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Interview: John Michael McDonagh Talks The Anger And Anarchy Of ‘Calvary’ And Beyond

Interview: John Michael McDonagh Talks The Anger And Anarchy Of 'Calvary' And Beyond

This Friday, a film featuring a motley collection of characters of dubious motivation, centered around a costumed hero on a mission, will roll into theaters. That’s, right, we’re talking about John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” the complex, biting, pitch black follow-up to the director’s more comedic debut “The Guard.” The film stars regular collaborator Brendan Gleeson, this time in a cassock as a Roman Catholic priest, the one good man in a rotten rural parish, going about his week as a countdown to the Sunday on which he’s been told one of his parishioners will kill him. And it’s an ambitious, multilayered movie that impressed us hugely in Sundance, and that provided us with a great deal to talk about when we met the director at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

McDonagh is garrulous and forthcoming in person (and speaks in a London accent quite unlike the West of Ireland brogue we’d subconsciously expected) and we shared a few tidbits of news about his upcoming project “War on Everyone” already. But now with the Friday release of his provocative, challenging film, here’s the rest of that interview, mostly about “Calvary,” but also going into plot details for his next film with Gleeson, and outlining the idea for the “De Palma action movie” that he already thinks is so ambitious it might be his last.

“Calvary” is a very unusual mix of dark and light. Tell me how you feel it’s being received.
Well, a lot of people say that I erred to far on one side or the other there, and they didn’t like it. It’s a bit too much comedy for such a dark subject or it’s too dark for something they were hoping was going to be more comedic.

Is some of that due to the false expectations set up by “The Guard”?
Oh yes, definitely. I mean, in Ireland the film was successful but audiences didn’t walk out with a spring in their step, and I think there was probably bad word of mouth because people were expecting “The Guard 2.” And when they didn’t get it, they were just like “oh this is a terrible film.” But I wasn’t trying to make that movie.

I confess I probably did have those expectations going in, only because I loved “The Guard” so much. I chose it for my “underrated” film of 2012, though I know it did very well in Ireland.
Yes, that’s funny, we were quite happy with the money it made in America, but in the great scheme of things $6m isn’t a lot, I suppose!

I’m surprised by your English accent, because I particularly love how you write dialogue, and capture a very Irish facility with language—so profane yet so erudite…
Yes, I always have erudite characters, I would rarely create a character who is unintelligent or has nothing to say. And they’re all heightened characters—“Calvary” is not a naturalistic movie, these aren’t people you’re gonna meet in a small town in Sligo. Well, you might meet one or two, like the character that Killian Scott plays, Milo, who wears the bow ties—he seems one of the weirdest, but that was based on a person I met.

But it’s interesting that you mention my accent, because that’s why I cast Kelly Reilly as Brendan’s daughter. She’s got an English accent and it’s only referred to very briefly, as in she grew up in London or something, because that is the Irish experience. Kids have grown up in London or America. And people are leaving again now, so that was quite important to me to get across. And also I wanted to get across a slight detachment between them both, so her accent is different to his and that implies something there, just already in the way they speak.

A lot’s been written about the film’s black comedy, but personally I found it a hugely angry film, a furious movie, actually…
Oh it is, it is. I think one of my failings is often in Q&As or interviews I try to keep things light, to make jokes, but it is a very, very angry movie, very anti-authoritarian movie. I mean, I see myself as an anarchist really, I despise authority.

But, then, I was surprised people didn’t take “The Guard” as being as angry as it was. There’s the line “You being an FBI man, you’re probably more used to shooting unarmed women and children”—to me that’s an obvious, angry line. And “he hasn’t had this much fun since he burned all those kids at Waco”—that’s a funny line but it’s very angry. Yet only a few people seemed to get that. But I’m planning that the third one will be almost attack on society, see how far you can go.

That’s the thing with comedy, people laugh and it’s only later they go “hang on…did he mean that?” But then you don’t want to audience to be sat there being given a political talking-to, I want an entertainment, and “The Guard” is more obviously an entertainment.

But “Calvary,” it’s like listening to a Nick Cave song, or Tom Waits, I find those songs really moving: they may be about depressing subjects but I’m still being entertained if I’m engrossed and absorbed. To me that’s as much an entertainment as a Disney movie.

Of course, a great song, even a sad or angry one, can be uplifting in that it can make you feel like you’re not alone.
Exactly. Brendan once said “Great art should be about making you feel less alone” and this is entirely the way I feel about things. I was a big fan of The Smiths and that whole subculture. There was all these depressed young men and women who weren’t having sex and they all came together…

And had sex…
And had sex, yes, and suddenly felt, yeah, I’m not alone. I’m not alone.

Whereas Father James is more or less alone in being pretty much the only decent guy in that town.
Which caused its own problems: how does a good character drive a narrative? So he has to react to the town. But they’re not all irredeemable. Aiden Gillen’s atheistic doctor has got a lot of bad press but at the end of the day he’s actually in a job that’s helping his community,

I’ve been quite surprised the way Orla O’Rourke’s character Veronica has been referred to in reviews, in really disparaging terms—the slut, the town slag—and I’m like, wow, hang on. [*Spoilers here*] Her husband doesn’t want to sleep with her anymore, and this is spoiler, but I once saw a documentary about an Irish guy who’d been abused and after a certain point with his wife he could no longer have sex with her because it brought back memories of the abuse, so that’s the subtext there. So what’s she supposed to do, her husband will no longer have sexual relations with her, is she supposed to just sit there? [*Spoilers end*]

She’s obviously an intelligent woman, so I was quite surprised by a lot of the misogynistic responses in some of the reviews. When she says to the priest “You’re a little too sharp for this parish” she’s really talking about herself.

They’re all a little too sharp for that parish.
Yeah, they should really just leave! Go somewhere nice. Go to Paris!

Is it tricky to judge how far to push the heightened characterization?
You know I think the one thing I went too far on was the rent boy who talks like he’s from a 1930s gangster movie. A lot of people didn’t really get what was going on there. But the subtext there was that something had obviously happened to him and he’s created another character to deal with it, so there’s abuse there in his background. Which he references later on, but we’re not quite sure is he joking or does he mean it. But that’s maybe where I went too far and just ended up confusing the audience.

It did feel like a sort of “meta” flourish.
And I enjoy doing that when I’m writing. I find it quite playful and I like watching it in other people’s movies. But I don’t want to give an audience an excuse to come out of the film. So I’ll probably keep a lid on that going forward.

And speaking of the future, you are intending to cap the Brendan Gleeson trilogy with a film called “The Lame Shall Enter First”?
I stole that title from a Flannery O’Connor short story, one of my favorite writers. Yeah, it’ll be Brendan in a wheelchair, going around South London getting into lots of arguments with able-bodied people who he despises, and solving a murder. It’ll have a pre-credit sequence which will be in Ireland where he’s a policeman and gets shot in the back and that’s what makes him paraplegic. And then when we see him again fifteen years later he’s in South London and he’s a drunk, he’s smoking crack cocaine, getting into fights all the time. He only associates with disabled people…

He’s ableist?
Ableist, right! And one of his friends is murdered, a Downs Syndrome man, and he tries to get his life in order by solving the murder. And that’s the basic structure of the film. The subplot is that the man who shot him in the back is being released from jail in Ireland at the same time and so he’s planning to kill him. He’s not a very nice person, let’s put it this way. So those are the two plots and it’s gonna be a final attack on authority.

It sounds like it’s at a fairly advanced stage?
It’s funny though. I’ve thought about it so much, but I still haven’t written it. It’s all in my head but I have to write the bloody thing. I’m also gonna bring some of the characters back from the first two movies. Gary Lydon who plays the inspector, and Pat Shortt as the IRA man from “The Guard”—he’ll be back.

Shortt is a kind of a talisman for you as well as Gleeson it seems?
Yes, and he’s currently on Broadway, in my brother’s play with Daniel Radcliffe [“The Cripple of Inishman"]

You McDonagh boys are a veritable cottage industry.
Hah, yeah, Martin’s raking in the money from that one, good old Daniel.

And you had another project slated called “The Bonnot Gang”?
Which was incorrectly spelt—I saw in an interview they spelled it B-O-N-O as if it’s about U2… but yeah, the Bonnot Gang. It’s a true story. Anarchist bank robbers in Paris in 1910 and visually, well, it would probably be the last film I’d make because it’s like a DePalma action movie but it’s also very politically aggressive as well. So it’d be your final movie. It would be a visual cross between “Le Samourai” and “The Wild Bunch.

These French anarchists they sued to wear these knee-length greatcoats and they carried 7-9 pistols in the deep pockets and were really violent. And they got into a suicidal confrontation with the French police force, that led to two big sieges. It’s one of those movies that if you did it right it could be a masterpiece, but it feels like you need to have made six or seven films beforehand. I think it’s a really great script but I’d need more experience as a filmmaker to make it. And my experience on “The Guard” was that action sequences are really really boring to shoot. They’re. So. Boring.

And finally, broadly speaking, what’s your take on the growing canon of films dealing with abuse in the church?
Actually, I assumed there would be [more of those]. There’s only really been “Philomena,” and that film “Stations of the Cross” and “The Magdalene Sisters,” but I thought there’d be more. Maybe it’s like with Vietnam and you have to be another ten years down the road.  But I think the problem is if you do make a straightforward film on that subject, it’s a horror movie and I don’t want to make a horror movie. We all kind of know what went on, but is anyone gonna spend fifteen pounds to go and be told what went on? You have to approach it obliquely.

Or you don’t have to, you could just be a better artist than I am and approach it head-on. Maybe Michael Haneke could do it, but you know, Michael Haneke is a better filmmaker than I am.

Well, he’s different.
Definitely fewer jokes.

"Calvary" opens in limited release on Friday, August 1st. 

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A great interview with good questions. Thanks for sharing, a very lovely job.
You should know Flannery O'Connor's a she, not a he, though, when McDonagh mentions The Lame Shall Enter First. Probably just a small typo that slipped through.

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