Back in the mid-1990s playwright Martin McDonagh burst onto the theatrical scene with a cycle of plays that won him both plaudits and awards. Set in Galway, Ireland, his Leenane trilogy quickly became a staple of repertory houses across the U.S. and U.K. His second trilogy (which included the acclaimed The Cripple Of Inishman), further cemented his reputation as a darkly comic playwright whose work harkened backs to more traditional forms of storytelling. When his first non-Irish play, The Pillowman, premiered in 2003 it took home an armload of awards, including a pair of Tonys.
McDonagh first tried his hand at cinema in 2005, with a pitch black 27 minute film called Six Shooter. With a budget of $125,000 and Brendan Gleeson in the lead, it won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. This opened the door for McDonagh’s first feature, In Bruges, which paired Colin Farrell and Gleeson as hitmen holed up in the picturesque Belgian city. The movie mixed grim humor, moral hand-wringing, and sudden violence into an irreverent and hyper-literate cocktail.
This month McDonagh sees the release of Seven Psychopaths, his first foray into Hollywood filmmaking. The movie played at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival to enthusiastic audiences, winning the People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award. An exercise in blood-soaked meta fiction, it centers around a screenwriter named, ahem, Marty (Colin Farrell), who is suffering writer’s block. He gets mixed up with a pair of dog-nappers (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken) who unknowingly kidnap the adorable Shih Tzu of a psychotic mobster (Woody Harrelson). Needless to say, the movie features McDonagh’s trademark inky black sense of humor and a script that frequently digresses into tangential monologues and side stories.
I caught up with McDonagh at the festival, right before the film’s premiere. We chatted about the movie, his cast, and past work before discussing his approach to the craft of screenwriting.
Given your background in theater, I’m wondering whether there’s a fundamental difference in the way you approach writing for the screen versus writing for the stage?
Not really but it took me a longer time to get my head around the whole idea of writing a script. With a play you can have a series of three conversations in a room and that could be the whole show. Or nine if there’s nine scenes. But with a film you can jump around in time and space, you can have 10 scenes on one page. The jigsaw puzzle nature of that was hard to figure out. In two lines you can leap from here to 19th Century Spain and it’s all valid. But now I find it kind of freeing. Otherwise, it’s more or less the same thing. There’s nothing you can say in a film that you can’t say on stage or vice versa.
What about your ability to tinker with the script? When you work on stage you get the benefit of working with the actors to shape the lines or include them in the process of development.
True. But when I put a script out there, whether it’s a play or a film, I’ve kind of sat with it for a number of years and I don’t really change any of the lines going in. Certainly not in any of the plays. I’ve altered maybe two lines in each production. For films it’s more about cutting a scene here or there than actually changing any dialogue. It’s all pretty set in stone for me.
With Seven Psychopaths there was a little bit of improvisation into and out of scenes, because the boys are so good at that. With Colin [Farrell] and Sam [Rockwell] and Chris [Walken] you don’t want to box them in too much. That was probably what I learned most from this film, not to be so pedantic. And I think it paid off , especially because it’s already such an anarchic story anyway. It didn’t need to be as placed as In Bruges was.
With In Bruges it seemed to me… I don’t want to say it was theatrical because it’s certainly cinematic… but there seemed to be a more formal structure to the plotting.
Yes, yes very much so. And even the language was a bit more heightened. Seven Psychopaths is a little more bonkers.
Did you consider casting when you wrote the script?
There are some actor’s voices that I hear in my head. That’ll allow me to go to a certain place. Sam [Rockwell] is a good voice to have in your head. I’ve loved him as an actor for years. He has that thing where he can be funny then turn to scary or dangerous or even tragic.
But, no, I don’t usually write in a particular actor’s voice. Christopher [Walken] pretty much makes everything his own, just by his intonation or the way he restructures his dialogue. I think if you try to write something in his voice, however, it would come off as hokey and artificial. I did a play with him and now Seven Psychopaths and I can’t imagine anyone else playing either of the characters. He inhabits things so brilliantly, even though he’s got that particular style of delivery.
Have you ever considered letting someone else shoot your scripts, or vice versa?
No, because you spend so much of your life working on a film, pretty much two years from start to finish. You have to put your own stories out there. Or, at least, I do. And if you give your script to someone else to shoot it’s not yours anymore. The director is God. Whereas with a play no one can change your words. I’ve never actually directed any of my stuff on stage but I’ve had as much influence as the director. They can’t cut a single word. Instead they’re in rehearsal every day talking to the actors, getting it just right. The influence of writers in stage plays is so much greater than… well, it’s almost non-existent in films. Even the strongest voices can get cut out by a scumbag director.
When you were first learning to write a screenplay were there particular writers’ work you were looking at?
It was more about watching films to teach me. I guess I did buy the Taxi Driver script. Paul Schrader is a pretty amazing as a writer. At least, he was in the 70s. And Badlands is fantastic as a script. But really it was just watching those films, figuring out how to set up the first half hour, things like that. Certainly I’ve never subscribed to that whole 3 act structure stuff, that Robert McKee bullshit. Same with plays really. Hopefully that’s why some of my stuff is kind of fresh, it doesn’t really adhere to those principles.
I’ve always been more of a film lover than a play lover. I love everything from Terrence Malick’s stuff to the DeNiro/Scorcese films. Also A Matter Of Life And Death and Night Of The Hunter are some of my favorites films. Kurosawa has also been a big influence. I think Colin’s character Martin would love to make his Seven Samurai.
Which, of course, became Seven Psychopaths?
There used to be quotes about that in the script, that his title was a bit of a rip-off. But I figured the film was meta enough as it is.
I think you’d have to dig to say it’s a rip off.
(laughs) Well, wait for the director’s cut. Still, the title is certainly a bit of a rip-off.
But the story is a bit more like Rashomon.
Yeah, true, true.
Do you have any rituals for writing, a specific process?
I don’t write very often because I’m very lazy. But when I’m writing I’ll do a set number of pages a day, every day – usually two or three film script pages. And then I leave it. I never really plot it out beforehand, in either the plays or the films. I let the plot or story tell itself and let the characters take me to the place where they’re going to.
With Seven Psychopaths, even though it feels quite detailed, I didn’t really know where any of it was going on page one. I guess I did have a couple of the short stories I wanted tell within the film, like the Quaker Psychopath story, for instance, and the serial killer killers. So, I knew I had to hit those points. But as I wrote the script I realized that the Quaker character, for instance, was going to secretly become one of the main characters. So, that was fun, those things just kept opening up.
So, how does Martin McDonagh the director judge Martin McDonagh the writer? Are there points where you look at your script and say, “this just isn’t working”?
I kind of still think of myself more as a writer who’s been lucky enough to direct rather than the other way around. But that kind of thinking probably happens more in editing. It should happen in the process of going from page to on set. We’d save more money that way. But the script didn’t really change that much between when we got funded and the first day of shooting. There were scenes that I thought could never ever be cut. But then I got to the editing it was so simple to just chop things. We had like an additional half hour of footage that was in the final cut at one point. I think I’m a better editor now by going through that process. It was very weird to me that something I though had to be in the script could be so easily lost. It was a good thing to learn. I hope that’ll feed back into the next script.