The British writer-director was spurred to success by an Australian misfire.
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22 Aug 2011 - 12:03 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

After handing his screenplay of Ned Kelly to director Gregor Jordan, John Michael McDonagh hated almost every minute of his experience working on the 2003 Australian film which starred Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom and Geoffrey Rush.

Yet the English writer perversely credits that debacle with giving him the motivation to ensure the first film he got to direct as well as write, The Guard, was a creatively satisfying endeavour for everyone involved.

Thus far he's been vindicated. The dark comedy about an unorthodox, small town Irish cop who reluctantly teams up with an FBI agent to solve a murder and smash a drug smuggling ring had a rare 100% approval rating from critics polled by Rotten Tomatoes after its premiere at the Sundance film festival in January. (This week its score had “slipped” to 95%, with 75 fresh reviews versus four rotten.)

Sony Pictures Classics nabbed the US rights at Sundance and launched the film on July 29, taking a healthy $US77,000 at just four cinemas in the first weekend, then expanded to 19 screens for a 10-day haul of $307,000. Transmission will open the film here on August 25.

“The big test (in the US) will be when we go up to 50 and 100 screens,” McDonagh told SBS Film from his home in South London, “It's done very well in Ireland and made its budget ($6 million) back already. We had $3.5 million in presales to foreign territories.”

Relating his tortuous initiation as the screenwriter on Ned Kelly, McDonagh reckoned he felt especially galled about how the film turned out because he had spotted Robert Drewe's novel Our Sunshine in a London bookshop and recommended that producer Nelson Woss option it.

It turned out that the writer's vision for the film – a kind of ode to the lyrical works of Terrence Malick – differed markedly from Jordan's. “He thought it should be a bad film and I thought it should be a good one,” he said, a remark that didn't sound entirely flippant.

McDonagh, who had admired Jordan's work on Two Hands and Buffalo Soldiers, believed his script adapted from Drewe's novel was “butchered”. He quit the production early in the shoot and considered asking for his name to be removed from the credits after he saw an early cut, but relented fearing he might be blackballed by sections of the industry.

“I saw a later cut which had some improvements,” he said. “At the end of the day I thought it was a 5 or 6 out of 10. There have been worse films so I let it go.” Asked how long he spent on the set, he replied, “About 45 minutes was all I was allowed.”

From that negative came a positive which he applied to The Guard: “I walked away from it realising it's wrong to go into a film thinking these directors know more than I do. I figured I could do better than that and I wrote a low budget film and attached myself as the director. There's a mythic element about some films and auteurs; it's not true.”

The movie also gave McDonagh the chance to flesh out the character of a bumptious cop who figured in The Second Death, a short film he wrote and directed in 2000. A ghost story set in a bar, it starred Liam Cunningham and David Wilmot, both of whom readily agreed to play drug smuggling villains alongside Mark Strong in The Guard.

Part of its appeal lies in the combustible relationship between Brendan Gleeson as Sergeant Gerry Boyle and Don Cheadle as FBI agent Wendell Everett. Subverting the usual formula of a buddy cop comedy, these guys actually don't like each other and Everett understandably resents Boyle's unreconstructed racism and a joke he cracks about the Waco disaster in Texas, when an FBI siege led to 76 deaths.

Cheadle relished that concept, suggesting to McDonagh that when his character sees the cop at the end of the movie he shouts “Boyle” rather than “Gerry” as scripted.

Boyle isn't your stereotypical heroic cop: he's rude, he's racist, he drops acid, destroys evidence and sleeps with prostitutes, two at a time.

The director knew the chemistry between the leads would work when Gleeson and Cheadle spent a day and half with him in Los Angeles, noting, “It was quite clear they respected each other and they relaxed and there were no egos involved.”

McDonagh did worry about how the screenplay's racist jibes would be received by US audiences but was relieved to find those lines are generating laughs. And he's been surprised by reactions to the Waco reference, observing, “At every screening we had in Europe it got one of the biggest responses. In America it gets a shocked delay, then a big laugh.

“I think the reason that gag works is because an audience assumes that, as in a lot of Hollywood movies, the main character, even if he's flawed, will have learned something by the end. At that point in our movie the audience realises Boyle hasn't changed at all.”

When his casting director suggested Mark Strong as one of the supporting characters, McDonagh doubted he'd be available or interested in light of the actor's burgeoning Hollywood career. A week after he got the script Strong arranged to meet the director in a bar and he promptly signed up.

For his first stint at directing a feature McDonagh relied a lot on director of photography Larry Smith, an interesting choice considering his CV includes the low-budget British prison pic Bronson, miniseries Elizabeth I and, as lighting cameraman, Eyes Wide Shut.

“If I didn't understand something technically I'd tell him and he'd say this is what that means and this lens does this… Larry explains everything and he's down to earth, he's really fast and neither of us likes TV cutting.”

John is following in the footsteps of his brother Martin McDonagh, a playwright who made a striking debut as writer-director with In Bruges. There's a strong competitive streak between them. He didn't approach his brother for any tips on directing but said, “When we got to the final editing stage Martin gave me some notes and I agreed with about 70 per cent of them.”

With one film under his belt, McDonagh aims to work with Gleeson again in Calvary, a script he's written about an upstanding priest in a small Irish town who's tormented by the community. He plans to start shooting in County Sligo in the northern summer in 2012. He's sent the screenplay to executives at Sony Pictures Classics and hopes they will come aboard.

He's also developing War on Everyone, a tale about two corrupt cops in Alabama, which he sees as a “much more commercial” black comedy.