His aim is true

Hav­ing con­quered theatre with his pe­cu­liar brand of bleakly vi­o­lent, blackly funny Ir­ish drama, and armed with an Os­car for his first short film, Martin McDon­agh is ready for the big time with his first fea­ture. The di­rec­tor of In Bruges talks to Don­ald C

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

AN­GU­LAR and long-limbed, his hair pre­ma­turely white, Martin McDon­agh would be per­fect cast­ing for the vil­lain in a science-fiction movie (he looks a lit­tle like Rut­ger Hauer in Blade Run­ner). But the mo­ment he opens his mouth, sharp vow­els rapidly drag the lis­tener to the south Lon­don of Martins youth.

Born in Cam­ber­well to proudly Ir­ish par­ents, McDon­agh is the happy owner of the most sin­gu­lar voice in con­tem­po­rary English­language theatre. Dis­turb­ing, hi­lar­i­ous plays such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The The Lone­some West, have, with their creepy amal­gam of Synge, Mamet and Scors­ese, won over au­di­ences in Gal­way, New York, Dublin and Tokyo. He has been nom­i­nated for Tonys and carted off Evening Stan­dard awards.

But none of this has pre­pared him for the de­vour­ing pub­lic­ity ma­chine that ac­com­pa­nies the re­lease of a main­stream movie. In Bruges, McDon­agh’s first fea­ture as di­rec­tor, opened both the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val and the Jame­son Dublin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. Next week it pow­ers its way into com­mer­cial cine­mas.

“When you are pro­mot­ing a play, you get to meet Fintan O’Toole and maybe one other bloke over two days,” he laughs. “But with In Bruges it’s been three weeks of con­stant ques­tions all over the US. The same ques­tions over and over again. ‘Why Bruges?’” I os­ten­ta­tiously scratch that ques­tion from my list.

In Bruges stars Bren­dan Glee­son (stoic) and Colin Farrell (thick) as two hit­men forced to cool their heels in the tit­u­lar Bel­gian city for a few days. Tak­ing vis­ual cues from the paint­ings of Hierony­mus Bosch, the pic­ture puts the lads among an­gry dwarfs, in­com­pe­tent mug­gers and ill-tem­pered Amer­i­can tourists. Though some­what more light­weight than McDon­agh’s plays, the film still pow­ers along at a fe­ro­cious pace and is lay­ered with ter­rific jokes and hi­lar­i­ous re­ver­sals. We should, per­haps, not be sur­prised that Martin shows such prom­ise as a film-maker. He is, af­ter all, al­ready an Os­car-win­ner. Two years ago, Six Shooter, a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally nasty com­edy star­ring Glee­son, won the Academy Award for best live-ac­tion short.

“To be hon­est, I found Six Shooter much more un­com­fort­able to shoot than In Bruges,” he says. “It was set on a train and that was dif­fi­cult. We never had enough money or enough time. Here, I man­aged to get three weeks’ re­hearsal with the ac­tors. That was very re­as­sur­ing.”

Ever since McDon­agh first – for once, the aw­ful cliche fits – burst onto the scene in 1996, crit­ics have mulled over the in­flu­ence of cin­ema on his drama. Martin, who seems to en­joy wind­ing up ob­servers, helped fire the de­bate by ad­mit­ting a pref­er­ence for films over plays.

Two years ago, in an in­ter­view with Fintan O’Toole for The New Yorker, he put it thus: “Theatre is the least in­ter­est­ing of the art forms.” Was he just be­ing provoca­tive? A great many the­atre­go­ers have paid a great deal of money to see him work within this “least in­ter­est­ing” of me­dia.

“No. Not re­ally,” he says. “I have al­ways had a cer­tain dis­dain for the theatre. But I have got­ten to a place where I have changed things. My work can be cin­e­matic on stage. Theatre doesn’t have to be dull. It can be dif­fer­ent. It can be a won­der­ful, bril­liant way of telling a story.

“I have never loved a play the way I have loved a film. I did see David Mamet’s Amer­i­can Buf­falo on stage with Al Pa­cino and I loved that, but I never felt about a play the way I feel about Bad­lands or Taxi Driver.”

So he wasn’t the sort of kid who spent his evenings queu­ing up for re­turns at the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany?

“No. I al­ways loved film first and never even liked theatre very much. I be­gan by try­ing to write films, but the scripts were just crap. Then I tried ra­dio plays and even­tu­ally wrote stage plays. By that point I had taught my­self how to write char­ac­ter and story.”

Though both born in Ire­land, McDon­agh’s par­ents (his dad was a con­struc­tion worker, his mother a cleaner) met and mar­ried in Lon­don. Martin, born in 1970, re­mem­bers tra­di­tional mu­sic be­ing played in the house and was aware of Ir­ish be­ing spo­ken from time to time. Long sum­mers spent in Con­nemara added to the stew of Celtic in­flu­ences act­ing upon his de­vel­op­ing psy­che. It is, none­the­less, some­what sur­pris­ing that he elected to write Ir­ish plays about Ir­ish peo­ple in an ec­cen­tric Ir­ish di­alect.

Af­ter a failed at­tempt to sell those first film scripts, Martin, then re­cov­er­ing from a pe­riod of in­do­lence, sat down in his room and, in the space of a year, squeezed out all the plays that were to make his name over the fol­low­ing decade.

“When I started writ­ing, ev­ery­thing I did had the feel of an im­i­ta­tion of Mamet,” he ad­mits. “But then I found my­self try­ing to lis­ten to my un­cle’s voice pat­terns. Then sud­denly I felt I wasn’t copy­ing any­body else’s voices. It didn’t sound like it was writ­ten in a bed­sit in Lon­don any more.”

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first of th­ese grimly hu­mor­ous mas­ter­pieces, was pro­duced by Gal­way’s Druid Theatre in 1996. The re­views were gen­er­ally ec­static, but, from the start, some do­mes­tic voices made mut­ter­ing noises. How dare this Lon­doner ape the in­flex­ions of our rural west?

“I haven’t re­ally en­coun­tered that first hand, but I have read it. Yeah, it does sur­prise me. To me it shows a lack of un­der­stand­ing of what be­ing sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Ir­ish means. Or, in­deed, about what any writer can do with his imag­i­na­tion. I rise above it.”

Re­ally? As McDon­agh is say­ing this, he is screw­ing him­self into his seat and fu­ri­ously knead­ing one hand with the other. He still seems some­what peeved by the ac­cu­sa­tion. “Ha ha ha! Maybe so. Maybe it is just to do

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with that thing where you are never ac­cepted back home.”

In the past he has ad­mit­ted that the mild dis­ap­proval of his par­ents hit home. They were, ap­par­ently, ini­tially some­what shocked by the amount of vi­o­lence and de­prav­ity in his plays. Have they come round? He makes a long, un­cer­tain sigh­ing noise. “Well, they are go­ing to be here at the pre­miere tonight. They’ve come around a lit­tle, though they would pre­fer that I wrote nice ro­man­tic come­dies. My win­ning the Os­car change things a lit­tle. That helped con­vince them I wasn’t just some creepy perve. They are be­hind me all the way, but they ad­mit that the stuff is not al­ways their cup of tea.”

I sus­pect Martin McDon­agh rather en­joys an­noy­ing those crit­ics to whom he’s not re­lated. And, de­spite his con­tin­u­ing suc­cess, there are still le­gions of naysay­ers ea­ger to chase him back to his bed­sit.

“We haven’t had many com­plaints from Amer­i­can au­di­ences about In Bruges,” he says. “But at Sun­dance we did run into that PC thing. Some of the di­a­logue does in­volve stuff about race and gay­ness. You felt that pal­pa­ble sense of peo­ple think­ing: I will give this 10 min­utes be­fore I de­cide whether it’s okay to laugh at it.”

This is the old prob­lem of lit­eral-minded au­di­ences mis­tak­ing the opin­ions of a char­ac­ter for the opin­ions of the film-maker?

“Yeah, ex­actly. Colin’s char­ac­ter is not very PC, and he will say the first thing comes into his head. I would hope no­body would come away think­ing this is a racist film or an anti-gay film. Or an anti-dwarf film.” Heaven for­fend.

In Bruges opens next Fri­day

From stage to screen: In Bruges di­rec­tor Martin McDon­agh

Colin Farrell shoots from the hip in In Bruges

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