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
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
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