Martin McDonagh has gained fame the world over for his darkly comic plays and films. The former include The Pillowman, the plays of his "Aran Islands" and "Leenane" trilogies, and the recent Broadway venture A Behanding in Spokane, starring Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell; the latter include In Bruges and the new Seven Psychopaths, which reunites McDonagh with Walken and Rockwell, who plays the deranged Billy Bickle. For his efforts, McDonagh has collected, among other prizes, an Oscar (for his short film "Six Shooter"), a BAFTA (for his In Bruges screenplay), and two Oliviers (for The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore). Rockwell has specialized in playing thugs, free-spirited misfits, and hapless actors. He was a maniacal villain in Charlie’s Angels, Chuck Barris in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and the two-headed President of the Universe in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. While he's been a darling of the indies—starring in Joshua, Snow Angels, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Choke and Conviction—Rockwell has remained in demand in studio pictures, including The Green Mile, Galaxy Quest, Iron Man 2, and Cowboys & Aliens. I spoke with McDonagh and Rockwell at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: Are any of these characters, by definition, really psychopaths?
Martin McDonagh: Aha! I was trying to add up how many real psychopaths there are in it.
Sam Rockwell: Yeah.
Martin McDonagh: I think there might only be three or four.
Sam Rockwell: Yeah, yeah, sure.
MM: We can't really say who is and who isn't, but—
Groucho: Your character's not really a psychopath, is he?
SR: Even Tom Waits is an ambivalent psychopath. My character is what?
G: Is not really a psychopath, is he?
G: He's capable of love.
SR: This is true.
MM: Yes, so in terms of what an actual psychopath is—
SR: Yeah, we take a little poetic license with our—
G: Sure, sure.
SR: But I think that—
MM: But I think they're actually all capable—they're all loving—
SR: They are. (Beat.) So there's no psychopaths—
SR: In this movie, really.
MM: But that wasn't going to be a good title.
G: Right, right. "No Psychopaths."
SR: "Psychopaths Who Love."
G: Right. Actually...a thought that occured to me in prepping for the interview was I wonder if you'll ever get violence out of your system, in terms of your writing, and maybe write a romantic comedy or something.
MM: Yeah, I always said someday I will write a rom com where hardly anyone dies at all. But I think this might have done it. Cause I don't really see my work as being particularly violent. I kinda see them all as comedies.
MM: They all have touches of that, but—. This has got a fair amount of violence in it, but a fair amount of discussing how ridiculous and empty that is too. And hopefully by the end of the film, that has been questioned. Y'know, we talk about Gandhi as much as we do about—
MM: Y'know, guns and all that kind of shit. But, no, I think—I've got the next script ready, and even though there's sort of violence —Sam's read it—and there's an undertone of a violent thing that happened throughout—there isn't really any very much violence on screen or in the film itself. It's all kind of an undercurrent of violence. But rom com, yeah. I hope to. A little Jennifer Aniston. A little thing somehow.
G: I'm afraid that might be a waste of talent.
MM: (Laughs.) It would be a very different rom com.
G: Yeah, right!
SR: It'd be like Tyrannosaur. Did you see that movie Tyrannosaur?
SR: It's about the—did you see that?
MM: No, I still haven't seen it.
SR: It's about the closest thing, I think. To a romantic comedy that Martin would make.
MM: (Laughs.) Aww.
SR: I love that movie! That movie's—
MM: I'm in a lovely romance now: maybe that's going to change me! I've got a lovely girlfriend and—. (Pause.) No.
MM: Why don't you believe that I could write a good rom com? (Chuckles.)
SR: I—I think—I think Tyrannosaur is—well, it's not a romantic comedy. But it is romantic!
SR: I think it's romantic, yeah. In a weird, dark way.
G: (Chuckles.) I think we have to concede that there's some philosophy at work in Seven Psychopaths, right?
G: It's kind of "Waiting, with Guns, for Godot."
MM: Ha ha! I like that.
SR: Huh. Well, that's interesting!
G: Because, y'know—
MM: Well, there's a lot of waiting out in the desert.
SR: Yeah, that's true. But I never thought of that.
G: I mean, they're like any writer who's staring at the blank page: they're waiting for the idea to show up and give them meaning.
SR: And maybe I'm doing Lucky's speech.
SR: Lucky has that big speech.
SR: Maybe I'm doing Lucky's speech, by the campfire [in the film].
MM: Oh, yes, yes, yes.
SR: I don't know, who the fuck knows.
(MM & G laugh.)
SR: Now we're just talking shit.
G: Yeah, right.
MM: (affecting Cockney accent:) We're not that smart!
SR: We're not that smart, exactly.
MM: For those kinds of allusions.
MM: We don't even know if it's "allusions"—is it?
SR: Illusions or allusions.
G: Ah, right. I'm going to get you guys in trouble here.
MM: Uh oh.
G: The film doesn't require a knowledge of post-'70s cinema, but it helps, right?
MM: (emphatically) Yes. Everyone should have a decent dose of post-'70s cinema. Or—well, I think '70s American cinema is my favorite decade of cinema.
SR: It's mine, for sure, yeah.
MM: And we watched a few. We've talked about Mean Streets, and we've watched Taxi Driver together.
MM: Even though I don't think they kinda imbue the film so much. Peckinpah was a big reference. Even Malick was in my head...thinking about the desert sequences.
G: The thing about—the gag of: we have two friends, one named Marty and one named Bickle. And I know marty also resonates with your own name—
G: Martin. But it seemed to me you could read the film—even though you play a very human character—you could also read it as an allegory where your character is an embodiment of screen violence, and he's—
G: He's almost like the devil on the shoulder saying, "I want to help you write an interesting story—"
G: "You need violence."
MM: Yeah. I think that's true. I kinda thought about that. Not so much that it would be heavy. But that was one of the things—y'know, that it's two voices: they're both Marty's voice.
SR: Yeah, so Hans [, played by Walken,] is part of the good voice, probably.
MM: Yes. Yes.
SR: Yeah. That's interesting. Yeah. Like that scene in Animal House with the devil, where's he gonna—(devil voice:) "Fuck 'er! Fuck 'er!" Remember that?
SR: (angel voice:) "Don't! No! Don't fuck her!"
(MM & G laugh.)
SR: "Stay strong."
G: On some level, I think there's a boyishness or an innocence or a naivete about violence that, maybe as a guy thing, guys don't ever really grow out of. And I wonder what your guys' experience was of going from "cops and robbers," maybe, as kids—what kinds of games, maybe, you played around violence—and then now to be playing with guns on a movie set and that sort of thing.
MM: Mmm! Well, for me, I would find it hard to make a film or tell a story where it was just purely a guy had a gun and it was cool. Or a cool cop story. So if there's a gun—both in In Bruges and in this, if you decide to pick up a gun, the story questions that behavior from the start. So it was questioned very heavily in the first one that if you shoot bullets around and it hits the wrong target, you're screwed. And there's a major sort of moral implication to pickin' up a gun. Similarly, in this, it's much more comedic and it's not as heavy at all, but it's still questioned, I think. Very much so. Obviously because I question it too.
MM: At the same time as I love a great, y'know, Peckinpah shootout. So it's that is part of what the argument is going on in my brain all the time.
MM: Y'know, a cool film, but not an empty, soulless, "guns are good" film.
G: Right. if you can ask the question—
MM: Yeah, yeah, exactly, while you're still doing a cool film with guys—
G: And you don't have to have too much Catholic guilt about it.
SR: Yeah, yeah.
MM: You can never have too much Catholic guilt.
(MM & G laugh.)
MM: (to SR:) You've missed out. On Catholic guilt. He can have some of mine!
SR: I had a little bit as a kid, but I got out quick. (Clicks tongue.)
SR: They brought me to chuch when I was a kid; I'd squirm in the seats.
MM: (Chuckles.) It never ends.
SR: It never ends, yeah.
G: So The Pillowman—
MM: Great play.
SR: Great play. Fucking great play!
MM: (Laughs heartily.)
G: Reflects a concern with—y'know, it sort of raises the issue of copycat violence.
MM: It touches on it, but that wasn't a major kind of theme for me; I don't think that's really so much what it's about, but go ahead.
G: I was just going to say: is it something that ever gave you hesitation, or was it something that you sort of looked at other people saying that and kind of scoffed at that notion? Because there's always that issue in the social sphere of movies are causing violence—
MM: No, I've never really gone along that route, really, even though Pillowman touches on it. No, but at the same time—like if someone saw Pillowman and carried out an act in exactly the same way, even though I don't think I'd be culpable, I would still feel guilt about it. And I think that's not just the Catholic thing; it's just a personal thing. Y'know. You can never say that you— 'cause any crazy can take any—you can go see a rom com—
G: And I think Kubrick overreacted, say, with Clockwork Orange.
MM: Yeah. Yeah. But that seemed more a reaction to media, and the British media, which one should always overreact to. 'Cause it was only in Britain that he refused to show it. Which seemed unfair when I was growing up. (To Sam:) You couldn't see Clockwork Orange. It was banned in England. It was banned by him in Britain. So you'd have to go to—and it used to run in Paris, every night. So people would go to Paris to see it.
MM: Because there [were] copycat acts of violence, and the media chastised Kubrick, and he said, "Well, I'm not showing it ever again in Britain." Now you can see it. But—
MM: But I—
MM: No, it's too—you'll never write anything new, never put any art out there, if you're going to be worrying what some crazy's going to do.
G: Yeah. You guys had a working relationship on a Broadway play, A Behanding in Spokane—
SR: Yeah, yeah.
G: And then transitioned into making the film together. I wonder how that relationship evolved, what it was like working on a stageplay and then taking that process into the film world.
MM: We almost worked together way before that. I guess we knew each other for a few years before that.
SR: Yeah. Yeah.
MM: With LAByrinth, the theater company you were associated with for a while. And we almost did Pillowman together. So I'd wanted to work with Sam for years and years. So, yeah, Behanding in Spokane was a good start for us; I think we learned—
SR: Yeah, it was a great kind of apprenticeship to Seven Psychopaths because I was playing a character—well, Chris Walken was playing a character who was probably more similar to Woody [Harrelson in Seven Psychopaths] or Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges, but I was playing a character—it probably had aspects of Hans, maybe, but he was more of a vengeance kinda—but I was playing a character who was kind of a more—a geekier version of Billy, and a younger version of Billy maybe is a better way to put that. Billy's kind of Mervin if Mervin really put a gun in his hand and was dangerous, you know?
SR: Right? I mean—
MM: Mervin was the guy behanding. Yeah, it's like: he hasn't gone all the way yet.
SR: He hasn't graduated, yeah. Billy's graduated. Yeah.
MM: Yeah. But I feel like that now. That was like a dress rehearsal for this or something.
SR: Yeah, I think so. Definitely, definitely.
MM: I just get to practice things on Broadway to then make proper art. (Laughs.)
SR: Yes. Exactly.
G: What kind of language did you guys develop to get the best—
SR: Well, he was—
[A publicist pops in to give the "two minute" signal. Which is, in England, the equivalent of a bird-flip.]
SR: There we go.
MM: In England, that's a helluva—
SR: Yeah, right. He was not directing this [Behanding], so he was pretty quiet. But then...we had a rapport; we had a rapport, anyway. And we would talk anyway. But—I don't know. I think it just was "get to know each other" kind of thing.
MM: Yeah. And I think we're just honest with what we're trying to get the character to be. And I'm not the kind of director who, y'know, helps an actor or—I think you just cast the best actors, you have a good script, and you let them—you kind of get out of the way of that process, really.
SR: Yeah, but you're really bright; you're really intelligent about articulating what you need. And also he's got a good temperament. Y'know. He's not an asshole. Which is very, very—
MM: I think that's half the job, is—.
SR: Really, is being a nice person, y'know. And being patient with actors.
MM: Liking actors: I think that's the main thing. There are so many directors who don't.
SR: Yeah. Yeah. That's right.
G: In the press notes, you say, "I keep thinking about someone who would write this type of story." In other words, you.
G: So who is the type of guy who would write this story?
MM: Uhh, someone confused. Someone who wants to, like we said before, do a Peckinpah film but is thinking along Malick terms.
MM: With laughs! With Woody Allen thrown in, too. Sort of 1970s Woody Allen.
MM: And rabbits!
SR: Lots of rabbits!
MM: That's my head.
G: They said never to work with animals, but you told them: "No!"
MM: (Laughs.) Yeah. "We want fifty."
G: (Laughs.) Alright, I gotta wrap it up here, guys, but thank you.
SR: Thanks a lot.
MM: Thanks a lot.
SR: Thanks, man. Thanks a lot. Thank you.