The Guard – John Michael McDonagh interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JOHN Michael McDonagh talks about making Irish hit, The Guard, which has just become the second biggest film of all-time over there.
He also talks about why he decided to start directing after the disappointment of seeing what happened to his screenplay for Ned Kelly, the state of the British film industry and questions why there’s a need to refer to all great modern writing as post-Tarantino.
Q. You must be absolutely delighted with the response to The Guard in Ireland, which is now the second biggest film of all time?
John Michael McDonagh: Well, this week it overtook In Bruges, my brother’s film, so that was pleasing [smiles] and it’s just started going out on a platform release in the States and it’s doing pretty well for those limited releases. I think we’re beating The Devil’s Double [over there]. Hopefully, the wider it goes it’ll keep going. The reviews have been uniformly great. That doesn’t always translate into box office but we’ll see.
Q. Did you get a phone call from your brother, Martin, when it happened?
John Michael McDonagh: I rang him [laughs]. And he went: “Oh f**k off!” But he doesn’t really mind about that sort of stuff. In Bruges actually didn’t do that well in the States. It did well everywhere else. It’s funny, though, as everyone now says: “Oh In Bruges, what a great cult movie…” Especially the critics in Ireland. But when it first came out there were mixed reviews. There’s sort of a revisionist history at play. So, now – especially in Ireland – we’re getting compared to my brother’s film being the masterpiece. But I’m like: “Well, you didn’t say that at the time! So let’s not get carried away!” And also, is In Bruges an Irish movie? Martin was born in London, the same as I was, it’s Focus Features, so it’s American money, it’s set in Belgium [laughs], so it’s the fact that they have Brendan [Gleeson] and Colin [Farrell] in it makes it an Irish film. But does it? Does that make Miami Vice an Irish movie? But they claim that as one of their own.
Q. What made you decide the time was right to direct your first feature? You’d done a short and some screenwriting…
John Michael McDonagh: I’d done a short and I had a bad experience on Ned Kelly, which I’d written the screenplay for. I thought: “Well Jesus, if these are the type of people directing movies I might as well direct one myself!” Previous to that I’d written low budget films and big budget films but they go into development, never get made but you make money from them. And I thought for the next couple of years I’d write lower budget films, let’s say under $50 million, and I’d attach myself to them as a director and try to get them made. There was one script that I still want to do that I was struggling with for years.
But you get close to getting the financing and then it would go away. There’d be an actor who would be interested and then you’d realise it’s not going to work with that actor. And so I started to wonder whether it was ever going to happen. So, I would say that the bitterness, contempt and rage with the UK film industry all came out in the character of Gerry Boyle [in The Guard] and for some reason the minute the script came out people just connected with it immediately. In the film, there’s a melancholy element to it. As a script, it reads as being laugh out loud funny.
So, you reel people in… I’d go into the meetings and say: “Listen, I’m not going to mislead you, I want to try and get this melancholy element into it because I’m a big fan of the late ‘60s, early ‘70s movies in the US that always had that melancholy edge.” I mean even a film like The Heartbreak Kid, with Charles Grodin, which is a romantic comedy in a way, has a real melancholy ending. So, I was upfront. But by this point, when it went out to Brendan [Gleeson] and Don [Cheadle] they attached themselves in the same week, which was incredibly fast. And from that point on, the script was getting read and so if it was at the bottom of a financier’s pile, it was now at the top. I think there were two really serious financiers who wanted to make it and we went with Prescience in the end.
That was the other thing, after Ned Kelly I set up a company, Reprisal Films, to take more control over the property and retain control when it goes out into distribution and all that kind of stuff. And so it was set up through us and we got Brendan and Don attached. Then it went out to the financiers and an important part of it was getting Element Pictures attached because the Irish Film Board… that triggered 40% of the budget, which is a big whack of money. And then Prescience came in with the last 60%. So, it was good. I mean, it was referred to as a low budget film but I was happy to get $6 million for my first movie. I thought that was pretty good of them.
Q. Was there ever any sense of nerves when it came to directing such a starry cast on the early days of shooting?
John Michael McDonagh: No because when you’ve written a script, if an actor has a question you’re the writer as well as the director, so you have the answer. And if you don’t, then you just be honest and say ‘I don’t know’ and then you discuss it. So, working with the actors was fine, especially because people like Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot, who play two of the villains, I knew anyway. They were both in my short. David had done my brother’s plays. I also knew a lot of the supporting cast. So, it was really only Mark Strong, Don and Brendan. I knew Brendan a little bit, but not too much. It was only the big high level ones where you thought: “I hope there’s not going to be any sort of diva-like behaviour.” But there wasn’t. They’re proper professionals. But with those three in particular, they’re character actors who are getting star-level roles, but they still behave like character actors in the sense that they just want to do good work. They’re not going to throw their dummy out the pram when something’s not right and were really easy to get along with.
Q. Brendan has said that he feels as though lightning has struck him twice given the quality of this script and your brother’s [for In Bruges]…
John Michael McDonagh: Right. But I think that if you’re a good enough actor you hope that eventually the material will find you. And it did with Brendan. Obviously, he’s terrific in this and he was great in In Bruges as well. But that was more of a two hander. He did Six Shooter, the short film that my brother made. So, maybe we should garnish some of his wages [laughs]!
Q. How did you gauge how far to take the character of Gerry in terms of how outspoken he became?
John Michael McDonagh: I’ve been asked this before but I never really think about it in those terms – like, is that too far? Or are you just offending people for the sake of it? I’d be more likely to cut out gags I just thought were too silly or too slapsticky. I mean, how do you know? What will really shock somebody might not shock somebody else and some minor line you think might not be that offensive, somebody else might get incredibly offended about.
So, you can’t really… I presume that each country will have a different response to each joke. But mostly what I’ve seen is that everyone has the same response. The line about: “He hasn’t had this much fun since they burned all those kids at Waco…” I thought that might get a real…. it does in America, it gets a shock, as if they fall back in their seats, but then they still laugh. So, we got away with all of it. I think in a way people are sort of relieved that this sort of humour is coming out now. Also, I can’t compete with the Michael Bays of the world in regard to special effects and that kind of stuff. But you can compete in the dialogue and the one liners and the original characterisations and I think that’s what people are responding to.
Q. Well, it’s finally treating the audience as adults again…
John Michael McDonagh: Yeah, exactly. I mean, sometimes I might go too far with the pretentious references, which I might not do again. But when you’re writing, you’re sitting alone in a room so you’re writing to amuse yourself as much as anybody else. So, I throw in all those sorts of cultural references just for the sake of it. Another of the things you get now is the sort of post-Tarantino… I mean I like Tarantino, especially the early films, but I’m a big fan of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges… you know, people were writing great dialogue back then. It’s as if people only have the memory of the last 15 years. So, before Tarantino no one was writing witty dialogue? That’s ridiculous. Why do we have to keep referring to Tarantino? Basically, you can’t make a pop culture reference now without someone saying it’s Tarantino-esque or post-Tarantino and I’m like where’s that all come from? It’s ridiculous. But it’s not his fault.
Q. You managed a Bond reference in this. Brendan said his emergence from the sea was an Ursula Andress/Dr No reference for him…
John Michael McDonagh: [Laughs] Or the Halle Berry [Die Another Day]. It’s funny because that’s a good example of the editing process, where I kind of held on to too much stuff as a writer. Eventually, in the editing you have to look at it as if you hadn’t written it. So, you have to be a bit more brutal. And with Brendan coming out of the water, because it was really him, it was going to be my Lawrence of Arabia/Omar Sharif reference! You know where he rides up and initially he’s a blur? I held on that shot for six minutes without cutting and it was eventually my brother, Martin, who said: “It’s not that funny and it’s just going to piss people off!” So, I eventually cut into it. Imagine that now in the middle of a comedy film – you hold on a shot for six minutes of Brendan getting out of the water. Why that was ever going through my mind I don’t know! But we got there in the end.
Q. Has the success of The Guard made it easier to finance your next project?
John Michael McDonagh: Well, the sales companies we’ve worked with now read the scripts immediately. And yeah, there has been interest. There are a couple of scripts I have percolating and hopefully one of them will go late summer next year. But I’m also getting sent stuff from America as well, so there’s stuff coming in. Some of it is crap but there are a couple of things that are really interesting. The thing with America is that… however you want to denigrate them for being crass or whatever, [with] a film that they like and think is well written, well-made and is popular, they actually want to work with those people and want to follow that, whereas I’ve had nothing coming in from the UK… nothing at all. Whether that sums up the state of the industry now, I don’t know. But it’s strange.
Q. I hear you’re working with Brendan again though… *John Michael McDonagh: *Yeah, on one called Cavalry, about a good priest who is tormented by his community. [Robert] Bresson with gags I call it! It’ll be more of a straight narrative but there will still be the blackly comic element. It’ll have a lot of those supporting characters in again but I’m going to try and go after bigger Irish names and hopefully with the success of The Guard I’ll get them because they’ll read this script quicker than they might have if I was an unknown.
Q. Have you got something planned with Colin Farrell as well?
John Michael McDonagh: Well, Colin would be one of those actors I’d go after. But no, Martin’s doing Seven Psychopaths. I think they’re going into production next week in LA. I’ll go over and turn up on the set and start chatting to Colin: “Oh yeah, by the way…” [Laughs]
- Read our review
- Brendan Gleeson interview
- John Michael McDonagh interview
- The Guard Photo Gallery
- Watch the trailer