WITH THE BRILLIANT, BLISTERING THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, MARTIN MCDONAGH HAS DELIVERED THE SCRIPT TO BEAT
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.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI IS IN CINEMAS NOW. THE SCREENPLAY OF THE SAME NAME IS PUBLISHED BY FABER & FABER AND IS ALSO OUT NOW
Martin Mcdonagh on set with Frances Mcdormand, who plays grieving mother Mildred.