Imagine how strange it must be to be Martin McDonagh’s parents. Off you go to watch one of your son’s works and what are you confronted with? Stories about matricide (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, in which a daughter murders her mother with a poker).
Stories about psychotic characters (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in which Padraic, the deranged leader of an IRA splinter group, is spurred to new heights of lunacy when he discovers that his beloved cat is dead). Stories about torture (The Pillowman and, in some way or another, most of McDonagh’s works).And those are just the plays. We haven’t even got to the films. Sitting in a luxurious private room in the Shelbourne Hotel, the confident-seeming McDonagh cracks a gap-toothed grin when asked about his parents’ reactions to his work. ‘‘My Mum wishes I would write a romantic comedy where not many people died.”
Mrs McDonagh’s wish doesn’t look likely to be granted any time soon. McDonagh’s latest project, the much hyped In Bruges, stars Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as two Irish hitmen under strict instructions from their scheming, ultra-violent boss (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out in Bruges in Belgium, after a job they have been involved in goes badly wrong.
It’s not long before the pair – both speaking in Irish accents, although McDonagh had initially scripted them as Cockney characters – begin shaking the sleepy town up. While Ken (Gleeson) is content to wander around, checking out churches, the Groeninge museum and the 250-feet tall Bell Tower, Ray (Farrell) is in constant search of misadventure.
When Ray isn’t hanging out with a curiously aggressive dwarf and a bunch of Dutch prostitutes, he’s advising fat tourists against climbing the Bell Tower (‘‘Ye are a bunch of elephants!” he tells them in shock, when they suggest it).Commenting on the American screenings of the film, Gleeson has said that ‘‘there was a hesitancy to laugh at some of the more un-PC jokes at the beginning, and then once a few people went for it, everyone did’’.
It’s the London-Irish McDonagh’s first feature film, but – as he has made clear in interviews over the years – films rather than plays have always been his preferred medium; plays were just what he wrote first.
For a fledgling film director, McDonagh has quite an astonishing history. In 2005, he directed Six Shooter, a short film also starring Gleeson, which netted McDonagh an Oscar for best live-action short. He keeps the Oscar on a shelf in his kitchen in London. ‘‘Sometimes I see it and think ‘that’s weird’. It’s almost like nothing to do with me,” he smiles.
Very few directors make their first feature film with an Oscar already at home. Were there times when the success he had already achieved put pressure on him – and perhaps became something of an albatross around his neck? ‘‘Surprisingly, no,’’ McDonagh says. ‘‘I think the pressure that I had was just the pressure that I put on myself.
‘‘I’d always wanted to make a film and I had the history of great films in my head, so it was just the fear of ballsing it up. Luckily, we’d set up the deal for In Bruges before the Oscar thing happened, so I never had the feeling that anyone was on board because of that. It was more because of the strength of the script.”
The genesis for the film came about around four years ago, when McDonagh travelled to Bruges in search of some culture for the weekend. On McDonagh’s first day there, he thought the town, so rich with architecture and history, was enchanting. On his second day, however, he was utterly bored. ‘‘I wanted to get drunk and get out of there.” In the film, Gleeson and Farrell’s characters represent the twin sides of McDonagh’s brain. ‘‘It’s me arguing with me,’’ McDonagh says.
In Bruges is far from perfect: it’s uneven in tone and – Oscar or no Oscar – it’s pretty clearly the work of a first-time director finding his feet. Although Farrell is completely convincing as a romantic lead, at other times, particularly when he’s flitting between comedic scenes and moments of total depression, he seems less a fully rounded character than a collection of nervous twitches and Father Dougal-like mannerisms. (Gleeson’s restrained performance, by contrast, is a tour de force.)
Still, many of the tenets that make McDonagh’s stage plays so mesmerising and magnetic are present in In Bruges as well – he always knows how to cleverly shock; there are many laugh-out-loud moments; there’s a strong structure; and a refreshing willingness to break the rules.
You don’t have to search for too long, meanwhile, to locate some of the qualities in the film that have given McDonagh’s plays larger, lingering resonances. McDonagh once described his own plays as ‘‘black comedies about loneliness’’ – and that same theme runs through In Bruges, too.
Meeting him in person, loneliness seems a strange thing for McDonagh to adopt as a writing theme. If truth be told, McDonagh comes off as the kind of guy who would always be surrounded by people wanting to be friends with him. Disconcertingly good looking in the flesh, white-haired, tanned, extremely articulate and confident, he seems like a person who would never have to think about something like loneliness, never mind write about it extensively.
Yet, asked what he was like as a teenager, the picture that emerges is very different from his public image. ‘‘I was shy, quiet. I didn’t go out,” he says. When McDonagh was 17 or so, his parents – both originally from Ireland – decided to relocate from south London to Galway. McDonagh stayed behind.
He drew the dole for a while, watched loads of films and wrote. Most, if not all, of his plays were written in a frenzy of creativity in the mid-1990s, and then substantially reworked over the years.
Beginning his writing career, McDonagh – once aptly described as a ‘‘punk playwright’’ – wrote to challenge the prevailing notions about plays, rather than conform to them. ‘‘I’ve always loved films, and I’ve always been really irritated by the fact that certain sections of society think that plays are, by their nature, more highbrow and artistic. When I was growing up, all the plays I was seeing in London – not that I saw many – were all very middle-class and boring, and nothing ever happened in them.
‘‘I thought that, when I started writing them, I would have things happen on-stage like gunfights. I wanted to bring the offstage action on-stage and have it be as exciting as a really good film is.”
McDonagh’s first plays sent shockwaves through British and Irish theatre. His first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, had critics reaching for their smelling salts and their garlands simultaneously. Staged as a Druid Theatre/Royal Court co-production, the play – a story about a spinster and her aggressive mother – netted four Tony awards, the 1996GeorgeDevineAward,The Critics Circle Award and The Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Newcomer.
Even now, years after his debut, a McDonagh play still seems like nothing else on earth. Although McDonagh uses conventional storytelling strategies, the energy, humour and violence contained in his plots set him miles apart from his playwright contemporaries. But what makes McDonagh different has also, at times, made him hugely disliked.
Penned in 1996,McDonagh’sThe Lieutenant of Inishmore centred on the unforgettable character of Padraic, a psychotic 21year-old leader of an IRA splinter group who learns that his best friend in the world – his cat – has died. Torture, mutilation and murder all feature heavily in the play.
The result was that the Royal Court and the National Theatre refused to stage it. ‘‘I couldn’t get it on for four years,’’ McDonagh says. ‘‘That almost made me want to completely quit theatre. I would have, if I hadn’t lucked out – one company wanted to do it. If that one hadn’t done it, it would never have seen the light of day. And I always thought that was wrong. Because even if you don’t like the violence or the attitude, there’s no way you could say that it’s a bad play.”
Sure enough, in a nice vindication of McDonagh’s feelings, in 2006, the play was nominated for a Tony Award. By that point, however, McDonagh was already quite a distance down another road – leading to Hollywood. With In Bruges, he knew he had set himself a huge challenge.
‘‘To begin with, I just wanted to make one film and then run away, because I thought it’d be so awful,” he says.
‘‘Going into it, I was terrified. But we had three weeks of rehearsal before the shooting started and that really eased my nerves – it was just me and Colin and Brendan in a room drinking coffee and talking about the script. By the end of the three weeks, we knew exactly where we were coming from, so, by the time we got to shoot it, everyone had to fall in around us and catch up almost. We were also working with a really lovely crew who loved the script – they were laughing after each take, which was really nice to hear.”
In the film, Ray never stops complaining about how much he despises Bruges. Fortunately for McDonagh, however, the residents of Bruges have taken the film in good humour. ‘‘I was a bit worried,’’ McDonagh says. ‘‘But when we showed it to them – to the mayor’s office and the tourist board and all the Belgian crew – the reports that came back were good. They were happy.”
With so many successes behind him, it seems like McDonagh would be overwhelmed by opportunities awaiting him in Hollywood. But he insists that he hasn’t been offered the chance to direct any big budget action flicks.
‘‘No, I would only do my own stories anyway, so the door would be completely shut to any offers like that.” Although he has a number of new film scripts and plays already written, McDonagh’s immediate plans lie far away from the world of celluloid. ‘‘I want to go away and write on my own for awhile, so I’m not even going to contemplate doing a play or a film for a couple of years. I want to discover what kind of stories I want to tell next.
‘‘I don’t know what they’ll be, but hopefully, I’ll do something that Mum might like at some point.”