Irish-born Martin McDonagh’s debut feature film, In Bruges (2008), turned on a Graham Greene-ish situation that was as simple as it was amusing: two hitmen (played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) are forced to hide out in Bruges, where the city’s medieval charms are the last thing on their minds.
McDonagh’s new film trades Belgium for the desert of the American Southwest, but also finds the writer-director taking on a larger ensemble cast and juggling intersecting levels of reality. Reuniting with McDonagh, Colin Farrell plays Marty, an alcoholic screenwriter struggling with a new script called ‘Seven Psychopaths’. All he’s got so far is that title, and he’s having trouble coming up with ideas for seven different psychos to live up to it. He thinks a psychotic Buddhist monk might be a good starting point, but can’t think how to develop it. What’s more he’s getting a bit tired of guns and violence.
Like other films about writer’s block such as Barton Fink (1991) and Adaptation (2002), sources of inspiration soon start to come thick and fast and Marty finds himself caught up in a story of his own creating. Crazies are suddenly aplenty: there’s Marty’s screwloose dog-napping friends Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken); Tom Waits’s Zachariah, a serial killer killer; and volatile gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who just wants his beloved shih tzu back.
It’s been four years since In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths is about a screenwriter experiencing writer’s block. Did you did experience writer’s block yourself?
I don’t even subscribe to writer’s block being a truthful thing. I’ve had writer’s laziness quite often. But I think it’s all about sitting down and facing down the blank page and doing it, and I’ve always been ok at that. Sometimes it’s not fun.
The four-year interim was just not wanting to be on that conveyor belt of making film after film. I wanted to see a bit of the world, and think, and write some new stuff. I wrote a play and another film script between In Bruges and this. The play was on in New York with Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, so that was almost like a rehearsal period for this film. So even though it looks like a four-year hiatus, it’s not really. Plays are artistic things too!
In Bruges was an impressive calling card. The cast of Seven Psychopaths suggests a lot of great actors wanted to work with you after that…
Good actors want to do stuff with good dialogue and characters, so I don’t think it would have mattered if this had been my first film for them. I think having done In Bruges, it means they can jump in with a bit more confidence that you won’t screw it up.
After the simple setup and small cast for In Bruges, did it take some adapting to get your head around the many characters and fragmented narrative for this one?
The size of the cast was something to get one’s head around, but on the day it’s still not really working with more than three or four people in a scene, so that wasn’t so different or scary. It was more the stories within stories, and telling a story with pure visuals, that was the biggest thing to get my head around.
With In Bruges, the flashback to the killing of a child was still dialogue-based. But Seven Psychopaths was flashbacks after flashbacks which were silent really: Tom Waits’s backstory, and the Harry Dean Stanton backstory, and the Buddhist monk stuff too.
So the cinema of that I had to think about. Storyboarding it, talking about it with the DP, thinking about the tone of it all, the images – all of that was a learning process that didn’t come naturally. The things that come naturally for me are character and dialogue and plot – which is all of what In Bruges was – but this just had that extra tier.
With this complex structure of different layers of reality, did you find yourself trying out meta-fictional rabbit holes that you later abandoned as too confusing?
You didn’t want to go so far down that meta-fictional rabbit hole that it became smug or smarter than your audience (or reader at the script stage). I never feel like a smug or a smart Alec film director, and there are plenty of those around. I think I see more the joy in pausing the film then telling Tom Waits’s crazy story, rather than the worries of going down a dead end.
The film consciously pushes against the idea of a traditional climax, but ultimately a grand finale comes – was it important to you to have this kind of payoff?
If you play with those conventions enough, the audience gets to a place where they don’t know whether the conventions are going to be obeyed or not. In any dramatic story, there’s always a payoff or some kind of ending that’s worthwhile or exciting or truthful. There has to be an ending; I can’t think of any good film that just dribbled out to some weird place.
So as much as you can play around with that notion, I always knew that there was going to have to be some kind of exciting or interesting end-place.
It could have gone down the route [that Billy suggests] of heads exploding and 100 people getting shot, a slow motion bloodbath. The place it goes to is more – for me – how stupid a real standoff shootout would be, with stupid men, children really. To show that these guys are children in some ways. It’s showing the childish, stupid, sentimental nature of violent men. With laughs, with comedy. It’s a deconstruction but I think it’s truthful.
Conversely, the bigger ending, the place that I wanted to whole story to go to, is the [more reflective] place that Hans’s character takes it to. That’s the ending that maybe you don’t see coming, and it’s not about shootouts. It’s a payoff of a different sort.
From the point at the start when Colin says he wants [his script] to be about peace and love, I knew that some place like Hans’s story was where it had to go to, otherwise all the violence is completely pointless. It would have just been a comedic, violent genre pic without that angle.
I didn’t rewatch any of those, though I’d seen them all. And Barton Fink , but I didn’t watch that again. I definitely wasn’t trying to reference any of those. But I like Kaufman and I like the Coen brothers, and those things maybe naturally slip in a bit.
Another film that came to mind, a little incongruously, was Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) – as you have both a Vietnamese monk setting light to himself and then the film seemingly burning up in the projector during the end credits.
Does that have a burning monk…?
There’s a scene in which the actress character played by Liv Ullmann is very disturbed by seeing a Vietnamese monk’s self-immolation on television.
Ah yeah! Jeez, I need to see it again. That’s funny because I only watched it about a year ago… was it before [I made] this? It was very recently. That’s interesting. Shit, I need to watch that again. But I’d forgotten about the burn-up…
Bergman has the film grind to a halt momentarily about 30 minutes in, as the film appears to melt in the projector.
Ah yeah. That’s a definite rip-off then that I wasn’t even aware of!
Colin Farrell’s character Marty says he doesn’t want to write about guns and violence anymore – is this your last guns and violence film?
Probably not, although with the next one there’s violent aspects beneath the surface of it, but there’s no onscreen violence and no guns at all. And it’s a very strong female lead character, so it’s the opposite of this in a way. And it’s a bit more serious. But no, I’m probably not as dead set against the gangster conventions as Colin’s character is in this.
It depends what you describe as a conventional Hollywood gangster film. You know, The Godfather  is Hollywood gangsters, but it’s brilliant. It’s more about the ease of silly violence on screen. I don’t think I’ve ever gone there anyway, so it’s not like I have to go against it.
Did you face any of the traditional challenges of working within the American film industry?
Because it was BFI and Film4 money balanced out with some independent financing and CBS, who are obviously American, there was a balance. No-one had so much money in it that they could have an opinion on my vision, so I’ve never really been part of the Hollywood scene, with the studio system or that kind of corporate mentality.
So it was surprisingly quite similar to the making of In Bruges, it was just done in America with an American crew, but in both cases we didn’t have too much Hollywood interference. It was almost easier to work in Hollywood than to work in Belgium.
From the time you first write your dialogue to shooting the film, do you get tired hearing the jokes you’ve written?
No, these are lines that are funny, but they’re not joke-jokes. The lines have to be truthful to be funny. So in the edit of it, it’s about trying to find both the most funny and the most truthful version of [the line].
But no: it’s Christopher Walken, and it’s Sam, and it’s Colin, and it’s a joy to keep hearing their variations on those jokes over and over. Even now I can watch it fresh to a degree – because it hasn’t been so many times that I’ve seen it – and still be amused, and be amused by how funny other people are finding it.
And some of the line readings are so out-there and off the wall. I’ll never get bored of Christopher saying ‘hallucinogens’ in the way he does, or Sam telling his final shootout scene. There’s a joyousness to that work that I don’t think you could ever get bored of.
You’ve worked with Colin Farrell twice now. Is this the start of an ongoing director-actor relationship?
Yes, very much so. And with Sam and Christopher too I hope. And Brendan Gleeson – I want to do something again with him too. I feel hopefully like Preston Sturges I’m building up a little repertory company of actors I’ll keep going back to.