Sign Lan­guage


Empire (Australasia) - - 2018 Oscars - WORDS DORIAN LYNSKEY

Al­most 20 years ago, Martin Mcdon­agh was trav­el­ling across Amer­ica from Bal­ti­more to Nicaragua when he spot­ted two bill­boards de­mand­ing that the po­lice deal with an un­solved crime.

“It flashed by but I never for­got see­ing it,” he says. “The pain of it stuck with me.”

Back then he wasn’t yet a screen­writer. He as­pired to be but he thought he could make more im­pact in the the­atre. “Be­cause most play­wrights aren’t that good,” he says, laugh­ing. “There was never any­one I felt that I couldn’t beat.” Billed as the An­glo-ir­ish Quentin Tarantino due to his flair for vi­o­lence, hu­mour and baroque pro­fan­ity, he was an in­stant phe­nom­e­non but he still dreamt of mak­ing movies. It took him over a decade to chan­nel the mem­ory of those bill­boards into a screen­play and sev­eral years more to turn it into his third fea­ture film. Three Bill­boards Out­side Eb­bing, Mis­souri an­swers the ques­tion he asked him­self on that road trip.

“Who would put that up?” he says. “Once I de­cided it would be a woman and a mother, Mil­dred popped out. She’s some­one who’s go­ing out of her way to cause out­rage for all the right rea­sons and that was the per­fect start­ing point.”

Grief-en­raged Mil­dred Hayes (Frances Mcdor­mand) hires the bill­boards to shame the lo­cal po­lice depart­ment into solv­ing the mur­der of her teenage daugh­ter. “I as­sume you can’t say noth­ing defam­a­tory and you can’t say fuck, piss or cunt, that right?” she asks the shell-shocked bill­board sales­man. Sher­iff Bill Wil­loughby (Woody Har­rel­son) and his red­neck deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rock­well) don’t re­spond warmly, and nor do the cit­i­zens of the small (fic­tional) town of Eb­bing. Mil­dred’s des­per­ate act sets off a chain re­ac­tion of re­venge, guilt, sor­row and vi­o­lence, re­lated with Mcdon­agh’s char­ac­ter­is­tic syn­the­sis of bloody tragedy and very black com­edy.

From the start, he wrote Mil­dred with Mcdor­mand in mind (“It had to be some­body with in­tegrity”) and Dixon for Sam Rock­well, who ap­peared along­side Har­rel­son in Seven Psy­chopaths. “Cast­ing is 50 per cent of a good film,” Mcdon­agh says. “I know that from plays. You can’t have a weak link in a play. Then you try not to get be­tween them and the script.”

Mcdon­agh likes to de­velop his cen­tral char­ac­ters un­til they feel like au­ton­o­mous be­ings, then let them guide the story. “I didn’t plot any­thing. I never do. Every­thing is borne out of the char­ac­ters re­act­ing to each other.” He thought up one of Three Bill­boards’ piv­otal events just be­fore he wrote it, then found that it changed the tone of the whole movie. “The story be­came more about hope and mov­ing on rather than solv­ing the crime,” he says. “It was in­ter­est­ing to have the toxic cop over here and the heroic mother over there and show that there’s el­e­ments of one in the other. Mil­dred’s not the per­fect aveng­ing an­gel.”

Dixon, con­versely, isn’t the dim, racist thug he first ap­pears to be. “You have your own moral­ity and you hope it will seep through but you never want to im­pose that on the char­ac­ters or the story,” Mcdon­agh says. “In real life I would make those judge­ment calls but this isn’t real life. Ob­vi­ously you don’t want to make a racist cop a hero, so it’s a fine bal­ance. But if hu­man­ity is your first port of call, then you hope peo­ple will go with it.”

Be­fore mak­ing Three Bill­boards, Mcdon­agh re­watched Seven Psy­chopaths and his 2008 fea­ture de­but In Bruges. “Seven Psy­chos was a bit too smar­tarse,” he sighs. “I wasn’t think­ing about hav­ing em­pa­thy for th­ese char­ac­ters. They were like pup­pets who you twist to have a moral mes­sage and that doesn’t work.” In Bruges, how­ever, for all its bloody, pro­fane hu­mour, took time to re­veal its char­ac­ters’ in­ner lives. “That’s what I had to get back to in this,” he says. “When Mil­dred is with other peo­ple she’s like Jaws, just plough­ing for­ward, but when she’s alone there’s room for what she’s hid­ing to be there in her eyes.”

Mcdon­agh be­came a di­rec­tor to pro­tect the in­tegrity of his scripts, “be­cause I know the screen­writer is al­ways the low­est form of life on a film set”. Ev­ery word on the page mat­ters — an in­sis­tence which caused oc­ca­sional fric­tion with Mcdor­mand, who wanted to pare down the di­a­logue. “She was so good that, for once, I started re­lax­ing about those ar­gu­ments.”

As Os­car sea­son heats up, Mcdon­agh is more ex­cited about recog­ni­tion for his cast than for him­self, be­cause he’s been there be­fore. In Bruges was nom­i­nated for Best Orig­i­nal Screen­play and 2004’s Six Shooter, his mod­est cine de­but, un­ex­pect­edly won Best Live Ac­tion Short Film. “It was as good as any­thing,” he re­mem­bers. “When I was younger, know­ing the his­tory of the peo­ple who never won and all the good films that were ig­nored, I took it with a pinch of salt but since hav­ing one I’m like, ‘This is ac­tu­ally bril­liant! They’re re­ally thought­ful peo­ple!” Hope­fully there will be no need to cam­paign in the style of Mil­dred Hayes.


Martin Mcdon­agh on set with Frances Mcdor­mand, who plays griev­ing mother Mil­dred.

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