An Interview With Director Martin McDonagh

Once theatre’s enfant terrible, and the first dramatist since Shakespeare to have four plays running simultaneously in London’s west end, McDonagh is now hot property in Hollywood. His output is as potent as the whiskey he drinks, dismantling precious sensibilities with his weaponized dialogue and casting asunder the veil of polite pretense that governs society. McDonagh’s intent is to rock respectability, he describes the ethos that instructs his hand as “coming from a punk rock background, The Clash and The Pogues. It’s about trying to shake things up.” It all started during a year on the dole in 1994 when his parents had returned to Ireland, leaving him alone in their South London home. During that year the characters flowed fully formed onto the page like he was, “transcribing how other people talk”. McDonagh illustrates how, “the characters create themselves, almost, and I let the story happen around them. I don’t try to impose a story on the characters but to do it the other way around.”

All but one of the dramas penned during that lucid year went on to critical acclaim, which included The Beauty Queen of Leenane his breakthrough masterpiece. He struck a creative vein with stories set in Ireland’s Atlantic fringe with composed of guilt-ridden characters, wrestling the bleak ironies of life. McDonagh’s style owes little to the Irish tradition of Friel or Beckett, instead, he cites the cinema of Peckinpah and Kurosawa as his influence. It was after a verbal bout with Sean Connery at the Evening Standard Awards in 1996, that McDonagh showed his early self-belief, attesting that he would make “seven brilliant plays and at least 20 good films”. It now looks like this self-prognosis is manifesting true. Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri picked up two Oscars at the 2018 awards for the performances of Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell.

Can you describe your writing habits; do you write consistently, every day, or in intensive gusts?

No. But if I’m working on a script or play then I will try to write at least 5 days a week, but only for 3 or 4 hours a day. I write quite quickly though, so a script is often finished within 6 weeks or so. Then I won’t touch a pen between scripts. Writing as quickly and often as you can is the only worthwhile exercise. Other people don’t do this but I always jump right into writing. I never plot it out before, I never write a treatment. I always let the characters speak to each other. In the first few days I always try to imagine the characteristics of the people, or some kind of a voice; idiosyncrasies, that kind of thing.

Do you have particular actors in mind when creating characters?

Sometimes. Both Sam Rockwell screenplays had him very much in mind, and Three Billboards was definitely written for Frances.

(McDonagh doubts the effectiveness of narrative structures when developing a first draft.)

None. Nor any draft. F**K that Robert McKee shit. I have a sense that something needs to happen at certain times, otherwise it’s not going to be an entertaining story, but there are no rules to be followed. It doesn’t have to be as strict as a three-act structure.

What hastes your writing forward, love or anger?

Love, I think. Or joy. Although some scripts might have been prompted by anger (Three Billboards, Lieutenant of Inishmore) I think I’m too much of a happy person to maintain that anger over a long period. You can be truthful to a character’s anger while still writing that character with joy, I think. That’s the way it work for me, anyway. Mildred, in Three Billboards, was a very joyful character to write, though there’s barely any joy in her at all.

Do you have any advice on how to deal with actors that challenge your vision on set?

Do everything in your power not to hire them in the first place. I’m a stickler for sticking to script during production. I like actors and I’m very open to their ideas, but I’m not open to changing a script. Because by the time one of my scripts goes into production, I’ve been sitting with the script for seven years. And every one of those lines is carefully chosen.

Do you have any advice on how to deal with studio execs that want a creative stake in the development of the story?

Again, let them know at the outset what you will and will not put up with from them, then just don’t work with them if they won’t agree to that in writing. It doesn’t always work out for the best especially when the execs turn out to be knobs (Focus Features circa 2008) but can be very fruitful and enjoyable when the opposite is true (Fox Searchlight circa 2017).

Could you give any advice on dialogue, such as how to limit obvious exposition, increase subtext, and ensure that the lines fit the character?

Oh, just listen to how people actually speak and practice that for ten years or so. And don’t bother with subtext ever. As long as you’re honest with yourself, and keep to that, there’s no secret. Listen to people, observe people, as opposed to going to the movies and listening to characters. You can sit in a diner or a bus, or walk down the street and listen to how people speak, that can help. I learn by traveling to small-town America and speaking to people.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers, on how to get people to take notice their film or theatre scripts?

Keep writing until it’s honestly brilliant (but you have to be scrupulously honest with that), try not to give it to friends or actors, then try to send it to people who can get it made and who aren’t dicks. When something is finished and you’re happy with it, you can then open it up to a couple of people whose opinions you respect. These can be very hard to find, so good luck. This whole process will take 5 years minimum.

Stephen King describes writing as a lonely job and likens it to crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub, suggesting that there is plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. How do you tackle self-doubt?

It’s always tricky, but keep writing and keep writing. If it’s good, it will out. If it isn’t, keep writing still. It might get better. And even if it’s shit, it’s better than working in a bank.

How do you start a story, do you begin in the thick of it, or do you lead the reader in gradually?

I usually don’t know where it’s going, so I start at the start, and so am led in as gradually as the reader is. It’s good to know something that the reader doesn’t know at the outset though, a twist or a character trait.

Finally, for the writing life, is being in a positive state of mind more productive than emulating the stereotype of the tortured artist. And if so, what do you do to cultivate a healthy inner self?

Positive! But, God knows how you cultivate that!

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