Interview: Seven Psychopaths wrangler, Martin McDonagh
Matt drew review duty for Seven Psychopaths while I was fortunate enough to spend some time with the film’s writer/director, Martin McDonagh, when he paid a recent visit to San Diego.
Remember In Bruges, the nasty film noir comedy that starred Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of London-based mobsters forced to spend a week in scenic Belgium while awaiting instructions for another hit? That was McDonagh’s first feature. Perhaps you’re familiar with McDonagh the playwright and caught Ion Theatre's production of The Pillowman or Cygnet Theatre's staging of A Behanding in Spokane.
Even if the name escapes you, don’t let that stop you from seeing Seven Psychopaths, a smart and side-splittingly hilarious crime comedy currently playing all over San Diego County.
Before discussing McDonagh's latest, I felt it my duty to apprise the famed artist of a few cracks his younger brother, John Michael McDonagh, let slip during an interview I conducted with him last year in conjunction with the release of his film, The Guard.
Scott Marks: Let’s start by getting an unpleasantry out of the way.
Martin McDonagh: Uh-oh.
I interviewed this guy, John Michael McDonagh, last year. He did a film called The Guard. Are you familiar with it?
Yeah. What an asshole.
Wait until you hear what the bastard said about you. I asked, “What must it be like to every day wake up to the realization that you are the brother of IRELAND’S GREATEST LIVING PLAYRIGHT?
(Laughing.) Ooh! What did he say to that?
“I only go to see my brother’s plays because they are free. It was when he got his Oscar that the ulcer in the pit of my stomach started to spread.”
(Laughing.) That’s true. That’s very accurate. All of the friends he ever made were actors in my plays. He didn’t have a friend before that.
He stole Brendan Gleeson from you.
Yeah. He just started making his second one with Brendan.
And that’s probably why Brendan wasn’t one of the Seven Psychopaths.
That’s exactly it.
That’s okay because you have more than enough psychopaths to go around. Christopher Walken can say "and" to make it sound like you've never before heard the word. Does one actually direct Christopher Walken?
Strangely, he stuck word-for-word to the script, but the punctuation is his own. We had two weeks of rehearsal so we talked through the whole thing to make sure the relationships are all great and that everyone is on board with who they are as characters. You kinda' just let him go. He'll give you 5 or 6 completely different takes -- all brilliantly useable. We found that in the edit. On one day you think take 3 was the ideal one and then you'd see the "angry" one was better or the really quiet one was fantastic, too. He's kind of ingenious that way. You don't quite notice all the differences on the day (of the shoot), but back in the edit room you see that his variations are insanely good, and they're all truthful. His line-readings are genius in their Scrooge-logic.
It dawned on me halfway through that you are doing the impossible. You “borrow” from a lot of terrible movies in order to scrounge together bits and pieces of everything that is wrong with contemporary cinema -- at time you even rub our face in the fact. Yet audiences will walk away feeling as if they experienced something wholly original.
That’s lovely of you. I was kind of worried that all the pieces wouldn’t coalesce. I’m glad it worked out.
I haven’t been able to see the film for a second time -- or maybe it just slipped past me -- but the film begins with Michaels Pitt and Stuhlbarg waiting to whack Angela (Olga Kurylenko). Was it Woody Harrelson who set up the hit?
Yeah. There used to be an extra scene after the opening where Woody actually gets the news at the funeral of the two guys. Olga is beside him and you can see how pissed off he is at her. It made it more clear, but it also slowed the film down somewhat. There is a hint of who that guy is, but I don’t think not having the scene really hurt your enjoyment of the film.
Harry Dean Stanton cast as a Quaker.
A cigarette smoking Quaker!
Was than an inspiration or what?
Like Walken and (Tom) Waits, he’s been a hero of mine since childhood. I told the casting person that he was my dream choice for the role, but I don’t know what he’s up to now or if he was still working. She said that he was still around Hollywood.
Wasn’t he in something else this year?
Uhh...was it The Avengers?
He didn’t want to read the script so I met him for dinner and he said “Tell me what it’s about.” When he heard about the violence he wasn’t so sure. When I told him he’d play a Quaker and the whole film is kind of about a Buddhist take on Hollywood violence he said, “I’m into Eastern philosophies. Sure. I’ll do it.” Even at dinner he was smoking and he is known as being a chain-smoker. After we cast him I thought it would be good for this guy who was following him to be smoking a cigarette. If we hadn’t cast Harry, I wouldn’t have got the idea for that final image.
What Takeshi Kitano film do Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell go to see?
Farrell’s character is a screenwriter, so I can understand him wanting to see it, but would Rockwell’s character take in a subtitled movie?
Colin definitely would. I think Sam’s character would, too. He’s an actor. An unemployable actor, but he’s still an actor. I think he’d like that skewed up kind of stuff. And maybe he’s following along because of Colin. I think he be okay with that.
If you want me to hate your characters, write a dialog scene for them inside a theatre while a movie is running.
We had more to that scene. Someone shushes him and Sam screams, “Shut the fuck up!”
Isn't naming a character "Bickle" and having him talk directly into a mirror reason enough to sic the intellectual property police on you?
Yes. Of course. Good. Let them sue! There used to be more of a backstory. Sam's character is so skewed up and Marty (Colin Farrell) takes the piss out of him. He thinks he's the son of Travis Bickle. He doesn't think he's the son of Robert DeNiro, which could happen, he's thinks he's the son of a fictional character. I cut all that stuff out, but I kind of liked the name Billy Bickle. There are remnants of that (in the finished film). Sam and I knew about that backstory and Sam liked that. That's part of the reason we did the mirror scene.
This is my James Lipton question: do you remember the first film your parents took you to see?
There was a terrible John Wayne film. John Wayne in London.
I get them confused. It was either Brannigan or ‘McQ*.
Brannigan. That’s the one.
Thanks for putting that one back in my head.
(Laughing.) I think you need to revisit it.
My partner on The Big Screen, Matt Lickona, had a bit of a complaint.
He mentioned Seven Psychopaths and Adaptation in the same sentence...
What? I love Adaptation but I'm worried that people will think that I ripped it off.
Don’t. Matt’s not slinging accusations of plagiarism. In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman cast a balding Nic Cage to play his alter ego and you turn around and, of course, cast one of the handsomest men in pictures to play you.
(Striking a pose): Yeah, but he still doesn't quite match up.
Did the title and subject matter meet with any resistance while you were shopping the script around?
When I go into something, if the studio doesn't want to do the script that’s on the page, I’m not going to go with it. I’m not the type who is begging to make a film. If no one wanted to do it, I’d go and do something else. They know what the story is. Having In Bruges in my back pocket they kind of know what to expect.
Do you write with certain actors in mind?
I don’t write with anyone in mind, but every casting decision is mine. If I had gone with a different kind of a cast, I’d have got another $10 million to make the movie. I wouldn’t have wanted to work with those kinds of people.
A play can change from night to night, but cinema is eternal. Have you a preference?
I’ll keep doing plays, but I like the idea of giving In Bruges to someone for Christmas and saying, “I did that.” A play, you can give them the text, but it’s not really the same. The good productions of the play are lost forever. Only that version of that film remains. The fact that plays are lost is unappealing to me. That said, I can still remember every detail of seeing Al Pacino in American Buffalo when I was 13 in London. One of the beauties of theatre is it will stay with you for a long time if it’s good.
More like this:
- Well played, Seven Psychopaths — Oct. 1, 2012
- Project X Interview: Alexis Knapp — Feb. 29, 2012
- En Garde: An Interview with The Guard Writer & Director John Michael McDonagh — Aug. 9, 2011
- Hooray for Hollywood — June 9, 2009
- Top 50 Movie Characters — Dec. 17, 2008