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Interview: Martin McDonagh On A 'Pillowman' Movie, 'Seven Psychopaths' And The Genius Of Sam Rockwell

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 6, 2012 at 3:23PM

One of the most controversial and acclaimed playwrights of the 1990s, Martin McDonagh -- the man behind stage hits like "The Beauty Queen Of Leenane," "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and "The Pillowman" -- found equal success when he moved into the movies. He won an Oscar for his first short film, "Six Shooter," and a few years later wrote and directed the hilarious, soulful black comedy "In Bruges," which became a serious hit on the festival circuit and earned him an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.
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Seven Psychopaths, Rockwell, Farrell
You've worked with a few of the actors before -- Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell on "A Behanding At Spokane," Michael Stuhlbarg and Zeljko Ivanek on "The Pillowman" on Broadway. Were you writing with actors in mind?
No, I never really do that. Maybe I had Sam Rockwell's voice in my head, when I was writing Billy, because I'd always wanted to work with him.

He was meant to be in the Broadway run of "The Pillowman," right?
Yeah, he came to see it over here at the Cottesloe, and I heard about it after the fact. So I met him at the National, and had a little read through, but he'd committed to something else, and couldn't do two back to back. Michael Stuhlbarg than played the same part, and was fantastic. But yeah, I think Sam's maybe the best actor of his generation, and definitely the most underrated too. So I always wanted to work with him. But apart from that, nothing was really tailored, and nothing really changed after people were cast. Even with Colin, the part wasn't written to be Irish in the first place, but his dialogue didn't need a lot of changes.

Colin's character is called Martin, he's a writer... how much of a self-portrait is it?
There are degrees. The whole idea of wanting something to be more peaceful and loving than the title would suggest. But I've never had writers block, I've never been a part of the Hollywood system, and I'm never needy or worried about writing. So those aspects are made up.

Seven Psychopaths
You mentioned that sort of wish for pacifism, and the film in some ways felt like you're saying goodbye to some of the more out-there, violent aspects of your work. Was that conscious?
The pacifism is a conscious thing, definitely. Saying goodbye to violence... maybe a subconscious one. The next film, even though it deals with the outskirts of violence, doesn't have any violence in it specifically. So yeah, in a way, I'm happy with being done with it, a bit. But at the same time, there's always something very dramatic about it, and it can move a story on, and especially on stage, it can be eye-opening and very exciting. So I couldn't promise you anything.

The violence never feels gratuitous, though.
Yeah, I've always wanted it to be painful, and truthful, and ugly, and not gratuitous.

Moving away, from that, I wanted to ask about music, because there's much more of it here than in the last film. You've got a couple of tracks by The Walkmen, who are favorites of mine.
Really? No one seems to know them. I always mention them, and no one seems to... But yeah, I used "Brandy Alexander" in the cocaine scene in "In Bruges," and two tracks here. And I know them a little bit as well, I saw them in Austin a few weeks ago, and they're good guys. And I tried to stick in a few other cool modern day American brothers, like the Felice Brothers, and Deer Tick.

Do you write songs into the script?  
Not in the writing, no. But The Walkmen, that first song, when Angela gets hit, that was in my head that it would be in there from early on. And then normally there's a soundtrack of about 25 songs that are the soundtrack of the film going in, on my iPod. And most of them don't make it, but a few of them did, a few of the more modern ones. But two of the older ones, PP Arnold, "The First Cut is the Deepest, " and "Different Drum," Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Poneys, they weren't even on that original list, but they were songs that I'd liked for a long time, and I tried them in the edit, and they just seemed so incongruous that they helped those scenes perfectly.

Seven Psychopaths
Moving away from the film, your brother's ["The Guard" director John Michael McDonagh] had some success recently. Do the two of you show each other your scripts?
No, we rarely show each other each other's work. But I did read "The Guard," cos I think he wanted me to get it to Brendan [Gleeson] quicker than the usual channels. And I did show him this, cos I had a question I wanted to ask at the last minute. But we're both very arrogant about our writing, and so we don't need each other's input or approval, in a good way, in a loving way. But I'm so glad about the success of "The Guard," cos he was waiting for a long time, he started writing before me, so he had a long time to wait for his directorial debut. He's got lots on the go, he's got about eight scripts ready, he's shooting "Calvary" right now.

You've got your next film hopefully lined up, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." But after "In Bruges," do you get other offers? Other people's scripts to direct, studio gigs?
If there are, those offers never get to me, because I'm always going to do my own stuff, and I'm not going to do that very often, so my agents know not to even bother me with it.

A lot of filmmakers are moving into TV now. Would you ever consider that?
I dont think so, cos I'd have to write every episode to feel like it was mine, and I don't think I could do it. I respect it, things like "The Wire." But even a film takes up two years of your time, and a series that would hopefully be successful, that's seven years, and I'm not sure any piece of art needs that much time.

This article is related to: Interviews, Martin McDonagh, Seven Psychopaths


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