As his second feature Seven Psychopaths opens, Martin McDonagh talks to DONALD CLARKEabout signing on, finding his voice in Ireland – and his “most Tarentinoesque picture yet”
SOMETHING peculiar has happened to Martin McDonagh since we met four years ago. He has become a proper cult hero. You could, of course, argue that, as the writer of hit plays such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan, he had already comfortably achieved that feat. Let’s be honest, though. Having a smash play on Broadway does not make you a subject of online banter in Peoria.
In Bruges, featuring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as gangsters adrift in that city, started slowly then gradually swelled into a word-of-mouth hit. People must fling quotes at him all the time.
“Well, I don’t get that. But then nobody knows what I look like,” he says. “It opened slowly at the start of the year. Then it got a few awards and a nice snowball began. I’m always surprised by responses. I’m shocked by the negative response to things I’m proud of. I’m sometimes surprised by the opposite. But it’s the long term that matters.”
Silvery of hair, tall and sleekly good-looking, the London-Irish writer proves to be a shrewd and willing analyst of his own writing. Now 42, he doesn’t quite qualify as a veteran, but he has been with us for a decade and a half. It’s been a very strange career. Raised in south London by Irish parents, McDonagh broke through in 1996 when his play The Beauty Queen of Leenane received raves on its debut at the Druid in Galway.
“I remember reading Fintan O’Toole’s review and thinking: fuck, I didn’t think it was that good,” he says.
Dealing in a kind of heightened Irishness at home to violence and black moods, McDonagh’s succeeding theatrical work continued to play successfully in the West End and on Broadway. The most common – and laziest – approach to describing pieces such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore involved dread use of the phrase “ . . . meets Tarantino”.
When, thus, Martin broke into film with the Oscar-winning short Six Shooter there was a sense that he was coming home. After all, he has always admitted that he never much liked plays as a kid. In Bruges involved a similar class of hoodlum banter to that found in Pulp Fiction, but McDonagh’s busy follow-up, Seven Psychopaths, feels like his most Tarantinoesque picture yet. Set in Los Angeles, the gorgeously titled film features Colin Farrell as a blocked screenwriter who falls in with various maniacs played by the likes of Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell.
This highly self-conscious film pauses to comment on the script that Farrell is writing and, by extension, Seven Psychopaths itself. In one telling moment, someone comments on the poorly developed female characters. Is McDonagh beating himself up here?
“I don’t think it’s a comment on myself,” he says. “The first play was all about female characters. So I don’t see it as a criticism of myself. It is a comment on Hollywood and on this particular script. It’s a red herring concerning writing in general.”
There’s a lot of that going on. Slumped over a keyboard, a bottle by his side, Farrell looks like the Hollywood caricature of a tortured writer. Mind you, he doesn’t look too unlike genuine photographs of William Faulkner or Raymond Chandler either.
“It’s a comment on the comment. It’s exposing that cliché and playing with it. I actually think that writer’s block is a myth. I am lazy. But I don’t have writer’s block.”
No indeed. Since his emergence, McDonagh has seen seven of his plays performed throughout the world. (At least one, The Banshees of Inisheer, remains unproduced.) He has directed one short and two feature films and has another script ready for production. Mind you, he seems to have been in training for this life since he left school at 16. Why did he not stay for A-levels? He seems like a smart fellow.
“I never wanted to have proper job,” he says. “I had a love of film and a developing love of books. And I hoped that would go somewhere. Studying seemed to be ‘studying for work’ and there was no job I wanted. I’m sure I read more when I was on the unemployment than I would ever have done if I was studying the classics.”
When he eventually found his voice it was a most unusual one. Since he was a boy, McDonagh had travelled to Ireland for holidays. However, not every child of immigrant parents becomes so attached to the language of the old country. It seems a little cheap to compare McDonagh with Shane McGowan, but both men did seem to find an odd class of liberation in the language of their parents.
“I think writing the Irish plays was the first time I felt properly free,” he says. “Until then, they were like imitations of Pinter or Mamet. There is still something of those writers in the plays, but the Irish plays freed me up and I felt I wasn’t imitating them so much any more. Ireland is slightly removed from where I was. That allowed the stories to go anywhere they needed to go. I couldn’t have done that writing about London.”
After eight years of signing on and doing dull tasks for the civil service, McDonagh finally stumbled into overnight success. The Beauty Queen of Leenane transferred to Broadway and won a Tony. The Lonesome West and The Cripple of Inishmaan were similarly successful.
That sort of acclaim could easily turn a man’s head. Did he manage to retain his humility?
“Before Beauty Queen I knew the work was getting good and I had developed an arrogance about the work,” he says. “Seeing all this stuff rejected when I knew it was good actually bred that arrogance. So, success didn’t change me. I had already become a knobhead. But having that arrogance allows you to defend your work. In the early days you get so much rejection and you meet all these people who have an opinion about changing the work. Frankly, if you didn’t have that arrogance to stop it being changed then you would be screwed.”
For the most part, reviewers and audiences were happy to buttress the author’s self-confessed arrogance. The first decade of McDonagh’s career was a fiesta of awards, plaudits and critical hosannas. By his own admission, he didn’t encounter any significant break in the positive consensus until A Behanding in Spokane opened on Broadway in 2010. His first play set outside Ireland didn’t get hammered exactly. But the notices were considerably more lukewarm than those he had become used to. Hilton Als in the New Yorker famously took him to task for promiscuous use of the word “nigger”.
“Just one review mentioned that,” he says in a patient voice. “Most of the reviews weren’t very positive. So I thought somebody else would have brought that up if it really was an issue. But it is always a danger using that word. Somebody won’t see the reasons why you are using it.”
Yes, it’s a funny thing. A psychopath can rape and murder his way through a play without triggering too much critical opprobrium, but if a racist character says the “n-word” then the author is often unfairly implicated.
“Yes, yes. That’s it.”
He said earlier that he doesn’t really believe in writer’s block. Even the most confident of writers can, however, find themselves paralysed by a bad review.
“No. Since then I have written a film script and I am very happy with it. It’s called Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri and it has a strong female lead. It’s a bit sad, like Bruges without quite so many laughs. But, yeah, I did wonder about what would happen when I got dumped on. I have had a pretty good run of critical responses. That was the first one that was not universally liked. So, it was, well, interesting to say the least. But it does make you think – in a good way.”
One cannot, I suppose, live life as Martin McDonagh without triggering the odd extreme reaction. From the start, his writing has wallowed in waters murky with blood and pestilence. A kind of pathological morbidity stalks the plays and the films. One assumes that prim audience members will, from time to time, make disparaging noises. His plays look like the sort of beasts that could trigger walkouts.
“Yes, but it’s usually just a vocal section of about three per cent,” he says. “The vocal walkouts are amusing and interesting. They stomp their way across the front of the stage. If I didn’t like something, I would leave quietly. They come there just to walk out.”
Over the past year, McDonagh has had to deal – if “deal” is the word – with a heightened degree of sibling rivalry. His brother, John Michael McDonagh, has been in the film business for more than a decade, but it took The Guard, the raucous buddy-buddy comedy starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, to raise his head above the parapet. Let’s talk about his older sibling’s success.
“No fucking way!” he says with a hearty laugh. “No, no. I was proud and glad. It must have been hard for him when I moved from plays into films. He started writing before I did and I probably stared writing because he did. He phoned me up on the day that The Guard passed In Bruges in Ireland and then it became the biggest Irish-set independent film ever. Honestly, I was thrilled.”
If he’s pretending, he’s doing a very good job of it. A creative dynasty is forming before our eyes.
Seven Psychopaths opens on Friday
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