That’s What I Do: Martin McDonagh on Seven Psychopaths
Martin McDonagh had a good time at the Toronto International Film Festival. His second film, Seven Psychopaths, premiered at Midnight Madness to nearly unanimous laughs and applause. Colin Farrell stars as Marty, a struggling screenwriter whose encounters with real psychopaths inspires his “Seven Psychopaths” screenplay. On the day after the midnight screening (or later that same day if you count 12AM as tomorrow), we got to chat with McDonagh.
CraveOnline: You totally had the audience every step of the way at the midnight screening. Were you ever worried with the tone of this movie, that any step might not connect?
Martin McDonagh: Well, strangely, even last night, it’s weird when you do funny scenes or scenes with comic lines, it’s always easy to judge if something’s working because you get a laugh if it’s working. In a scene that’s a big more scary or dramatic, there’s no way to really judge that by just listening to the crowd. So it’s tricky. I’m happy with the tone of it. The elements of it are so crazy because it goes from broad black comedy to serious dark violent sad stuff too, but we touch on that in In Bruges too, a film with both in one. Fun and horror. I guess that’s what I do, fun horror.
Is Seven Psychopaths a very different type of humor than In Bruges?
Yeah, I think it’s kind of crazier and it’s not as grounded. I guess the humor from Bruges was a guy who is trying to get away from a horrible fact and push it down and hide it through acts of craziness, just becoming a mad thing in the world. This, it’s mad things in the world and trying to corral insanity. So it’s different. It was probably easier to write out and out crackpots like this and have one sane person trying to maneuver through their wild story.
Why do you think that is? At what point did you notice Seven Psychopaths was a little bit easier than In Bruges?
As a script, it was probably harder to write because of the elements. There’s the through line of the crazy guys but then there’s all these backstories that connect too. The Quaker story and how that reoccurs. I guess none of the characters in this was in as dark a place as Colin’s character in In Bruges was so in that sense it was easier to go with these crazies.
Did you set up a lot of danger zones for yourself?
No, in the writing of it, I didn’t plot it out so I just started it. I guess I had some of those short stories like the idea of the Quaker psychopath story, a guy following a guy who won’t do anything to him but will really f*** him up in the end. I guess touches of the serial killer killers, the Tom Waits backstory. So they were there beforehand and I knew maybe within 20 pages I’d have to hit one or the other. Aside from that, it was just listening to the characters talk. When I’m happiest writing is just not knowing where it goes and just let the characters bring you there.
Does the humor of Seven Psychopaths come out of a love for the genre or a distaste for it?
A combination of both I think. I think the whole film is kind of that. It loves certain aspects of that kind of filmmaking, at the same time as almost wanting to do something more highfalutin, but knowing that that’s kind of snobby too. But then also aiming for something, as Marty says, about love and peace. Those all are elements that are always going around my head, a lot of Peckinpah or films of that nature, but an urge to do something that’s spiritual for want of a better word or decent or moral, and knowing that one is going to always be fighting the other and hopefully at the end of it you’ll come out with something.
When did you feel confident in writing it that you achieved that balance?
In writing it or making it? I think I was happy with that balance in the script but it was just a question of making sure that that followed through in the making of it. On the day, every day shooting, I think we were getting a bit “you never know how that’s going to end up in the edit.” So it was a good way through the edit before I felt like the peace was at peace with the war in the film.
You may have dealt with this on In Bruges too, but how do you do gangsters talking before the hit in the wake of Tarantino?
I guess I don’t really think about it in those terms because there were plenty of people doing it before Tarantino too. It just seems like he started it.
The ‘90s were especially full of that.
Yeah, yeah. I think part of the fun conceit is to set two guys up like in a ‘90s hit man comedy and then kill them and say, “No, we’re not making a film like that. That was a red herring. We’re going this way.” That’s my take on the start of the film. It’s not a Tarantino film.
But there is still banter, so that scene doesn’t eradicate fun dialogue. It just sets up the tone.
Yeah, but fun dialogue I think more of Preston Sturges and those screwball comedies. But then also Mean Streets had fun crazy dialogue too.
How tricky is it to have a movie where you’re talking about movies and the movie you end up watching?
Strangely, it’s more fun than anything. I tried to not get too up myself, too meta. I mean, it’s a very meta kind of film but you have to tread a fine line of not going so down that route that it doesn’t become the film and you don’t care about the characters as being in the moment. It’s a tricky line. Even Chris[topher Walken]’s line about, “Your women characters are awful” midway through the film, because they are but it’s fun to throw those things in. It’s just to make sure that they’re fun and not repetitive and you’re not pulled out too much every time something like that happens because it’s possible that Chris’s character at that point would say that, so the film hasn’t completely stopped and we’re making a comment on it. It’s a fine line but hopefully we got it right.
Were Hans’ lines written for Christopher Walken’s enunciation?
No, he took it and went his own way with all those things. No, I did a play with him a couple years ago and he did the exact same thing. He’s just a genius. No one’s like him. No one speaks like him. He just made them his, but he didn’t change a word to be honest.
Was there any sensitivity to having Colin Farrell play an alcoholic and having to swig even fake stuff?
No, he never had an issue with it. I think he found it fun to explore those aspects of a character having been through similar things in his own life. No, it felt I think almost easy I think. I can’t really speak for him but he certainly didn’t seem to have a problem with it. We didn’t use real stuff but I think it was almost trickier in In Bruges. There’s a scene where they’re doing cocaine in the hotel. I think that, he said at the time, that was weirder because I guess in normal life you’re always swigging something anyway, water. Taking cocaine or even faking taking cocaine isn’t something that ever comes up, so to jump back into that I think he said felt like a bit of a headf***. But I don’t think there were any issues about this. It was just something kind of fun and easier to get into.
Did you start developing Seven Psychopaths right after In Bruges came out?
No. The script was ready even before I made In Bruges. It was written just after the script of Bruges was written but before I made Bruges so the script dates back about eight years I think. No, I literally just took a lot of time off and did nothing about it for about a year and a half but Colin and I had spoken about it. He’d read it at some point during that period and we said we should do something together. Whether or not it was this or something else, we’d always said that we would. Then when I started getting a little bit bored after two years I thought, well this would be a tough one to do because it’s a bigger scale thing than I’d ever attempted before. But I spoke to him and he said he’d be on board and do whatever I wanted. He’d do whatever I needed in this and then I thought okay, I’ve got to do it. I can’t take 10 years off between films. Then when he came on board, we got a lot of the financing so that allowed us to speak to the other guys too and cast it. Then I couldn’t go back after that.
Have you been excited to see how people discover In Bruges?
Yes, that’s been kind of lovely. When it first came out, some of the reviews were quite mixed in fact and it didn’t do particularly well in North America. It was only after it went to DVD. I always liked it and I couldn’t understand the mixed quality of the reviews because the people who saw it at the time seemed to like it. At the same time, we never had the kind of reaction to that in the auditorium as we have had for this in the few places it’s been tested. I always love cult films myself, so to have made one that has had a slightly cult growing status has been cool. I’d rather make a film that’s loved by a few people than lots of people know it and kind of liked it.
I think if you can reach the people who find that sort of honest insensitivity hilarious, they will love In Bruges. The great thing about In Bruges is no one said anything untrue, it’s just stuff you’re not supposed to say. Yeah, the fat guy really can’t walk up all those stairs.
[Laughs] I think the spirit of it is decent even though the things that Colin’s character says isn’t necessarily that way. You can kind of see that he’s coming from a place of terrible sadness and you can almost excuse it. I would never say any of those things but you can get away with a lot I think if you’re honest and the heart of the film isn’t mean spirited. Hopefully this too because there are some very tricky un-PC things in this too but I hope the heart of the film is the opposite of that kind of meanness and I hope that’s what always comes through. I think it did with Bruges and I hope it will with this.
You say the F-word and the N-word in Seven Psychopaths. Is that trickier than the C-word that was all over In Bruges?
I think c*** is easier to get away with. There are no political connotations really to that. It’s just a horrible word. The N or the F word, or even the C word I would never use in real life. I hope the tone of the film isn’t about that kind of hatred.
It becomes one of the big jokes when Hans says they don’t like being called that.
Does the title Seven Psychopaths come from some evolution of Seven Samurai?
Yes, in fact there was a scene, you know the scene between Colin and Sam in the bar early on. He says, “How many psychopaths have you got?” “One, and I’m trying to make it Buddhist.” There was a whole riff on, “Oh, it’s kind of like Seven Samurai but there’s only one and you haven’t even come up with him yet.” There was a nod of the head to it but it just didn’t make it into the final thing.
Coincidentally, the same number of syllables too.
Oh, yes, yes, exactly.
What are you developing next?
I’ve got another American set film script that’s ready to go with a strong female lead for once, set in Missouri. So I think if I’m going to direct a film next, that would be the next one, but I think I’m going to take some time off and write and travel and hang out, just rest up. I don’t like constantly doing career things. I like the idea of growing between projects and learning and reading and traveling. That’s what I’m going to be next.
Are you always going to be a writer/director or could you direct someone else’s script?
No, I think you have to invest so much time, I think you should really be trying to put your own stories out into the world, or your sensitivities or opinions.
Is that the burden that the more successful you are the more demand there is for you to get right back and do another one?
I think if you’re strong willed enough, you don’t ever have to deal with that. And if you don’t care about fame or success or money too much, you can avoid it. I don’t even have a mobile phone so that’s one of the steps you can make. Yeah, if any offers come through to agents, I just don’t hear of ‘em because I don’t care so it doesn’t even come through to me so it’s not really hard. I know that I’ll make this next film in about four years’ time and I’m not going to let anything get in the way of that, or let anything get in the way of not doing that for four years.
What do you want to read during your next time off?
Hmm, what have I got? I like Nabokov a lot so I want to complete his stuff. I want to make sure I’ve reread all Richard Brautigan [who] is a really cool American novelist who died in the early ‘80s I think. I want to complete his works too. He doesn’t really get too much of a mention nowadays but he’s great. George Saunders, do you know him? He’s a good American short story writer.
Were you involved in the decision to show in Midnight Madness as opposed to another category of TIFF?
Yeah, it was CBS’s idea. I haven’t been to the Toronto festival before so they told me about it and what it entailed. I thought that was perfect for this really. I think at the London film festival they have gala screenings too and they always feel a bit snooty, I don't know if it’s similar here, or a little corporate. I didn’t think that that would suit this but when they explained what it was about and the nature of the audiences, it felt perfect. It turned out that way last night too. It was really good fun.