In his follow up to last year’s successful indie dark comedy “The Guard,” filmmaker John Michael McDonagh retains his lead actor in Brendan Gleeson for “Calvary,” a film that follows a good-natured Irish priest (Gleeson) whose life is threatened by a local resident of his town in retribution for the sins of another Catholic priest who abused him as a child.
During our interview, McDonaugh and I talked about how he landed an actor of Brendon Gleeson’s caliber for two consecutive films, the healthy competition between him and his brother, Oscar-winning director Martin McDonagh, and how he allows some negative films reviews (even though there have been very few in the last two years) inspire him to do better.
Before you worked with actor Brendan Gleeson in 2011 for the first time, your brother Martin had already directed him in “Six Shooter” and “In Bruges.” Did you have to fight Martin off to get your hands on Brendan for “The Guard” before he cast him in something else?
(Laughs) Yeah, Martin won an Oscar for “Six Shooter” (Best Live-Action Short Film) in 2006. I was very unhappy about that. (Laughs) But I met Brendan when they were screening “In Bruges” at the Sundance Film Festival. We went out for a few drinks that night. I really didn’t know him that well, but once I had written “The Guard” I asked Martin to send it to him. He got Brendan to read it, so that’s how Martin ended up with an executive producer credit. I think we’re happy to share Brendan equally.
Talk about your experience working with an actor with such a wide range like Brendan. What resonates with you about what he can do in front of a camera?
His performance is so nuanced in “Calvary.” There is one shot at the beginning of the movie where it holds on Brendan’s face for about three minutes and he more or less delivers a master class in reaction. [His character] is being threatened, but we only heard the voice of the person threatening him. He delivers all the themes of the movie in that one scene. He brings a gravitas to the role. He brings a sense of humor. Brendan looks like a guy who has lived a life. He looks like a guy who is physically imposing. I think a lot of leading men in movies act tough, but they aren’t really tough. I think in “Calvary,” [Brendan’s character] is a very intelligent man, but he also looks like he might lose his temper and punch you.
Because of the incredible success of “The Guard” a few years ago, did you feel added pressure to reach that same level with your sophomore film?
“The Guard” became so successful, I felt like I could never replicate that kind of success. I knew that “Calvary” was a different film. It’s got a lot of humor in it, but it’s a tougher movie. There is a lot of darker subject matter. I thought, “You know, if we do as well as ‘The Guard,’ that would be great.” But I felt no pressure because I felt I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve with “The Guard.” I sort of relaxed from that point. Before that, I had spent a lot of time writing screenplays that had never been made. With “The Guard,” it was made, I directed it, and it turned out exactly the way I wanted it. Instead of creating more pressure, it actually took the pressure off.
Both your films have dark comedic elements, of course. Is that the kind of comedy you’re attracted to personally?
Yeah, and it’s not just movies; books, too. I also like dark kind of music that has a satirical edge like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. So, yeah, it all comes from my reading and the music I listen to and the films I like. That’s always played a part. I think if you’re an artist, you absorb everything you think is good and try to replicate that in your own work.
Do you ever write things for shock value alone or does everything you write have a deeper meaning to it. I bring this up because the very first line in “Calvary” is one that might shock a few people. Do you find humor in that type of dialogue as well?
I don’t think it’s about finding humor in it. I was trying to make people sit up in their seats in that particular scene. We all hear stories about child abuse, but we never take in what it actually means. I think in that first sequence we hear what it actually means. That’s what I was trying to get at. I was trying to be very, very specific about it and make the audience feel it. It might be very upsetting to people, but that’s what it is.
Father James, of course, is grappling with his own faith, which is a theme we’ve seen in other films before. How much of your own belief system leaked into this script? Do you find any of these characters to mirror you in some way?
Obviously, Father James is a better man than I am. I think you write a character who encapsulate everything you strive to be. Me as a person, I hold a lot of grudges. Maybe making this film, I’m trying to work through that and tell myself that maybe I should forgive people. “Calvary” is about forgiveness.
I’m sure you and Martin are incredibly supportive of each other as filmmakers, but because you are brothers, is there even the slightest bit of competition between the two of you in this industry?
There is massive, massive competition, but now it’s healthy competition. I think early on, before I made “The Guard,” I was very resentful of Martin’s success as a filmmaker. He had been very successful as a playwright, but I’m not a big fan of the theater, so that never bothered me. (Laughs) But when he got the Oscar and when he got “In Bruges” made, I think I was a bit resentful of that because I had been writing screenplays for a long time and hadn’t gotten anywhere. But then when “The Guard” became so successful and now with “Calvary,” our relationship has kind of calmed down. We only really argue on the tennis court now.
Besides Martin helping you land Brendan for “The Guard,” how involved do you get in each others’ projects?
Well, we don’t read each others’ scripts, but we do look at each others’ first cuts of the movie and we give notes based on that. I think we’re very helpful to each other in that process because we obviously love each other, but we’re very cold and calculated in the way we view movies. So, I think we both know that if we give each other these notes, it’s not based on anything else besides the film. Oftentimes you’ll get notes from a producer and think, “OK, do they want me to cut this scene because they think it’s too offensive and they think we’re going to lose the audience.” But Martin and I never have those thoughts. We’re only trying to make the film better. I think we trust each other in that way.
“The Guard” was, of course, critically acclaimed and “Calvary” is also getting some great reviews from critics. Do you enjoy reading reviews of your films, at least at this early part of your career? How do you handle the few bad ones?
I’d say I read most of my reviews. I don’t mind reading a bad review if I think they are thoughtful and it’s well written and [the film critic] knows what they are taking about. Sometimes you’ll read a review and it’s so badly written and so grammatically incorrect, I kind of just write them off and don’t care what they say. Reviews that are well written by well-respected critics that are negative towards me, I take them on board and think about what they are saying. Every now and again I’ll agree with a point they’ve made and it’ll influence me later on. But a great review won’t make me feel euphoric and a bad review won’t make me feel depressed. I try to keep an even keel between the two.
I read that you were a novelist before you started writing screenplays.
Actually, I was a failed novelist.
Well, that probably answers my question then. Is novel writing something you might think about going back to sometime in your life or does screenwriting give you something writing novels didn’t?
Yeah, I’ll never go back to novel writing because it’s too much hard work. In my mind, you have to be as good as the greats like William Faulkner or Vladimir Nabokov. In a book, if you’re describing a house, you could go into three or four pages to describe that house and the characters moving around that house. In a screenplay you just say, “The character enters the house.” It’s a lot easier and I want an easy life.
Your next film, “War on Everyone,” is going to feature Michael Peña, who is one actor I’ve interviewed at least 8-9 times in the last few years. Were you looking for a Hispanic actor for the role of Bob Bolaño and what made you cast Michael?
Well, I love Michael. There is a film called “Observe & Report” that I really loved and it kind of went under the radar a few years ago. He was also great in [HBO’s] “Eastbound & Down” and “End of Watch.” He’s a great actor but hasn’t entered the public consciousness just yet. [Bob] is a specific Latino character. I don’t know where we’re going to end up shooting the film. The screenplay is set in Texas, so it’s meant to be on the border somewhere. I wanted a white cop with a Latino cop. The other cop is going to be played by Garrett Hedlund. Having a white cop and a Latino cop is definitely something I wanted to do. Michael is a great comedic and dramatic actor.