Interview: Martin McDonagh, director of Seven Psychopaths

Marty (Colin Farrell), Hans (Christopher Walken) and Billy (Sam Rockwell) in Seven Psychopaths
Marty (Colin Farrell), Hans (Christopher Walken) and Billy (Sam Rockwell) in Seven Psychopaths
Share this article
Have your say

In Bruges director Martin McDonagh talks to Alistair Harkness about taking political potshots at Hollywood, and how rabbits and Buddhism helped him cast his new movie

MARTIN McDonagh would like to set the record straight about his new film Seven Psychopaths. It may star Colin Farrell as a Hollywood-based Irish screenwriter called Martin, and it may also be fuelled by Martin’s struggles with writer’s block as he attempts to follow-up the blood-splattered hit comedy with which he made his name. But the real-life Anglo-Irish writer/director of the blood-splattered hit comedy In Bruges insists this is not a hand-biting takedown of his own experiences in La-La-Land.

Director Martin McDonagh

Director Martin McDonagh

Well, not entirely. “There are a few things in there,” laughs McDonagh, a playwright turned filmmaker, “but I haven’t worked for a studio, nor would I, so those aspects are not really my experiences. Even writer’s block is not my experience. Writer’s laziness is, but writer’s block isn’t.”

It would be disingenuous, however, to say that the film doesn’t reflect McDonagh’s own creative anxieties about his work. Part of fictional Martin’s problem is that while he has a great title for his new movie – the eponymous Seven Psychopaths – he’s struggling to reconcile its implicit violence with his own fanciful desire to write a “Buddhist” thriller in which the characters might, just might, resolve their conflicts by retreating into the wilderness instead of killing each other in a hail of gunfire.

“I was kind of like where Martin is at the start of the movie,” confesses real-life Martin of his meta-movie’s origins. “His attitude towards violent films and his desire to take his script to a place that’s more about peace and love are things that I share, so I knew it had to be about the dichotomy of that tug of war: Sam Peckinpah on one hand and Terrence Malick on the other.”

This isn’t as incongruous as it sounds. McDonagh’s Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter – about a trio of recently bereaved strangers on a train who respond to their grief in irrationally violent ways – used absurdity (including a story about an exploding cow) to offset trauma. And for all its sly gags about its titular location, In Bruges was very much grounded in reality by the fact that Colin Farrell’s profanity spewing gunman was dealing with the guilt from accidentally shooting a child during a bungled hit.

“All my work shares a kind of balance between black comedy and sad and despairing melancholy,” nods McDonagh. “I see the darkness in the world, but I don’t want to deal with it in a heavy-handed way. Comedy allows you to question and explore some of those issues without being heavy; it a lets you get away with murder.”

With Seven Psychopaths, then, he wanted to interrogate the ridiculousness of every Hollywood film about guys with guns, but without being all Michael Haneke about it.

Pinballing Farrell’s screenwriter through a comically over-the-top Los Angeles populated by deranged dognappers, Shih tzu-loving mobsters and rabbit-carrying serial killers, the film allows McDonagh to comment on why, say, a woman being shot in the stomach barely raises an eyebrow, yet holding a gun to a dog’s head causes outrage.

“It’s a political jab at Hollywood, coming from a place of truth, but done with a smile,” states McDonagh. And just for the record, yes, he did get notes about the aforementioned dog-in-peril scene, and no, nobody commented on the gratuitous sequence featuring a woman being shot. “That kind of stuff just makes you want to take the piss out of it all the more.”

Which isn’t to say McDonagh is blind to his own failings. “You can’t write women for shit,” scolds Christopher Walken’s dognapper after leafing through the script Farrell is attempting to write in the movie.

“Yeah, that was sort of my get-out-of-jail-free card after doing it,” says McDonagh when asked about the absence of strong women in both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. “I’m not sure I get away with it. In fact, I don’t think I do, but it’s fun to at least acknowledge it.” He laughs. “I do have another script that is ready to go that has a strong female lead and no guns, so if this joke isn’t an answer to it, that should be.”

McDonagh seems to like ruffling feathers in this way. Though movies were his first love, the idea of becoming a filmmaker didn’t seem tangible when he was growing up in South London with his Irish parents. Leaving school at 16, he started writing while living with his older brother, John Michael McDonagh, director of last year’s The Guard. Though Martin would end up being the first to direct a film, John was the first to start writing. Was he an inspiration? “I think inspiration might be going too far,” smiles the younger sibling. “I guess I saw that it was something that could be done. But right from the outset we never even cared what the other was doing. We hoped it was good, but we didn’t need each other’s opinions or validation.”

McDonagh’s early attempts at screenwriting didn’t really gel until after he became a successful dramatist in his twenties, picking up a raft of awards and nominations for plays such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman. “Theatre was an art form that I didn’t really respect and because I wanted to shake it up and do different things on stage, I was able to combine all the things I’d learnt through writing on my own.”

A second run at screenwriting soon yielded In Bruges, and after winning the Oscar for Six Shooter, he was trusted enough to direct it himself.

And now there’s Seven Psychopaths, which in addition to confirming McDonagh, the filmmaker, is here to stay, completes another of childhood fantasy by bringing together three cult heroes from his youth – Walken, Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits – in one film.

“For a film-loving and music-loving kid, that was…” he trails off. But for a writer, working with Walken (they’d previously collaborated on his 2010 Broadway hit A Behanding in Spokane) must be a particular thrill?

“Oh it’s unlike working with anyone else in the world,” agrees McDonagh. “He memorises the whole thing and never changes a word, but he ignores all punctuation.” Stanton, meanwhile, surprised McDonagh by signing on to play Seven Psychopaths’ vengeful Quaker after being told about the nonviolent Buddhist message underpinning all the action.

“That’s what clinched it. Not the script, not the money.” Similarly, Waits (whose Swordfishtrombone album McDonagh first heard when he was 11), agreed to come on board the moment McDonagh told him that his character was a serial killer who carries a white rabbit. “That’s the way it works with those guys: Eastern philosophies and rabbits, not money. That’s my new Hollywood.”

•  Seven Psychopaths is in cinemas from 5 December.