This Friday, a film featuring a motley collection of characters of dubious motivation, centered around a costumed hero on a mission, will roll into theaters. That’s, right, we’re talking about John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” the complex, biting, pitch black follow-up to the director’s more comedic debut “The Guard.” The film stars regular collaborator Brendan Gleeson, this time in a cassock as a Roman Catholic priest, the one good man in a rotten rural parish, going about his week as a countdown to the Sunday on which he’s been told one of his parishioners will kill him. And it’s an ambitious, multilayered movie that impressed us hugely in Sundance, and that provided us with a great deal to talk about when we met the director at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
McDonagh is garrulous and forthcoming in person (and speaks in a London accent quite unlike the West of Ireland brogue we’d subconsciously expected) and we shared a few tidbits of news about his upcoming project “War on Everyone” already. But now with the Friday release of his provocative, challenging film, here’s the rest of that interview, mostly about “Calvary,” but also going into plot details for his next film with Gleeson, and outlining the idea for the “De Palma action movie” that he already thinks is so ambitious it might be his last.
“Calvary” is a very unusual mix of dark and light. Tell me how you feel it’s being received.
Well, a lot of people say that I erred to far on one side or the other there, and they didn’t like it. It’s a bit too much comedy for such a dark subject or it’s too dark for something they were hoping was going to be more comedic.
Is some of that due to the false expectations set up by “The Guard”?
Oh yes, definitely. I mean, in Ireland the film was successful but audiences didn’t walk out with a spring in their step, and I think there was probably bad word of mouth because people were expecting “The Guard 2.” And when they didn’t get it, they were just like “oh this is a terrible film.” But I wasn’t trying to make that movie.
I confess I probably did have those expectations going in, only because I loved “The Guard” so much. I chose it for my “underrated” film of 2012, though I know it did very well in Ireland.
Yes, that’s funny, we were quite happy with the money it made in America, but in the great scheme of things $6m isn’t a lot, I suppose!
I’m surprised by your English accent, because I particularly love how you write dialogue, and capture a very Irish facility with language—so profane yet so erudite...
Yes, I always have erudite characters, I would rarely create a character who is unintelligent or has nothing to say. And they’re all heightened characters—“Calvary” is not a naturalistic movie, these aren’t people you’re gonna meet in a small town in Sligo. Well, you might meet one or two, like the character that Killian Scott plays, Milo, who wears the bow ties—he seems one of the weirdest, but that was based on a person I met.
But it’s interesting that you mention my accent, because that’s why I cast Kelly Reilly as Brendan’s daughter. She’s got an English accent and it’s only referred to very briefly, as in she grew up in London or something, because that is the Irish experience. Kids have grown up in London or America. And people are leaving again now, so that was quite important to me to get across. And also I wanted to get across a slight detachment between them both, so her accent is different to his and that implies something there, just already in the way they speak.
A lot’s been written about the film’s black comedy, but personally I found it a hugely angry film, a furious movie, actually...
Oh it is, it is. I think one of my failings is often in Q&As or interviews I try to keep things light, to make jokes, but it is a very, very angry movie, very anti-authoritarian movie. I mean, I see myself as an anarchist really, I despise authority.
But, then, I was surprised people didn’t take “The Guard” as being as angry as it was. There’s the line “You being an FBI man, you’re probably more used to shooting unarmed women and children”—to me that’s an obvious, angry line. And “he hasn’t had this much fun since he burned all those kids at Waco”—that’s a funny line but it’s very angry. Yet only a few people seemed to get that. But I’m planning that the third one will be almost attack on society, see how far you can go.
That’s the thing with comedy, people laugh and it’s only later they go “hang on…did he mean that?” But then you don’t want to audience to be sat there being given a political talking-to, I want an entertainment, and “The Guard” is more obviously an entertainment.
But “Calvary,” it’s like listening to a Nick Cave song, or Tom Waits, I find those songs really moving: they may be about depressing subjects but I’m still being entertained if I’m engrossed and absorbed. To me that’s as much an entertainment as a Disney movie.
Of course, a great song, even a sad or angry one, can be uplifting in that it can make you feel like you’re not alone.
Exactly. Brendan once said “Great art should be about making you feel less alone” and this is entirely the way I feel about things. I was a big fan of The Smiths and that whole subculture. There was all these depressed young men and women who weren’t having sex and they all came together...
And had sex…
And had sex, yes, and suddenly felt, yeah, I’m not alone. I’m not alone.