Arts Interview: Calvary charge
6 April 2014 by Nadine O’Regan
John Michael McDonagh has waited a long time for his moment in the sun, and you can tell. As he settles himself contentedly into his suite in a luxurious Dublin hotel, the London-Irish film-maker – whose break-out success came with The Guard in 2011 – doesn’t mince his words telling of how hard his early struggles in the film world were.
Unlike most writer-directors, McDonagh wasn’t just fighting to make his voice heard in film. He also had to contend with living in the shadow of his ultra-talented, keen-eyed and successful sibling Martin, the so-called enfant terrible of British theatre, responsible for the Leenane Trilogy, and later, in film, the successful dark comedy In Bruges.
Was there sibling rivalry at play? McDonagh gives me the wry look of one who has lived with this answer for many years.
”To begin with, Martin was very successful in theatre, and I’m not a big fan of theatre,” he says, leaning forward, his eyes resolute, his tone of voice pragmatic. ”I think people pay too much for plays, and they’re usually not very good. So I didn’t mind when he was a playwright. But when he got In Bruges set up, and it became a critical success, then I got jealous.”
At the time, John Michael was living in London, labouring to craft commissioned screenplays that were earning him a crust but rarely making it the whole way to the big screen. At parties, he would be embarrassed when people asked what he did; hating their awkward expressions as they realised he had never written a screenplay they had heard of. But he used the feelings to good effect.
”A lot of the bad experiences in your life form you just as much as the good experiences,” he says. ”Those years of frustration, of rage against the film industry, rage against my brother, led to the making of The Guard. That frustration became the character of Gerry Boyle. So you can’t take it back. If you took it back, I would never have made The Guard.”
When The Guard, a dark buddy-buddy action comedy starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle and written and directed by McDonagh, emerged in 2011, it surprised everyone by becoming the most successful Irish indie film of all time, overtaking In Bruges at the box office. John Michael’s response was as jubilant and crowing as you might expect.
”He rang me up with the news, and slammed down the phone laughing,” Martin McDonagh told this reporter. ”There was a lot of violence and drinking [that Christmas], and that was just my mother.”
Fortunately, while the McDonagh brothers might sound like the warring Gallaghers of Oasis, they’re actually pretty supportive of each other. To some extent, their film material echoes each other – they specialise in dark, acerbic work, with frequent lurches in tone and a tendency to offer up intriguing philosophical truths alongside gruesome jokes and self-conscious commentary.
In person, they share a confident, charismatic, self-made-man attitude. McDonagh left school at 16, which, for him, makes his subsequent stories about flying business class on planes all the sweeter. A stockier, balder version of his playwright brother, McDonagh wears a perpetually determined look on his face and talks a fantastic game – if Michael O’Leary made films, this is how he’d sound in interviews.
Certainly, confidence was needed for his latest film project – Calvary, the story of a good priest being threatened with murder, which again stars the magnificent Gleeson in the lead role, flanked by a cavalcade of Irish talent including Aidan Gillen (as a doctor), Pat Shortt (a barman), Dylan Moran (the local rich man) and Chris O’Dowd (the town butcher), playing small but memorable roles. How did McDonagh get such a great cast together?
”You write a good script,” he laughs, while also being entirely serious. ”A lot of the actors have only three or four scenes, but they’re intense, heightened scenes, so they can come in and kind of chew the scenery.
”They’re going up against Brendan Gleeson, which is a challenge. They’re seeing an actor who is very prepared, a De Niro-type actor, who is very method. So he gets very intensely involved in the role. He’s playing a character who is continually battered – he was exhausted emotionally – so when actors come in, they have to go up against him. So it’s a series of one-on-one fights in the movie. I think it’s one of the best casts ever assembled for an Irish movie.”
Earlier, downstairs in the Merrion Hotel, the perpetually ruffled-looking Dylan Moran has backed up McDonagh’s claims about the script. Moran plays an eccentric toff in the film who appears to need for nothing, but actually despairs of his own existence.
”I loved the script, so I knew straight away that I wanted to do it,” says Moran. ”It’s a very powerful piece of work, not patronising or prescriptive. It’s got elements of comedy and drama in it, but it’s not easily categorised. You could probably call it an epic.”
The film begins with an intriguing manifesto – Gleeson is told in the confession box that his life will end in seven days – so it’s time to get his affairs in order. One of his parishioners means to do away with him – ”I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent,” the man in confession says – but which one? Almost everyone in the town of swishing curtains and raised eyebrows is suspicious.
The film is a profound meditation on life and loneliness; a contemplation of the iniquities of the Catholic Church; and also an arthouse drama – the story of a man who has fought his demons and become a priest. It’s about pain, and about finding ways to fill the void.
”It’s all those things, and it’s funny as well which is quite odd, because it veers back and forth between really dark stuff and stuff that makes you laugh,” adds McDonagh. ”It keeps audiences on their toes. It’s a strange beast. The Guard had melancholic moments, but this goes into deeper and darker moments. It’s a strange hybrid of a movie.”
Although there are longueurs, Calvary is a better and more thoughtful, if less accessible, movie than The Guard – a one-man meditation (albeit played out through multiple characters) of what it means to exist in post-religious, small-town Ireland. It’s also beautifully shot – Sligo has never looked so well. But does McDonagh agree that he’s made a better film than The Guard?
”I think it’s trying to be more ambitious and deal with deeper themes,” he says. ”I think The Guard is a good film, but it can be dismissed as a buddy-buddy black comedy.
”But with Calvary, hopefully it makes you think. It’s a more international, expansive film, dealing with things that we think about in life, but never put in a movie.”
Speaking of Irish film-making, McDonagh is openly dismissive of some of the choices his fellow film-makers have made in terms of the screenplays they have brought to life for low-budget movies. ”A lot of the movies that are made – their initial ideas just aren’t good enough. You see synopses for these movies, and you think: No one is going to go and watch that.’
”As Brendan always says, what’s the point of making a film for an empty cinema? You might as well not have made it. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of impetus to it, other than that someone wanted to make a movie.
”But you’re being really arrogant if you’re expecting people to pay a lot of money for a film that isn’t that well-made, well-cast or well-written. It leads to a despair in the Irish audience. Then, when someone eventually makes a good Irish film, there’s an in-built resistance to it. I don’t want to sound like one of those US studio heads, but the film does have to play to the people.”
Already, the reviews for Calvary have been stellar, which means McDonagh can relax and look forward to taking a well-earned rest after he finishes the promotional work around the film.
”I’m a very lazy person,” he laughs. ”There were three years between The Guard and Calvary, and I spent a lot of that time on the beach. My wife is Australian so we go to Australia for a couple of months every year, which is very nice. Once I’ve made a movie, I just want to take a year off, lie around reading and watch movies.”
When he does return to the fray, however, it’s unlikely that it’ll be in collaboration with his brother Martin. Despite their obvious synchronicity, John Michael thinks that it’d simply be too painful for those around them.
”We played five-a-side on Wednesday night, and the game ground to a halt where we had an argument about a penalty. If we’re doing that in a football match, it wouldn’t be wise to work on a movie, he laughs. ”It’d be a good behind-the-scenes documentary, but it probably wouldn’t be a good movie.”