The Badass Interview: Martin McDonagh (SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS)

Amy Nicholson holds her own with the witty and charming writer/director of the great IN BRUGES and this weekend's SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. 

Martin McDonagh is the biggest thing since Shakespeare. That's not an opinion—that's a fact. The two playwrights are the only men in history to have five plays running in London at the same time. And like Shakespeare, McDonagh loves wordplay, antiheroes and death (though he's hasn't yet gotten into cross-dressing).

Unlike Shakespeare, McDonagh's gone Hollywood. His very first film, Six Shooter, a 27-minute dark comedy about suicide and exploding cows, won the 2006 Oscar for best live action short, which gave McDonagh the clout to enter the movie business as a writer/director. He followed that win with In Bruges, a hitman drama starring Colin Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson that divided critics and floundered at the box office, but managed to score a nomination for Best Screenplay. But instead of pushing forward, McDonagh announced he was taking a break from film and decamped for Broadway where he wrote a play that starred Christopher Walken as a one-handed man and Sam Rockwell as a jumpy hotel clerk. “I'm not really interested in a Hollywood career—or a career at all,” he quips.

Four years later, he's back. Seven Psychopaths stars new buddies Walken and Rockwell as dognappers on the run from a mafia don (Woody Harrelson) who's furious they stole his shih-tzu Bonny. Mixed up in the mess are Colin Farrell, playing a screenwriter named Marty who's working on his own script called Seven Psychopaths, Tom Waits' rabbit-loving serial killer, and a vengeful Vietnamese assassin-priest who's there for reasons no one can figure out. It gets bloody.

But real-life Martin McDonagh and his fictional Marty have the same question: “Does every Hollywood movie have to have a guy with a gun?” Can McDonagh pull off making a violent movie about non-violence? Yeah, he says, if audiences distinguish between his movies and “the crap ones like The Expendables.” Burn.

This movie opens with two men talking about shooting a woman through her eyes. And yet, they're not even counted as two of your seven psychopaths. Are there nine, or is your definition of psychopath something different?

I think they're just guys for hire. I'd say they aren't psychopaths. Honestly, it's called Seven Psychopaths, but even by the end, I'm not sure how many there really are—there's at least one or two that I don't think are.

So killing people doesn't make you a psychopath. It's why you kill.

Right. It depends on how or why you do it, and how you feel about it afterward.

If Marty, Colin Farrell's character, murdered someone, we have to ask him how he felt.

We'd have to do another In Bruges.

Speaking of which, there's a scene where Marty says about his own screenplay for Seven Psychopaths that he doesn't want it to be another movie about guys with guns, he wants it to be about love. That reminded me of the reaction to In Bruges—some critics and audiences thought it was just a movie about guys with guns, when it was about so much more. 

Yeah, but I think overall—especially later on—people kind of came around to that it wasn't just that. I'm happy with the legs of the critical reaction to Bruges, when people saw that it was more about guilt and purgatory and love and melancholy. But in this, that line's more about those guy gangster films in general—not the good ones, like In Bruges, but the crap ones like The Expendables.

Ouch!

On the record—why not?! But does every film have to be about that? Does every Hollywood movie have to have a guy with a gun? At the same time this film is full of guys with guns, but it's searching for something beyond that in the same way as Bruges was.

People have a hard time equating action movies with philosophy. But what big ideas are more primal than death and murder?

But I guess the problem there is that death is usually treated in a very superficial way. Or violence is a joke—it isn't real and it isn't true. People don't feel pain. So that was one of the things I was trying to do with Bruges is think about that if you're shooting 100 bullets like they do in most movies, they've all got to go somewhere, those bullets. And what happens if they hit an innocent? This movie deals less with the melancholy and sadness. It's more questioning the Hollywood aspects of that.

That'd be an interesting movie, 100 Bullets. One would break a vase and you'd see that it was a present from a grandmother. It'd be 100 tiny stories.

That is nice. Is that your story or my story?

We'll split it.

Deal.

You have Colin Farrell playing a screenwriter named Marty, who we can assume has some overlap with you. Do you drink as much white wine?

He drinks two bottles at the start of the film, so I've definitely drunk that amount in my past.

Are you a bourbon person like he is at the end?

No, I don't really do spirits. I do margaritas now and then. But I am a white wine kind of person.

Margaritas? That's very spring break of you.

I know! The frozen ones, too, with the fancy little things!

Judging by his house and his free time, we can assume Marty has been a fairly successful writer. In your mind, did you imagine he'd had a career similar to yours?

Colin and I talked about that to quite a degree. I'm not sure where we settled on it, but it was kind of keeping the meta aspects of me, like sharing my name. I think we came up with the idea that he wrote an In Bruges script, but it was either never made or it was turned into a piece of shit. And that's why he's pulling away from Hollywood. But I think there are lots of red herrings. Even the name is kind of a red herring in some ways. But then there are details that are true about me, too. The questioning of violence in films and wanting to take it to a different place is all me.

There's a question I've always wanted to ask about directing Colin Farrell. Do you direct him and his eyebrows separately? Because sometimes his mouth will say one thing, but his eyebrows say another.

That's silly! No. No! That would be impossible. I'm not sure if even he can control them.

If he can't control them, who can?

But wouldn't that be like patting your stomach and rubbing your head at the same time?

Which is totally possible.

Maybe that's his genius, that his eyebrows do the opposite of what he says.

I was wondering while I was watching Seven Psychopaths if when your friends have watched it, since they know they're watching a version of you, do any of them worry that in your mind, they're your crazy loser friend Sam Rockwell?

My brother [director John Michael McDonagh] might because he's a bit of a psycho.

Is that on the record?

Yeah, he's said enough horrible things about me, so fuck him. I love him to bits. He made The Guard a few years ago, and he's just starting on his second one.

Are you guys competitive?

No, because I'm so much better.

But back to Sam Rockwell, who's genius in this movie. There's one moment where he burps right before he calls Gandhi stupid. Was that deliberate?

That was the only take where he did that. I didn't remember it on the day of shooting, but I watched the rushes over and over and marked every line to see which was the best of the six takes and I just burst out laughing. In that scene, there's like 20 seconds of waiting for him to burp, but I like those kinds of touches. I like reactions to lines almost as much as I like lines. There's a moment when Chris Walken, after he says “Fuck the cops,” just stares at Marty intensely, and I just like that kind of stuff. And burps are always good.

Your dialogue is interesting because it's zingy, but it's not just trading lines back and forth. You have people not hearing each other right, being distracted, misunderstanding each other.

Always. Maybe too much. I don't think a scene is just to drive a story forward. A scene is there for its own right, and you should glory in the ridiculousness of dialogue or conversation. There's the warehouse scene with Marty where Sam is there on the couch with the poodle, and all that scene gives us is that he's put an ad in the paper. Everything else is bullshit, but it's fun bullshit to have them talk, to capture Colin's depression and hangover, and to capture Sam's insanity about Spain and Ireland and poodles. I care about that stuff in a film more than I do about plot. Sometimes the plot just gets in the way of the stupid shit.

There's another shot I want to ask you about: Tom Waits walking through a room full of rabbits.

Tom and I both love rabbits quite a bit. I knew him a little bit before and I emailed him and said, “I'm thinking about sending you this script. It's all about this guy who carries a rabbit and blah blah blah.” The next day he wrote back and said, “I'll do it. If I get to carry a rabbit, I'm in.” “Cool, maybe you should read it first?” “No, no—there's a rabbit and a gun.” The lawn was covered in 52 rabbits—

Fifty-two? One for every week in the year?

Exactly. I just kind of liked the idea. Rabbits are great. They just go their own way and don't care about the cameras. It was tricky because that whole scene is just two second shots, so they were all about story-boarding and getting in and getting out. I had a rabbit in my short film, too [Six Shooter starring Brendan Gleeson, which won the 2006 Oscar for best live action short], so there's a recurring theme.

Pets in peril.

Pets in peril! I like that.

The Perils of Pets. An old black and white serial—

With Pauline.

You got a big laugh in this with your line about pets in peril: “You can't let the animals die. Just the women.”

That's my one big critique of Hollywood. I'm glad that line goes over. I got notes and notes about how I couldn't make the animals even seem like they're in danger, and not one about any of the women who get killed. That's the way they work. It's terrible, but we let them get away with it somehow.

As a pet-lover, I find that heartening. As a woman, I'm disturbed.

Me too. As a whatever I am.

Tell me about casting the dog, Bonny.

It was always written as a shih tzu. They brought in about five and they were all too frou-frou—they were all too LA. But then they went off and brought in Bonny—and her name is Bonny, too, in real life—and she was just perfect. She has these funny little eyes with one going off in one direction, and one going off in another. She was a scraggily little, what do you call them? Saved? Rescue. As soon as I saw her, I knew she was the one.

You did something unusual four years ago after In Bruges won a Best Screenplay nomination. Instead of pushing forward on a follow-up, you announced you were taking time off to travel and you'd come back to Hollywood in a couple years. Is this you finally coming back?

No, now I'm going to do it again, but for longer. I can't really do beach vacations, so I'm going to do more proper traveling after this: Argentina, Chile—I think I'm going to take a train down to the southern tip. But during then, I wrote a play that starred Christopher Walken [A Behanding in Spokane], so even though I was taking time off, I wasn't doing nothing for four years. But I'm not really interested in a Hollywood career—or a career at all. I've had a lot of luck with the plays. I just like coming up with a new story and trying to tell it well. I don't care so much about box office or keeping working.

Does that terrify your agent?

They're fine because there's always money coming in from the plays and they don't have to do jack shit.

Tracy Letts [the Pulitzer-winning playwright of Bug and Killer Joe] has been turning his plays into movies. Lately, your plays have starred Hollywood actors like Walken and Chris Pine. Would you ever turn them into films?

No, I've always been dead set against that. They should stay as they are. I think unless you think of a play as being the end product, you won't make a play as good as you possibly can. I always liked the plays to be cinematic, anyway. The Pillowman has a lot of visual elements to it and it could be a good film, but I think that you have to see it in a theater if you want to hear that story. I feel confident that I'm going to come up with enough stories to tell in both mediums not to have to rehash one for the movies. Also, that's usually done for money.

And who needs that stuff.

I do seriously believe in integrity as a writer. You shouldn't do anything for money. I promised myself I wouldn't do that before I ever started writing, and everything worked out so well that I don't know why I would change it now.

How do you decide when you're coming up with a story if it should be a play or a film?

If it's a bunch of guys or women talking in a room, then it's going to be a play. If it's hopping in time from Africa to a train in India to the Bowery, then it's going to be a movie. It's the scope of it. If you see the vista of a desert and three guys with guns out there, then it's gotta be a movie.

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