Even if he was born in London Martin McDonagh, 42, is considered one of the most important living Irish playwrights. His Irish-born parents had moved back to Galway when he was a child leaving Martin and his elder brother, John Michael, to share a home in London.
I guess I used to listen to people a lot on buses.
McDonagh, who dropped out of school at age 16, is unsure where his gift for writing cracking dialogue comes from.
“I guess I used to listen to people a lot on buses, but then it's quite heightened as well,” he says. “I really don't analyse it too much. I think it's probably grown less theatrical as the years have gone on, but it's still heightened to a degree and it always comes out as comic or blackly comic somehow.”
Even the plays? “Yeah, even if The Beauty Queen of Leenane is quite dark and sad, if they get it right it should be funny at the same time too.”
In a flurry of activity beginning in 1996, McDonagh had set his first six plays around Galway, writing The Leenane Trilogy (The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West were both nominated for Tony Awards) and The Aran Islands Trilogy (The Lieutenant of Inishmore was nominated for a Tony). The Pillowman (2003), set in a non-specific totalitarian state, won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best new play and was nominated for a Tony.
At 27 McDonagh became the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four plays running in London at the same time - to which the dry-witted Sex Pistols and Nirvana fan has answered “and mine were better”.
His first US.-set play, the grisly black comedy A Behandling in Spokane, premiered on Broadway in 2010. It garnered Christopher Walken a Tony nomination for his portrayal of a killer looking for the hand he lost in his youth.
By this time McDonagh had already been working in cinema, directing the Oscar-winning short, Six Shooter (2006), an Irish-set black comedy starring Brendan Gleeson. He'd also made his directing debut with In Bruges (2008) starring Colin Farrell and Gleeson. His brother, who had written the screenplay for Gregor Jordan's 2003 Australian co-production, Ned Kelly, would seemingly nab Gleeson as his own, giving the actor starring roles in his own directing debut, The Guard (2011), which Martin helped produce, and Calvary which he is currently filming in Ireland. (The Sapphires' Chris O'Dowd co-stars.)
Farrell would go on to star in Martin's first U.S. movie, the star-studded Seven Psychopaths. The director cast Walken and Sam Rockwell (also in A Behanding in Spokane) in the film's other starring roles as well as Woody Harrelson, who had long wanted to work with McDonagh.
“I met with Woody a decade ago because he really liked The Lonesome West and we almost did The Pillowman together a few years ago,” McDonagh explains. “It's great working with people who care about doing good work and like good writing. My job is not to get in the way of that in lots of ways. I will do my storyboarding and I will think about the things visually and make sure the actors are comfortable with me and with what they are saying. You are trying to help them be as truthful as they can be in the moment.”
McDonagh wrote the Seven Psychopaths screenplay seven years ago, just after penning In Bruges and before that film went into production. An amusing variation on the popular psycho-killer genre, it follows Farrell's hard-drinking Irishman, a Hollywood screenwriter called Marty, as he struggles to put pen to paper. His best friend Billy Bickle (a not so distant relative of Travis, played by Rockwell) is keen to figure in the movie and helps him set up the story. Billy sidelines as a dog snatcher with his dapper buddy Hans (Walken) and when they inadvertently kidnap a Shih Tzu named Bonny that belongs to gangster and homicidal maniac Charlie (Harrelson), the Shih Tzu hits the fan.
Seven Psychopaths has cinematic references galore and McDonagh notes his particular influences. “I love The Night of the Hunter, it has one of the best psychopaths ever. I love Peckinpah's stuff and Malick's stuff. I always saw this film as some kind of war between the love child of Peckinpah and Malick. Peckinpah had a kind of gentleness amongst the horror I think and I guess that's what we were going for too.”
After the film premiered to a wildly appreciative crowd at the Toronto Film Festival there were inevitable comparisons with In Bruges.
“This is more abstract and weird,” McDonagh says. “It's not as crafted and as detailed a story as In Bruges was. In Bruges was quite melancholy and dark and almost like a little short story. This is kind of bonkers. There's something joyful about the film and there was something very joyful about the reaction too.”
When the film opened in the U.S. it under-performed. Or so said all the box office reports. Still it made more money in ten days than In Bruges made in its entire U.S. release. Clearly there's no accounting for American tastes or for American audiences' understanding of irony. The majority of U.S. critics were however rolling in the aisles, like the Canadians in Toronto.
Both U.K. productions, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths were made with budgets of $15 million.
“The early reviews for In Bruges were pretty mixed and it did no box office in North America at all,” McDonagh says. “It kind of grew from DVD, which happens a lot with the kind of movies I like, movies that weren't really recognised in their own time.”
Seven Psychopaths, with its scurrilous humour and mention of Australia (thanks to Abbie Cornish as Farrell's beleaguered girlfriend) should go down gangbusters here and also when it releases in the U.K. in December. In any case McDonagh is ready for a break.
“I'm going to take a few years off,” he says. “I have a script that's ready to go, so in four or five years time I will do that.”
Of course, that's what the workaholic said last time. “I know!” he retorts.
As for working with his brother he says that is not on the cards. “We love each other to bits but we are such arrogant dicks separately, so we can never… We completely leave each other alone creatively.”
Has he ever based two male characters on his relationship with John Michael?
“I don't think so but at the same time looking back on the plays after ten years I realised there was a set of brothers in every single play that I hadn't deliberately set out to write about. Maybe it just comes through osmosis or something. It's not intentional.”
Watch 'Seven Psychopaths'
Saturday 26 June, 12:25am on SBS VICELAND (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
UK, USA, 2012
Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Sam Rockwell