“What do I think of Hollywood?” Martin McDonagh asks, and you can practically see the gears whirring into overdrive inside the 42-year-old Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker’s head. As we sit in a hotel room the morning after his latest project, Seven Psychopaths, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the topic has turned to his love-hate relationship with the epicenter of American moviemaking (tolerate-hate might be a better description). Despite the previous evening’s midnight screening and into-the-wee-small-hours revelry afterward, McDonagh is still capable of unleashing the rat-a-tat patter that characterizes most of his work. “I grew up worshipping and overly romanticizing filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah and Orson Welles, all of who got screwed over by Hollywood,” he says. “So I think that colors my view of it a lot. Plus, I’m honestly not sure what I’d do inside the studio system: make a superhero movie? What could I do with the fucking Hulk?!?"
When it’s suggested he turn the mean, green rage machine into a frustrated screenwriter who hangs out with dognappers and gangsters, à la Colin Farrell’s Psychopaths protagonist, the director counters with some alternate scenarios. “I’d make the Hulk never get angry,” he jokes. “Or I’d just kill him off in the first scene.” Tweaked expectations, out-of-left-field violence, wickedly funny pitch-black humor; these elements have characterized McDonagh’s work since he burst onto the English theater scene with his Leenane Trilogy of plays in the mid- to late ’90s, as well as his feature debut, In Bruges (2008). But while his sophomore effort is filled with that same sharp mixture of the macabre and the hilariously motormouthed, Seven Psychopaths also finds the writer tiptoeing into metanarrative territory. As Farrell’s befuddled scribe struggles to pen a script about pacifists—he wants to call the project Seven Psychopaths regardless, “because it’s such a great fuckin’ title!”—he finds himself caught up with a variety of lunatic criminals who are spilling blood by the gallon. Meanwhile, screen-violence clichés are deconstructed by the cast (including Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Woody Harrelson and Precious’s Gabourey Sidibe); it all ends with a desert showdown, in a craggy area one character dubs “the perfect place to have a movie showdown in the desert!”
“You could say that the entire film is all about questioning why every other Hollywood movie has to involve a guy with a gun in his hand,” confirms McDonagh, quickly adding, “Everyone asking this question, of course, are also holding guns in their hands. It’s the ideal cake-and-eat-it-too situation: We’re poking fun at how those conventions work while still using car chases, shoot-outs and revenge fantasies to rile viewers up. It was a fun line to tread, actually, between commenting on the crassness of screen violence while also wallowing in it.” The movie certainly doesn’t skimp on displays of carnage, especially once Farrell starts soliciting tales of murder and mayhem for his fictional septet—said horrific events rendered with both a tongue firmly planted in cheek and the sense that an actual tongue might be ripped out of someone’s mouth at any moment. “I had come up with the mini stories first,” the director says. “The Quaker psychopath, the two serial killers who only kill other serial killers—I’d written those out before I knew how or where I was going to use them. Unlike Colin’s character, I didn’t start with Seven Psychopaths; it was later on that I thought, What if some guy still wanted to slap a lurid name on this movie about peace and love? ‘I’m writing this script about Zen Buddhists and I have the coolest title…’ ”
Those familiar with McDonagh’s Grand Guignol–esque plays, in which threats of bodily harm are the lingua franca and every prop list calls for copious amounts of Karo syrup, are likely to giggle at the notion that the man who wrote A Behanding in Spokane is now wringing his hands over the concept of cinematic brutality; wasn’t this the same playwright who once summed up his dramaturgical philosophy as “Guns. Explosions. Blood”? The director suddenly looks sheepish. “Yeah, I don’t know why I said that,” he laughs. “I’d never adhered to what I was told when I was first starting out, which was that you can’t do shoot-outs or explosions in a stage production. My thought was, Well, why not? I quickly realized that it’s harder to do violence onstage for a variety of reasons, but we figured out ways to do it, and it was exciting. Because it’s easier to do it in films, however, I find that I’m likely to try other things as well.” Like make a crime comedy that resembles Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, only genuinely funny? “Exactly,” exclaims McDonagh, cracking up. “I’m my ideal audience, and I wouldn’t want to go see a lecture about how bad screen violence is. But I might listen to it while watching someone’s head explode onscreen, however.”
Seven Psychopaths opens Fri 12.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear