Martin McDonagh on Redemption in the Gangster Film

| February 4, 2008

Playwright turned screenwriter/director, Martin McDonagh, entered filmmaking in 2004 with his short, Six Shooter. As a result, he garnered an Academy Award for Best Short Film, Live Action for Six Shooter in 2006. With over a half dozen plays already to his credit, McDonagh was no stranger to awards ceremonies, having won two Olivier Awards for his plays The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Pillowman, and been nominated for four Tony Awards. McDonagh’s first feature film, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes, premiered at Sundance on January 17th and will open in limited release on February 8th. McDonagh sat down for a 1-on-1 interview with FilmMonthly‘s Jef Burnham:

JEF: Your handling of the mob behavior and violence in In Bruges was rather unglorifying. Was that natural for you of did you give that a lot of thought beforehand?

McDONAGH: I kind of deliberately wanted to set up an archetypal kind of gangster story, but then just explore those themes of guilt and despair because of what happens to a guy who isn’t necessarily evil but has gotten into this profession of killing people– without being a necessarily evil guy. What happens when something goes wrong? What happens if the wrong person– an innocent– is killed? How do you deal with that? How can you live with it as a human being? So yeah, I was trying to explore the human side of the hitman film. It was a deliberate setup and then knocking that down and going to a different place.

JEF: [The characters in the film] are very honorable men, but… Ken [Brendan Gleeson] has this idea that Ray [Colin Farrell] could find redemption and Harry [Ralph Fiennes], it just doesn’t seem to be in his vocabulary.

McDONAGH: Well, Harry’s thing is, if you’ve done a wrong there is no forgiveness. There’s no getting out of it, you know, which is the way a lot of people feel if something that horrible happens. You’re doomed forever. I guess what I like is one of the Catholic themes of: Can you be forgiven? Can you forgive yourself? Can you be redeemed? That’s what I wanted to explore.

JEF: Does Ken’s belief in redemption have anything to do with the loss of his wife?

McDONAGH: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think the loss of his wife has sent him down the path that he’s taken, sort of being a robotic killer with decency– that he’ll still follow orders and he’ll still do his job, and he has been doing that ever since his wife died. But I think the story’s kind of about two people being redeemed, and that attempt. When push comes to shove, Brendan’s character chooses the life– chooses a different path too. I thought that was the interesting thing. Originally, I thought the whole story was about Colin’s character and his journey and his evolution, but the more that Brendan brought to it, the more it became a level view of two guys seeking the same thing. I think that’s why the film works. Hopefully.

JEF: How do you feel about the advertising which paints it sort of as a comic romp… with mobsters?

McDONAGH: Um… I’m okay with it, you know. They get a cut of a trailer and submit it to me. I’m kind of okay with it. I know why they’re doing it. Because comedy sells and despair and redemption stories don’t maybe. I mean, there isn’t anything in the trailer that isn’t in the film. The film does have a lot of comedy. Would I necessarily have cut the trailer that way? No, but I don’t have anything against it necessarily. I know what it’s about… I think if someone comes to see the film just for the comedy they’re still going to get all that, you know? It’s not that they chose five funny bits and there isn’t any other comedy in the film. I hope that they’ll come to see a comedy, but then be surprised and happy that there are other levels to it too, you know? I hope no one will be disgusted to see guys crying.

JEF: In the writing process, did you ever look at the amount of humor you have in it compared to the serious side of the script and think that you should probably pare this down?

McDONAGH: No, because I like those things going hand-in-hand. I don’t think for a film to be good or meaningful, I don’t think that you have to have it be purely dramatic. I don’t think you have to shy away from the comedy. I don’t think you have to do what Woody Allen has done in his later career, just be dramatic, because it’s just as skillful to tell a good joke… I love the karate chopping dwarf bits as much as the sad bits. It’s all something you have to get right. You have to get as artistic as possible, which is kind of weird when you’re talking about that, [pantomimes karate chopping a dwarf] but it’s all things I love. I like a good comedy. I like darkness and things more cinematic. I like shoot-out movies and all that kind of stuff. I think it’s kind of cool to not shy away from any of those elements. To think that it has to be worthy– that comedy isn’t worthy. It’s just as worthy as anything.

JEF: For me the most affecting piece of music in the film was “On Raglan Road.” What’s the significance of the song for you?

McDONAGH: It’s a song I’ve known for years and it’s got a beautiful tune and it’s very melancholy. It’s the perfect sort of melancholy moment to have that coming up. Also, it’s distinctly Irish as soon as you hear it. Even though the two lead characters are Irish guys and they are Irish characters, we don’t dwell on the fact that they’re Irish very much. It’s mentioned and let go, but I kind of like the idea of not having talked about that issue throughout the film, but having something very Irish instantly just hit you. It’s romantic and doomed. There’s a feeling of doom about that song, you know? I think it’s really effective because everything else goes silent at that moment.

JEF: One problem I had with other films is that they would have the very Irish characters and have a lot of stuff about Irish heritage, but no Irish music.

McDONAGH: Yeah, I kind of wanted not to talk too much about the whole thing. One of the biggest things was to have Colin and Brendan just play it in their own accents, because that allows them and us to just get straight into the characters, and not have to worry about this layer of an accent on top of characterizations. Yeah, I mean, I like Irish music, but… there are some films that are set in Ireland or involve the Irish and as soon as it comes in, it’s like diddly-aye-di kind of fiddle thing. And I kind of go against that too, and that’s why I like Carter [Burwell]’s score. He didn’t touch on that at all. He touched more on a European kind of gothic, kind of creepy thing… Creepy and hopeful in places, but we talked about that a good deal before and I think what Carter came up with is a really perfect score for it. Nothing too comedic, too. I wanted it to be a little doom-laden.

JEF: Capturing the medieval grimness of Bruges itself.

McDONAGH: Yeah, exactly.

JEF: I felt a special connection with Ray, because I have a friend with an almost identical obsession with midgets and dwarves. Where did that come from?

McDONAGH: I think Ray’s got this dark side but there’s something very childlike about him. Childish/childlike… It’s that kind of stupid, really, seeing a dwarf like a child, wanting to run up and touch it and talk to it. But then, I wanted the dwarf character himself to be completely over that, and be really kind of pissed off with all that kind of stuff, you know? He’s just tired of it. He’s an actor who’s just tired of all the elf parts and all the munchkin roles, you know? He’s just kind of pissed off and he’s just gone into this track of drugs and prostitutes. I thought it was interesting: his adult nature with Ray’s childlike stupidity.

JEF: What’s your next project?

McDONAGH: I’m actually going to take a break for a year or two years. I’ve got a few film scripts that are ready to go. One of them I really like a lot. It’s called Seven Psychopaths, but I’m not going to do anything with it for like, literally two years. If I do another film, I think that would be it, but I don’t want to tell you too much about it right now.

JEF: Have you considered adapting any of your plays to the screen?

McDONAGH: Yeah, no. I just don’t believe in it. I think that’s what people do for money and I don’t think you should ever do art for money. Also, most plays make shit films. And I also think that if you’re writing a play, you should love that art form and want that to be the end product. You get a play as perfect as you would want to get a painting or a film, you know? Not have it be the first step in doing something else, you know? It has to be pure. And that’s one of the reasons I’ll never ever allow my stuff to be made into films. If I ever do, you can kill me.

JEF: In The Pillowman, the police talk about Katurian’s works having lots of children getting “fucked up” in them. Did you predict when you wrote that that Six Shooter and In Bruges would deal with the death of children as well?

McDONAGH: [chuckles] No, I think that just naturally comes through all my work, I think– dead kids. No, not really. I think it’s kind of an easy go-to place. The killing of the innocent, you know? If that’s what the theme of the film is going to be… it could be any kind of innocent bystander, but with a kid, there’s no question about the wrongness of an act like that. And it’s a simple device in some ways. I mean, not to put it too harshly, but you can’t argue with the death of a kid. There’s no way it can’t be a fucked up thing.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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