Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Q&A with Seven Psychopaths' Martin McDonagh
The playwright-turned-filmmaker behind In Bruges avoids the sophomore slump with this sly crime-comedy.
Fri Sep 14 2012
Filmgoers have thrilled to the exploits of seven dwarves, seven samurai and the seven brides who shacked up with seven brothers; thanks to Martin McDonagh, they’re now about to meet a very different screen septet. The Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker’s Seven Psychopaths follows an aspiring screenwriter (Colin Ferrell) struggling to whip a project about a gaggle of killers into shape—all while having to deal with dognappers, angry mobsters and a deranged real-life murderer causing mayhem throughout L.A. Like his stage work and his 2008 screen debut In Bruges, McDonagh’s pulpy crime-comedy is full of rat-a-tat patter and a healthy dose of carnage, as well as cleverly riffing on the notion that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. TONY gently asked the director to explain himself.
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Time Out New York: Colin Ferrell’s character comes up with the title for his prospective script—Seven Psychopaths—before he’s written a word. Was this art imitating life?
Martin McDonagh: No, I’d come up with a few of the stories within the film—the Quaker psychopath, the two serial killers who only kill serial killers—a while back, and had written them out before I knew how I was going to use them. That was the starting point, I guess. But I had been interested for a while in exploring the idea of someone who wrote those kind of violent stories and yet wanted to put out less vicious, psychotic things into the world. The title did come early on, though; it was only later that I thought, What if the guy was writing a film called Seven Psychopaths but he wanted to slap it on this movie about peace and love?
Time Out New York: That seems like such a Hollywood thing to do.
Martin McDonagh: It does, right? “I’m writing this movie about pacifist Buddhists and I have the coolest title…” [Laughs] The joke is that Colin’s character is trying to write something positive while so much violence is going on in the movie itself, and then the story sort of winds back to the very notion of peace and love that he was trying to get at. That was the goal, at least.
Time Out New York: What are your feelings about Hollywood? The movie does send sort of a mixed message about the whole Dream-Factory ethos there.
Martin McDonagh: I grew up worshipping and overly romanticizing filmmakers like Coppola, Peckinpah and Orson Welles who got screwed over by Hollywood, so I think that colors my view of it a lot. We made this movie for even less money than In Bruges, if you could believe that, so thankfully that meant I didn’t have to take a lot of meetings there or was forced to take a lot of notes. I’m not sure what I’d do inside the studio system, honestly; make a superhero movie? I mean, what could I do with a character like the Hulk?
Time Out New York: You could make the Hulk an aspiring screenwriter who hangs out with gangsters and dognappers.
Martin McDonagh: I’d make the Hulk never get angry. That’s my superhero movie! I’d have him start to get really enraged, then he’d calm down and simply go about his day. Or I’d just kill the Hulk in the first scene.
Time Out New York: You’ve been quoted as saying that your whole philosophy when you were starting out in the theater was basically, “Guns. Explosions. Blood.” Which sounds like you were really writing for the stage as if you were writing films, wouldn’t you say?
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, I’m not sure why I said that now…[Laughs] I mean, I’d never really adhered to what I was told when I was first starting out as a young writer, which was that you can’t do shoot-outs or explosions in a stage production, unless you’re Les Miserables or something equally as huge. And my thought was, well, why not? I quickly realized that it’s harder to do violence on stage for a variety of reasons, whether you’re talking about people being able to see the squib lines on actors who are moving about to the fact that you’ve got live guns going off in close proximity to an audience who, we can assume, did not come there to die. [Laughs] But we figured out ways to do it, and it was exciting to produce something that would cause a jolt in a theater audience. So it was never like I felt the need to write over-the-top violent movies because I’d been hampered on the stage; my plays don’t skimp on the violence. In fact, because it’s easier to do it in films, I find that I’m likely to try other things. That seems like more a challenge.
Time Out New York: What do you think the movie says about movie violence—or more specifically, the audience’s relationship to movie violence?
Martin McDonagh: Well, you could say that the entire film is all about questioning the concept of screen violence and ask why every other Hollywood movie has to involve a guy with a gun in his hand. But it’s more of a cake-and-eat-it-too situation, really. I mean, 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.
Time Out New York: So it's basically Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, only actually funny?
Martin McDonagh: [Laughs] I love his work, but yeah, I wasn’t interested in lecturing anybody with this. I’m not above my audience; I am my ideal audience, and I wouldn’t want to go see a lecture. I might want to watch someone’s head explode onscreen, however.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear
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