In addition to writing and directing the short film "The Second Death," John Michael McDonagh penned the screenplays for Ned Kelly and the Irish crime comedy The Guard, with which McDonagh also makes his feature directing debut. Born in England to Irish parents, McDonagh grew up alongside his brother Martin (the Tony Award-winning playwright of The Pillowman and writer-director of In Bruges), who serves as executive producer on The Guard. I spoke to John Michael McDonagh at his first stop on an American press tour: San Francisco's Prescott Hotel.
Groucho: Your film career began in 2000 with your short film, "The Second Death." Can you talk a little bit about how you came to make your first film?
John Michael McDonagh: The short film I made—let’s say you can kind of pick up money and get development deals, not as much in London as you can in L.A. but you can make enough. I eventually saved up my money to do the short because nobody gives you money to do short films either...in a way I think making short films is to try to prove to each other that you can actually do it. You can work with actors. You can shoot it. You can work with the DP and everything. So once—I did that and, okay, I can use this now as a calling card. But what happened not long after that was that a screenplay I had written then got made: Ned Kelly. I’m kind of essentially a lazy person. I think that was kind of well paid. And I sort of went on a lot of holidays with the money for a few years. So it was only when it ran out that I got back into gear again, and I’m thinking, hang on, I’ve done that short film; I can show that to people. I should start writing lower budget films that I can actually direct myself. Because I’d written a lot of big-budget stuff. But, you know, no one is going to give you $60 million to direct a movie with that budget. So I then started saying I’m now writing films from about from five to fifteen million dollars, and hopefully, someone will give me the money. And to be honest, once we got The Guard set up, people were like, okay, you did a short film, but they weren’t that interested in seeing it or anything. So it didn’t have a big impact. But I think the main thing was a lot of the actors who were in The Guard were in the short. So I had a good relationship with those people. People like Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot—who play two of the villains. So it was good. In a way, I think making short films is a way so you don’t feel so crushingly nervous when you arrive on set for your feature—for your first day.
G: It’s ironic that, on paper, it looks like it took you a decade to move from—literally, it did—to move from the short to—
JMM: Yeah. And the years go by. You think, God, that was ten years.
G: But on the other hand, once you had the script, it moved very quickly to green light.
G: What accounts for how quickly this got off the ground?
JMM: I wrote it really quickly, and maybe there was some kind of freshness and speed to it. I was also kind of—the Ned Kelly film didn’t work out the way I had wanted it to, so I was kind of angry with how that worked out. I think that a lot of that anger and bitterness and contempt formed in the character of Sergeant Gerry Boyle that Brendan Gleeson plays. So it kind of—I wrote it really quickly and then it went out. We did it through my company, Reprisal Films, that we’d done the short with. And we went out via my brother—who is Martin McDonagh, who wrote, directed and produced—to Brendan. And Brendan read it, I think, within twenty-four to forty-eight hours. And then we went out a few days later to Don, and Don, knowing that Brendan was attached to it—he read it really quickly and said "yes." So by the end of the week, we had the two actors. And I think the fact that it reads as a laugh-out-loud comed—the film has more elements going on. There’s sort of a melancholy edge to it. And there are kind of cop thriller elements to it. But the fact that on every page there’s a big laugh, and there’s a lot of laugh-out-loud elements in the film itself, so I think people go "Okay, it’s a broad comedy, we’ll put our money behind that." It’s something they could easily see. And so we went from around Christmas 2008 and we finished shooting around Christmas 2009, which is—anyone who knows anything about the film business knows that’s extraordinarily fast—really fast.
G: You mentioned the kind of anger underlying the script. In reading to do my research, your talking about that reminded me when Chuck Palahniuk says he wrote Fight Club out of his anger and frustration at having been rejected for his material. He said, "Well, screw it. I’ll just write what I want to write."
G: So obviously, a lot of the best work comes out of this sort of anger. Would you say Boyle is your id unleashed?
JMM: Yeah. I mean, that’s a good way of putting it. I mean there’s certainly—there’s an anti-authoritarian aspect to a lot of the comedy in it. It’s very edgy and confrontational. I mean, basically the character is a man who is at the end of his tether and is prepared to say or do anything at any given moment. And there’s no way of sort of controlling him or containing him. I know his character—they sort of just propel a narrative. You never know what they’re going to say or do next. And also it lends itself to the sense if you do want to get in kind of thriller elements—I mean, generally speaking, if we’re watching a movie with Tom Cruise, we know he’s not going to die at the end.
JMM: But if you’re watching a character where you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen in the next scene, I think it lends a sort of tension towards the narrative, so you’re not quite sure if he is going to survive the climax or not, you know?
JMM: It’s all that kind of thing. But yeah, I’d say I’m a big fan of those '70s movies—late '60s, early '70s movies that all had this sort of anti-authoritarian edge to them as well. So there are a lot of dumb jokes in the movie, but there are other jokes that are, let’s say, a bit more pointed and confrontational.
G: Yeah. One of the engines of the film, in a way, is genre. You talk about that, in a way, it’s a western. And we have this character who’s—he’s sort of a reluctant hero or a hero by default.
JMM: He basically only does anything at the last possible moment.
G: He’s resigned to being a hero.
JMM: He’s probably somebody who once wanted to be a hero and got completely disillusioned by the people he was working with in the police force in a small town and became—you know, Brendan has said that he sees him as this kind of doomed romantic figure: nothing ever worked out the way he wanted to, because his integrity was so well defined that everyone just disappointed him. And so finally in this film when the villains arrive, in a way he’s being pushed in this situation where he finally has to put up or shut up or be the hero you always wanted to be: you know, the High Noon situation.
G: And that’s also mirrored by the subplot of—he’s sort of being pushed into this emotional corner—
G: By his mother’s illness. And that’s kind of forcing something out of him as well that he might not otherwise deal with. Can you talk about what you were going for with that?
JMM: Well, he has—there’s these sequences with his mother. Then there’s the sequences with a woman who’s the wife of a cop who’s gone missing. And then there’s this little kid who keeps popping up at various points during the narrative. And in a way, they’re sort of the family—the kid and the woman are sort of the wife and son he never had and never will have, I guess, in a way. And the mother—she’s dying, she’s leaving him. So it’s almost as if there’s this parallel life he could have once had and he knows he’s not going to have it. And I guess that moves us towards a kind of –it’s a kind of ambiguous ending, really, what we’re heading to. So, you know, even though there are laughs all the way through, and there are laughs at the end as well, there is that kind of melancholy subtext as well. ‘Cause as you were saying about subverting the genre—because I try to subvert the genres in the sense of people: cops coming into a crime scene, they deal with all this stuff we’ve seen a hundred times before. So I’ll try to do what would be the exact opposite of that scene where you have them destroy evidence or being bored, not being interested. And so you try to follow that all the way through, so it’s like, oh, it’s going to be a buddy cop movie, but then it’s not. It kind of veers off. He sees his mother and he sees—he’s got two prostitutes that he likes to come down to visit him from Dublin, and then he veers off with this kid—what’s this kid that he’s found a cache of guns?
JMM: So it’s like we’re setting up for the audience "This is what it’s gonna be"—and then we go "No, it’s not—we’re going to veer off."
G: Right. Yeah, I was going to ask you about that buddy cop aspect too. Because it does sort of set that expectation at a certain point that it’s sort of like a Galway Lethal Weapon or something, you know?
JMM: Yeah. And whenever I play with—Don Cheadle expects to help him with the case; Gleeson’s Boyle says "No. It’s my day off." And he just disappears in the city for his day off. And Don has to wander around on his own in Connemara. So you can play off the sorts of, I guess, as it’s termed, a "fish out of water": Don wandering around the Connemara landscape. But then it all kind of—so it meanders in ways I find are quite funny, you know, and amusing, and then it all starts to come back in again for the last thirty minutes as we head towards that conclusion.
G: Let’s talk a little about Connemara. What of the landscape and the character of the place were you determined to get onto film?
JMM: Well, the landscape is a bleak, sort of windswept place. It’s not sunny there that often. Although the one day we needed the sun is when Mark Strong is on the pier, and we got it. So we got lucky on that one. And so, it has that bleakness. But the main thing is my parents live in Connemara so I go over quite often. But I was brought up in South London. And the South London and Connemara people have a similar sort of, let’s say, sarcastic, deadpan view of life, you know? Nothing really impresses them that much. And they sort of enjoy needling people for their own amusement—let’s put it that way—which Boyle obviously does. So I don’t find it too difficult getting the voice of West Ireland because I kind of felt I had it growing up where I was in London and in that town. It’s kind of like that kind of London—it’s a working-class, kind of hard sort of place. And there is there the kind of idea—I guess Wendell Everett, the Don Cheadle character, expects everyone to be impressed by him as an FBI man coming over to help solve this case, and obviously Boyle is not impressed at all. So that is sort of the starting point for a lot of comedy in the film.
G: Now for us Yanks who may not be aware, explain the significance of Daniel O’Donnell.
JMM: Daniel O’Donnell—I don’t know what the equivalent would be because—it wouldn’t be Tony Bennett because Tony Bennett is a great singer: people like him. Daniel O’Donnell would be a less say—a much more contemptuous—he’d be sort of like a lounge singer who’s—
G: More a Tom Jones maybe?
JMM: No, well, see Tom Jones is like—it’d be like—most of Daniel O’Donnell’s fans would be, say, women in their sixties and seventies who like a nice cup of tea and gentle music on the radio. Now that’d be Daniel’s fan base, which is fine. The thing I like about him is that he has sort of integrity in the sense that, okay, that’s his fan base and that’s who he appeals to. He doesn’t care really whether the kids like him or not, you know. Yeah, but I mean Brendan—the poster is on the wall in Boyle’s bedroom and Brendan was always "Why is it there? Why would he have this poster on the wall?" and this kind of stuff. But there’s a bit in the last third of the film where Brendan’s character is making a very tense phone call, and he kind of—Brendan glanced up and looked at the poster, and I suddenly thought, "Oh, Daniel O’ Donnell is Boyle’s conscience. He wants him to do the right thing, you know." So that’s the way we came up with it. But there was a scene in the script where Boyle rings up an IRA man to ask him for a passport to help him get out of the country. And he asks for the name on it to be Daniel O’Donnell because nothing bad ever happens to Daniel O’Donnell, so he can escape using this passport, but I thought—see, that makes the ending less ambiguous. It implies that Boyle will get away, so I cut it for that reason. So there are two things to it. Yes, Boyle has Daniel O’Donnell on his wall, but he plays Chet Baker.
He knows he's screwing around with people there.
G: Right. You’ve got a terrific cast here down the line. People like Fionnula Flanagan and Liam Cunningham. Working with them—I know you worked with Liam on the short film as well—what have you sort of gleaned about the actor’s process? Do they work very differently?
JMM: Yeah, that’s the thing. I mean we’ve also got Mark Strong, who—it was great to get him at the time because he was doing a great deal of work and I thought we’d never get him. And he responded to the script like everybody else did. And another actor, David Wilmot, who plays one of the villains. It’s basically, people say, "Oh, how should you work with actors?" and "What’s your process?" and all that. But, you know, all actors are individuals: all human beings. You have to work with each one in a different way. I’d say most of the people we cast are not, let’s say, divas who need lots of preparation—you have to soothe their troubled souls or anything. Most of these are professional working actors who arrive prepared, and they’re set to go off the "Action" and "Cut" basically. Brendan would do a lot of rehearsing. Don—I think we just did a day and a half because he likes to keep it fresh. He actually doesn’t like to have it too planned out, what he’s going to do when he arrives on the set. Whereas Brendan obviously—Brendan—is in virtually every scene, so he’s keen on knowing each day the sort of progression of the character. So we rehearsed Brendan with Liam, and then we rehearsed Brendan with all three villains and all that kind of stuff. So we went through in that way. But mostly, I think, because I’m the writer and the director, I think they were pleased [that] if they had any questions, you know, the person who wrote it is there as well, because he’s in the person of the director. So it was quite easy. You know, Fionnula Flanagan came in and bang, bang, bang did a scene: it was fine. There was no—Katarina Cas, who plays the wife of another policeman who’s gone missing—I mean she—it was probably her first major role. I’d seen her in a tape for a Terrence Malick film; I think it might have been Tree of Life. I’d seen a lot of actors before, and we just got hold of her audition tape and she was great. So she did it. And she’s the same: very down to earth. And I wanted a really good sense of humor. I think people who responded to this script—because of the nature of the comedy, the dark edgy comedy, I think the people who liked the script, they were kind of the personalities that were all going to get along anyway.
G: Yeah. That makes sense. What formed your sensibility? There’s a sort of oxymoronic, cheerful cynicism, I think, that comes across there. And there’s the taste for violence and the cutting humor. Do you have a sense of where that all came from in your—?
JMM: Well, I was—I started off—I’m basically a failed novelist. I used to write—I wrote about four or five novels. So I was a big fan of William Faulkner, and Borges and Nabokov and all those sort of people. So I had these high falutin’, pretentious—I was going to become this great author. And then I realized—basically after you keep hearing the manuscripts plopping back on your mat on the bottom of your door—I realized it’s not going to happen, so you kind of veer it into screenplays because I was kind of on the dole. I was watching lots of movies all the time, and it’s an easy discipline because, you know, a character arrives at a house, you don’t have to describe their house, you just say, "Exterior – House."
JMM: You know, that’s the big advantage with a screenplay over a novel. So it came out of that. I think the darkness—the dark comedic sort of stuff—comes from, when I set up sequences, especially like for a buddy cop movie, you set up those sequences that we’ve seen in movies before. The cop arrives at a crime scene. And then, as I’m writing, I kind of get bored and I think, "Well, what would be the exact opposite? We’ve seen this a hundred times before—what could he do or what could happen in this scene that no one will have seen before?" So that’s my process: I try to flip the scenes. So I sort of set it up as a cliché, then flip it around. And I kinda—I do find it hard to maintain a level of seriousness—all the way through a script. I like to get in dark humor as much as I can—I think, because that’s what life’s like, really. I don’t like movies that are just po-faced and serious all the way through.
JMM: I think you have to deal with humor, you know? Life’s about humor as well as everything else.
G: You mentioned before you schooled in London and your parents had moved back to Galway, right? Was that a comfortable situation for you growing up or did you feel a little bit of abandonment or resentment?
JMM: Well, no, myself and my brother were probably sort of two of the laziest sons you could ever hope to have, especially when we’re both saying we’re going to be great writers and we’re not going to get a proper job. I’m sure that was quite shocking to my mom and dad as it would be to most parents. And eventually, we did achieve some success so it worked out. But there were some tense times there. In a way—I still live in the house I grew up in, so in a way, my parents left and we stayed. Martin eventually moved out when he made all this money from these plays. But, you know, we’d go back and visit them quite a lot and Ireland's changed quite a lot over the years. I mean in the '90s you had all the Celtic Tide, and everyone was very bullish and people lent lots of money and all this kind of stuff. And so you were seen as a bit of an outsider and all that. But, you know, that’s gone now. Like most places, the recession here has crashed everywhere. And so that level of arrogance is gone, in a way. But, from the people there, I wouldn’t have been treated differently or anything like that. You only come in for a few weeks for holiday and then go out again, so it was fine. You know, I didn’t experience a lot of sort of antagonism or anything. But it’s interesting. I think most countries—people were living high on the hog for a long time and then not anymore. And I think the film—The Guard has been very successful in Ireland. It knocked Bridesmaids off the number-one spot last week. I think there’s something in the character of Gerry Boyle, that somebody really does not care anymore and is really annoyed with the way people in authority try to treat him. I think that might have connected to something in the Irish zeitgeist because people seem to be flocking to the film, and I think it is basically based on their response to Brendan’s character in the film.
G: You talked about, in writing, sort of doing the opposite to get that unexpected twist on the material. I also, in my research, came across you saying that this film is basically the opposite of Ned Kelly. Were you half-joking?
JMM: Yeah. I was doing that introduction at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and I basically said that Ned Kelly was a bourgeoisie, boring—I was rattling off all the things—and that The Guard is the exact opposite of that, which is kind of an arrogant thing to say but, you know, when you’re introducing the film—the opening night movie at the Edinburgh Film Festival—I thought I had to do something that would make the crowd sit up and take notice. You can get a bit carried away in those situations. I’ll say, you know, I think especially with a studio movie, there are often, let’s say, safe, conservative choices that are being made all the time. When you’re making an independent film, and you’re left alone for the most part, as I was, you can make, let’s say, less conservative—and by conservative, I’m not talking about politically, I mean sort of less conservative artistic choices. You can push the narrative in different ways. You can go against the grain, because obviously, you want your film to be a success. You want it to make money. But you don’t—the film cost $6 million, 6 or 7 million. So the pressure to recoup $100 million or $60 million, which is about what studio movies cost now, is—the pressure isn’t as great on me. See, you’re given a little bit more leeway to push various elements of it, you know. And, you know, the comedy in the film is pretty confrontational. It’s pretty heavy, it’s pretty edgy, it’s pretty dark. And I was never really asked to curtail it. The financiers left me alone for the most part.
G: I want to talk about the aquarium scene.
JMM: It’s funny, because we’re in San Francisco because I remembered it’s a riff on Lady From Shanghai, which is San Francisco over here. And it was also—
G: A lucky accident.
JMM: A lucky accident. It was also a lucky accident, because that scene initially—it was meant to be set on a roller coaster—because I thought it would be funny to have the three villains plotting while they’re racing around the track, going up and down. I didn’t realize when we arrived on location—I didn’t realize those things: the roller coaster can be packed up and shipped off seasonally—because we were there in winter. And so they packed it off and sent it away and it was gone. But of course I knew the area. I looked along on the coast, and I said, "Oh, there’s an aquarium down there. Maybe we can do something with that." And we went in and there were these great, massive conger eels that were floating around in this tank. And they looked amazing—really sinister. I knew the minute we turned the light on, they’d disappear. So in the sequence, you just see one of their heads poking out of a pipe. But there was a whole mass of them and that was gone.
G: Good timing though on that. You got lucky on that one shot anyway.
G: But it’s the sort of thing actors hate, I’m sure, because the money shot is going to be the one where the animal is on. It’s doing it perfectly not when you are, necessarily.
JMM: 'Cause we even got—we grabbed the shot of this shark spinning around in the water in the sequence. And I know when you watch it with an audience, the audience will go "Oh God, look at that shark spinning around," and they’re not listening to what the characters are saying. Yeah, and that must infuriate the actors.
G: But it is—it’s a great little moment. It has—it seems like almost a sexual or power metaphor when this eel comes poking out at just the right moment.
JMM: Yes. Yes. You have all those sort of things going on, and it’s planned against the scene. Now we always have these scenes in movies where villains are—they’re doing their plot and they’re so aggressive, and they want to achieve this and they want to get that. And I thought, "Well, let’s do a scene where the villains are completely bored with their life. They don’t really want to be villains anymore. You know, they want to do something else, but it’s all they know. So they have to follow through on it." So that—going back to twisting the genre around, I thought, "What haven’t we seen before? I don’t think we’ve seen villains who are bored." So that’s sort of the—especially Mark Strong’s character.
G: Now, inevitably, I’m sure you’re constantly fielding comparisons with your brother’s work, and I wonder how much you see of him in you or you in him in terms of your writing and directing.
JMM: Well, we share the same dark humor. Obviously because we grew up together, we’re all pretty big fans of the same movies, really. I mean, you know, we’d watch the same shows and films together. My favorite movies are like Badlands and The Night of the Hunter and his are the same. So we have entirely similar sensibilities. I think we both like those sorts of cop thriller movies, buddy cop movies and all that kind of stuff. But we don’t want to write them straight. We want to subvert them. So we have that similar aspect to our personalities. I think that, in regards to The Guard—I mean, I think with The Guard, if people liked In Bruges, they’re gonna like The Guard. So I think it reminds me of the executive producer on the film, and I think it helps—you know, people would say, "I haven’t seen it. What was it about? Would I like it?" And I always say, "Well, if you like In Bruges, you’d like The Guard." It’s a quick way of summing the movie up. It’s an easy seller. And I think a lot of people forget, In Bruges has become quite a big cult hit. When it was originally released, it didn’t make a massive splash. It was kind of—it sort of got mixed reviews. And it’s only over the last few years that it’s sort of –its cult reputation has grown. And in a way, I think it paved the way for when The Guard was released in Ireland; people kind of latched onto it because they knew what they were gonna get with the sensibility, really.
G: Obviously you two are supportive of each other in that he helped you get Brendan Gleeson onto this film and so on and so forth—as you say, being executive producer. But you’ve also alluded to butting heads with him as brothers will do. And he wrote a play about arguing brothers: Lonesome West.
JMM: Yes. It’s probably my favorite one.
G: Is there a certain amount of confessional there about your—you guys’ dynamic?
JMM: Well, in that play, one of them has shot the father and the other one’s coming out. But they never argue about big things like that. They argue about really—like one of them had their packet of crisps stolen by the other. So they’re focused on the most meaningless aspect of life, but all the big things don’t bother them—like murder and rampage and all that sort of stuff. And I think we tend to—we don’t read each other’s scripts or comment on each other’s careers or—but we tend to argue about—we play a lot of tennis together. We argue about very tiny things, you know. So yeah, we flip out over the most meaningless arguments and all the big things like reading each other scripts or asking how you’re getting on with your film—because he’s got another film set up that he’s going to shoot later this year—we don’t really get into that.
G: Well, it’s been great talking to you.
JMM: Thank you.
G: Thanks a lot. Good luck with the film.
JMM: Thank you.