The estab­lished out­sider

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY TARA BRADY

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.

No pan­der­ing

“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.”

Meta-tex­tual mis­fire

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.

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