“The Guard” Feature Part 2: Interview with Writer/Director John Michael McDonagh

I introduced myself to him and immediately found myself at ease. I pulled out my old, taped-up tape recorder which seems to always be a point of conversation and excused it. Then I turned it on, he began:

John McDonagh: [Referring to the tape recorder] I like it. I hate all those people on computers.  In “The Guard”, you see… He’s a technophobe, Boyle [Brendan Gleeson’s character]. I hate in film when they cut to a guy on the computer – it’s crap, and it’s such an easy plot device.  It’s rubbish.

Tom Ellis: Yeah, cell phones too…

JMD: Cell phones – yeah, so I tried to narrow it down; there’s just one cell phone that Everett [Don Cheadle’s character] has.  Boyle has one of those old rotary phones.

TE: Could be justified by there not being much service out there [in Western Ireland].

JMD: Yeah, but it’s also that those phones now, they’re getting rid of them and you can buy them as like a gag.  They look like a rotary phone but you can buy them so they’re hand-held.  They look retro…

TE: [Pointing to one behind him] Like that one…

JMD: Yes exactly.

TE: So what led you to the plot, the conception of the plot? (Click on the jump to read the entire review)

JMD: Ah, well, I’d done a short film in 2000.  I had this sort of cantankerous confrontational cop who was just a supporting character.  So I always thought “Wow, that would be an interesting character to follow, maybe”.  And a few years ago there was this massive seizure of cocaine off the coast of Cork.  There was some sort of comical element to it.  They had refueled using diesel which shut up the boat, so they ran aground.  Well, they were running aground, and one of them dived over (there were two guys) to get help.  They were getting help, but the people who were going to come back would find that there was 500 million dollars of cocaine on the yacht.  So I wonder what happened to those two guys when they went to prison, because it’s a pretty dumb thing to do.

So then I thought, well, okay, we’ll put that character into a plot with something to do with that.  Then you just go, well, okay, if we’ve got that sort of edgy, confrontational character, who would he annoy the most?  An American.  An American FBI agent.  What else?  A black American FBI Agent.  You could keep going, he could be a gay black FBI agent, but I thought there was enough material right there, so I’d stick with what I had already.

TE: Interesting.  Yeah, the characters were very unique.  And very deep too, which was interesting, for instance the criminals.

JMD: Yeah.  Well, you see, when I’m writing, a basic tenet of when I’m writing is to try to write the opposite of what people would be expecting or write the opposite of what you’ve seen before.  So when he discovers the body he starts to ruin the crime scene rather than keep it… [we laugh] And you know, villains in movies are always so desperate.  They want women, or more money, or drugs.  So what’s the opposite?  A villain is a man who is actually bored and doesn’t want any of it…

TE: …going through an existential crisis…

JMD: Crisis!  And almost, in a way, he has a happy ending, Mark Strong’s character.  He kind of goes out in a blaze of glory against someone he respects.  Because what we did in the film is there’s a confrontation.  You know, Liam Cunningham’s character goes to blackmail him in the diner scene, David Wilmot as O’Leary comes into his house, you’ve got that scene.  Mark Strong and Brendan never meet, but they both have a strong antipathy to people who use Americanisms.  So that sets them off.  And so you meet him psychologically before you meet him at the end.

TE: What’s really interesting to me too was the use of… for instance, the discussion of Nietzsche in the car scene, and the discussion with the mother of Russian literature.  How influenced by literature are you?

JMD: Well, I mean, I started off trying to write novels when I realized I wasn’t very good at it.  I’m a big fan of William Faulkner and Vladimir Nabokov, but I gradually realized I would never be as good as they were.  Whereas when you write screenplays there’s not really a lot of competition.  You think of people like Robert Town, famous for “Chinatown”, “The Last Detail”, those movies.  And there’s a guy, Franco Solinas, who wrote “The Battle of Algiers” and a really good western called “Quien Sabe”, and a really good Joseph Losey film I like called “Mr. Klein”.  But it’s a very short list of great screen writers.  Robert Bolt obviously, “Lawrence of Arabia”.  But there’s not that many of them.  When you’re dealing with novels you’re dealing with a whole pantheon of people from all over the world.  Screenwriters, there are maybe like… 6 or 7?  And usually the best ones direct their own things.  Screenwriters who only write screenplays, and never direct and only do it good is a very small group.

TE: And the one who wrote “Network” too…

JMD: Yeah, Paddy Chayefsky.  So it’s a small group.  I thought I might get up into that top ten easier than writing novels, so I started off in that way.  But yeah, I find films nowadays are not only not very cine-literate, the people who write and direct them, but there are no references to other worlds as well, like to art and literature and stuff like that.  You can veer into pretentiousness when you bring in these sorts of riffs.  You know, talking about Nietzsche, I think that might have been a bit too far; I think the discussion of Russian novelists was okay.

TE: The thing that struck me was that it didn’t seem pretentious at all to me.

JMD: Yeah, because he thinks they’re rubbish.  He hates them.  [Laughs]

TE: Even the Nietzsche part, because of the quote that he…

JMD: Yeah, that comes out.  There is a danger of going to far sometimes, so the dialogue becomes a bit too arch.  You’re treading a fine line.  But part of the thing of writing is you’re trying to amuse yourself – you’re sitting alone in a room.  Yeah, you’re thinking about an audience, but you’re thinking of what would be funny or unusual for me to throw in here.  You’re trying to amuse yourself as you go along.

TE: So, originally you wanted to be a screenwriter then?

JMD: No, originally I wanted to be a novelist.

TE: I mean after a novelist, you wanted to be a screenwriter?

JMD: Well, yeah, it’s because you know I was living on the dole, me and my brother staying in the house… When we were in our 20‘s our parents moved back to Ireland, so we had the house to ourselves.  So we were just watching old films all day on Channel 4, you know, BBC-2, and critiquing them all day long.  [We both laugh] And I thought I could do better than that.  And Martin was reading plays and thinking “These are shit, I could write better plays than this”.  So it all grew out of a really negative… Yeah, don’t be negative, but sometimes being really negative can push you on to saying “All these people are shit, we can do better than that”.

TE: Yeah, it seems to have worked for you.

JMD: It becomes a positive attribute in the end.  And I wrote “Ned Kelly”, which didn’t work out the way I was hoping it to, and from that negative experience, that made me say to myself, “Well, you can’t keep complaining about directors who are screwing up your work.  You should actually try to do it yourself.”

TE: So that inspired you to direct.

JMD: To direct, yeah.  And to start writing scripts that were of a certain budget level that people might give me the money.  You know, 15 million dollars and under.  I’ve written big budget movies as well, but no one’s going to give you 60 million dollars for your first movie, not even your second probably.  So yeah, it took off from there.  The whining screenwriter is such a cliché, and after a while no one wants to hear it anymore.  You should get up off your ass and do it, and find out how difficult it is; see what other directors have gone through.  And after you’ve done it you either sympathise with the person who screwed up your work before when you see how difficult a job it is, or you say, “Actually, I really enjoyed that.  My work was good and I’m going to continue in that vein.”  So I still write.  But I do differentiate between projects I know someone might give me the money to direct, and other ones that I know I won’t get it, so I’ll sell it, like a big budget action comedy or something like that.

TE: How did Don Cheadle end up…

JMD: Don… I liked Don in “Devil in a Blue Dress”, have you seen it? [I shook my head] It’s about a guy… Carl Franklin, you don’t hear much about him now but he did “One False Move”, which is a really good film.  “Devil in a Blue Dress”, there’s a great scene where Don, he’s playing this kind of best friend to Denzel Washington, and is extremely loyal, but is also sociopathic.  So Washington never knows when he’s going to explode.  There’s a scene where he’s asleep, because he’s drunk, and he wakes up and he’s got a gun; and he’s not sure where he is.  It’s a really tense, funny but dark, dangerous scene.  And I thought “God, that’s a great performance”.  And “Boogie Nights”, he was great.  There’s a sort of warmth that comes off of his performance.

I thought he’s got a sense of humor, so we’d sent it off to him, and while it was sent, Martin [McDonagh, John’s brother] had gotten a script to Brendan Gleeson.  Brendan said yes; when Don heard that Brendan said yes he read it more quickly, and we had them both by the end of the week, basically, which is unheard of.  A lot of actors say “I’m looking for more edgy, indie material to attach myself to and I can help get it made”, and they never actually do it; they still want money, a big pay-day, but Brendan and Don attached themselves when there was no money there, when there was just the script.

TE: Do you and Martin help each other?

JMD: No… I mean, years ago I asked him to read one of my scripts because it was kind of a murder mystery and I wanted to know if all the clues worked out, so I wanted someone to read it cold.  And I once read one of his plays because it was just lying around the house.  But we don’t really read each other’s work, we don’t have that sort of relationship.  But I had this sort of protracted editing on “The Guard” where it went on for a long long time.  When we got towards the end… he’d seen a very early cut and then hadn’t seen anything, and so when we got towards the end I asked him to watch it again because he would have seen it cold, and he gave me some notes then.

But we don’t really have that sort of relationship where we read each other’s scripts and do stuff like that.

TE: But you have a supportive relationship?

JMD: Yes, yeah.  I play tennis with him on Tuesday and we do that kind of stuff.  But we did a film quiz, we went to a pub on a film quiz and he overruled me three times on questions I then got right, so I’m not going to let that happen again.  [Laughs]

TE: I do notice a sort of similar… “mentality”, I guess.

JMD: Yeah, there’s a similar sort of sensibility where you’re pushing the gear moving into an edgy and dark place, as far as you can go in a way.  And of course you never know how far you can go until you’ve seen it in an audience, which tells you if you’ve gone too far or if you haven’t.  But I wasn’t censoring when I was writing the script or anything like that; I’d be more likely to censor my script if the gag is too dumb.  The more far-out, confrontational gags, I’d always leave them all in.  It’s the dumber stuff…

TE: I wish there were more people who thought like that… [He laughs] Yeah, it definitely comes out with the dialogue

[The poster is on the wall; we both notice it]

JMD: Yeah, this is the US poster, which I guess they’re…

TE: It’s a “raucous comedy”.

JMD: Yeah, “raucous comedy”, and I guess they’re trying to get across that it’s Brendan and Don but it’s also an ensemble, whereas in Ireland, where it just last week it knocked “Bridesmaids” of the #1 spot in the box office, they sold it on a really nice poster.  It was more like, just Don looking at Brendan, who is looking at us.  And it’s cold blue, so it looks like a cop thriller.  But then in the middle it adds all the poll quotes, like “hilarious!” “laugh out loud!”, so you get both.  I think the Irish audience, the thing you get from Irish cinema is there’s a feeling that it always looks cheap, and it’s not a real movie (always low budget and all that).  So the way they sold it is “this is a proper buddy-cop comedy/thriller”.  In the US they plan a different angle I guess.

TE: Yeah, they try to throw everything at you.

JMD: Yeah, yeah.

TE: I like the font too…

JMD: Yeah.  “The Guard”… I’ve spent a lot of time with it.  Some people don’t like the red, for instance, especially in the titles it tends to bleed.  So you’re always getting into a contentious relationship about people like that.  But here’s the thing – big budget movies, they, presumably, have a whole section of people set aside for titles.  They come up with loads of different things to do… I’m basically doing that myself saying this is the font I want to use.  It got to the point where… You know in the film, you see this list of all these names, I was thinking, “What if they left someone out who’s important?  Who checks all that?”  I realized, well, in this film, I was doing that.  I was checking for spelling mistakes… I thought somebody else would do that job!  But three or four times I had to go back and and say, “Nope!  You’ve spellt that incorrectly… It’s already laid out…”

TE: Well, if you want it done right…

JMD: You have to do it yourself, yeah.

TE: I think it’s actually being advertised better than, for instance, “Hot Fuzz”, which when it came out here it was advertised as this comedy where people are always hitting each other all the time, and actually turned out to be kind of slow-paced.

JMD: Did it bomb here?  Because it did well in Britain.

TE: It did somewhat well, but not as well as I think it should have.

JMD: Because it’s funny, you read reviews and they say it’s a riff on this movie or that movie, but you go, “I don’t even remember watching that film!”  I have seen “Hot Fuzz”, I watched it once years ago.  Another film that came up is “In The Heat of the Night”, which I saw a long long time ago.  Rod Steiger is a racist cop, and he’s not only pretending to be racist to get a laugh, and Sidney Poitier turns up in a small town and a guys been murdered.  And I can see why someone’s made that comparison but that was not in my mind at all.  I had things like Charlie Varrick, you know, those 70‘s movies, Don Siegel movies from the late 60‘s.  But then you can see how somebody’s made that assumption.  I guess that’s just how it goes.

And then some of the references are so buried and obscure that nobody’s going to get them.  When he dresses up for the final confrontation, that’s cut to Shrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”, which is really one of the best biopics that’s ever been made.  I should save that for a commentary or something.

TE: So, what is the reaction you want from the audience to get from “The Guard”.

JMD: I think that the way this film is set up is not the way it plays out.  So you want the audience to come in expecting this buddy-cop thriller, and to go out thinking that it was really great and went off in a totally different direction, which hopefully makes them feel is  different from anything they’d seen before.  Like when Everett and Boyle are supposed to start investigating the case, Boyle says it’s his day off and goes off with prostitutes, and stuff like that.  And so the whole middle section of the film starts meandering, and you’re not sure where it’s going to go until it comes back to the last thirty minutes.

So I’m hoping mostly that the audiences are surprised.  I don’t think audiences are surprised anymore from movies.  They get exactly what they were expecting when they went in.  This is one of my theories, my pet theories: I don’t think audiences expect movies to be any good anymore; they just hope it’s not as bad as they think it’s going to be.  It’s like I have conversations with people, you know, “Ah, that movie, I heard it was shit.” “No, it wasn’t shit; it wasn’t good, but it wasn’t shit.” It’s a level of how shit is it going to be.  I think this is where we’ve come to in the cinema.

TE: It’s a spectrum of shit.

JMD: Yeah.  You’re in the lower end, or you’re in the deep shit.  [We laugh] For this movie, yeah, we’ll see how it goes down.  Apparently most Irish movies never succeed in the UK box office.  So we’ve done well in, we’ll say the high market, and it’s sold all around the world.  It’ll do good in places like Australia, where they’re into those types of comedies.  It’ll be interesting to see if it does well in America though.  Wherever we’ve shown it it’s done well, but it’s a fine line.  It is a lower budget film from Ireland, so people go, “oh, that’s art-house.”  And it’s shot in a kind of art-house kind of a way; the comedy is quite broad in a lot of places.  I think it could play quite wide, but we’ve got to see.

TE: In the trailer they’re definitely capitalising on the racism.

JMD: Yeah!  Which I was surprised they went for that.

TE: We love our racism.  It shocks us, so people are going to say, at first, “Oh, that’s horrible.”  But then they’ll see it.

JMD: I was surprised they went for that, I thought they might shy away from that.  I think it’s good on them, that they tell them it’s the worst it’s going to be.  But the US trailer is Brendan, Don, Brendan, Don; it’s not only them in the movie.

TE: Yeah, exactly.  And the scenes between him [Boyle] and his mother I thought were particularly… very sympathetic, very touching.

JMD: Yeah, this is where you start to see a different side to him.  You realize a lot of what he’s saying is for effect.  And she’s only in three scenes, but it has a big impact, and adds to that sort of melancholy feeling to the movie, which goes up all the way to the ending, which I wanted.  But it goes into that protracted editing.  If the film is long, you start thinking – what can be cut which doesn’t effect the main narrative?  Scenes that don’t effect the plot if they get pulled out to pull the running time down… because there is a sort of of obsession – if you’re making a comedy, make sure it’s 90 minutes.  That kind of thing.  My thing is that there’s a bit more going on than just a simple comedy, there’s lots of character stuff.

So eventually we got it right.  It’s 96 minutes, which is a decent enough time.  But we still got the character bits.  Every character has his moment; they’re not just supporting characters that come on and say a few lines and go – they’re not just ciphers.  Like the guy who’s getting interrogated… [We laugh] If you view the film again you’ll notice that everything he says in the interrogation is a lie; the guy doesn’t rear up at him, he just brutally assaults him.  So everything he says in that scene is just gibberish.  That’s something I hope people will get if they see the film again.

TE: But yeah, the mother adds a sort of psychological element to him.

JMD: Yeah. It’s like you start thinking alright, it’s just the two of them.  There’s no father and no mention of the father.  She looks youngish, so maybe she only had him when she was fifteen or sixteen.  We had a backstory where they both struggled along together, just the two of them, and they became so… not inbred, but their attitudes toward life.  They both had a similar iconoclastic anti-authoritarian attitude – that’s where he gets it all from.  And she is a sort of stoic personality, where she is prepared to see things through to the finish rather than die a painful death, which then leads on to the conclusion.  So yeah, emotionally it has an impact on the narrative.

TE: Another interesting thing is it seemed to be drifting towards a love story with the Croatian woman.

JMD: The way it was originally written, it was meant to have those elements, but it didn’t seem to… Brendan was always resistant towards it.  And also, you’re dealing with his subordinate cop pal who’s gone missing and he’s already moving in on the wife.  I think there you’re going a bit too far.  So that was something that there was more of that element in the original script, and then as we started shooting we realized it wasn’t really working as well.  But Katarina Cas, I love her performance here, I think it’s her first major film.  So then we decided, let’s just move it towards the sort of melancholy sense of… In another world, this is the sort of wife he would have had, like the little kid is the kind that he would have had.  He doesn’t have a wife and doesn’t have a kid…

TE: [Laughing] The kid that just appears.

JMD: At random moments, yeah. And so yeah, it became that.  It was like the shadow world that he didn’t have and never had.

TE: Yeah, I think it worked very well.  So, what’s next?

JMD: Well, there’s one Brendan wants to do called “Cavalry” about a good priest who’s tormented by his community.  It’s more of a straight drama, and more art-house but will have some dark-comedic sort of stuff.  Sort of like Luis Buñuel or Robert Bresson art-house – I describe it as Bresson with gags. [We laugh] So then I’ve got another script about two corrupt cops in Alabama, which a real black comedy, sort of like “Freebie and the Bean”, for 2012 or 2013, whenever we make it.  That would be a bit more of a rollicking knockabout sort of comedy.

TE: Is “Cavalry” also written by you?

JMD: “Cavalry” is written by me, and the other one is called “War and Everyone”, this is the cop one.  So yes, as I said, the scripts are alright, and are lowish budget which I could hopefully get myself attached to as the director.  These are the main two. And there are others that I’ve got but, like I said, no one is going to give me 60 million dollars to make them.  I’ve got a big budget action comedy set in Las Vegas but that’ll be 60 million dollars as a budget.

TE: That’ll be the fourth or fifth film.

JMD: [Laughs] Yeah.  I’ve got this massive French anarchist thing based on a true story set in 1911 in Paris, which is kind of a cross between “Le Samouraï”, have you seen ever seen that Melville film?  Alain Delon?

TE: I haven’t, I’ve only seen one Melville film

JMD: Alright, well you know that kind of cool, existentialist killer sort of thing?  So it’s sort of a cross between that and “The Wild Bunch”.  So that might be five films down the road if I’m still in the business.  But you know, shooting action scenes is really really boring.  Like the shootout we have at the end.  I mean, it’s obvious.  It’s so tiresome.  When you do an action sequence you are just like putting a jigsaw puzzle together to make everything fit in the sequence.  All the shots are quite short, it’s not like two actors who are riffing, and dialogue and blah blah blah.  You’ve got a shot of a man shooting a gun, a shot of another man has to shoot a gun back at him.  So they’re great to write, but not great to actually sit there and shoot it.

TE: Great to write, great to edit, but not great to shoot.

JMD: Yeah exactly, it’s that middle section that’s a bore.

See the film!

Click here to read “The Guard” Feature Part 1: Review

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