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“The Guard” Director John Michael McDonagh on Mixing Ford & Sturges, Undermining American Cop Films

"The Guard" Director John Michael McDonagh on Mixing Ford & Sturges, Undermining American Cop Films

“The Guard” is John Michael McDonagh’s first feature film as director. Yet if you’re at all familiar with his brother Martin’s work you’ll recognize a few familiar faces and a distinct sense of humor. The two filmmakers have a talent for “un-PC” jokes and hilariously dark narratives, and this new cop comedy is no exception. “The Guard” is a ribald character study of loner policeman Sergeant Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) whose rural Galway beat suddenly becomes the focus of a major international narcotics investigation.

McDonagh and I spoke about his new film and its protagonist, discussed his cinematic influences and looked back at his prior work as screenwriter on 2003’s “Ned Kelly.” He also gave his astute and entertaining take on American comedy, Denzel Washington, and over-serious police procedurals. But before I could bring up any of that he asked me the first question, about the large white poster for the films’s US release sitting next to us at the table.

John Michael McDonagh: Do you like the poster? I can see what they’re selling. Let’s put it that way. In Ireland they sold it more as a comedy crime thriller, because I think that’s what the Irish would go for. Here it’s not as aggressive, maybe? When they sold it in Ireland they sold it in a completely different way. You’re always getting new posters for each new market and some of them are good and some of them aren’t.

SPOUT: Sergeant Boyle isn’t the kind of character that you would be able to have in a mainstream American crime film, anyway.

Well, he would have to learn something or redeem himself in some way so that he’s a changed person by the end. The line: “he probably hasn’t had so much fun since they burned all those kids at Waco” gets a big laugh right at the end of the film. I think the reason it gets a laugh is not the line itself, but because they realize he’s not learned anything. He’s just the same person who’s going to say the same outrageous gags at the end of the movie as he does at the beginning.

I guess what you have to take into account is that if they made this film in America it’d be with a bigger budget anyway, and there’d be more — I don’t want to say compromises but you’re obviously trying to appeal to a broader audience. We had six million dollars, so I didn’t get a lot of pressure from producers or financiers to soften the character or take out some of the more edgy or confrontational gags. Though you’re never left completely alone.

Where would you say the influences of the film lie, if not in the typical Hollywood cop movie?

To me it would be more like that period of American moviemaking from about ’67 to about ’76. Walter Mathau, he was a character actor who became a star and his films had a sly intelligence to them. It was that kind of stuff. Even Charles Grodin in “The Heartbreak Kid,” which is ostensibly a romantic comedy but has a real melancholy edge to it. All of those movies from the ‘70s seem to have that slightly disillusioned anti-authoritarian air to them. I was trying to tap at a mood rather than one specific reference to a film.

When I was shooting I looked at John Ford’s movies — the Cavalry Trilogy — and it’s a strange combination but also Preston Sturges’s romantic comedies. I was basically trying to take screwball eccentric characters and put them in a Western. But those two filmmakers have similarities. They both used a repertory company all the time. They would give space to supporting players. It wouldn’t all just be the lead. It wouldn’t all just be John Wayne. There’d always be Ward Bond or somebody in the background. Obviously Preston Sturges had a whole cavalcade of wacky characters. They’re quite similar in their direction and the atmospheres around their films.

It’s also interesting to think about Sergeant Boyle as a hero. I watched “Ned Kelly,” and I don’t want to call the characters entirely similar, but it struck me that in the same way you can be a righteous outlaw you can also be a cop that cavorts with hookers and things of that nature.

I think the problem with “Ned Kelly” is that whenever you make a film about an outlaw with a studio they want to make the outlaw a Robin Hood figure, which is total bullshit. He didn’t give money to the poor or anything like that. The script was twisted in that way so it moved away from being a poetic Western à la Terrence Malick, which is the way it was written, to this sort of standard biopic affair. They’re appealing to Orlando Bloom and Heather Ledger’s core audience at the time. A lot of twelve and thirteen year old girls liked the movie. That’s fine, but they weren’t who I was writing it for initially.

Obviously I think Boyle is a more complex character. He becomes heroic by default, I’d say. He’s kind of pushed into it; he doesn’t push himself to be heroic. We would always say to Brendan, it’s only once the villain comes into his house that he really gets angry. Of course that scene reminds you of the young cop who was killed, so all of that is brought back home to Boyle’s character. It’s quite late in the movie. He doesn’t start heroic.

Did you have Brendan Gleeson in mind when you were writing the screenplay?

Not when I wrote it, but once it was finished and I read it back I couldn’t really see anyone else playing it. If he’d turned it down what would you do? You’d have to go after those younger Irish actors who are stars, like [Colin] Farrell and [Michael] Fassbender. It wouldn’t be the same mood to the film if the character were younger because it has to be someone who is at the end of his tether with the world and who is really disillusioned. What Brendan brings to the part is warmth and empathy. He gets away with a lot of those gags that are quite confrontational because of the essential warmth in his performance. A younger actor would probably play it a lot tougher and a lot of those gags would probably fall on the wrong side of nasty.

Your comedy is markedly different from the usual buddy-cop humor we get here in the US. How did you shape the sense of humor in the film?

American comedy in recent years is a bit more confrontational but it still shies away from certain topics. I also think there’s more of a slapstick element to American comedy. There’s also a kind of anti-elitist element when no character makes any kind of intellectual reference to books or other films or art or philosophy. As I’m writing I just like to amuse myself by throwing in maybe broad references or more obscure references, whether it’s a visual thing or a really obscure literary reference.

The scene with the criminals discussing Nietzsche, for example. An audience doesn’t have to have read Nietzsche, but they get the gist that these are three villains bored of their occupation and just trying to pass the time. Basically the way I approach it is that all of those scenes in movies you’ve seen before, I just try to write the opposite. That’s my governing rule of thumb. Just undermine what we’ve seen in American movies. That’s why whatever I write would have a large dose of humor in it because I can’t really take those films seriously.

Any kind of police procedural is always so po-faced. They always have those scenes in which, say, the Jason Statham character hasn’t arrived yet and people will be talking about him. People will be saying things like “Brant, he’s the most maverick cop on the force!” And then Brant arrives. Denzel Washington always has scenes in his movies where there’s a bunch of old fat white cops who can’t work shit out. Then he comes in and goes, “you do this, you do that, and you do that,” and they go, “oh god, that guy just came in and he worked it all out!”

The tightrope you have to walk is that at a certain point your film has to become serious for people. It’s not a goof all the way through if you want those thriller elements to work out. You never know whether you’ve got that right until you see it in the editing room. You could have shot it all perfectly and it could still go wrong in editing, to be honest. We had quite a long editing process. I think that’s endemic to first time feature directors, especially when they’re the writer as well. You can be so in love with your own screenplay and you don’t want to throw anything out. But that’s a learning experience, and hopefully when I make another one it won’t be that torturous an experience.

I say torturous. Sitting in an editing room drinking tea all day and eating scones isn’t that tough a life. The sobering thing is the realization that if you get it wrong, that film that you got wrong will be there forever. Your name will be on it forever. I’m sure a lot of filmmakers don’t really care if they go from bad films to good films, etc., but it would be devastating to me to have my name on a bad film. That’s why I’m not too happy with the way everything went with “Ned Kelly,” to be honest.

Do you have anything in the works now?

I’ve got a film with Brendan that he wants to do called “Calvary” about a good priest who’s tormented by his community. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a black comedy, but it’s a drama with a lot of comedy in it. And I’ve got this one about two corrupt cops in Alabama who basically blackmail and frame every criminal who crosses their path. That’s called “War on Everyone.” I think it’s a catchy title. Those are the two that we’re trying to set up.

“The Guard” opens this Friday and is highly recommended. Check out the trailer below:

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