Martin McDonagh: ‘No one really tries to make sad films any more’
Writer/director and creator of crazy little worlds of fierce people taking out their pain on each other, Martin McDonagh talks about his new film, The Banshees of Inisherin. “It’s a really beautiful movie, with brilliant performances,” he says. “and it’s funny… but it’s sad. Nobody tries to make sad movies anymore.”
it’s sad, inisherin’s banshees, but, as he says, it’s also a lot of fun; as well as grotesque, violent, tender, surprising, a little creepy and visually striking. Many of these elements are established components of a McDonagh creation, be it his early works, such as The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997), or his 2017 Gothic Revenge of the West three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri, which won Oscars for Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. inisherin’s banshees, however, is a mood swing. less fast, more painful and mythical. like a terrible fable.
as you might have guessed from the title, he’s also Irish. though far from the usual cliché depiction, its opening shots, across the gnarled pastel land and out to the shimmering sea, could not be filmed anywhere else. it was done in eight weeks in the summer of 2021 on inishmore and achill, two islands off the west coast of ireland. the weather was wonderful and the sunsets amazing. “the most beautiful summer i have ever experienced in ireland. which was,” says mcdonagh, “unexpected.”
although he was born and raised in london, mcdonagh’s parents live on the outskirts of galway, on the way to the coast where inishmore meets the other two aran islands. she’s at her parents’ house now, jumping off the couch in shorts and showing me the view; yes, it’s beautiful. during filming, she would stay here on the weekends. “Although I didn’t tell my parents what I had been doing,” she says. “I’ve learned not to, because it usually ends in a serious beheading or something.”
in mcdonagh’s plays and movies, there’s often something gross, someone’s guts spilled out, a gun fired extravagantly in an enclosed space, or an animal injured and doing something terrifying to humans. In Inisherin’s Banshees, along with a tense story of friendship between men, there’s a very specific and creeping act of violence, so gruesome that it makes you laugh as you walk away. it has to do with one hand. Hands Affected are featured in two of McDonagh’s works: Leenane’s Beauty Queen and A Spokane Delivery. I ask about this hand in hand; he is duped in my connection. “I’ve never made the link,” he insists. “I wouldn’t say it’s psychologically important!” but after asking, throughout our interview we greet each other for laughs. this is very mcdonagh.
Let’s go back to sadness, though. the banshees of inisherin is in a lot of pain, especially for colin farrell, who pays pádraic, a nice guy who is sad throughout the movie. His anguish is directly caused by Colm, his best friend. every day, pádraic calls colm to go to the pub. one day, colm doesn’t come. he tells pádraic, with stark simplicity, “I don’t like you anymore,” and it is this statement that sets off the starting gun for the confusion that follows.
mcdonagh, who won best screenplay at the recent venice film festival for inisherin’s banshees, says he tried to imbue the breakup of friends “with all the sadness of a broken relationship. .because I think we’ve all been both sides of that equation,” he says. “and there’s something horrible on both sides. Like knowing that you have to break up with someone is horrible, horrible too. I’m not sure where the best place is to be”.
You certainly wouldn’t want to be padraic though. His face, when he first receives the news that Colm has left him, is a picture of devastation. “yeah, it takes almost 30 seconds for him to figure it out,” says mcdonagh, “and you can watch him go through the process, is this true? and then: this is true, and it’s all on his face, in about 20, 30 seconds. It’s my favorite part of the whole movie. It’s heartbreaking.”
farrell won the best actor award in venice for his performance; only his eyebrows deserve an award, they are so expressive, but everyone in the movie is great. Kerry Condon is Pádraic’s sister, Siobhan; Barry Keoghan is Dominic, a smart boy considered stupid by everyone around him; and brendan gleeson plays colm, who is no longer my friend, with devastating weight and tenderness. McDonagh fans will be happy with the pairing: Farrell and Gleeson first starred together in Witches, McDonagh’s much-loved first feature, and the pair’s chemistry is genuine. A funny, brutal, post-1990s story about hitmen out of their element, In Bruges didn’t cause much of a stir when it premiered in 2008, but has achieved cult status ever since. “People discovered it in the intervening years and have taken it seriously,” McDonagh says. “especially the boys. they come up and say: “we really love in witches”. almost as if they had made it themselves.”
in witches there is a defined status hierarchy between the two protagonists (gleeson taller, farrell shorter) and this leads to shifting likes and resentments. And in Inisherin’s Banshees, which has a similar status setup, McDonagh found himself switching allegiances. when he wrote the script he took a liking to pádraic, the abandoned friend, “because he’s a good guy”. But, he says, “I knew that for the movie to work, I had to give Colm’s side of the equation both merit and thought. So brendan and I talked about colm’s music and his desire for art, and with that, for me, from 60-40 in favor of pádraic to 49-51.”
colm’s side is this: he has to end his friendship with pádraic because time is passing. colm is a musician; he’s getting older and wants to spend the rest of his days creatively, instead of sitting in the pub with pádraic talking nonsense. so he decides to leave his friend, it must be said, in a harsh way. which he raises several questions, including: do you have to be selfish and cruel to create? can an artist be kind?
“Well, with the movie it’s one of the things that will hopefully be discussed. But I don’t subscribe to the whole tortured artist thing,” says McDonagh. “You hear stories about movie directors being complete idiots. and they usually make shitty movies. none of my movie heroes are really unlikable. maybe sam peckinpah. he was a very tough guy, and you see that in his movies, but that’s okay, because he tortured himself as much as anyone. but I don’t see the value of being a jerk.”
However, when it comes to the realization of “time’s running out, let’s keep making stuff”, mcdonagh is very much on colm’s side. The writer-director is now 52, and recently made the decision that he’s going to spend what creative time he has left—he estimates “around 25 years”—making movies instead of plays. his reasoning? movies are faster.
“I always used to think they took longer than plays, but with this one we were shooting a year ago and now it’s out,” he says. “But if you’re lucky enough to have successful plays, like I’ve had, then you start in the West end, like in the royal court, then you go to the West end, then off-broadway and then on broadway and hit with every move, throwing it and taking care of it, going to rehearsals, that’s five years of your life.”
Mcdonagh’s career began in the theater. In 1994, when she was 24, she wrote seven plays in 10 months, and they all hit theatres, whoops, at almost the same time, from Galway to the National. From being a complete unknown (he left school at 16 and worked in the civil service for five years before resigning), at 27 he was the youngest person since Shakespeare to have four plays simultaneously in London. McDonagh was a sensation; feted for his talent and his anti-establishment spirit. in interviews he criticized other Irish playwrights who had dared to question his talent.
at an awards event, when the host wanted everyone to toast the queen, he and his brother, writer/filmmaker john michael mcdonagh (the guard; ordeal), refused, angering sean in doing so. connery, of all people, who martin told to fuck off. When then-Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Trevor Nunn, refused to represent Martin’s, the Lieutenant of Inishmore, fearing, ridiculously, that it would derail the peace process in Northern Ireland, McDonagh said he would not allow any more plays to be performed. his until the lieutenant of inishmore was seen. got away with it, the royal shakespeare company produced it, and the peace process went on smoothly.
Still, after a riotous career of excellent stage work, McDonagh made a deliberate move into film in 2004 with Six Shooter, a short film for which he won an Oscar. Her first feature film was In Witches, followed four years later by Seven Psychopaths and then, in 2017, three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri. he’s written fewer plays in recent years, though the two he’s written, Executioners and A Very, Very Dark Affair, have been hits, especially Executioners, which took exactly the path he describes, ending up on Broadway, with nominations for the tony awards.
actually, inisherin’s banshees began as a play, the third part of an aran islands trilogy, after 2018’s cripple inishmaan and inishmore’s lieutenant. but the play didn’t work, and to write the movie, mcdonagh started over, keeping only part of the title (originally inisheer’s banshees, a real island: inisherin is made up). His plays and his films feed off each other, especially since he believes in the central importance of writing, a belief that is fueled and fostered by the theater. Matthew Dunster, the director of Hangmen at the Royal Court in 2015, starring David Morrissey, commented approvingly at the time that McDonagh has “an alpha sense of his own worth as a writer,” and that comes from his works. . Did he trust them from the beginning?
“Well, when I started writing, a lot of my heroes were confident,” he says, “because they came from books or music, like Joe Strummer. and I read interviews of playwrights and they always seemed so moody and whiny and fake. the attitude would be: ‘I hope you come to see my work, to see if you like it. I think it could be okay. and he knew that those works were shit, because they sounded like shit and because he was seeing a lot of them. I wrote a lot of shit myself over, like, eight years, but it was in the ’94 period that they started to get good. leenane beauty queen, it was written very quickly in, like, a week and a day. And I didn’t really change a word. You just know, if you’re honest.”
He remains honest about his work, ruling out “at least one thing every year or two” that isn’t up to scratch. Even after the event, he can reevaluate: He tells me that the Spokane performance is “one of my shitty plays” and says of Seven Psychos that he doesn’t think it works because he was trying too hard to make a “cool movie.” ”. “It ended up as an essay about people instead of a movie. I watched witches and psychopaths back to back right before I did three billboards, and realized I was with all the characters in witches. and that was the kind of movie I wanted to keep making.”
and three billboards…of course it ended up being a huge hit, though he remembers it was in the doldrums before the movie, as Seven Psychopaths hadn’t landed well. “three billboards had to be a hit, really.” The story of McDormand’s heroine’s rage against a local police force that spent all its time intimidating black people instead of solving the murder of his daughter, the film was a huge success, though some expressed reservations about redemption of the character of sam rockwell, a racist police officer.
“I could see where that debate might come from,” he says. “But I thought it was not seeing what I see in the movie. the bait in the whole idea was: what is a villain and what is a hero? But I don’t know. Basically, if someone calls your movie racist, and you wrote and directed it, that means they’re calling you a racist. and I have always been so anti that, yes, it is hurtful. nobody wants to be called that.”
You may have problems with other people’s interpretation of your work. one reviewer called inisherin’s banshees a return to form after “the serious misstep that was three billboards”. “I thought, ‘big misstep,’ really? was it that bad? he has not enjoyed certain new stagings of his old works because they have not been as he imagined the work in his head; and he has refused to allow his plays to be used by theater companies because they wanted to edit out characters’ words that they found offensive.
“Put a warning in the show notes, sure, but let the character be who he is,” he says. “Trust that your audience has the intelligence to know that I am not using these words. characters need to be what they need to be. if they’re nice, fine. if they are homophobic, you should know that it is the character. if there are racist words then that is to show the audience that this part of ireland is racist. or we are heading towards a soft and harmless nothingness.”
in theater it may be easier to be firm about this, because in plays, the writer is king; It’s not like that, always, in the movies. That’s why he orders, says McDonagh, to keep the deed intact. describes a trick where a director will take a script written by someone else and “change every third line, but just a little: like instead of: ‘hi, how are you?’, they’ll change it to: ‘how are you? doing?’. and then they claim they are co-writers!”
He thinks this is terrible, “there should be workers’ rights for writers”, and with his own movies he refuses to let anyone touch a single syllable. “People I’ve worked with know that even at the script stage, even when they give me the money, there can’t be notes on the script. there is never a condition. there is never a note. you take it as it is or you go to hell.”
all of which makes it sound very confrontational, but in person it’s not like that at all. McDonagh is friendly and talkative, engaged in questions, truthful in his answers. the actors describe him as collaborative, and he himself thinks of filming as “as partners, coming together trying to find solutions, partners trying to figure this out.” even so, he is used to fighting. Since the beginning of his career, he has had his detractors, mainly because he writes about Ireland without actually being from there. he grew up in south london, on an estate in elephant and castle, and later in a terraced house in camberwell. His parents were from the west of Ireland, and he and his brother grew up surrounded by other Irish families and went to see his grandparents during the holidays.
“We were raised to be proud to be Irish, perhaps more so than someone raised in Dublin,” he says. “We were always listening to Irish music and we were encouraged to play games of gaa [Gaelic football]. the irish football team was also doing very well at the time so i guess it added to a sense of pride. but at the same time, I’ve always been a bit of an anarchist and anti-nationalist. I had posters of punk bands and travis bickle [the taxi driver anti-hero] on my walls.”
He identified with the pogues, that is, Irish with an outsider’s eye, and would call himself London Irish these days. However, it is notable that he has never written an actual play or film set in London. Even now, he’s not thinking about it, particularly: “Actually, the next movie will be on Easter Island. so not even close.”
Anyway, he lives in East London at the moment, though he says, “I’m happy to always be travelling.” he likes to be on planes, to go to film festivals, to move around the world for his work. when a film is over, he goes on holiday, and even when he is at home, he goes on weekend excursions to the lake district and scotland, just for the difference: “I love being on a train with a notepad, looking out the window.” he can write anywhere because he uses pen and paper, scribbling, erasing, writing again, and then typing himself because no one else can read his tiny scribbles.
When he’s home, he hangs out with the creator of the flea bag, Phoebe Waller-bridge. They’ve been together since 2018, though she won’t answer my questions about this: “no comment, but I like my love life, thanks for asking.” nationwide, he says he’s good at “pasta, punctuality and…I’m not very good at cleaning…I’m going to say pasta again. I can make a smoothie. I can’t do anything electrical I can’t drive when I’m at home I’m very quiet. I listen to music, there’s always a bit of guitar, good lyrics, singer-songwriter stuff. the happy brothers, I love them.”
He is a vegetarian and an animal lover. he spends a while extolling the virtues of minnie, a local horse that appears a lot in inisherin banshees. He realized that he needed Minnie in a pivotal scene, and she rose to the occasion: “She does the whole scene. she makes that scene the saddest part, how gentle she was, where she’s looking at the door, almost looking away because she’s too sad. and for her, that’s all improvisation! awesome.” we also talked about westerns and how he thought of colm and padraic like they were in a spaghetti western: “two gunmen banging open the door of the bar, while we’re getting shot through the door like john ford.”
in the end, despite his ability to unplug and travel, despite his high-profile, no-commentary love life, it’s all about working with mcdonagh, and the excitement, imagination, collaboration, and disruption that it takes to do that. when his work surprises him, that’s when he really gets excited. “When he was writing the script and Colm walked into the pub, I didn’t know what he was going to say,” he recalls. “and then when he said about the hand, I was like, ‘oh shit, this is fun!'”
I wave to him. he waves back, delighted.
“It’s fun! because it throws everything up in the air. and that’s what I like, that’s what I love.”
The Banshees of Inisherin will be released in the UK on October 21, following its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on October 13