Empire eaves­drops as John Michael Mc­don­agh records his War On Ev­ery­one com­men­tary

Empire (Australasia) - - Re.view - WORDS IAN FREER

“NO C-BOMBS. NOTH­ING il­le­gal.” This ad­vice is be­ing given to John Michael Mc­don­agh, writer/di­rec­tor of War On Ev­ery­one, just as he steps into a record­ing booth to lay down the film’s com­men­tary track for the UK home re­lease. (The Aus­tralian re­lease doesn’t in­clude the com­men­tary, sadly.) For a man whose films con­tain enough rude words to fill a dozen swear jars, this seems like a case of stat­ing the bleedin’ ob­vi­ous, but the An­glo-ir­ish di­rec­tor in­sists he’s got a bad rap. “I don’t do too much ef­fin’ and blindin’,” he says. “I don’t say ‘c__t’ in my nor­mal daily life, but when peo­ple say, ‘Don’t say “c__t”,’ it does put that lit­tle thought in your mind.” Bet this never hap­pens to Werner Her­zog.

Empire has been in­vited to the base­ment of this Lon­don record­ing stu­dio on a crisp De­cem­ber day to bear wit­ness to Mc­don­agh lay­ing down his talk track on his third movie, a fun and funky tale of cor­rupt cops on the take in New Mex­ico. The di­rec­tor, clad in a white track­suit top and jeans, is in re­laxed form. But he takes talk­ing about his own movies very se­ri­ously. For to­day’s ses­sion, he watched the film the pre­vi­ous day and made co­pi­ous notes. It’s fair to say his mem­ory was jogged.

“I no­ticed there are lines of di­a­logue I’ve lifted from other movies,” he says. “At the end where Terry [Alexan­der Skars­gård] says, ‘That was some cold shit,’ I re­alised I lifted that from Shaft. When I did a com­men­tary on The Guard, they said, ‘Don’t say, “I stole or lifted this idea,” say, “This is an homage.’” Maybe that’s Amer­ica, where they are more liti­gious.”

The Guard, his de­but, was also Mc­don­agh’s first time be­hind a mi­cro­phone. The com­men­tary for that film fea­tured a rau­cous joint ef­fort be­tween the di­rec­tor and his stars Bren­dan Glee­son and Don Chea­dle — “The two of them were tak­ing the piss so all my se­ri­ous film ref­er­ences were lost,” he mock-laments. But for his fol­low-up, Cal­vary, the di­rec­tor opted out of lay­ing down his thoughts be­cause it “was such a philo­soph­i­cal, spir­i­tual film, I felt it needed a lot of time to pre­pare for do­ing a com­men­tary”. War On Ev­ery­one doesn’t have such lofty am­bi­tions, so he’s more than happy to do a com­men­tary — and with Skars­gård and his co-star, Michael Peña, un­avail­able in the States, he’s fly­ing solo. It’s the per­for­mance aspect that wor­ries him the most.

“Direc­tors are not ac­tors, which is why you’ll find [their] com­men­taries [can be] a bit dry,” he says. “There are very few, I think, where you can lis­ten all the way through. ‘I love this ac­tor. I love that ac­tor.’ It’s so bor­ing.” In­stead, the

Mc­don­agh MO en­com­passes “a lit­tle bit of be­hind-the-scenes, a lit­tle bit of com­edy and tech­ni­cal info”. As such, his own com­men­tary

tastes run to Wim Wen­ders on Paris, Texas (“Some good sto­ries on Harry Dean Stan­ton”), the “es­o­teric knowl­edge and fan en­thu­si­asm” of James Ell­roy, and the unique vo­cal stylings of a cer­tain act­ing leg­end.

“Jack Nicholson re­peats what hap­pens on the screen for the An­to­nioni film The Pas­sen­ger,” he laughs. “It was like Catch­phrase. But I still lis­tened to it be­cause it was

Jack Nicholson.”

Armed with his notes and a Corona (per­haps to get into the film’s heat-hazy vibe), it’s time for Mc­don­agh to slip into the booth and, af­ter the oblig­a­tory, “What did you have for break­fast?” ques­tion to test the lev­els (a ham sand­wich and banana, if you must know), start the ses­sion. Be­gin­ning by rat­ing the pro­duc­tion com­pany idents, he de­liv­ers his favoured mix­ture of film- buff ref­er­enc­ing (the car wash shot was “nicked” from Harold And Maude), be­hind-the-scenes trivia (the Mar­cel Marceau mime in the be­gin­ning was orig­i­nally con­ceived as Char­lie Chap­lin) and off-screen juice (he glee­fully points out the day ev­ery­one was hun­gover). For 11 min­utes, all goes swim­mingly un­til, over a scene of snort­ing co­caine (ac­tu­ally su­gar sub­sti­tutes) in a toi­let cu­bi­cle, Mc­don­agh ad-libs, “I should have given them real coke.” The le­gal­i­ties and sen­si­tiv­i­ties around the re­mark — “noth­ing il­le­gal”, re­mem­ber — pro­voke fu­ri­ous scrib­blings from the as­sem­bled suits. It raises an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion for some­one like Mc­don­agh, who is can­did to a fault. How bru­tally hon­est should you be do­ing these com­men­taries? “I wouldn’t slag off peo­ple the way I would slag them off in an in­ter­view with a mag­a­zine,” he grins dur­ing a half-time break. “If I slag them off in a news­pa­per or on the net, they have to find it. If it is on a DVD, it’s [just] there.”

The next half of the ses­sion goes smoothly. At the end, time is spent re­do­ing some flubs (chiefly the words “owned” and “movies” pro­nounced as “mooou­vies”) and drop­ping in a for­got­ten ac­tor’s name. But ul­ti­mately, Mc­don­agh is happy with his per­for­mance. No C-bombs dropped and, af­ter the co­caine ref­er­ence is ap­proved, noth­ing even re­motely il­le­gal. Give this man his own ra­dio show.


The likely lads: Cor­rupt cops Bob Bo­laño (Michael Peña) and Terry Monroe (Alexan­der Skars­gård). Writer/di­rec­tor John Michael Mc­don­agh in the com­men­tary record­ing booth.

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