothing was really tailored, and nothing really changed after people were cast. Even with Colin, the part wasn’t written to be Irish in the first place, but his dialogue didn’t need a lot of changes.
Colin’s character is called Martin, he’s a writer… how much of a self-portrait is it?
There are degrees. The whole idea of wanting something to be more peaceful and loving than the title would suggest. But I’ve never had writers block, I’ve never been a part of the Hollywood system, and I’m never needy or worried about writing. So those aspects are made up.
You mentioned that sort of wish for pacifism, and the film in some ways felt like you’re saying goodbye to some of the more out-there, violent aspects of your work. Was that conscious?
The pacifism is a conscious thing, definitely. Saying goodbye to violence… maybe a subconscious one. The next film, even though it deals with the outskirts of violence, doesn’t have any violence in it specifically. So yeah, in a way, I’m happy with being done with it, a bit. But at the same time, there’s always something very dramatic about it, and it can move a story on, and especially on stage, it can be eye-opening and very exciting. So I couldn’t promise you anything.
The violence never feels gratuitous, though.
Yeah, I’ve always wanted it to be painful, and truthful, and ugly, and not gratuitous.
Moving away, from that, I wanted to ask about music, because there’s much more of it here than in the last film. You’ve got a couple of tracks by The Walkmen, who are favorites of mine.
Really? No one seems to know them. I always mention them, and no one seems to… But yeah, I used “Brandy Alexander” in the cocaine scene in “In Bruges,” and two tracks here. And I know them a little bit as well, I saw them in Austin a few weeks ago, and they’re good guys. And I tried to stick in a few other cool modern day American brothers, like the Felice Brothers, and Deer Tick.
Do you write songs into the script?
Not in the writing, no. But The Walkmen, that first song, when Angela gets hit, that was in my head that it would be in there from early on. And then normally there’s a soundtrack of about 25 songs that are the soundtrack of the film going in, on my iPod. And most of them don’t make it, but a few of them did, a few of the more modern ones. But two of the older ones, PP Arnold, “The First Cut is the Deepest, ” and “Different Drum,” Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Poneys, they weren’t even on that original list, but they were songs that I’d liked for a long time, and I tried them in the edit, and they just seemed so incongruous that they helped those scenes perfectly.
Moving away from the film, your brother’s [“The Guard” director John Michael McDonagh] had some success recently. Do the two of you show each other your scripts?
No, we rarely show each other each other’s work. But I did read “The Guard,” cos I think he wanted me to get it to Brendan [Gleeson] quicker than the usual channels. And I did show him this, cos I had a question I wanted to ask at the last minute. But we’re both very arrogant about our writing, and so we don’t need each other’s input or approval, in a good way, in a loving way. But I’m so glad about the success of “The Guard,” cos he was waiting for a long time, he started writing before me, so he had a long time to wait for his directorial debut. He’s got lots on the go, he’s got about eight scripts ready, he’s shooting “Calvary“ right now.
You’ve got your next film hopefully lined up, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” But after “In Bruges,” do you get other offers? Other people’s scripts to direct, studio gigs?
If there are, those offers never get to me, because I’m always going to do my own stuff, and I’m not going to do that very often, so my agents know not to even bother me with it.
A lot of filmmakers are moving into TV now. Would you ever consider that?
I dont think so, cos I’d have to write every episode to feel like it was mine, and I don’t think I could do it. I respect it, things like “The Wire.” But even a film takes up two years of your time, and a series that would hopefully be successful, that’s seven years, and I’m not sure any piece of art needs that much time.