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Capone questions Martin McDonagh about the film he directed IN BRUGES!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. When I was first given the opportunity to interview IN BRUGES writer-director Martin McDonagh, I certainly jumped at the opportunity because the film is an absolute treasure. Not being an expert on contemporary British theatre, I had no idea that McDonagh is one of the most celebrated and notorious playwrights of his time. In doing my research on the man, I discovered that he is the first playwright to have four plays being performed in London's West End theatre district simultaneously since Shakespeare. He rarely gives interviews in his homeland, but that may be more a result of his becoming fodder for the tabloids over the years than any general lack of interest in talking about his work. In his brief career as a filmmaker, he's already been honored twice. His short film SIX SHOOTER (starring IN BRUGES' Brendan Gleeson) won the Best Live Action Short Oscar in 2006, and IN BRUGES was selected as the opening night offering at the Sundance Film Festival last month. In addition to interviewing him one-on-one recently, I also hosted a post-screening Q&A with McDonagh later that same day. I felt the audience's response to the film and their resulting question were so strong (and covered much of the same ground) that I'm Frankenstein-ing my interview with the Q&A. I'll have my review of IN BRUGES up soon, but I will say that this may be Colin Farrell's strongest work to date, Gleeson is an absolute treasure, and you've never seen Ralph Fiennes quite like this before. He's played scary villains in other films, for sure, but you'll never have more fun watching him do so than you will with IN BRUGES. Here's Martin McDonagh. Capone: A lot of the people that we gave out passes to for tonight's screening…and forgive me for being a bit ignorant of the British theatre scene…
Martin McDonagh: That's alright, so am I [laughs].
Capone: A lot of the people who entered the contest had stories of how they had performed your plays or read your plays or seen them performed.
MM: Jesus!
Capone: There are going to be a lot of theatre geeks there tonight.
MM: Oh cool. It'll feel like home.
Capone: You should freak them out and tell them you refuse to answer any questions that aren't about the film.
MM: I think it would be cool not to talk about IN BRUGES at all and just talk about the theatre.
Capone: You could probably get away with it with this crowd. And after Sundance, you're probably sick of talking about the film. How was that experience for you?
MM: It was good but kind of terrifying in some ways. I did a Q&A in Minneapolis two days ago, and that was the first one I'd ever done. I'm not used to public speaking or introducing a film or even doing TV spots, so it was kind of terrifying. But you eventually get into the groove of it when you realize there aren't any truly difficult questions; it's just bullshit and quick soundbites. And you know that the TV spots are going to be showing Colin more anyway. They don't really give a shit about me. [laughs]. But generally the Sundance thing…
Capone: Well being accepted into Sundance is one thing, but to be selected as the opening night film must add so much more pressure to a premiere.
MM: Yeah, it's kind of scary. And the first day in is a press conference with Robert Redford. That kind of shit is scary even under the best of circumstances, so you just sit there and get through it. After that, it gets a little easier, after you've done it once. But generally, I don't want to speak out of turn, Jeff Gilmore, the guy who runs the festival is fantastic and it's great to be opening night, but there's something just a little too Hollywood about the whole set up. Your name had to be at the door in a hundred places, too many velvet ropes. It didn't feel very democratic, and for an independent film festival that was a little worrying. Maybe I should have gotten to see some more films.
Capone: I was going to ask you if you made it to any other films.
MM: No, I only saw a bunch of shorts, one of those evenings of six or seven shorts. Usually they're pretty crap with maybe one good one out of six, but all six or seven were fantastic. There were two Australian ones that were really brilliant. Check one of them out, it's called CROSSBOW, and also one called SPIDER, they're both written or co-written by the same guy [David Michôd, who also directed CROSSBOW; SPIDER was directed and co-written by Nash Edgerton], two different directors, both Australian. Amazing, just both stunning pieces of work. That felt more like real people making real films from their guts. But on the street, it all felt like it had too much starry bullshit to it.
Capone: You mentioned SIX SHOOTER, which I saw shortly before it was nominated for an Oscar. I've talked to quite a few directors who all give the same advice to anyone trying to get their first feature made, which is “Make short films.” Get some experience behind the camera, working with actors. Would you agree with that?
MM: Yeah, yeah. In some ways, I was trying not to think of SIX SHOOTER as a stepping-stone. I was trying to think of it in the same way you would relate a short story to a novel. There's something decent about the whole form of a short story, so just telling a short story was my thinking. But also, yeah, I just wanted to see how scary is this. Is it something that's out of my league, to make a short film? How do you do storyboarding? How do you deal with actors? So yeah, even if it's just to alleviate your nerves--obviously it's going to be cheaper--but even just to get rid of the nerves of the first day of feature film shooting, it's worth it for that. But also just to get to work with actors because I think that's one of the problems of certain filmmakers, first-time filmmakers, is they think so much about the image and the camera angles and the computer graphics with so many people coming in from directing ads before they make their first film, it kind of cuts out what most people go to see a film for: actors. People telling stories through creating great roles. And I think to maintain that connection and to learn what actors are all about and to respect that process is one of the most important. And from the shorts, I guess, in some ways, that's cut out a lot. It's usually more of a calling card, but that's something that should be avoided I think. Get some rehearsals in and get some work on the script with actors. Be as visual as possible but be human too.
Capone: Did you ever direct your own plays?
MM: No, I was always in the rehearsal room every single day to answer questions and be a part of the process. Sometimes it felt like a co-directing situation, but not really. I'm there as a resource to the process.
Capone: Had you ever considered at any point adapting one of your own plays as your first film project?
MM: No, I believe you should pick your medium and stick to that, respect the medium. I think most filmed plays are crap.
Capone: Don't tell David Mamet that.
MM: He's the first one I'd tell. [laughs] Although I will say I though GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS was very good. I'd seen the Al Pacino production of the play on stage, and I never thought they could make it any better than that; they didn't, but the film was well done. I never saw the film of AMERICAN BUFFALO though, so I don't know how that turned out.
Capone: Is Brendan Gleeson your good luck charm for you film projects now?
MM: It certainly seems that way. But he taught me so much about the political side of filmmaking. Maybe that's not the best way to put it. He taught me that even as a full-time director, I have more power than even I thought I had when dealing with producers or the studio, and that's a great thing to know.
Capone: I should applaud you as a first-time director for learning early in your career that midgets are gold.
MM: [laughs] I was terribly afraid for a time that they would protest this film. I know you're not supposed to use that word, midget. But I guess the protest lines would be that hard to break through.
[both laugh] Capone: Why do you hate midgets so much?
MM: [laughs] I don't, but this one is a racist pig, so fuck him.
Capone: Is it true that your are the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four plays running simultaneously in the West End, or did somebody make that up?
MM: That is true, and mine were better. [laughs]
Capone: I would assume so. We ran a contest for tickets to see IN BRUGES, and about half of the people who entered were detailing how they had read your plays, or seen them performed, or been in them in college. Tell me about making that transition to film. What was the impetus?
MM: I started off loving films more than plays originally. I kind of always wrote the kind of plays people who hate plays might like. So I've always tried to keep them cinematic, but it was always gnawing at the back of my head that I wanted to make at least one film. So it took a while to get enough power to not have to listen to anyone else's opinion in the making of a film. It took 10 years. So I got to that place and made the short film, and that went okay. I wrote a couple of scripts, and this is one that I wanted to make, and a few companies liked it and said go ahead and make it, and I did.
Capone: Why Bruges? Did you have a time in Bruges or someplace like it, like your characters do?
MM: I just think it's a beautiful place that never really been captured on film before. It's picturesque; it hasn't really changed in 500 years; and it's really, really boring. It's the perfect place for a couple of guys who really didn't want to be in a place to be in. I think it's a really cinematic town, and if you get the chance to go, do go, but just stay for like a day, day and a half.
Capone: The art gallery sequence in the movie. Every painting you show is showing some hideous event.
MM: Yeah, those are all the actual painting in a gallery in Bruges. People being filleted alive, beheadings, the most horrible tortures. Every single painting is some sort of medieval horrorfest.
Capone: I called my travel agent as soon as I saw those paintings. I'm there. The characters in the film reminded me of the people in the Bosch painting, trapped in purgatory.
MM: That's what I was trying to do, the film within the film is kind of like some kind of European art film about Bosch, but with guns.
Capone: You obviously shot a lot of this movie on location, but did you build anything on soundstages?
MM: Yeah, the top of the bell tower where Ralph Fiennes and Brendan argue and have the shoot out, that's a set, and the hotel room is a set with a green screen outside the windows. For our location shooting, the townspeople were behind us being there, and anytime we needed quiet, there was. It worked out fine.
Capone: Do the people of Bruges like the film?
MM: I was kind of worried what they'd think of it, but we showed it to them about two weeks ago to the tourist board and the mayor's office and all the Belgian crew that worked on it, and they gave it their seal of approval. I think the main thing they wanted was to send out to America and the world images of Bruges. Lots of their economy is based on tourism, so I think Bruges comes out, if you just ignore everything that Colin Farrell says, really well, the images of Bruges come out well.
Capone: We learn early on that Colin's character killed a priest before he came to Bruges, and we never really find out why. Is that important?
MM: There was more…if you check out the DVD extras, there was more of a backstory about Harry [Fiennes] having been taken to Bruges as a kid, and on the way home, things not going so well with the priest.
Capone: Wow, that might have made us think of Harry as less sinister if we'd known that early on. What have you found the primary differences between writing for stage and writing for screen?
MM: Films usually take about four weeks, and plays usually take about three weeks. [laughs] No, I found it very hard to write one, even though films are my first love. It took me years; there are just so many things to juggle in writing film. You can jump back and forth in time, in location, etc. You can have 10 scenes that take two seconds on the first page, whereas with play, as you know, eight scenes and it's a play. But just concentrating on character and that through-line will hopefully help you through, but it took me ages so I don't really have any tips of how to do it.
Capone: Did you have any particular films or filmmakers you wanted to emulate for your first film?
MM: The films that made me want to make films are probably things like BADLANDS and TAXI DRIVER and THE SEVEN SAMURAI and A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Older things. DON'T LOOK NOW was sort of in my mind where a town is an actual character in it. Those were my earlier influences film wise.
Capone: Any older British gangster films make that list?
MM: I haven't seen THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY for years and years, but GET CARTER, the original, has always been a favorite of mind. That's probably Michael Caine's best-ever film. It's got a strange feel, quite dark and horrible in lots of places, but it has an amazing momentum. There's another one called PERFORMANCE, an early Nicolas Roeg/Donald Cammell film, which is kind of about gangsters. It's one of Mick Jagger's early roles, and he's actually pretty good in it. I'm not a big Guy Ritchie fan, or a fan of any of the newer gangster films. But none of those films were really utmost in my mind when I was trying to do this. I was trying to get something more European in some ways, but I also wasn't trying to copy or be influenced by them.
Capone: We talked about working with Brendan, but Colin is the reason a lot of people are going to pay attention to this film. How was he to work with? This is the funniest he's ever been.
MM: I think he's great in it. We had like three weeks of rehearsal before we started, which is kind of unusual. And that was pretty much just me, Brendan, and Colin in a room analyzing the script, talking about character and backstory. So when it came to the first day of shooting, we didn't really have to talk too much about any of that, about character or motivation because we had it down. I'd worked with Brendan before on the short film. Colin I'd met just before, but the first time I met him I kind of knew he got it because he didn't talk about the comedy or the action or looking sexy; he talked about the despair and the fact that the film is about a guy trying not to commit suicide for two hours. And when he said that I knew he was on it and that he wanted to do some serious work. He's a lovely guy, really sweet and shy, which was surprising. He just wanted to do some good work, and he gives a great performance.
Capone: I'm assuming that based on your casting choices, you're hoping a lot of children come to this movie. You did put three Harry Potter actors in lead roles [Gleeson, Fiennes. and Clémence Poésy, who played Fleur Delacour in GOBLET OF FIRE).
MM: Focus Films said, “This is a niche market, we can tap into.”
Capone: Race comes up a lot in this film in simultaneously funny and inflammatory ways. I think some might wonder if this was social commentary or just a device to make the characters more memorable.
MM: No, it was pretty much just there to create a strange and odd type of character, a non-PC kind of character, to explore those themes in some way and see how far I could push it. All of Ray's opinions, I don't think I share a single one. It's interesting to write a character who's almost a complete opposite to you. But it's also freeing to write a character who says the first thing that comes into his mind at every opportunity. But there isn't any kind of deliberate social commentary in that…I don't think.
Capone: There are also touches of discussion on death. More than one scene takes place in a church.
MM: I was brought up Catholic, and I was trying to explore…it's the ultimate Catholic guilt film in lots of ways. But aside from that, I wasn't trying to say too much about religion. It's a European, old-world film, and I wanted to add that sensibility to it.
Capone: Did you find making a film more satisfying in any way?
MM: I found it satisfying. I think the best films have brilliant acting performances at the heart. The problem in recent years is that directors have taken control of the whole thing and they don't respect actors, writing, or anyone else. The larger part of my job was to not get in the way of the actors. I like being a writer. I consider myself more of a writer than a director, even now. And the things was let them be free with the script, not screw around with their heads, and have that purity between the script and them, and just let that flow. I didn't give them any tips about acting; I don't know how to act and I wouldn't be able to. But I think that was one of the major things: not to let them think I knew their job. There's a lot that a director has to do on stage, too. I had a play called “The Pilllowman” that played here and in New York and London, and the director brought a whole load of stuff that I never really had originally. There were little stories within it. As some of you may know, at the best times, they were like little pieces of cinema that popped up on a barren stage. I wouldn't have had that without him.
Capone: How do you feel about the more permanent nature of film versus a play, which you could literally tweak every night if you wanted to?
MM: One of the reasons I wanted to get into movies and do at least one of these is that in five year I would be able to say, “There, I did something.” You can do that with a printed text from a play, but you can never show the New York version of a play. That's lost into the ether, and there's something kind of sad. I mean, it's great; it's in people's memories now. But there is a kind of sadness to it. It's the nature of the beast. It's nice to have at least one film to point at.
Capone: Then I find it funny that you've never been tempted to film your own work.
MM: That's a whole different thing, that's more about the nature of art form. I would never let any of my plays be made into films, but that's because, you've got to stick to the art form you choose. To make a play, you've can't have your eye on it being the best possible play you're ever going to do, and have your eye on it being a film five years down the line. You'll never make a good play then; it's always going to be a blueprint of the movie deal. And making plays into films 90 percent of the time about making money, and you should never make art for that reason.
Capone: Mixing comedy and drama is always a risk, so to take that risk as a first-time filmmaker is admirable.
MM: Thanks. All of my stuff, my plays, have that. You couldn't describe them as just comedies or straight drama. They're all pretty black and comic. But I like trying to juggle both of those things, sometimes within two lines, let alone in two scenes. I think it's an interesting and different way to approach art. You can't necessarily be pinned down. In some ways, you can't pin this film down as a hitman film or a film about despair, because it's got the comedy elements too. I like that. I like that it's kind of hard to say what the film is.
Capone: Colin Farrell plays a similar guilt-ridden character in the new Woody Allen film. Do you know which he shot first?
MM: I haven't seen the Woody Allen yet, and I didn't know he was making anything similar at the time. I think he's trying to choose roles that are less Hollywood-y, and more about character. I think he did that film first, but I haven't seen it yet. I didn't rip it off, I promise.
Capone: How did you ever think to cast Ralph Fiennes in a role like this? He's certainly played characters that were less that sophisticated, but this might be a new low in his lowbrow lineup.
MM: Exactly. I wanted someone who you hadn't seen doing something like that, who could bring something a little strange to the role. There's a list of English heavy, gangster types that I could have gone to, but you've seen that 100 times. And it needed to be someone…obviously you don't see him for an hour, so when he bursts on, he has to be different. There are lots of people you could have had, but they wouldn't be different; they'd be exactly what you'd expect at that moment.
Capone: I didn't even realize that when we first hear him on the phone that it was his, but I guess that was your intention.
MM: Good. Kind of, yeah. He's a great guy, really intense, quite shy, but he's a brilliant actor but he really hasn't done comedy before. He hasn't even held a gun before in a movie before this [I think he means he hasn't held a handgun in a movie before, since obviously he held and shot a gun in SCHINDLER'S LIST], and he was like a little kid. During the chase scene, he was just so happy to be shooting, which you wouldn't expect that Ralph Fiennes would be so emboldened by it. I love his performance in it. All of the guys tried to get the truth in the roles, and didn't really play it for comedy, and that's the essence of getting it right, just playing the truth of the role and the comedy will come from you.
Capone: Did you pre-visualize this film?
MM: I pretty much storyboarded every single scene alone in my bedroom [laughs], maybe three months before we started shooting. That was a whole other language that I had to learn, that I had to force myself to learn. I'm happy with the results. I hope that if I do another one, I want to go down that path even further, more cinematic, more camera movement. But I'm happy with the balance of characterization and cinema that we achieved.
Capone: I'd seen the trailer a couple times, and the film is definitely being marketed as more of a romp than it is.
MM: I approved the trailer. I can see why Focus was doing it that way. I guess despair doesn't really sell. Even the selling of the story takes you down one path and lead you to another. So I hope the trailer wouldn't put anybody off. I hope they wouldn't see that and be disappointed with the finished film; if anything, I hope the reverse is true. I hope people would come in expecting a comedy, have the comedy work, but be taken down this unexpected, interesting path. Focus did make suggestions throughout the process. And when you're working with people who have given you a load of money to make a film, it would be unusual to not hear an opinion, even though that would be my dream. The trick is to fight the battles that need to be fought, and ignore the rest. And to listen. They had suggestions about different things; the ones I agreed with, I pretended were their ideas and went along with, and the ones that I disagreed with, I fought.
Capone Got Colin Porn? I wanna see!

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