John Michael McDonagh is the man behind The Guard and he grabbed some extra attention with his latest effort, Calvary.
It's a very different film, much darker and denser, about a small town priest (Brendan Gleeson) who is told in the confessional that he's going to be killed in a week. Investigations ensue and he gets a new look at what his parisioners are really up to.
With the film hitting DVD and blu-ray in Ireland on the 8th of August, we got the chance to have a quick chat with McDonagh via email. He spoke (typed!)about what its been like since the film arrived in cinemas and has gone on to success in the United States. We also dove into spoilers from Calvary and took a look forward at the projects he's going to make next.
We got some very candid answers! Click here to be in with a chance of winning the movie on DVD.
It’s been several months since Calvary came out in Ireland, what was the general audience reaction like here?
A. It was the biggest Irish film of the year until Brendan O’Carroll showed up, so my feeling is we did pretty well.
And now it’s coming to home video – do you think it’s a good film to discover for the first time on DVD?
A. Yeah, but if you know anything about contemporary cinema you probably should have discovered it already.
Would you have a message (or a warning) for people who might plan on getting a chipper and watching it with their family on a Friday night?!
A. It’s not The Guard 2. So don’t be expecting that. You’ll know that after the opening line.
There’s no commentary on the disk this time, did you plan on doing one?
A. I tend to be a bit of a pretentious cinephile, so I didn’t want to bore people with my pontifications at this time. Maybe on a later release.
The film was on limited release and is due to expand, do you think that’s the best release strategy for a film like this with such a unique tone?
A. Yeah, I think so. Sony Pictures Classics did the same thing with The Guard, and it worked for them, so hopefully it will work in the same way, or better, for Fox Searchlight.
Do you keep up with social media reactions? How have the American public been taking to it?
A. It’s been playing really well. I’vebeen doing lots of interviews with faith based publications and they seem to have really taken to the film. Obviously the humour is very confrontational, but they seem to have appreciated the religious and philosophical questioning that underpins the film.
With the release all over the world, you’ve been doing press for almost a year now. Have you had any questions which makeyou see new aspects to your own film?
A. One question came up that surprised me: Does the story Aidan Gillen tells about a child plunged into a world of darkness (after an operation that went wrong) refer to the opening scene where the killer basically says he was plunged into a world of darkness following the abuse. I’d never thought of that before, but it’s true.
And what question would you rather never hear again!?
A. Who killed Bruno? Actually, I don’t mind that question. The question I never want to hear again is, Where did you get the idea for the film from?
Having watched the film so many times and talked about it for so long, are there any changes you wish you’d made?
A. I think it could be a little tighter here and here in the dialogue exchanges, maybe only split-seconds that an audience wouldn’t even notice. Apart from that, I’mvery happy with it. It’s the film I set out to make.
Would you be interested in working with such a large cast again?
A. Yes, definitely. Big ensemble casts make it interesting to shoot because thereare always new and exciting personalities coming in every day. It re-energises me, as the director, and I think, specifically on Calvary, it re-energised Brendan.
Did you run into any trouble with the MPAA over the content?
A. No, nothing.
Would you ever have considered making a softer cut of Calvary? Or, given the content, is there really no point in diluting it?
A. No, not at all. You either shoot the script or you don’t.
Did you ever consider subtitling the film for the international release?
A. No. We’ve been listening to American accents every day of our lives for the last 80 years. It’s time they started listening to us.
It’s interesting to note that Calvary releases in the States just a couple ofweeks before Frank – another high profile Irish release. Did you see Frank? What did you make of it?
A. Haven’t seen Frank yet, but I’m lookingforward to it. I’m hoping it’ll be poor.
Do you think this has been a marquee year for Irish cinema?
Frank is a film that scored well with critics but hasn’t really done much at the box office. Do you think American audiences will respond to it? Is it maybe a bit too niche?
A. I don’t care either way.
The Guard was a massive success here and Calvary didn’t do quite so well at the box office – was that more or less expected?
A. The box office returns of The Guard were so massive that I never expected such a confrontational and divisive film as Calvary to replicate the same success. But Calvary was bigger at the box office in Ireland than Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so not too shabby, hey?
Still with over $7 million it’s an incredible haul for an Irish indie. Was there ever a point where you were worried that audiences just wouldn’t get the film?
A. Irish audiences seem to be very receptive to filmmakers who are trying to do intelligent, entertaining work, so I felt quite confident we could reach them. The cast helps.
We’ve spoken before about the rivalry between yourself and your brother Martin McDonagh. So for your second movie –Calvary is currently better reviewed but has so far earned less than Seven Psychopaths, but it had a much larger budget. So who’s winning!?
A. By the time Calvary has finished its run, I’ll be winning. Although Daniel Radcliffe just did Martin’s The Cripple of Inishmaan on Broadway, and made a shitload of money, so maybe he’s winning? You decide.
There’s a random entry on IMDB which suggests Martin is currently working asthe chef on an Irish shot horror film called The Woods. Is there any truth to that?!
A. Yes, he’s perfecting his culinary skills on that movie. He felt like he needed to take a break from being a massively successful playwright and filmmaker. He makes a delicious jambalaya. [we suspect this is not entirely truthful...]
Last time we spoke you mentioned that you were hoping to get working on War on Everyone soon, with Garrett Hedlund and Michael Pena. Is that still the plan?
A. Yes. Michael and Garrett, first quarterof next year, in the Deep South. Really looking forward to it now, as I’ve been drinking long enough.
I also read that Guy Pearce could be joining up in a villainous role. Can you tell me anything about that character?
A. I think I shot my mouth off too soon about that one. Guy’s agent is no longer returning our calls, so we’ll see what happens. It’s a great script. Actors need great scripts as they don’t come alongthat often. Maybe they should keep that in mind when they’re swanning round Soho quaffing Bellinis.
This project has been in the works for a long time but do you feel like people will automatically make comparisons to True Detective once it starts shooting?
A. Nah. I love that show, but War on Everyone is like a cross between The French Connection and Hellzapoppin’. With an added dash of Chester Himes’ Gravedigger Jones/Coffin Ed Johnson novels.
You’ve mentioned you find shooting action scenes particularly boring, are there many planned for War on Everyone? Would you consider deferring that to a second unit director once you have a bigger crew?
A. There are a few action sequences, but they are all manageable (touch wood). I agree with Christopher Nolan aboutshooting everything yourself. I might let my brother shoot second unit, as I trust him, but he’d probably just tell me to fuck off.
And after War on Everyone, you’re going to work on The Lame Shall Enter First with Brendan Gleeson – but I read you haven’t started the script yet?
A. No, but I have the first 20 mins andthe last 20 mins in my head. I’ll write the script next summer, for shooting in 2016.
Do you feel like The Lame Shall Enter First will be darker again than Calvary?It certainly doesn’t sound like it could possibly be as openly entertaining as The Guard?
A. It’ll be an amalgamation of the first two films -- the black comedy will be similar to The Guard, and theconfrontational elements will be simila rto Calvary.
You’ve also talked about wanting to be abig budget action comedy – that’s still a dream of yours?
A. Yeah, I have a couple already writtenbut no one in Hollywood has the balls tomake them, they’re all pussies, basically.
Could you possibly speculate on a title?!
A. One is called CHAOS, INC. And the otheris called AVALON.
Those kinds of movies always have finales that take place in nondescript warehouses or office buildings, where would you like your big shoot out to happen!?
A. The CHAOS, INC. finale takes place onthe Las Vegas strip. The AVALON finale is a massive shootout on Catalina Island. How’s that sound?
SOME SPOILERS FOR CALVARY FOLLOW
You mentioned in another interview thatthe voice at the start is not that of the eventual killer – so who did the voicework?
A. A Dublin actor who is not featured inthe movie itself. He is thanked in the closing credits. He used to be a great tennis player but now I hammer him all the time. [We're going to guess this is Rory Keenan - who also featured in The Guard]
Was the ending always planned that way specifically? Did you ever consider other potential killers?
A. I didn’t decide on the killer until Iwas on page 65 of the script.
And was there always going to be a death at the end?
A. Father James was always going to die.
It feels suited to the tone of the film, anything else would be a cop out?
A. You could probably come up with a different ending that wouldn’t be a copout. But I start with the ending first and that never changes.
It’s not really a whodunit in the normal sense of the word but if it had a chooseyour own ending like the movie Clue, who else could have been the killer?!
A. I was originally thinking it might be the old man on the island, Gerald Ryan (M.Emmet Walsh), so when he asks Father James to procure him a gun it would be likeasking the priest to bring him the weapon that’s going to kill him. But then Idecided that was going too far.
Finally, as a film that’s getting a lot of attention at the moment I was wondering if you had seen Guardians of the Galaxy and whether you had any thoughts on it?
A. Haven’t seen it, but Chris Pratt has been doing press at the same time as us,and he’s been doing ten times the amount,so no matter how tired I feel, I’ve been thinking, well poor old Chris Pratt has been doing so much more!
Calvary is on DVD and blu-ray now.