Writer/director Martin McDonagh's first film, In Bruges, made my top 10 list of movies in 2008 and his second movie, Seven Psychopaths, hits theaters on October 12, 2012 with a bigger cast and bigger expectations. Fortunately for fans of In Bruges - and fans of smart comedies in general - Seven Psychopaths delivers on all its promises. It's original, gutsy, and wickedly twisted in a way that doesn't put off the audience. And even though it is about dognapping, dog lovers have no reason to shy away from these Psychopaths.
Sitting down to talk about Seven Psychopaths with McDonagh at the San Diego Film Festival, it quickly became apparent that the man behind this film and In Bruges is just as interesting to spend time with as his films. Personable and intelligent, McDonagh quickly moved up my list of favorite interviews following our 20 minute one-on-one.
Exclusive Martin McDonagh Interview:
I was a huge fan of your first film, In Bruges, and was excited to see what you'd do with this follow-up. You didn't disappoint.
"Oh, I thought you were going to say it's terrible. [Laughing] 'Why didn't you do it like the first one?'"
No, Seven Psychopaths is very funny."Thank you. Well, it's different. I think it's more fun. I mean the first one like from had funny jokes and stuff, but it was like a dark, melancholic, humor born out of the tragic. But this is more mental crazy, psychotic and fun."
Was this more fun to write?
"No. I mean, the first one it was fun to write a character like Colin [Farrell's] in the first because he's just outrageous all the time. And then you go to this sadder stuff, too. But, no, I have fun writing them all. It's all similar, even if I write something that is quite grim, I'm not usually in a grim place. I admit, you do kind of try and think it's sad and get into the character's head for a period of page or two."
But you can quickly get out of it. Were there more than seven psychopaths that you came up with originally?
"No, it was hard to even come up with seven. Because, like Colin’s character says in the thing, it was a good title. Seven was better than Six Psychopaths."
[Laughing] You can't do eight. Eight doesn’t make sense.
"No. It’s got to have two syllables: seven. But no, because I was more like I had three and then I was like, 'Shit!' So then I have Tom Waits’ character come in and bring me two more straight away."
How did you come up with these psychos? Are these characters based on people you are in some way connected to you?
[Laughing] "No. Thank god, no."
So we won't be reading about you in a true crime novel anytime soon?
"Oh, no, unless I do the true crime. I think I had this sort of short story that becomes Christopher Walken’s story, the Harry Dean Stanton story, I had it separate. So that was the one I had. And then I guess I knew that there was going to be a writer writing that story and his friend is going to have some kind of dodgy elements to him, even though he seemed nice on the surface. And then it kind of snowballed from there. I thought, 'Why can’t the character from that first story be someone he doesn't know is actually in his life too?' And then it kind of just snowballed. It was easy to put them in the place of danger by getting a Woody Harrelson character written and having that be a dog kidnapping thing. It kind of went like that. I only had one thing and it just kind of grew and grew. It kind of works that way in most of the scripts."
Was the dog kidnapping always central to the plot? Was that something you came up with before you even came up with the psychopaths?
"Yeah. Now that was an old idea I had even separate to a psychopath's idea, but I just didn't know where it would go. But, no, that was always kind of central."
"It just seems silly."
You don’t see it often in films.
"No, thank god." [laughing]
But when you think about it, it's a good way for criminals to get money because people are so obsessed with their dogs.
"Kind of, but strangely like I was kind of worried that it's of mean."
It's really mean.
"It's very mean, but how do you get away with it in the film? How do you do it, because you don't want the audience to turn against you? Because you still want the audience to like Sam and most of these characters. So what do you do to make sure that that's okay? And so you just make sure you see that they're taking care of the dogs. They instantly give them back, and you kind of love them anyway."
"It would have been different, I think, if Sam returned the dog to the woman. It would have been kind of creepy. And then [Christopher Walken] goes straight to the hospital. So you put those things in to make sure we're all on safe ground."
"No, not at all. The script was written just after I wrote the script for In Bruges but before I made In Bruges, so I didn't even know personally Colin at the time. I think I might have had a little bit of Sam’s voice in my head when I was writing his character because I always loved his work. But I didn't know Christopher then. I mean, it's like a dream cast. I didn't think I would ever get people like these guys, let alone Tom Waits and Harry Dean Stanton."
Where is Brendan Gleeson?
"He's actually there right now making my brother's second film. My brother made The Guard a couple of years ago."
I loved The Guard. Highly underrated.
"Yeah, I know. I mean it did great in Europe. My brother keeps telling me it did better than In Bruges did. Even two days ago, he emailed me: 'We've made more money than you did in Spain.'"
Just tell him to get over it. It's done. That’s history.
[Laughing] "You don't know my brother. But no, I'm going to work with Brendan again and again. I've worked with his son on the stage and he's kind of coming up with big films now. He was in the new Anna Karenina, I think. But no, I'll work with Brendan again. He’s fantastic."
He and Colin Farrell had great chemistry in In Bruges.
"Yeah, I'd like to do something else with those two, but then you might think it's too similar. You have to really make it as good as Bruges."
Is there any character from Seven Psychopaths you wish you actually could have taken off a little further and told us more about? Some of these characters deserve their own films.
"Yeah, I guess maybe what Tom Waits did in the intervening years could be interesting. Or what the wife did, Maggie, the one he's searching for. She's such a strong black woman character and you never really hear her speak but a couple of lines. That could be cool. She can be like a cool super hero. Actually, that's something I never thought of..."
Okay, when you write that one, you have to credit me.
[Laughing] "Okay, just a credit. No royalties though."
No royalties - just my name on the screen at the end. But yeah, she would be a cool character to explore some more.
"Yeah, she's a good actress too. She's only about 25 or 26, so she looks more like the younger version of her. But she played it all through the years."
And speaking of Tom Waits' storyline, why does he have bunnies? What's your fascination with bunnies?
"I just love them. They're so cute."
They're cute but aren't they hard to direct?
"Strangely, they weren't. If you create the scenes where they can do anything, that's what they do. We have this tracking shot into the bedroom when Tom Waits is just sitting there, and they just hop perfectly. Like, one went this way and one went that way. All they're just doing is avoiding the camera looking for food, but it was seamless. Even in the garden they just do their own thing."
And I hear Tom Waits was really good with them.
"Yeah, he liked them. He always had his same specific one which had blue eyes and that is really pretty. But they're all so quiet, too. It's not like having a dog or cat that is going to be giving you problems."
So, why a Shih Tzu?
"Because they're just so cute too."
Corgis are cuter.
"Corgis? See, I'm half Irish and Corgis are like the royalty dog."
All right, but they are cuter.
"You’ve got a Corgi? [Laughing] They’re cute but they seem..maybe it’s the Queen thing...but they seem like a posh dog, like a bit too proper."
No. They're like a big dog in a smaller dog body.
"True. Could you carry them as easily as they carried a Shih Tzu?"
Absolutely, and you can carry them upside down. In the spin off, the character should have a Corgi. And when you're writing your scripts, how many drafts do you go through before you get to the version that's up on the screen?
"Not too many. This had about three max. I don’t say it’s finished until I’m really happy with it, so no one would see it. I wouldn’t like sending to my agent or anyone else thinking it needs work because I don’t take notes from anybody else. I don’t have people reading my stuff and giving me feedback. I’m not that kind of writer."
Is that kind of scary though? You don’t know if you’re satisfying anyone but yourself.
"But if you are your own harshest critic, then you are not going to even give it to someone else. If I thought there’s a scene that wasn’t just right, I’m just going to not get it out and just keep working on it. I've just got to do that and be harsh so that once I do start getting critiques or plaudits back, you can take it all with a pinch of salt very well and say, 'This is what it is.'"
How do you know when you've got it right?
"I guess because I’ve been doing plays for so many years, but even then it’s just about being honest with yourself and knowing what the best kind of play that you like out there is, or all the best films, then thinking, 'Well, it’s pretty close to being that.' As long as there aren’t any scenes of dishonesty or faking something, or you're not trying to do something to get money for it or to be box office. Neither of these scripts are kind of box office-y type things. You just have to say, 'Well, is that funny?,' if it’s supposed to be funny a scene, or is it truthful or is it honest? And if you can stick to those things, I think that’s okay."
Do you think your sense of humor matches most audiences'?
[Laughing] "No. But, still, like every screening we've had of this, we've gone to Toronto and Chicago now and we had one in San Francisco, it seems like the laughs are all there. Because I don’t get notes so every single line is something I think is funny but might be a little near the knuckle, and I think audiences like that. They don’t get enough of it and it’s not as palatable as most romcoms are. It's like, 'Wow, did he say that?!' 'It’s a bit dangerous, but it’s funny - we'll go there.' Maybe it’s easy to go there for an audience after Bruges because they know it's going to be crazy and dangerous. It's like when you're on a roller coaster. 'It's going to be scary, but we'll go for it.'"
Is your voice different for a play than a film script?
"Not really. It's pretty much the same crazy shit."
What happens if you start out writing a play but it turns into a screenplay? Has that happened?
"It hasn’t actually done that so far. When you’re thinking about a story, if you feel like it’s more or less set in a room or two concerning three or four characters, you know it’s going to be a play. If you think, 'Well maybe in the scene three I’m going to jump to Africa and it's going to be on the beach and then there’s going to be wildlife running through it,' then you kind of know it’s probably more of a film. Or if you're going to jump back and forward in time or the scenes are going to be very short, or there’s going to be a hundred characters, it’s going to be a film."
Do you worry when you jump back and forth in time that you lose people? Do you ever worry about the audience's attention span?
"A little bit, but even in the editing you’re never trying to confuse. You’re never trying to confuse something, but there’s so much information and so many stories that it’s got the risk of being confusing. But my job in the editing especially - in the writing, but especially in the editing - is to give the audience enough information that they might feel, 'I don't get it, but I assume it’s going to be explained later.' I think that’s what this has. It's like you can be a little...uncomfortable might be too strong...but you should be happy to go along and know you're being taken to the right place."
In the editing process, does your story ever go an unexpected direction that wasn't necessarily intended in the script?
"Not so much. I think maybe a little bit more in filming you realize, 'Well, Colin and Sam’s relationship is fantastic and you kind of want to be there the whole time,' so you know that in the edit that’s where the film is going to be focused on. I think more in the edit you kind of go, 'This is kind of more broad of a comedy than I thought it was going to be.' That’s kind of surprising. Like after the first big screening we had, there was so many laughs from the start and I was like, 'I thought it was a little bit more serious and edgy and dangerous than that,' because there’s quite a lot of violence in it too. I was like, 'Oh Jesus!' And when the film studio was there they were like, 'A comedy?' And since then they have been so fantastic. But it's like, 'Oh shit, we've got a comedy on our hands,' which is weird for me because I thought it was more like Bruges which was still funny but quite melancholy and dark at the same time. I was close to it for six months and it’s only when you kind of let it go out there, you see the reaction. It's a switch, but it's kind of cool."
Talking about the violence, I love in the film that you say, “You can kill off the women but you can’t kill off the animals.” That is so true.
I will not see a movie where they kill a dog, but the women I don't care about so much.
[Laughing] "But that’s terrible."
Even the male characters I don’t care about. You just don’t kill the animals. And yes, I know that's terrible.
"I was thinking about this because it’s ridiculous, but I think the reason we think that is probably because if you see an animal being killed on the screen, you worry that... You know if you’re seeing a woman being killed or a man being killed, nothing has ever happened to the actor because they’ve got unions. [laughing] But with an animal, you're just not sure."
Plus the animal is innocent no matter what, whereas the person... I mean, come on, these characters all have their faults. Maybe they deserve to die.
[Laughing] "That’s terrible. No!"
It's so true though.
"Hang on. Chris’ wife character, Myra, she’s like the loveliest person in the whole movie."
Yes, you are absolutely right. But I still would rather see her die than the Shih Tzu.
But it’s true.
[Laughing] "I don’t know why I’m blaming you. I wrote the line."
You do say it in the film, and then you kill people off. Do you regret killing characters off?
"No, I like it." [laughing] Like, even Brendan Gleeson's character in the first one, you should be as an audience going, 'I didn’t want him to die. I really liked him.' And that’s what you should be concerned about, making sure the audience loves him in the first place. Because at the end of the film you’re never going to see, I’m not into sequels anyway, but you're never going to see any of the characters again anyway, so it doesn’t really matter at what point they die."
It's funny that you’re not into sequels yet this one in particular sets itself up for a character to go off and do something else.
Never? Not even 10 years down the road?
"No, because his friends were so much fun and they're gone. So, no."
You could have new friends, new psychopaths.
[Laughing] "Played again by Sam and Christopher. No. But seriously, all those sequels - it's all about money. If you start making a film just because it’s about the money... Apart from the Godfather II there’s like a handful of things that have only been about good work."
Was it difficult to write the scripts within the script and to see it from those different characters' perspectives?
"It was difficult not so much that as to make sure that you didn’t go off so long on one tangent that the main [story suffered]. It was the same in the editing, that you didn’t fall so much in love with like Tom’s backstory and those images that it felt like the biggest story was put on hold. So it wasn’t actually the writing of them, it’s just making sure that they didn’t weigh down the script like a very baggy and boggy way."
Is there a lot of extra material on the DVD? I would imagine this had some stuff that you could use.
"It’s going to be about 20-25 minutes, I think. There was an original version, this is about an hour and 45 and that was about two hours and ten. Because when they went to the desert, you know Colin’s character says, 'Why don’t we just pitch a tent and talk like in a French movie or whatever?' And there was a lot more just talking and silly scenes there, and they were really good, fun scenes and it was quite hard to cut them because all the boys were having so much fun and doing such great things. But it just felt like, 'When is Woody’s character coming? I thought this was about him.' And even now, it’s just long enough for you to go to, 'Where is Woody,' and then he's there."
Is this the ending you’ve always had in mind?
"In the original script’s version, there was even one more sort of twisty, turny ending. I had a version of it where it ended without the Tom Waits bit, but I felt like it was too wrapped up in a nice Hollywood bow. So you still do have that, but I think because the film was touching more uncomfortable things, I felt like the ending needed to be a bit more uncomfortable than the perfect Hollywood finished script."
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Seven Psychopaths opens in theaters on October 12, 2012.