The established outsider
At a time when every allegation of sexual impropriety in film and theatre seems to be matched by a tone deaf response – we’re looking at you Matt Damon – trust Martin McDonagh, an artist with a flair for language and violence, not to mince words on the matter of Harvey Weinstein.
“I hope he dies,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m lucky as I honestly never experienced that when I was working in theatre. And I’ve never witnessed anything like that in film either. But I think it’s great that all these things are coming out and these people are falling off their pedestals. Women are going to be a lot safer and that’s going to be better for everyone.”
It’s a wintry day but London-Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh is in sunny form. He should be. In a few weeks he’s bound for New York to begin rehearsals for Hangmen, his award-winning play about an executioner in the days before the abolition of capital punishment in the UK.
“New York audiences always respond especially well to Irish plays,” says McDonagh. “So let’s see how they are with an English one.”
The production will take the 47-year-old to the US just as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing,
Missouri, his second American feature film, marches into awards season, with star Frances McDormand an early favourite to take home the Academy Award for best actress. Press-weary McDormand will be leaving the London-Irish auteur to do most of the talking in the run-up to the Oscars.
“She’s particularly adverse to doing any kind of awardsy sucking up,” says McDonagh. “I kind of like that she doesn’t play the Hollywood game. I don’t make films very often so it’s not so horrible for me. Especially when people like the film. And I’m learning how to suck up. I never used to be able to do it. But I’m getting better at being a whore.”
He laughs: “Don’t tell my mum I said that.” Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri concerns Mildred Hayes (an electrifying McDormand), a grieving mother who rents the titular hoardings to air her fury over the police’s failure to apprehend the man who raped and murdered her daughter.
The story has been percolating in its creator’s mind since a trip made on a Greyhound Bus, some 20 years ago.
“I’m not sure where it was, exactly,” he recalls. “It might have been in north Florida or Georgia. I was on a bus. And it was one of the southern states. The billboards said something similar to what our billboards say. I never did anything about it, but it stayed with me. The image and the rage and the pain behind it stayed in my head for all that time. Once I decided that it could have been a mother that
put it up, that’s when Frances’s character popped out on to the page.”
He wrote Mildred with McDormand in mind and with no back-up plan. He needed a heavyweight for a character that harks back to women that populated his earlier plays, The
Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan.
“It’s funny you say that, because I keep having to explain that to American interviewers who only know the films,” says McDonagh. “Yes, I have written women before. It’s just that they’re in the plays. This is the first female-led thing since Beauty Queen. It is very exciting. Because it’s the strongest character I’ve ever written. And when you write something about a woman that’s that strong and outrageous, you end up going to new places. We haven’t really seen a character like this before.”
It’s complicated. Mildred’s frustration is understandable; her capacity for violence is rather less endearing. During one scene, a school run ends with her kicking two smart-mouthed teenagers in front of her mortified son. She’s only warming up for what’s to come.
“I’ve wanted to do that for a really long time,” laughs McDonagh. “And I love the scene when she takes down the priest. It starts out so subtle. But Frances is actually so good at the escalation. It was joyful writing scenes like that. Because I never knew what she was going to do next, I only knew that if a priest called to her house, it wasn’t going to end well. We were determined that we wouldn’t pander to an audience. That she wouldn’t be likeable. Not that usual thing of she’s tough on the outside but she’s a loving mother at home. We didn’t want to go down that route for a second.”
It’s doubly complicated. Mildred’s nemesis is local Sheriff Bill Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson), who is struggling with terminal cancer and a racist deputy (McDonagh regular Sam Rockwell). He is almost as haunted by the murder of her daughter as Mildred is.
This is McDonagh’s third film with Rockwell, whom he regards as “the best actor of his generation” and his second with Harrelson.
In a recent interview with Amy Schumer, McDonagh recounted the first time he met Woody Harrelson, an encounter that involved “a lot of marijuana”, a 24-hour recovery lie-down, and a game of chess. (Woody won.)
“I met him in the Clarence Hotel almost 15 years ago,” says McDonagh. “Even back then he knew all my Irish plays. We’ve tried to work together over the years. He’s just a joy to be around. Such a nice person. He has played dark characters in the past. But he is still someone that audiences instantly love and respect. In some ways he’s the adversary to Frances’s character. So we needed that love.”
Three Billboards is McDonagh’s third and best film as a writer-director. It was a lot more fun, he notes, than his earlier films: “. . . Partly because the financial people left us completely alone to get on with it and having worked with a bunch of the actors before and the first AD and the DOP, it felt like a family for the first time.”
Things have certainly gotten easier since he made his feature-length debut with In Bruges, an experience he has characterised as “relentless and exhausting”. At least on that film, he was pleased by the end product, which won a Golden Globe for Colin Farrell. He’s rather less certain about Seven
Psychopaths, his meta-textual 2011 sophomore feature. “I wasn’t very happy with how Seven Psychopaths turned out,” he confesses. “So just before we started making this one, I watched In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths back to back to see where I went wrong. And it was really about not having empathy with the characters. With In
Bruges you’re with them. With Colin especially. He has moments of reflection and anguish. That just wasn’t there in Seven Psychopaths .SoIwas determined to give the characters time and space in this one.”
The schematic Seven Psychopaths drew fire for its female characters. The film’s mistreatment of women was intended as a meta-textual joke: “You can’t let the animals die in the movie; only the women,” went the punch-line (with an emphasis on punch). But that self-reflexivity didn’t work as McDonagh intended. As Una Mullally noted in this newspaper in 2011: “. . . Self-knowledge doesn’t make [the] humiliating depictions of women and infantile homophobia any less lame.” Conversely, no one will question Three
Billboards’ feminist credentials or its strikingly original, entirely unapologetic heroine. The director, too, has demonstrated that he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is. McDonagh and US distributor Fox Searchlight pulled the movie from Austin’s Fantastic Fest – a prime pre-awards season spot – following allegations that the festival venue, the Alamo Drafthouse, had covered up a series of sexual assaults.
“I wrote the script eight years ago and we filmed it before the election so it’s weird to be in this zeitgeist scenario,” says McDonagh. “None of it was a reaction to Trump or the stuff that’s come out about the film industry. But it feels great to be putting a film out there with such a strong female character right now; someone who is taking on the patriarchy of her town. I definitely thought of it as a feminist picture. I’ve had debates with some women friends: is this a feminist film? I think it is. Weirdly, Frances doesn’t see the character that way at all. She just focused on the idea that she was fighting for her daughter and to get this crime solved.”
In retrospect, Martin McDonagh was always destined to find himself walking up the red carpet outside the Dolby Theatre some spring Oscar night. A film fan above all things, he and Sam Rockwell have long yearned to make “their own version of Mean Streets or Taxi Driver ”. A huge cheerleader for film-makers Paul Thomas Anderson and Andrew Dominik, McDonagh’s early hit plays, especially The Lonesome West, were invariably referred to as Tarantinoesque or post-Tarantino. Is he still a fan, I wonder? “Ooh. Back then I loved Reservoir Dogs and
Pulp Fiction. I also loved Sam Peckinpah and Orson Welles and Billy Wilder. But the Tarantino tag got bandied around a lot just because Tarantino was so big back then. I haven’t been as crazy about his more recent stuff. It’s still hard to find a film that’s as good as Reservoir
Dogs. I almost wish – hang on – I was about to say: I almost wish he would get back to that kind of film-making. But he can do what he wants. Of course, he can.”
In the early years of The Leenane Trilogy and the incomplete Aran Islands Trilogy, McDonagh typically and amusingly described theatre as a medium he had fallen arse-backwards into. Some eight plays, three Laurence Olivier Awards, and 22 years on, he feels a little differently. But you still won’t find him queuing around the block for the latest stage sensation.
“Sadly, it feels like I’m the old establishment now. I’m everybody I set out to destroy when I was younger. I feel like I’ve found some kind of peace with being a playwright these days. It’s okay, I still don’t see many plays that I really like. But that’s alright.” He laughs: “That’s not my problem, right?” You have to wonder that Disney or Warner Bros hasn’t come courting this baron of baroque. Can you imagine what Martin McDonagh might do with a franchise film? Picture Batman in the police state outlined by his 2003 play, The Pillowman. Or an episode of Star
Wars wherein nobody gets to leave Skellig Island.
“I’ve never had the conversation and I never will,” he says. “I would just kill off all the characters in the first scene. And I don’t think that’s what they want in a franchise.”
It is very exciting. Because it’s the strongest character I’ve ever written. And when you write something about a woman that’s that strong and outrageous, you end up going to new places. We haven’t really seen a character like this before
Left: Martin McDonagh: “I’ve had debates with some women friends: is this a feminist film? I think it is.” Above: McDonagh on the set of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri with Sam Rockwell.