Film-maker Martin McDonagh talks comedy, tragedy and angry America

by Russell Baillie / 31 December, 2017

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Martin McDonagh, whose brother, John Michael McDonagh, also earns a living as a writer-director: “This month I’m winning.” Photo/Getty Images

Anglo-Irish film-maker Martin McDonagh enjoyed making Frances McDormand angry in his hit dark comedy about a mother fighting the cops who have failed to find her daughter’s murderer. 

Martin McDonagh’s first feature, In Bruges, had two Irish gangsters. His second had Seven Psychopaths. His latest has just one Frances McDormand. And that’s proving quite enough to make Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri the Anglo-Irish writer-director’s most successful film yet. There’s an awards buzz building around McDormand’s terrific lead performance and McDonagh’s screenplay.

It’s a film that seems to have caught the angry mood of the times in America, with McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a divorced mother whose daughter has been raped and murdered. Months later, with no arrests, Mildred uses three billboards to advertise her displeasure at the Ebbing Police Department (“Raped while dying/And Still No Arrests/How come Chief Willoughby?”).

That has the desired effect of stirring things up in a town where most folk support the local constabulary, even if it has some bad apples, such as the violent, racist officer played by Sam Rockwell.

It’s angry, yes, but funny, too, showing the sort of bleak, black humour that London-born McDonagh has displayed not just in his previous films, but also in his other career as a playwright.

His writing for the stage started out with two trilogies of plays set in Ireland – with the likes of The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan crossing the Atlantic to Broadway. His older brother, John Michael McDonagh, is also a writer-director, with four features, including the 2011 Irish hit The Guard, to his name. The Listener rang Martin McDonagh in London.

Are you in competition with your brother and if so, who’s winning?

This month I think I am winning, although he would say the exact opposite.

You and your brother make films with similarly black comedic sensibilities. Where did that come from?

There’s probably something about being London-Irish – that sort of dichotomy. But also, we got into the same movies at the same time, around 12 or 13. He got into books before me, although I read an awful lot of his books and shared his sensibility that way. But we were just falling in love with movies at the same age.

Frances McDormand: “I did write it for her.”

Frances McDormand: “I did write it for her.”

Having two sons as aspiring writers must have worried your parents?

Very much so. Why don’t you get a proper job? That was always part of it. They are very proud now. They don’t particularly like our stuff, but they’ll sit through it if there is free food at the premiere. My mum will hate that joke.

Well, your new film is about a loving mother. It’s also your first female-oriented movie.

Yes. It was about time. Most of my early plays had quite strong female characters, but it’s true that the two films weren’t that way at all, because I don’t make films very often. It was all I could do to write male-dominated things.

This script was ready to go almost 10 years ago, so I always knew I had something to disprove the fact or the idea that I could write only for men. I think she’s one of the toughest, strongest characters I’ve written.

The story goes that you met Frances McDormand backstage in New York. She said, “So, write me something …”

My memory of it is that I was going to write something for her anyway, because she is one of my favourite actresses. But then it took another bunch of years to get down and do it. But I did write it for her. It was kind of freeing to have her image and her voice in my head. That allowed me to go to places that I might not have gone to. Sometimes that helps, having that kind of voice in your head.

And directing her. How do you go about that?

You talk about the character for weeks before you get to shooting. You just kind of exchange as much information and debate with her about how you see the character and how she does. To be honest, I’m not doing an awful lot of directing on the day.

We knew what we wanted to see and what we didn’t want to see. We didn’t want to allow any kind of sentimentality into the performance or the story. And we also didn’t want to judge her or patronise her as a working-class woman or make her a heroic saint. We just wanted to show her warts and all.

Frances is a tough cookie. But because she’s got a theatre background, too, she respects the place I am coming from. She knows that I’m not a bullying type and if I am standing my ground and I need something, she will probably take it from me more than from some young arsehole. I’m an old arsehole. She listens to old arseholes.

That you have a female lead isn’t the only difference from your previous ones. You’re not just playing it for grim laughs.

There is a lot more humanity and hope in this one than in some of the others. Because the story is coming from such a tragic and sad starting point … I didn’t want to be glib or overly comedic. But I didn’t want to stay in that tragic place, you know, and make the film a dirge or hard to watch. The hope and the humanity had to be there throughout.

It’s a movie about a very angry America. So, it’s a good time for it to be coming out?

It’s a great time for it to come out, but a lot of the things that it’s talking about or the attitudes it has … we didn’t know it was going to connect to a lot of the Harvey Weinstein stuff and fallout that’s happening in Hollywood. To have a really strong woman raging against that kind of behaviour is a perfect thing to be sending out there right now.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens at cinemas on January 1.

This article was first published in the December 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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