Matt Potter 11:33 a.m., Aug. 29
En Garde: An Interview with The Guard Writer & Director John Michael McDonagh
John Michael McDonagh
Get ready for a film that puts this summer's colorless comic book adaptations and gross-out comedies to shame.
The Guard stars Brendan Gleeson as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a small town cop assigned to crack a ring of international drug-smugglers, who passes the day exercising his right to be patently offensive to everyone he comes in contact with. Enter Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), an FBI agent who plays by the rules and can't understand Gerry's problem with his skin color. Sony Pictures Classics is marketing it as a buddy picture or fish-out-of-water yarn, but after ten deconstructive minutes, you'll soon catch on that this is one cop comedy that defies generic classification.
Brendan Gleeson gives the performance of the year (and possibly his career) as the last of Galway's independent guard, a brash, obnoxious, foul-mouthed cop who's either "really dumb or really smart" and personally doesn't give a hummingbird's heinie what you think about him. I've seen the film twice and on both occasions my friends could hardly wait to tell me how much Gerry Boyle and I have in common.
Orchestrating the bouncing obscenity is writer and first-time director John Michael McDonagh. From the looks of him, McDonagh isn't the type you'd like to tangle with in a pub. But after our phone interview (I haven't laughed so much since speaking to Jerry Lewis), my only regret is that we didn't meet in person over cocktails.
In case you haven't already heard, John Michael McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh, screenwriter, director (In Bruges), and IRELAND'S GREATEST LIVING PLAYWRIGHT. As you will soon learn, JMM has much to say about his brother's latter categorization.
Scott Marks: What a pleasure it’s going to be talking to you. A movie geared for adults that’s released in the middle of super-hero summer?! If nothing else, you’ve got balls. I’m crazy about your movie.
John Michael McDonagh: Thanks a lot.
The Guard is the most fun I’ve had spending time in the company of reprobates since 44 Inch Chest.
That was kind of like a play, wasn’t it? It was on odd one, that one. I like those writers. They were the Sexy Beast writers. The dialog is very precise and honed. I enjoyed the rhythm of it. I try to do that in The Guard and all my writing. I’m not that concerned with naturalistic dialog. I want to hark back to those days of smart characters and smart films.
One day you must put words in John Hurt’s mouth.
It’s funny. I’ve been thinking about him for a role in another movie. Maybe that will come to pass.
Technically he does make a cameo in The Guard.
Right. He has that short scene when Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is at home in his underpants watching The Shout. That could be an ongoing relationship. Let’s see.
Sergeant Gerry Boyle is sort of a cross between the Bad Lieutenant and Uncle Buck.
(Laughing) Uncle Buck? John Candy? I hadn’t heard that one before.
He does have this cuddly side to him.
I think that Brendan is cuddly and lovable, so he probably brings some of that to the role. I don’t think it was written to be as cuddly and lovable as it turns out to be.
Where did you find this character?
I had written a short film that sort of has the embryo of that character -- a policeman who turns up in the middle of this power system and says obnoxious things to people for no reason. I was always wondering where that character goes after that.
Where did his personality come from?
I was in a kind of...let’s say I had a lot of bitterness and contempt for people in the British film industry. A lot of that anger spilled out into the role of Sgt. Gerry Boyle. The end-of-his-tether, anti-authoritarian side came out the way I was feeling at the time I was writing it.
I’m not sure what I find more tasteless: the fact that he smells his fingers after flicking a corpse’s toe or that he chooses to cover his own feet in pink-and-black striped neon socks.
(Laughing) When he gets out of bed in his green underpants and he rubs his balls, I asked Brendan to sniff his fingers. He refused to do it. Later on with the corpse I said, “sniff your fingers.” He let me have that one. He wouldn’t let me have the other one. I wanted it to be a running motif.
(Laughing) You owe Gleeson and cinematographer Larry Smith big time for their contributions to the hard-edged look and feel of the film.
Obviously, I liked Smith’s work on Eyes Wide Shut, but he had also done a couple of low-budget films: Bronson, the Nicolas Winding Refn film, and Fear X, which not a lot of people have seen. He can do both low budget and big budget. When we set out to make the film we had the idea to have a stylized color palette throughout the film. Larry’s photography makes those bold colors pop right out. There’s a lot of red in the movie. I’m a big fan of how Nicholas Ray used to have splotches of red in his movies. I’ve seen a lot of movies and I storyboarded the whole thing, but you always worry if the film will cut together and have a good pace. That’s a scary thing, but the shoot went well. It was a breeze. When you tell the various departments that we’re going to stylize the whole film instead of going for one of these naturalistic, miserable-looking sort of “kitchen sink” dramas, that’s the thing they want to hear. It gives their imagination free-reign to play around with all those bold colors.
Let’s talk about the relationship between Gerry, Wendell (Don Cheadle) and the concept of the “buddy picture,” which you do a terrific job of deconstructing. In four Lethal Weapons pictures, they fail to achieve what you pull off in one picture. You’d swear that Danny Glover and Mel Gibson are more in love with each other than they are in their respective spouse and girlfriend. There are obviously no gay undertones between Gleeson and Cheadle, but you do explore a few homoerotic possibilities in the Gallic, or is it pronounced “gay-lick” (I couldn’t resist) guard.
There’s the odd little side-story concerning Gerry’s late, closeted partner and his green card bride.
And Gerry likes wearing his kind of Oscar Wilde, Bohemian dressing gown, and stuff like that. I see where you’re going.
There's also this brief, almost surreal moment where he stops to admire a corpse’s lips and cup its package.
Maybe I could have gone even further with the edgy, confrontational humor. I was thinking, when you create Gerry Boyle, who would he offend the most? An American FBI agent! And then you think, a black American FBI agent. Maybe I should have gone further and made him a gay, black, American FBI agent. There's a whole other movie there I could have explored. Maybe I could work up a sequel that involved Gerry exploring his true feelings for Wendell Everett.
(Laughing) Is Gerry racist or do his comments reflect a sly, premeditated way of subverting racist thinking, thus showing an attempt to change the system from within? Am I giving the guy too much credit?
No, you’re not giving him too much credit. Basically, what you said is the summation of the character. He is someone who will destabilize or undermine anyone who thinks they’ve got any kind of power over him. He will completely not filter what he has to say. He’ll say the first thing that’s going to annoy or irritate you. He doesn’t care anymore. He’s somebody who uses that kind of needling -- he’ll say the most offensive things, the thing that will hurt you the most -- just to see what your reaction is in order to judge you as a human being. Superficially, the things he says are racist. Hopefully, through the course of the movie you can see that this is just another mask he’s wearing in his confrontational life. He’s somebody who is bored with life and will do anything to make his life more interesting even if it that includes upsetting somebody by making appalling racial comments.
He’s also like Terry Southern’s Sir Guy Grand who simply likes making it hot for people.
Yeah. I like The Magic Christian. I’m a big Terry Southern fan. I wanted to come back to that free-wheeling, anti-authoritarian vibe of the early ‘70s. There are a lot of things Boyle says that he doesn’t mean, but the jibes against the FBI and the joke about Waco do have weight behind them. But you’re walking through a minefield there of what does he mean and what doesn’t he mean. It’s up to the audience to decide. I think the way Brendan plays it -- the walk through the character and the sort of empathy that he gives it -- you know which side he’s on by the end.
I marvel at your disdain for political correctness.
(Laughing) Yeah, it’s strange. I’ve been asked if I censor myself when I write and it just never occurs to me. Once I’ve created the character you just kinda’ go with the integrity of what he would do or say in any given situation. Every now and then you have a dumb gag (people like dumb gags in movies), and I’d be more likely to cut one those out because they’re too easy. It’s not an easy road I’m going down.
Here’s a subject I’ve never broached during an interview and I dare say that anyone else has grilled you about it because it’s so damn un-PC. You were born in England. What is your fascination with the word “cunt?”
(Laughing) You see, this is the thing. In England people use it as a non-purpose word that doesn't have the weight that it has in America. You come out of the toilet at a bar to find all your friends have left and you say, “Where have all those cunts gone?” There’s a scene where Mark Strong says, “What did you fucking stop us for then, you stupid fucking cunt?” My wife, who is Australian, always found that hilarious and when we play that scene in America, no one laughs. Is it the use of the word or is it because the villains have appeared and they’re obviously going to do something bad in the next moment? The use of that word is a big no-no. I use swear words as a rhythmic thing, a way of stylizing dialog the same way I’d use commas in punctuation. I don’t have the same shocked reaction to the propensity of swear words that are used in the film. It’s only when you see it with an audience...I saw it with an older British audience at BAFTA, and you can sense from the moment it starts that they don’t like swear words. It’s very strange.
I’m a big fan of John Boorman’s films and I was listening to the audio commentary on The Tailor of Panama. He says something to the effect that he loves words like “fuck” and “cunt,” and vows to do his best to keep them in general usage.
I think David Mamet has done his best to follow in that tradition as well.
And you can give Scorsese a nod, too.
I love Scorsese's films.
(Smiling and nodding in silence.) Of course. What must it be like every day waking up to the realization that you are the brother of IRELAND’S GREATEST LIVING PLAYWRIGHT?
(Laughing) You see, I don’t care. I only go to see my brother’s plays because the tickets are free. He can have all that success he wanted. It was when he got his Oscar for his short film Six Shooter that the ulcer in the pit of my stomach started to spread. Then he went and compounded it by getting a British Oscar nomination for In Bruges. Let’s say I’ve calmed down now that The Guard has been made and has gone into general release. I think the ulcer has disappeared.
If The Guard is any indication, your parents are both terrific artistic breeding stock and you are not getting cold standing in your brother’s shadow. My twenty-minutes are winding down, so one last question. As I mentioned at the outset, Summer, at least in American movie theatres, generally buys a ticket to a think-free roller coaster ride. The Guard not only earns its hard R-rating, it goes out of its way to offend. Why didn't Sony Pictures Classic wait until after Labor Day, when the kids are safely back in school, to release it?
We've been really successful the past few weeks in Ireland competing against Harry Potter. A lot of the parents bringing the kids to see Harry Potter can pop in and see The Guard.
I had a great time talking with you and an even better time watching your movie. Keep it up and don't ever make a PG movie.
(Laughing) I won't. I have too antagonistic a personality to do that.
More like this:
- Interview: Seven Psychopaths wrangler, Martin McDonagh — Oct. 12, 2012
- They Called Him Jeeves — March 20, 2012
- The Old Globe’s Recommendation; A Behanding in Spokane at the Cygnet — Feb. 1, 2012
- 12 Films From 2011 That Brightened My Life in the Dark — Jan. 2, 2012
- Reviews: The Tree, Cowboys & Aliens, The Guard, Another Earth — Aug. 3, 2011