Roundtable Interview: Writer/Director Martin McDonagh Discusses Seven Psychopaths
In writer/director Martin McDonagh’s latest film, the wonderfully bizarre and darkly comedic Seven Psychopaths, we follow a struggling screenwriter who becomes entangled in the L.A. criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu.
Starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken (in his best performance since 1997’s Suicide Kings), Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Tom Waits, Seven Psychopaths will be arriving in theaters everywhere this Friday, October 12th.
During a recent press day for the flick, Dread Central had the opportunity to chat with McDonagh during a roundtable interview where heard more on what inspired his script, his experiences collaborating with his cast and why he still prefers to shoot on film despite making films in the digital age.
Check out the highlights from our roundtable interview with McDonagh below and look for more on Seven Psychopaths later this week!
Question: So what is the attraction to psychopaths, killers and rabbits then?
Martin McDonagh: Rabbits? That’s an easy one, I love them (laughs). Psychopaths and killers not so much. I guess I share Colin Farrell’s character’s feelings towards psychopaths and killers in the film. That I know how cinematic they are and how interesting films can be with them, but kind of question the morality of only having films about guys with guns. It’s that, playing those two ideas off each other is my interest in them.
Also, I was thinking about this the other day, if you’d written a film called “Seven Accountants” you wouldn’t really get much interest. Christopher Walken wouldn’t be the same in that part. (laughs)
Question: Because this movie operates on so many different meta levels. I’m curious, was this the story you set out to write from the beginning?
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, this is exactly how it developed. There wasn’t a time when it was just the central story and I was looking out for it. I think I had the Quaker’s psychopath short story, and then I had the title of this, and then I was stuck with Colin’s character and didn’t know how to come up with the others. I wanted it to be about love and peace, then his two friends show up and the dog thing it just kind of snowballed. It kind of developed naturally like that and then the meta things came. If you’re writing a film that’s about a writer in Hollywood that doesn’t want to write a film called “Seven Psychopaths” it’s going to be meta no matter what you do.
Question: You’ve worked with Colin before so how much of the cast did you have in your head as you were writing this?
Martin McDonagh: As I was writing, none of them really. It was actually written seven years ago; just after I wrote the script for In Bruges but before I made the film. I’ve loved all the actors in this from a long time ago. But maybe Sam Rockwell; sometimes I write with Sam’s voice in my head because I love him as an actor and I love the way he can go from comedy to darkness on a dime. But I never dreamed I’d be in a place where I’m doing a film with Christopher Walken or Tom Waits or Harry Dean Stanton, ever.
I did a play with Sam and Christopher about 3 years ago in New York, so I knew them. Woody I met like 10 years ago because he’s a theater guy too; we almost did a play together in fact. And Tom Waits, we almost wrote a fucked up musical kind of thing, which we might go back to.
The first day of shooting was like family for me so it wasn’t as terrifying as working with a cast this big might appear to be. It was fun every day on set. I think it’s kind of palpable in the film how much fun we were all having. No one was heavy or starry; there were no issues from anyone.
Question: As a writer, when you have Christopher Walken saying the words you wrote, and he has such an interesting cadence in the way that he delivers his lines, are you constantly surprised? Are you ever like “you know, I had a period there?”.
Martin McDonagh: It’s the periods and the commas that you forget about. But then conversely, he memorizes the script word for word like six months beforehand. And the words never change, just the intonations change of course; you can never imagine that a line or a word even could be pounced in that way, but it’s still the words you wrote so there’s a joy and a surprise to all that kind of stuff. And now after this and after the play I can’t imagine any other way to say those lines; he’s really the only one in the world that can do that I think.
But I’ve learned the trick; the next time I want him to ask a question, I won’t put a question mark there because he’s going to do the opposite of everything. And if I don’t want it to be a question, I’ll put a question mark there. Simple as that (laughs).
Question: There’s quite a lot of humor throughout this; how important was it to interject those beats of humor throughout?
Martin McDonagh: It was very important; I think most of my work is that way. Like In Bruges was probably more sad and melancholic than this movie but it’s still hopefully very funny throughout. This was always a black comedy on the page, but I think it’s come out as more outrageously funny because of the actors. It’s the way I kind of think about the world and the way I like to tell stories. I don’t think you should get too heavy, but there’s enough out there in the world, with violence et cetera; so I think that comedy leavens the heaviness of talking about those topics. It doesn’t feel like you’re preaching if you can say something in a joke, which is where this film is coming from.
Question: Because you wrote this way back before you did In Bruges, did those experiences on In Bruges affect the script for this movie at all?
Martin McDonagh: Not so much in that way really; if they did it was just about tightening scenes up and feeling like you didn’t have to go on ad infinitum. I think the editing process of a film is quite shocking as to how much you can easily get rid of that you never thought you could on the page. Conversely, when we started shooting I had trimmed it down, and I thought “Well, there’s not a scene that we can lose from the script.” So we shot every scene.
But again, in the editing process loads and loads of scenes were cut; there’s probably like 25 minutes of material cut from the first cut of this which will probably end up in the DVD extras. Like when they go to the desert, there’s another 20 minutes of really fun scenes but it just slowed everything down. It really was like the film was put on pause and they were just chatting in the desert. You can do that for a little bit, and we do that for a little bit, but you’ve got to keep things moving.
So no, in script terms it didn’t change much after In Bruges but I guess I did learn how to work with actors from my experiences making that film which is ideal for something like this.
Question: Talk a bit about the casting. Not to go into too many spoiler territories, but there are a lot of really small parts played by fantastic well-known actors. I’m curious about that choice and also the casting those parts.
Martin McDonagh: Well, with Olga (Kurylenko) and Abbie (Cornish) there was probably more to their characters on the page; we shot at least four extra scenes with them. But the focus in the edit became more about Colin and Sam’s love affair and particularly with Abbie’s character, there was more about their break up and his alcohol problems in relation to her, but it just wasn’t what this story was about.
Harry Dean (Stanton) was just a dream to get him to play that part. We screened it in San Francisco I think, and we haven’t really advertised he’s in the film either. But it was a first ever audience and when he came onscreen, everyone went “Ah, Harry Dean’s in it!” and it was good, that’s what we were going for. He was ideal. I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d ever make a film with Harry, Christopher and Tom Waits. They’re icons of American cinema and music, so that was kind of joyful.
Question: You selected to shoot on film and not go digital with this. Was there a particular reason for that?
Martin McDonagh: I’m kind of old school; I just think it looks better. I don’t think digital really speeds things up and I definitely don’t think it looks better. I don’t think digital is cheaper yet, when you add in all the extras that you need. So yeah, I just think film looks better.
Question: Was the Walken gag coming out of the coffin during the cemetery showdown in the script, or was that something you guys did on set?
Martin McDonagh: It was kind of a vague thing in the script but when I was storyboarding it I thought, “That would be a good idea.” We didn’t tell Christopher about it until the night and I was kind of dreading it. We built the coffin and it was like 1 in the morning and I was hoping, “God I hope he thinks it’s okay.”
We had the stuntman show him it was completely safe. I said, “Chris, do you think you could do this?” “Yeah, cool!” We did it in one take. He had to come up, boom, and the squibs went off perfectly. It was one of the most joyful bits. We showed it to him back at the monitor and he just smiled when he saw the bloody heads and how cool he looked. It’s one of my favorite images from the film, I think.
Question: On the subject of the cemetery shoot, and feel free to call me crazy, I could have just been seeing things, but did I see that it said “Rourke” on one of the gravestones?
Martin McDonagh: (laughs) Um yeah, we just happened to be filming in a graveyard that happened to be filled with a bunch of Rourke’s. Funny how that worked out (laughs).
Question: In Bruges received such a great critical reception and the film has found its fans throughout the years; I’m curious, was there a degree of pressure on you following that up?
Martin McDonagh: No, I’m really lazy anyway (laughs). After Bruges, I just kind of went off and traveled. I wrote a play and we did it in New York and that’s where I got to work with Sam and Christopher the first time.
I remember saying to Colin, “It’s going to be three years at least before the next one.” I think he believed me, but his people were thinking “But this movie is a success; why would you do that?” But it’s going to be the same after this one, too. I’m just going to travel and write and grow up.
It doesn’t feel like four years since the last one. I think it’s more so I won’t get burned out. This was an enjoyable experience to do. I can’t imagine doing them back to back because pretty much, this has been two solid years working on this, at least a year and a half since I started checking out locations here and finalizing the script. I think it was exactly a year ago this month that we started shooting and the editing has been almost every day since then.
So yeah, it’s not like it’s hard work- like a coal miner or a nurse or something-but it’s concerted work, and I don’t like concerted work (laughs). I do have a script that’s ready to go for the next one. I just know it won’t be for a while, but I’m fine with that.
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