Writer/director John Michael McDonagh's splendidly funny Irish film The Guard is one of the best examples of controlled, thought-through, effective low-budget filmmaking that I've ever seen. All aspiring filmmakers must see it – and can do so at 9.30pm this Saturday on SBS ONE or later online – and it wouldn't harm anyone who makes home movies to see it either.
[ Full schedule: SBS ONE: Sandy George Presents... ]
Many films take years to make; this one took a year. That said, though, the origins of the shuffling, melancholy, adorable character at the very heart of this tall tale – Sergeant Gerry Boyle – can be traced back more than a decade to McDonagh's short film The Second Death. Knowing that makes it suddenly more believable that the script really was written in only 13 days spread over three weeks.
[ Read: SBS Film's interview with John Michael McDonagh ]
No-one who has seen The Guard could argue that the script is brilliant or that the way Brendan Gleeson plays Boyle is pure gold. Littered through the production notes here is information on how McDonagh was about to capitalise on those two strengths.
He was very clear that the template he followed was that of a Western, for example, in the way that “heroism is possible or the notion that facing down greater odds is possible”. But he doesn't just mention John Ford, a giant of the Western; he also mentions Preston Sturges, who is best known for screwball comedies. Clearly McDonagh is a filmmaker who has done his homework. And also one that always made decisions that were good for the film not for him: an example being the way he surrounding himself with heads of department he'd not worked with before but who were the best in the business.
One of the remarkable aspects of The Guard is the overall visual style: not making things realistic or true to place adds hugely to its boldness and originality. It's interesting to note, too, that the music is by Calexico, an indie band from Tucson, Arizona.
McDonagh and Gleeson have collaborated again since on the feature film Calvary and it was no surprise at all to see this second feature so well reviewed following this month's premiere at Sundance. You can read SBS Film's review here.
Here's a video too of McDonagh in which he talks, among other things, about making the transition from The Guard.
There are just oh so many things that make The Guard a joy to experience. And so many things to learn from it.