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Q&A: Martin McDonagh, director of In Bruges

An online exclusive interview

Director Martin McDonagh (center) with Brendan Gleeson (L) and Colin Farrell (R)

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Friday, February 15, 2008

A BLOODY PROPER ANGLO-IRISHMAN

The quietly elegant Martin McDonagh talks up his very funny, very violent new film about Irish and British hitmen amok In Bruges (it’s in Belgium)

By Andrea Gronvall

Every now and then a film emerges that blows me away with the shock of the new. Watching the darkly comic gangster thriller In Bruges, the feature debut of award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh, was like the first time I saw The Long Good Friday or The Crying Game or Layer Cake — all identifiably genre movies, but so much more than that. The author of such searing plays as The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (my favorite, wherein much mayhem ensues after an Irish terrorist’s beloved cat has its head bashed in), and an Oscar winner for his 2005 live-action short Six Shooter, London-born McDonagh has left his Irish settings behind to jump the Channel with his new work.

Starring Brendan Gleeson (who also toplined Six Shooter) and Colin Farrell as amiable Irish assassins sent to the picturesque medieval town of Bruges on an unspecified job by their menacing but hilarious Cockney boss Ralph Fiennes (who knew he could be so funny?), the movie was inspired by a mini-vacation McDonagh spent there a few years ago. It doesn’t look like he’s going to be taking another vacation just yet; fresh from the film’s opening night at Sundance, McDonagh committed to a multi-city promotional tour for In Bruges, which Focus Features releases on February 8th. I caught up with the very polite, casually but smartly dressed man on the rise at Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel.

Stop Smiling: Your plays have been performed in 41 countries. Had any been performed in Belgium before you visited Bruges for the first time?

MM: They had, and strangely, on the first day of shooting in Bruges, one of my plays was performing for that night and the next night. It was The Lieutenant of Inishmore, on a tour around Belgium. I’d seen it four weeks previously [in Antwerp] when we were doing a reconnaissance mission, and it was one of the worst productions of my plays I’d ever seen. It was all in Flemish, of course, but because it’s such a cinematic kind of play, I thought there would be aspects of it — but they’d somehow added half an hour to the play that wasn’t there before. The whole big gun fight at the end, they’d cut it out, and instead, strode up to the front of the stage and started playing air guitar as this heavy metal track blasted. I don’t know if it was just to avoid paying for the bullets or the blood. Anyway, this thing ended up in Bruges, and I got Colin and Brendan to promise me they wouldn’t go to see it, but behind my back they sneaked off! So, yeah, Belgium has seen the worst of me. [Laughs]

SS: What are you like on the set?

MM: Very low-key, kind of quiet and detailed. But I’m not a dictator. We had three weeks of rehearsals at the start of the film. It was pretty much just me and Colin and Brendan — and then a few of the other actors — mostly just analyzing, building layers of the characters. So when we got to the set, it was just getting the details right of what we’d already put in place. I think you need to get things done the way you want because, especially as writer-director, it’s your name that’s going to be the one to either take the plaudits or take the blows. But if you hire good people and they’re all doing their jobs — as long as you’re all on the same page — you don’t have to be a meanie.

SS: With your intricate dialogue, rehearsal only helps the actors hit those beats even better.

MM: Yeah, very much. And you can still play around with a line, you can still deliver it, you can throw it away, or hit it, but we all need to know exactly why that line is there, and why it’s phrased in that way. And whether or not the character is saying the opposite of the words on the page. For me, it’s making sure everyone knows first off what I meant by every line. We didn’t change a single line. I wouldn’t have been into that. I’m not into improvisation and all that, because I sat with the script for two years, and I’ve made sure that there isn’t a word out of place for me when I’ve gone through it. Even each comma, and each extra “m,” like in a “hmmmm." [Laughs] You know, just how many “m”s there should be is, like, a big thing to me. “Hmm” is different than “Hmmmm.”

SS: Well, it’s like the pauses in Pinter.

MM: Exactly! They’re there for a reason. If they’d come up with better stuff — well, they probably wouldn’t have. [Laughs] But if they had come up with something better, I would have listened. But I think they respected that I’m good at dialogue, and, you know, I can’t do what they do, for a second. But they’re not writers, so it sounds kind of arrogant.

SS: No, it’s such a waste to see so many movies tank because there wasn’t enough attention paid to the script beforehand.

MM: Most of the time, it doesn’t cost anything to put in an extra month’s work on the script, and it does cost something to be there [on the set] in the morning and have people coming up with extra stuff, or different stuff. That means the script is weak, or the whole process is crap in the first place, you know? There are certain films that can be good as improvised pieces, but they have to be specifically improvised, like Mike Leigh’s work. It can’t be just a star thinking they’re a writer.

SS: Mike Leigh rehearses quite a bit.

MM: Exactly, for like 19 weeks or something.

SS: I love your homage to Don’t Look Now, the whole idea of setting your film in a medieval city that is a repository of ineffably beautiful art and architecture, and yet full of underlying currents of decadence, and the prospect of imminent death. Just as in Don’t Look Now, that adds layers of tension—

MM: And weight.

SS: —and poignancy.

MM: Have you ever been to Bruges?

SS: No, I haven't. But I can sort of identify with Colin’s character at the top of the film. I lived in Dijon as a student, and you can see everything there is to see in Dijon in one week.

MM: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s where the story came from for me. [Bruges] is beautiful, and it’s something that’s never really been seen before. It isn’t like any other place. But then you’ve done it in 24 hours — you’ve done it twice in 24 hours! [Laughs] And then what? You’re still there for another day, so then you’re just thinking about boozing, or anything to get you out of it.

SS: So you imagine these people, you imagine settings, and all of a sudden they’re talking to each other?

MM: Yeah.

SS: And nobody has any connection to anybody you ever knew in real life?

MM: Some of the accents in the Irish plays are those of uncles and mom and dad, and then, certain turns of phrase. Sometimes a single word or a single phrase can become a whole character. I remember one of my uncles — he’s dead now — watching TV, and he’d always have strange things to say. Some mice came up on the TV, the image of some mice, and he suddenly just came out with, “I don’t like mice. I can’t stand the bastards.” He had such a well of anger toward mice, for no good reason using the word “bastards.” Just a detail like that would allow me to run with a character. That uncle’s one of the people in The Lonesome West. And these fellows in Bruges, they’re both sides of me, I guess: One side loving culture, and one side just getting tired of the museum after the first 12 minutes. It’s cool just to let that kind of bubble away. Also, probably, I think I’m quite a PC person at heart. But I kind of like exploring the opposite of that, and just allowing Colin’s character to say the first thing that came into his mind.

SS: There’s no filter.

MM: No filter! It’s childlike, like his thing with dwarves: He wants to run up and touch them because they’re strange. It’s wrong; it’s nothing you should, as a grown-up person, want to do or be thinking, but it’s fun to explore.

SS: A number of your characters have that trait. The young man on the train in Six Shooter — he’s ambling along in conversation, and then quickly switches gears when he spots out the window, “Oh, sheep!”

MM: [Laughs]

SS: And I’m thinking, uh-oh, animals don’t do too well in your plays. Thank God we’re on a moving train, he won’t be able to do any harm here. And he still manages to get somebody brained! Is that diabolical, or what?

MM: That takes an effort.

SS: Maybe I have a predilection for low humor, but that scene in In Bruges when Colin decks the midget—

MM: With a karate chop! Yeah, that’s one of my favorite bits in it, too. I mean, it’s cruel, but it’s the funniest thing. I think Colin really got him as well. That was the sixth take, but Jordan Prentice, who plays the dwarf, fell perfectly. It was Colin and Jordan who got the timing of it. All I did was choose the best take. I think everything should work at lots of levels. Even in all the plays, there are lots of sad moments, and despairing, and, hopefully, deep things. I like having loads of dumb shit, but I like the deeper stuff, too. I don’t know why you just can’t have all that in one.

SS: Can you talk about any works in progress?

MM: I’ve got a couple of film scripts that are ready to go. I’m not going to do anything with them for a couple of years, until I’ve traveled and had some fun. But there’s one called Seven Psychopaths; if I do another film, that’ll be it. I hope you like it.

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