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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "The Guard" Director John Michael McDonagh

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire January 19, 2011 at 10:38AM

Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a salty village cop in Ireland, has a subversive sense of humor, a caustic wit, and an uncanny knack for keeping people at arm’s length. When a straitlaced FBI agent chasing an international drug-smuggling ring hits town, Boyle has no intention of letting the arrival disrupt his routine of hookers and wisecracks. Initially, he relishes offending and ridiculing the agent, but a murder and a series of peculiar events draw the reluctant sergeant into the investigation.
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Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a salty village cop in Ireland, has a subversive sense of humor, a caustic wit, and an uncanny knack for keeping people at arm’s length. When a straitlaced FBI agent chasing an international drug-smuggling ring hits town, Boyle has no intention of letting the arrival disrupt his routine of hookers and wisecracks. Initially, he relishes offending and ridiculing the agent, but a murder and a series of peculiar events draw the reluctant sergeant into the investigation.

John Michael McDonagh’s crisply written debut feature transcends the rules of the buddy cop comedy, wryly offering genuine humor and thrills against an unexpectedly moving portrait of its protagonist. Brendan Gleeson’s beguiling portrayal of Boyle defies easy definition as hero or buffoon, hinting instead at the lonely, intelligent man behind the sharp retorts. "The Guard "is a clever, fresh character study, as well as a snappy joyride of an action comedy. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

"The Guard"
World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
Executive Producer: Martin McDonagh, Don Cheadle, Lenore Zerman, Paul Brett
Producer: Chris Clark, Flora Fernandez Marengo, Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe
Associate Producer: Lizzie Eves
Composer: Calexico
Cinematographer: Larry Smith
Editor: Chris Gill
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot, Dominique McElligot

Responses courtesy of "The Guard" director John Michael McDonagh.


Nowhere but up from "Ned Kelly"! First step: creative control

I was a struggling screenwriter for many years. Eventually a screenplay of mine, "Ned Kelly," went into production with Working Title Films. The film was written as an homage to Terrence Malick and Sam Peckinpah, but unfortunately was directed by Australia’s answer to "Ed Wood." Everything I had hoped for, and had worked so hard for, was destroyed. From that point on, my intention was to control my work as much as possible. The only way you can ever really hope to control your screenplay is by directing it. Ergo...

From short to feature...

In 2000, I wrote and directed a short film called "The Second Death" (which stars many of the same actors seen in "The Guard"). There was a minor supporting character, a misanthropic policeman, who wandered in halfway through. Years later, I realised I could hang an entire narrative on that character if only I had a plot. Then, in 2008, half a billion dollars’ worth of cocaine was seized from a yacht off the coast of Cork in the West of Ireland. And so, I had my character and I had my plot.

Surrounded by the best...

I hired the best heads-of-department I could find. I told everybody that we were making a stylised film, not a kitchen-sink drama, not a “slice-of-life”. It became immediatelyapparent that that is what most creative people want to hear. I then hired the best actors I could find. After that, the entire shoot was a breeze. I’m not joking.

It all happened naturally...

I didn’t develop the project. The screenplay was written in 13 days. Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle signed on within the same week. The film finished shooting exactly one year after the screenplay was written. So that was that.

On the set...

One of my favourite parts of the shoot was when the three villains (Mark Strong, Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot) were on a low-loader and I could hear everything they were saying in the downtime between shots. The amount of inconsequential gibberish those three actors came up with was astonishing. Apparently the Japanese don’t eat cheese. This is one of the many little-known facts that was revealed to me during the course of shooting this film.

Sibling rivalry...

My brother’s film, "In Bruges," received a simultaneously appreciative/pissed-off response when it premiered at Sundance. I’m hoping for the appreciative part.

McDonagh's various influences...

The films that primarily inspired the mood and tone of "The Guard" were John Ford’s "Cavalry" Trilogy, and the screwball comedies made by Preston Sturges in the ‘40s. Elements of Ford and Sturges show through in my approach to performances, in the sense that no one is a supporting actor, we are all a repertory company involved in this enterprise together. Ford’s sparing useof close-ups was an influential factor, and obviously Sturges’ quotable dialogue. In preparation for shooting I also watched Antonioni ("L’Eclisse," "The Passenger" and "L’Avventura," especially) for the rigorous framing, and Peter Bogdanovich’s "The Last Picture Show," for its melancholy. Godard’s "Le Mepris" was also an important point of reference, as it surely must be for every filmmaker.

Up next...

I have another Irish film I’m going to make with Brendan Gleeson called Calvary, about a good priest tormented by his community. It’s basically Bresson with gags. Then there’s Kipper, a black comedy set in London about two corrupt cops that’s quite similarin tone to "The Guard." And finally, a US/European-set existentialist road-movie entitled "Mark White," based on a Georges Simenon novel, that I hope will destroy my future in Hollywood in much the same way that "Zabriskie Point" did to Antonioni.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions.]

This article is related to: Features, Interviews, The Guard