Matthew Lickona: The man calls Father James a good priest. What makes him a good priest, to you?
John Michael McDonagh: I think he’s completely sincere. He makes suggestions, let’s say, that are based on him as a human being rather than being an organized member of the Church. You know when he suggests to the man who hasn’t had relations with women that maybe he should read pornography. Most priests aren’t going to suggest that, but Father is acting as a human being who is trying to come up with solutions that are based on real life, not on tenets that have been handed down and that you’re supposed to go along with. So, I think it’s that. He’s responding as a human being, rather than as a cog in a machine.
ML: I once had an Irish priest come to my house for dinner when I was a kid. My mother asked him why he became a priest — I think she was hoping I would follow in his footsteps. He said, “Well, I wanted to keep going to school, didn’t I?” which I don’t think was quite the answer she was after.
JMM: Well, I think that, specifically in Ireland, a lot of those young men did enter the priesthood because of the learning opportunities. I mean, it’s hard to believe that now, but I guess that’s what they did,
ML: But that wasn’t the case for Father James.
JMM: Well, I think Father James is different from a lot of priests, in that he had a whole other life before he became a priest. In my secondary school in London, I was puzzled to find out that the headmaster was someone who was formerly married; his wife had died. It just stuck in my mind; I always thought that was quite interesting and original.
But it also means I think that the priest is more able to comment with authority on moral issues. He’s somebody who has lived a full life. If he’s, say, mediating between a warring couple, he can actually speak about marriage and sex and everything else. I mean, most priests obviously can’t, and yet they do. Why have they got that authority to talk about something they don’t know anything about? Father James has it. But also, he struggled with alcoholism. So, he’s suffered, and he’s battled, and he’s not an entirely saintlike person. But he’s trying to be. Those were the elements I was trying to get across to make him a different representation of a priest than we’ve seen in cinema before.
ML: When you were coming up with the character, did you come up with his reason for why he decided to become a priest?
JMM: I just had in the back of my mind that it was something to do with watching the suffering of his wife for a long, long time. The daughter refers to it. She says, “It was certainly a long goodbye if ever there was one.” And it’s something to do with watching that kind of suffering, and I think probably wanting to help other people who are suffering. I guess that was what was going on in my subconscious. I mean, a lot of the time, I write lines of dialogue, and I write scenes, and it’s only later on when I look back and start to analyze them that I start to realize what I was intending. Sometimes, I watch the movie, and I only get what I was intending months later.
ML: A few times while watching this, I thought to myself, How on earth does he know the life of the priest as well as he does? How did you get in there as far as you did?
JMM: Well, I was an altar boy until I was 11 or 12. I was told that you were given money if you served at weddings, which I got the first couple of times: some money off the best man. But after I did three weddings in a row and I got paid no money, that’s when I stopped being an altar boy. So, it was completely mercenary on my part. I guess you could say I’ve been backstage, though. The scene early on where Father is with the little boy and he’s taking off his vestments and putting away the wine and all that kind of stuff, I’d seen all that. And it is like being backstage at a play, because they’re getting ready for a performance when they put on all those vestments, you could say. And my brother, he was a choirboy, and actually sang before the Pope. But apart from that, I think what you find is this: if you write a scene that is artistically true, then, generally speaking, all the details are true as well. So, that’s why I’m never very keen on research. I always find that the research will take care of itself. Or maybe I’m just completely lazy.
ML: You’re writing about subject matter that can easily go to the lurid, and I was impressed with how you managed to keep it from going there. Could you talk about how you controlled the tone?
JMM: Yeah, I think I get into [the grisly details] verbally, but there are never any kind of visual representations of any kind of abuse. To me, to tell the story straightforwardly, head on, properly, you’re basically telling a horror story. You’re making a horror movie, and I didn’t want to make a horror movie. If other people do, that’s fine. I always try to approach things obliquely, and I feel like there’s always going to be humor in whatever I write, however dark the subject matter, because I think that’s what life is. It’s both the comic and the tragic.
When I sit down to write, I don’t censor myself in any way. I write very quickly and I go straight through, and I don’t analyze what I’ve written too much. And so, whatever tone I have just comes out of my own personality. It’s not something that I’ve learned, unless you can say you learn something from every great writer you’ve ever read.