Since bursting onto the scene in the mid-’90s, when he picked up a Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright, Martin McDonagh has been talked about as one of the theater world’s most vibrant and accomplished young talents. Though born in London to Irish parents, McDonagh’s work is most strongly identified with County Galway, where his first six plays, divided into two trilogies, are set. After completing the second trilogy, McDonagh surprised his fans with 2003’s The Pillowman, a non-Irish play that uses dark comedy to access the harrowing life of a writer living in a totalitarian police state. McDonagh then successfully branched out into filmmaking with 2006’s “Six Shooter,” which won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. He affirmed that promise with his 2008 debut feature In Bruges, a witty and surprisingly moving comic thriller about a couple of hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) stranded in the picturesque Belgian hamlet of Bruges.
In his latest film, Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh again casts Farrell as his alter ego, a Hollywood screenwriter named “Marty” who’s trying to write a script called “Seven Psychopaths” that’s ultimately more about peace than violence. (Naturally, the task gives him writer’s block.) Helping him out are his best friend Sam Rockwell, an unemployed actor, and Christopher Walken, who brings Rockwell along on a scam to kidnap dogs and collect the reward money. Fiction and reality collide when one of those dogs, an adorable shih tzu, happens to belong to a murderous gangster (Woody Harrelson) who sends all three men on the run. Before the film’s release, McDonagh talked to The A.V. Club about his own struggles with writing violent characters, the built-in absolution of writing about them anyway, and the lack of pressure he feels to keep working.
The A.V. Club: Seven Psychopaths recalls movies like Adaptation or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in that it seems born out of the frustration of knowing all the screenwriting tricks and trying to expose them or work around them. Is that a fair description? What was in your head when you started to write this?
Martin McDonagh: I don’t think they were quite to the fore in my head. It was more about playing with the idea of a writer who’s tired of— although he likes movies that deal with, or has liked movies that deal with violence, shootouts, and guns, and all that kind of stuff, is trying to strike out against that. Or is just tired of it and seeking a better road. More so than playing with the meta aspects of screenwriting. I guess when you set up a screenwriter who’s thinking about that, who still wants to write a film, of course then meta things just kind of follow. But for me it was less about going down the Adaptation route, and questioning film violence, violence in general.
AVC: It wasn’t, then, about questioning your own process.
MM: No, not really. I guess I kind of enjoy a lot of the conventions of the Hollywood bullshit genre picture, even though I don’t think I could do a straight-out “guys with guns” movie. In Bruges was still guys with guns, but a lot more, again, questioning.
AVC: You’ve worked with many of the actors here before: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken. Are these characters written for them?
MM: No, none of them. The script was ready to go before I made In Bruges. It was written just after the script for In Bruges, just before I made it, so it dates back to before I ever met Chris. I knew of Sam’s work, but I’m not sure if I’d met him at that time, but none of the characters were based or written for any of them.
AVC: Do you ever imagine actors playing certain roles in movies?
MM: Sam is one of the few people I do. I think he’s one of my favorite American actors around, certainly for his generation, and hearing the voices he’s used for a lot of his characters allows you to go to a certain place with a character. Something that’s kind of funny, but dark and twisted all at the same time. But someone like Christopher would be a hard person to write for anyway, because he’s going to make whatever it is so distinctively his. Like, I can’t hear anyone else’s voice in that part, but the words weren’t changed—and it’s the same thing with this, nothing was sculpted, none of the lines were changed for any of the actors. I guess really good actors just make it their own.
AVC: The writing seems so precise, but these actors have odd, distinctive cadences. That sort of loopiness that Sam Rockwell does feels like he’s stretching what is being written, but you’re saying that’s not the case.
MM: It’s not, but you know the best actors make it feel like it’s improvised. Colin does that too to a degree, but it’s about just being a good actor, I think. I think a lot of my writing—the dialogue, sounds—has the weirdness of real-people speech, which makes it sound improvisational when it’s really not.
AVC: How much do you work with them beforehand? Do you get the ensemble together before you start shooting?
MM: With In Bruges we had three weeks, just me and Brendan [Gleeson] and Colin in a room just reading it, talking about it, reading it again, literally for three weeks, and then I think Ralph [Fiennes] came in for the last week. [Seven Psychopaths] was a little less time, I think two weeks, and the first week or so was just Colin and Sam. We did the same thing. We just read it through, discussed the characters, discussed lines, discussed what I thought each line meant, what it meant to them. So by the time you get to the first day of shooting, there’s none of those discussions going on. Everyone knows where they’re coming from, where the character is, and it frees you up to give line readings that can be different from take to take, but it’s all coming from the same place, the truth we’ve established. It’s strange, it’s such a cheap part of the process, it’s highly overdone, but I think it speeds things up enormously. You never hang around discussing a scene.
AVC: Do your films turn out close to how you envision them in the writing process, or do you leave yourself a certain amount of space for things that are going to be created in the actual process of making it?
MM: I don’t think I deliberately leave those spaces, but it’s maybe born out of being sort of a first- and second-time filmmaker. If I knew how to make it an exact, pristine little box then maybe I would. But I like that I don’t have that wherewithal, because I think In Bruges turned out maybe more melancholic than was necessarily on the page, I think mostly because of the performances. And [Seven Psychopaths] was maybe a little darker on the page, but it became almost a bit more anarchic in the filming, in a good way again. But I thought the scripts were both equally sad and melancholic, and this went a different way, and In Bruges down that route.
AVC: So this is the surprise of putting it together.
MM: Yeah. And there’s a joy in that, too. Because even though, as I said, I thought I’d like to do it this way with both movies, I’m happy that they came out like they did. I think when you work with really good actors, they’ll take things to a completely different place. Anyone other than Walken would have taken that character to a much more mundane or much more obvious psychopathic or overly comedic place. But what he’s done with it has made it equally funny, but quite sad…
AVC: If you’re looking for a note of pathos in the film, that’s where it comes from.
MM: Yeah, I think [Walken] is kind of the moral throughline of the whole film. He’s probably what Colin’s character is aiming for in his own life, at the start of the film. When he says he wants to write a film that’s more about peace than guys with guns, it’s Walken’s character that leads him there.
AVC: The self-referential nature of Seven Psychopaths allows you to comment on violence while being violent, and comment on thinly written female characters while writing female characters thinly. Do you tend to anticipate criticisms of your plays and scripts as you’re writing them?
MM: [Laughs.] No, no. I think this is the most I’ll ever do that. And you can’t get away with it more than once, even if you can get away with it this time. On the female character, Abbie [Cornish’s] part has more on the page, and we got a lot more of her in a couple of scenes that just slowed down the film somehow, or weren’t what the film was about. So it didn’t used to be as thinly written a part as it turned out to be. And she’s great in all of those scenes, but they’re not all there…
AVC: Still, you have this built-in absolution.
MM: [Laughs] Yes. It’s a get-out-of-jail free card, but I don’t think I really do. The next script I’ve got is already written and it has a very, very strong female lead. And when I first started writing plays, the first two had very strong female characters, and I liked that, because if you write strong women you can really surprise an audience, because they’re written so infrequently. If you create an intriguing and strong female character, they can take the story anywhere.
AVC: Does that get into your head a little? You’ve made these two films that are set in the world of men. Is it a calculated shift to get away from that in the next one?
MM: Yeah, because I share Colin’s character’s tiredness with films or stories about guys with guns.
AVC: How much of an adjustment has it been for you to write for the screen after writing for the stage? How has it changed your thinking?
MM: It took me a long time to get my head around the idea of being able to jump in geography from scene to scene, or do a scene that’s two lines long. To jump around in time, in history. But once I’d got my head around that… throughout the years of writing the plays, I was always trying to write that, but could never quite get it. But then I put the plays on hold for a little bit and wrote two or three film scripts. In Bruges was the third of those, where it all felt like it was clicking into place a bit more. It was still similar to a play in some ways—In Bruges is three guys in a town, and lots of conversations—but it still had a cinematic quality to it. And this one took that even further, jumped around time and space a lot more, had a larger canvas, a lot more canvas. So now I almost feel like it’s easier to write a film script or it’s more freeing not to be bound by one set, four or five characters—you know, the nature of a play. But partly that’s also because I haven’t written one for a while. But now I think I’m going to take a break for another few years, and not do another film and write something in those years, maybe be a play.
AVC: You said you had something already written, but you just don’t want to tackle it right away. Why the break?
MM: I just want to live. It’s like two years straight out of your life doing a film. It’s very enjoyable, especially working with the guys, but I kind of like the idea of traveling and growing, and developing as a writer and as a filmmaker. But you can do that equally by not making a film. [Laughs.] And there are countries I haven’t seen, people I haven’t met. Also, I don’t have to go to Hollywood, I don’t have to make another film. I know I don’t have to listen to the studio, don’t have to become part of that process.
AVC: But you’re not under fairly intense pressure to keep going quickly…
MM: No, because there isn’t anyone really to give me that pressure. My mum, maybe? [Laughs.] Actually, no, she wants me to take her on holidays more and more, so stepping away is probably better for her, too. Anyway, I don’t have that kind of career mentality. I like the idea of trying to create new things, and interesting things, and putting them out there. But by the end of your life, does it really matter if you’ve made 20 films or if you’ve made 15? But the gap of those five that you didn’t do, you could’ve changed so much as a person, seen so many things.
AVC: Seven Psychopaths opens with the Hollywood sign, and is very much an L.A. movie. Were there any cinematic touchstones that you were drawing on? What sort of impression did you want to leave of the city?
MM: Well, I’ve got a bunch of films that are favorite L.A. films, but I couldn’t even necessarily say that they were an influence, like Chinatown or even Rebel Without A Cause. But it was more about finding places in L.A. that maybe hadn’t been seen too much on film before, to treat it as a character in the same way that Bruges is treated in In Bruges. It’s a lot harder, because there isn’t any center, or real architectural touchstones. But to still find some places that were identifiably L.A., but maybe a twist on that. We tried to find places in Silver Lake, Echo Park—Billy’s apartment is kind of an odd thing, it’s quite poor and low-rent but it looks right over the downtown skyscrapers. And I usually stay in Venice Beach when I’m there, so a couple of those places, too. But I wanted it to be kind of sunny and glossy, to then go to a darker, more melancholic place in the desert. But the desert, it’s impossible to photograph it without it being majestic and beautiful anyways.
AVC: It sounds like you went into the film pretty well prepared. Were there any happy accidents that the film brought you in the actual shooting? Any hassles that worked in your favor?
MM: Not really. When you’ve got good actors, they’re going to come up with good stuff, but you’re never quite sure how the dynamics are going to work between them. So it was more the joy of seeing the relationship between Chris and Colin and Sam, because they’re supposed to be three decent people—more or less decent people, maybe not Sam’s character—you’re supposed to love them in a way, and love their friendship together and how they interact. So it was great to see that develop. Colin and Sam and I drove out to Joshua Tree a bunch of weeks before filming started and just stayed for a weekend in two little bungalows, talked over the script and went to a bar and played pool. I knew them both from before, but they didn’t know each other very well. And we all thought it was just a good idea to build that bonding up so that they weren’t having to act a friendship on the first day of shooting. So it was more just seeing those friendships flourish—if there’s anything that’s lovely about the film, it’s the joy of seeing those people together.