Back in 2011, writer/director John Micheal McDonagh unleashed The Guard on unsuspecting audiences. And the comedy starring Brendan Gleeson went to become one of the highest grossing movies in Ireland of all time.
After that success, McDonagh decided to try something a little bit different and the result is Calvary – the story of a good priest in rural Ireland given just 7 days to live. It again stars Brendan Gleeson and is sure to shock and entertain audiences in equal measure.
We caught up with McDonagh while he was in town a couple of months ago to talk about the film, touching on subjects like his hopes for the new movie, working on a very tight schedule and the ongoing rivalry with moviemaking brother Martin McDonagh.
[This interview took place in person in Dublin on the 14th of February 2014]
CLICK: Is it good to come back to Ireland to do interviews?
JMD: Well it’s interesting to see what the responses are. Because I mean like at Sundance and Berlin you’re talking about the film as a film. As one about human beings where it could be set anywhere. But when you come to Ireland it’s seen as being a specific viewpoint on Irish society. Which its not really intended to be. It’s not an attack on Ireland. I say as far as I’m concerned it could be set in Spain. As long as it’s a small town it could be set anywhere. One of the earliest distributors to buy the script was from Germany. So they obviously connected with it in some way and Australia bought it and then we sold it to Fox Searchlight. Obviously when you’re back in the home country, where it’s set, people try to get out of you what you specifically think about the Irish nation and the Irish people and it’s like I don’t really have a set opinion. Its more you create characters first and then where will I set it? I know Ireland. The place in Sligo is where my mother’s from and I know those locations. I knew it was a big surfing destination where she was from, Easkey in Co. Sligo. So I thought that was a good kind of mythic backdrop. And I know a lot of Irish actors and after the success of The Guard, I could get funding off the Irish Film board. So it becomes a pragmatic decision in a way. The starting point of the film is not ‘what can I say about Irish society?’ That would be the last thing on your mind. I don’t mind people then reading into it what they want to but that’s not my primary goal.
CLICK: You had your first Irish screening last night – how did it go?
JMD: Yea it was good. Obviously you’re getting laughs on certain specific gags that you don’t get laughs on elsewhere. It’s good to see that those jokes work specifically for the people who would understand the jokes.
CLICK: Were you nervous about it?
JMD: No after the way it played at Sundance and Berlin I assumed it would play well. What I was worried about was that people who don’t like it would take it as a specific attack of Irish people. And also after the success of The Guard a lot of Irish people would know that I’m actually from South London. So they would have that sort of idea of ‘he’s a plastic Paddy.’ Which is quite offensive really, it’s really offensive.
CLICK: As someone with Irish parents who spent so much time here.
JMD: Yea exactly. And I think maybe at the height of the Celtic Tiger it would even have been worse. My parents left Ireland because they had to, to find work so they had no choice. I was born in London because they had to leave. And lots of people are leaving now. Maybe if we’d made the film 10 years ago it would have been completely written off as a really aggressive attack - ‘why are you saying this stuff?’ So I’ll be interested to see how it’s perceived. I think from the responses so far, it’s quite moving however you feel about the movie and it’s quite harrowing – as my mother said: ‘it’s very harrowing!’
CLICK: That’s the word she used?!
JMD: Yea, it’s harrowing! [laughs] So she didn’t like it! I think even people who don’t like it they kind of have to figure out what’s upset them and why they don’t like it. I don’t think it’s a film that can be dismissed easily. They can’t just walk out and go ‘I didn’t really like that, now I’m going to go to Johnny Rockets and get a hamburger and chips.’ They have to say why they didn’t like it, the reason and what upset them. I’m hoping most people will see what I think it is – a big Irish movie. A film set in Ireland that looks really cinematic and can play all around the world and will be perceived as a big movie.
CLICK: For fans of The Guard. Do you think they’ll be… shocked might not be the right word…
JMD: I think… the opening scene has a few comedic lines in it but it’s very, very dark. So they’ll understand by the opening scene that we’re going to go into a darker place than we did with The Guard. But it will still be funny. But I had the same sort of trepidatious feelings about The Guard. Will people find Gerry Boyle not like Irish people, unrepresentative of our humour and who we are? Will they focus on the character in that way? And they didn’t, it became a big success. I met older people who said it was the only movie they’d gone to see in the last five or ten years. I would hope people because it’s Brendan again and it’s funny/sad and it’s also got the kind of thriller hook. That I’ll get them in to see it and whatever happens after that, they’ll make up their own mind! But for a Friday night movie I’m hoping we’ll get people in. whether they’ll be so devastated afterwards that there’ll be great word of mouth remains to be seen! [Laughs]
CLICK: It’s a darker story but still funny. What makes comedy the right genre for you when you could do a drama?
JMD: Yea. I think anything I ever write will always have comedic elements in it because I just find. I quite enjoy watching heavy melancholic dramas. I can watch a Bergman film and Antonioni – there’s not a lot of laughs in Antonioni! But for myself just as a pragmatic thing writing I always try to look for humour, even in the most tragic situations. Just as a writing experience I find it boring to write straight drama. And when I’m filming I like comedic elements on set. And I cast a lot of comedy actors like Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Pat Shortt. Life is about comedy and tragedy – you could be at a party and then get a phone call saying your grandmother has died. So tonally that’s what happens in life but we don’t really see it in movies that often. If you don’t have humour in a film you’re casting aside quite an important part of your life really.
CLICK: Having made your first feature, was it easier making your second?
JMD: Yea it’s easier. We actually had a shorter shooting schedule. I think The Guard was 35 days and Calvary was 29. Which is too short really. What I’m worried about is if Calvary’s a success we’ll have all these producers saying that it worked in 29 days, why can’t you!? No one should have to shoot for under 30 days really. I was working with a lot of the same crew, with the same actors as well. So everyone sort of knew each other and we had the rhythm quite quickly. Larry Smith who is a great DP lights really quickly. And I always storyboard. Calvary was much more a classically made, more of an art-house film than a straightforward entertainment movie like The Guard was. So it was more sort of classically composed in a way. I don’t shoot a lot of coverage anyway. I find it boring. Coverage for me is when you see all these TV episodes and they’re shot from so many different angles and it’s like – why are you doing so many cuts!? It’s doing my head in! So even though I’m complaining about the 29 day schedule it actually does really focus your mind. So you don’t have anything superfluous, that you’ll pick up a shot just for the sake of having it when you get into the editing. Because if you don’t need them there’s no point in shooting them. I find it concentrates my mind really. I don’t really want to say it to my producer but I actually quite enjoy a reduced schedule!
CLICK: But with such a big cast the scheduling must have been crazy!?
JMD: I tell you what the great thing about a bit ensemble cast is – each day is different. You’d always have Brenden but then you’d have different people coming in. So Chris [O’Dowd] is in today, then David Wilmot, Dylan Moran. So it propels you through the week. The toughest scenes for me to film is a couple of scenes in the bar where there are a four or five characters and you’re stuck in that bar for two days and picking up shots. It becomes a jigsaw puzzle that you’re putting together rather than an enjoyable organic experience.
CLICK: And were a lot of them in and out in just a few days?
JMD: Yea. I mean Domhnall Gleeson I guess his big scene right in the middle of the movie, he was only there for half a day and a little post script at the end. So just a days work on the movie. The other thing I realised seeing the film last night is that because of the episodic structure of the film a lot of the actors are meeting each other for the first time. Because they didn’t actually meet. You assume when you watch a film that they had a great time but no because they’d never met! I mean obviously we would have had a read through – so they’d met each other once before filming. But they wouldn’t be great mates. They’d only get together after they’d seen the movie.
CLICK: And you used storyboards to speed up the process – is that something you did on The Guard too?
JMD: Yea. Sometimes I’m accused of being arrogant. I find what’s arrogant is when low budget filmmakers set out to make a movie and they haven’t pre-planned it in any way. So they’ll just turn up on set because I admire John Cassavetes and he did it this way. But actually John Cassavetes didn’t do it that way but they have this preconceived idea, especially low budget filmmakers. Like ‘we’re just going to rock up here and we’ll set up there and it will be great!’ But it’s never great, is it – it’s always shit! Preparation doesn’t mean that you don’t improvise or change stuff. It just means that you know how you can shoot the film and it will work and if when you get there the actors change something then you can work with it. But you have a schematic or… a blueprint that you can always go back to to get the shots done. If it changes that’s fine, that’s great. I’d never say that they can’t change something but to actually not prepare in that way you might as well throw money into a fireplace – what’s the point?! Especially on a low budget film where the money’s been so hard to come by in the first place. Why are you not prepared?! Why are you not watching movies that you think you want your movie to be like and taking an influence. Why aren’t you reading books to give you ideas!? I find there’s a kind of anti-intellectual approach to filmmaking. I don’t mean just in Ireland, it’s the same in the UK as well. America is more of an industry so it’s established. But I think there’s a real anti-intellectual approach.
CLICK: These kind of DIY filmmakers?
JMD: Yea a DIY free-wheeling approach – just show up and it will be great! I hate that attitude!
CLICK: Did you have any other movies of a similar budget in mind when you were working on Calvary?
JMD: Well, obviously the biggest one was Robert Bresson like the Arabic Country Priest but also Au hasard Balthazar – it’s almost like Brendan Gleeson’s character here is like the tormented donkey in Au hasard Balthazar. There’s a great underrated American movie called True Confessions – Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall with DeNiro as a priest. There’s a great Bergman film which I only saw just as we were in pre-production which is called Winter Light which is really, really good. And its only I think six characters in a small town. And when I saw that I thought Calvary could work because this works with only six or seven people. And I also liked a Carlos Reygadas film from a few years ago called Silent Night which dealt with spiritual issues but in a beautiful widescreen way. And again it was just three or four character but they looked really cinematic. So those were the main influences on it.
CLICK: You shot this on location, is that necessary for a film like this?
JMD: I think if you get the location right you’ve basically added a whole other character. That town in Easkey is where my mother’s from so I knew a lot of those places. We had a great location manager who found a lot of places. But there were some specific locations – like even when Dylan Moran and Brendan are standing on the cliff face at the end. That’s a place called the Dogs Hole in Easkey where they used to put unwanted animals in a sack and throw them off the edge! That’s where Dylan Moran’s standing. And that’s where I spent most of my summer holidays. I think that surfing backdrop adds a mythic element to the movie. It makes the film seem immediately bigger so it doesn’t feel like a small parochial Irish film. Even in the trailer you can see those helicopter shots and it feels like a big mythic film. Maybe not a high budget American film, with a glossy quick cutting thing. But it does feel like a big European art movie. Which was the intention obviously. And because I wanted to differentiate it from The Guard which was more of a straight ahead multiplex entertainment. I think there’s lots going on in The Guard, but it was conceived as more of a straightforward entertainment movie.
CLICK: We spoke when you were doing press for The Guard about the rivalry between yourself and your brother Martin. Is that different now because you both have two movies and they’ve both been well received.
JMD: Yea… well you see Seven Psychopaths was mixed!
CLICK: I wasn’t going to say!
JMD: So if Calvary does really well, that puts me at number one! [laughs]
CLICK: So the rivalry is still there!?
JMD: Yea! He’s getting a bit worried now. He still thinks In Bruges is the best of the four! [laughs] but I’m not sure about that.
CLICK: He actually said that?
JMD: Yea, he saw an early cut and he goes: ‘it’s better than The Guard but it’s not as good as In Bruges.’ But he failed to mention Seven Psychopaths! [laughs] Because it’s just the two of us whenever there are two brothers there’s always going to be a bit of rivalry. And we lived together for a long time… and a couple of years ago there was a Sight and Sound Top 10 movies and I think about 5 were the same in our lists. So we have similar sensibilities and read the same books and listen to the same music. And we got into an argument just last Wednesday at a five-a-side football game that stopped the game for about five minutes with everyone standing around listening to us. So we’re kind of aggressive confrontational personalities anyway, it’s always going to come out. But I think what’s happened since we both had success was that we’re more willing to give advice that’s not based on ego or competition. It’s more based on wanting the film that you’ve just seen an early cut of to be better! So it’s become a more healthy competition.
CLICK: You’ve made two small indie movies so far, but if you could make a film of any budget right now what would it be?
JMD: Well… I’d like to do a kind of… so if I clicked my fingers what would I do next? I’d like to do a big budget action comedy. I’ve got one script that is quite expensive to do. Calvary would have to be a massive worldwide hit for someone to give me $80 million to make it. But ideally that’s what I’d like to do, to move into a big kind of screwball action comedy.
CLICK: Like a Lethal Weapon, R-rated sort of thing?
JMD: Yea. Sort of like Lethal Weapon but crossed with the Marx brothers, something like that. I really want something like a cross between The French Connection and Duck Soup – that would be ideal! If I could click my fingers.
CLICK: And your next movie will actually be?
JMD: The next movie looks like it might go with Michael Pena and Garett Hedlund about two corrupt cops in Texas
CLICK: War on Everyone!?
JMD: Yea, War on Everyone. So that seems to be it. They’re already attached to it, it’s just trying to get the financing you want to make the movie you want. I think we need about $8-10 million. Let’s say Calvary is a success, that’ll be a help. If Michael and Garret have a film coming out that’s a success that’ll help and that will all get us the money hopefully to put the pieces together and add a few supporting actors that add financial value. So if we can get that it will probably happen in October/November 2014.
CLICK: And then you can do your $100 million film!
JMD: Well that would be the stepping stone to the big one! [laughs]
Calvary is in cinemas from the 11th of April 2014