TALKING THE TALK
Empire eavesdrops as John Michael Mcdonagh records his War On Everyone commentary
“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
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.
WAR ON EVERYONE IS OUT ON APRIL 19 ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD.
The likely lads: Corrupt cops Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) and Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Writer/director John Michael Mcdonagh in the commentary recording booth.