Talk to Martin McDonagh and the phrase he keeps returning to is “dark and dangerous.” Certainly those words — along with hilarious, twisted, fresh — capture the “In-Yer-Face Theatre” of this Anglo-Irish writer. He crashed onto the scene at age twenty-three with “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” (which he claims he wrote in eight days), then knocked out a series of plays marked by violence and ghoulish glee, mostly set in Ireland in some “lonesome west” (the title of one play) of the soul. Lionized as an important new playwright, McDonagh at one point had six productions on London stages at the same time. Yet his great love, he claims, has always been film. After getting his feet wet with an Academy Award-winning short, McDonagh now makes the leap to feature length with “In Bruges.”
Two Irish hit-men – rookie Ray (Colin Farrell) and seasoned Ken (Brendan Gleeson) — have been sent to Bruges, Belgium to cool their heels after a botched job by Ray has claimed an innocent bystander. While awaiting further orders from Brit boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), they assess their situation in the profanely funny dialogue for which McDonagh is noted. Ken becomes charmed by the churches and art of the exquisitely preserved Flemish town, while keeping a fatherly eye on his buddy. Bad boy Ray, devoured by guilt, hates the place, piling up increasingly weird encounters with locals, tourists, a dwarf American actor (Jordan Prentice) in a film shoot, and finding potential romance with a sketchy number called Chloe (Clemence Poesy). Then comes the call from Harry, and all hell breaks loose as the contract killers, against the storybook backdrop of Bruges, settle accounts.
McDonagh arrived in New York to promote his maiden feature the day after the Superbowl, and the Regency Hotel had laid a gridiron under the awning, along with trays of Giants cookies in the lobby. White-haired McDonagh is a big hunky guy, with a great working class South London accent. Contrary to press accounts of hostile incidents, he’s affable and obliging. (Colin Farrell was also on hand, releasing another blast of testosterone, cut with cigarette smoke. For the record, he wore a fedora over long hair, earrings, goatee, and fingerless gloves, his Irish dialect like honey; and was accompanied by nicotene buddy Clemence Poesy, who seemed not a whit different from the louche babe in the film).
indieWIRE: Why Bruges?
Martin McDonagh: I just went there on a weekend trip from London. Didn’t know anything about it at all. I was struck by how beautiful it was: unchanged and medieval and gothic — otherworldly. And I wondered why it hadn’t been captured on film before, it was so distinctive. In the middle of the second day, after I’d gone to every museum and church, I was bored and just wanted to get drunk and get out of the place. But that kind of became two characters in my head : the culture-loving geek and the drunken slut.
So I just let those characters speak to me in my head and thought, why would those two people be in a town like Bruges when they don’t want to be? And that’s when the whole idea of them being hit men came up, and that they’re escaping a horrific job that went wrong. And they’d been sent there to await orders. Bruges wrote itself into it. No other place would have served the same purpose. Paris,Venice, Prague are all beautiful, but they didn’t have the both the strange quirkiness and unknown quantity of Bruges.
iW: You assembled a cast of top European actors. Did you write it with them in mind?
McDonagh: No, I never write for any specific actor ever. Originally they were written as three London gangsters. But when the possibility of working with Colin [Farrell] and Brendan [Gleeson] came up, I thought it was ridiculous to make them put on London accents, when it was such an easy change to make them Irish gunmen working out of London. And I think it kind of adds an extra frisson to the whole thing to have a British boss and two Irish gunmen.
I’d met Colin once socially and liked him a lot. I wanted to utilize his obvious aspects — his sexiness and dangerous image. But also bring out a vulnerable and funny side. Ralph [Fiennes] I wanted to cast completely against type. Go for someone who’d bring an intensity and darkness and danger to it. He also brought something I hadn’t seen in him before, which was brilliant comic timing. All three of them were always after the truth of the story, and though it’s funny, they weren’t playing the gags at all.
iW: What’s it like moving from the stage to the screen?
McDonagh: I was really scared of the move in lots of ways, because I always had a healthy disrespect for theater. I always tried to write plays that a film fan, which is what I was, would like. Plays for people who don’t like plays. And because I had a disrespect for the form — at the outset, anyway — it was easy to write plays that were kind of different and shook things up a little bit. But then with film, I’d always loved everything about great cinema. From age twelve or fourteen I was warching everything from Scorsese, to Terence Malick, to Kurasawa and Orson Welles. So it was much harder to write a script because of fear of that kind of company. It took longer than the plays.
iW: How did you learn to make a movie?
McDonagh: Just by watching lots of my favorite films. And I story-boarded an awful lot. After the script was written, I tried to think images rather than words and characters — a laborious process, just drawing every single image to every single scene. I didn’t necessarily stick to all of them, but I’d bring them all to the DP [Eigil Bryld] and pick his brain. He helped me an awful lot. It was just a process, trial and error. Most important was not to make a playwright’s film, not just something that was a couple of guys walking around a town for two hours chatting. I wanted something much more cinematic. But I also didn’t want to run away from what I like about theater, which is dialogue and interest in different characters. Hopefully I got the balance right. Bruges helped, too. Every corner you turn is another beautiful dark and dangerous image.
iW: Any specific films you watched for inspiration?
McDonagh: “Don’t Look Now” is a good template for trying to capture a city as a character in a film. But once we began filming, it was more an analytical thing: do you use a two shot, or a three shot, or singles…
iW: What made you want to work again with Brendan Gleeson after the short?
McDonagh: He’s a great actor first and foremost. He brings a humanity to all his roles, even though he’s playing dark and dangerous characters. He helped me so much on the short, he protected and stood up for me and showed me how to do it in lots of ways. He and Colin, who hadn’t been paired before, had wanted to work together for a while. They compliment each other completely, have an ease together and a fondness for each other, which is palpable.
iW: Which sequences in the film are you especially pleased with?
McDonagh: The boat trip, the details of that, such a lovely crisp strange morning that we went riding around, and lots of that was kind of improvisational stuff. Most exciting was the chase, running down the dark streets of Bruges at night. Basically we were on a little camera truck, which we tried to drive as fast as possible and get the guys to run as fast as possible. Colin’s a big smoker. Ralph is fit, but we couldn’t ask them to do that many times. So it was cool just to go as fast as possible, and still be up close and intimate, and have it a little exciting and jagged, with gunshots going off and little explosions. That section was all story-boarded, and fun to edit too.
iW: What’s the main difference between writing a film script and writing a play?
McDonagh: In film you can just jump around in time and space. It’s hard to juggle all those elements. That became the fun thing: the next scene can go anywhere. I was trying to say things on screen that haven’t been sort of said before, exploring a different sense of humor. To be allowed to go there was kind of cool.
iW: There’s a tremendous amount of anger in your plays, and in this film as well, especially in the characters of Harry and Ray. I read that you once tried to deck Sean Connery at an event in your honor.
McDonagh: Oh, that was more or less a verbal kind of sparring. I’ve never been sullen. I never thought I’d be in the kind of place I’m in. Have a play on Broadway, and able to make a film. So I’ve always been pretty joyous about the whole experience.
iW: Yes, but where does the anger and violence in your work come from?
McDonah: A love of drama. I’m certainly not angry, though maybe about certain things.
iW: Like growing up poor and Irish in London?
Mcdonagh: Yeah, maybe that kind of class thing. People hear your accent and assume you’re one thing — that was back in the theater days. I’ve been angry about being brought up in a society where for the working class an artistic life or life in theater is considered an impossibility, never spoken or dreamt of. It’s a civil service job that you should be hoping for, or a factory job. Also, watching a lot of theater when I was trying to write plays kind of made me angry. As I was being rejected, seeing what they did put on stage…
iW: What kinds of plays?
McDonagh: Oh, those upper class English drawing room comedies about drinking tea and eating scones. And the political ones, which members of the audience all agreed with going in. So no point in making a political statement about anyway. They were like essays talking to each other, rather than characters. [He mentions a playwright]. Off the record, of course, I’m sure he’s a lovely man. I hate saying bad things about other writers. If you’re going to say bad things, it should be about governments. Bottom line, though, I woulddn’t say I’m really an angry person. I don’t think you can do anything well when you’re angry and depressed and despairing. You can’t be analytical about it. It’s like, I’ve been drunk but I can’t write drunk.
iW: You left school at sixteen, yet you come across as educated.
McDonagh: I’ve read a lot of books. I’m an autodidact. My brother had a lot of books: Borges, Nabokov, Plath. He was an autodidact, too. Movies educated us: Scorsese, Lynch, Kurosawa. The Europeans too. Movies are democratic. We didn’t need college to watch them.
iW: Could you talk about the recurring theme in your work of brothers and the hate-love between them?
McDonagh: My brother, who’s a screenwriter too — we were ready to kill each other at times — but we also love each other.
iW: Like Ray and Ken?
McDonagh: Yeah, there’s love between them. Ray, though, had self hate.
iW: I’m also struck by your notion of a sense of honor among killers.
Mcdonagh: I’m interested in the strange skewed attitudes of violent men. You don’t cause the death of an innocent, and you can’t overcome it if you do: that was Harry’s code. The film’s characters are immoral, but there’s a line you don’t cross.
iW: What would happen to your dialogue without the word “fuck”?
McDonagh: The word is more about rhythm. I listen to a character talk in my head and that’s what they say, that’s what I hear. The “c” word too. As a person, though, I don’t swear.
iW: “In Bruges” is a very macho world.
McDonagh: As a male writer, I also force myself to think outside a male point of view. “Bruges” also subverts the macho world, takes it to a sadder, gentler, more vulnerable place. It’s a mix of gunshots and tears.
iW: Have you thought of trying a romantic comedy?
McDonagh: I’ve got a romantic script ready to go. How about a romantic comedy with beheadings?