Earlier this week I caught up with John Michael McDonagh, writer and director of the critically worshipped comedy of the year The Guard. He let HeyUGuys pick his brains about what makes him tick as a writer, how he feels about his prolific playwright brother Martin and how he managed to really capture the subtly dark Irish sense of humour.

The Guard is in UK cinemas NOW! Our review can be seen here.


HeyUGuys: What inspired The Guard?

I’d done a short film in 2000 called The Second Death and there was a supporting character, a pretty obnoxious guy and cantankerous and says really offensive things to people’s families. So that was at the forefront of my mind but I was sort of at a low ebb in the British film industry. I’d come off the back of a film that I really didn’t enjoy working on called Ned Kelly and I was trying to get a film made that wasn’t getting made whilst all these rubbish British films were getting made. I was in the same bloody-minded contemptuous state of mind and that all flowed into the character Gerry Boyle.

HeyUGuys: So the character’s something personal to you then?

Yeah, it’s basically me! (laughs) Je suis Gerry Boyle!

HeyUGuys: He’s very confrontational as a character, he breaks down a lot of politically correct barriers…

He’s attacking people who think they have power over him. But saying those sorts of things completely cuts their legs out from under them. He says different things to different people and has no filter over what he’s going to say so he doesn’t sort of, have a detached PC world view I guess. He’s prepared to say or do anything at any given time which makes him really unpredictable and hopefully makes the film unpredictable as well.

HeyUGuys: Did Gerry develop quite naturally or was it difficult to write somebody so confrontational?

No I mean, it’s really easy actually. It’s that thing of you know, when you’re at a party and somebody says something that you don’t like and you leave and you think, ‘I wish I’d said…’ You wish you had the response but Gerry Boyle always has a response so it’s quite easy to write a character like that, you could sit down and think of responses all day. Perhaps even to things people have said to you in the past, that’s one of the easiest things. It’s harder to write good people.

HeyUGuys: You seem very comfortable with Ireland’s sarcastic and dark sense of humour, but you’re originally from Camberwell so how did you tap into that?

Yeah, I’m from south London. I used to go back, in fact I still go back to Sligo and then more recently Galway. We still go over three or four times a year. I think that the south London sense of humour is very deadpan with this sarcastic wit which can cut people down to size and it’s quite similar to people in the west of Ireland. I’ve never found it that difficult tapping into that humour or sensibility, I’ve always found it quite similar and quite easy.

HeyUGuys: Were you nervous at all about how the film would be received in Ireland?

Yeah, I mean honestly it’s done well and it’s just started being released in America and it’s got great reviews but I thought Ireland might be a little more problematic because they are very concerned and insecure about how they’re perceived, particularly by the British and the Americans. So I thought I’d get more begrudging reviews but actually the Irish critics have been quite supportive so far, there’ve been one or two. But the movie does have a cinematic sensibility and it’s trying to be a big film, it’s not trying to be a little gem. I hate little gems! I avoid little gems. It’s like when they call films, ‘wryly amusing’ which basically just means it’s not funny. So I try to avoid being wryly amusing and making any little gems. We just passed In Bruges at the box office in Ireland so I’m quite pleased with that.

HeyUGuys: How does it feel being compared to your brother Martin a lot of the time?

I don’t mind it because I actually respect him and In Bruges is a good film. It’s funny and very enjoyable. I much prefer it to being compared to a director I actually despise. It’s a great reference point; if somebody came up to me and said ‘I’ve never seen your film, would I like it?’ then I’d ask if they enjoyed In Bruges and if they say yes then I tell them they’d probably enjoy The Guard! So it’s a helpful comparison I guess. Now that both of our films have been quite successful a lot of that rivalry has gone away so that’s not something we argue over.

HeyUGuys: The film is brilliantly cast, how did you go about casting the movie?

Well, casting is incredibly important to me, you will entirely lost a film before you’ve even stepped onto the set if you get it wrong. You know when you see a cast list for a movie and you think, ‘well that’s going to be absolutely terrible’ and it always is. So I really wanted to put together a cast with some great actors who you hope will get on with each other because you’re going to be shooting out in rural Ireland for six weeks, there’s not a vast amount to do out there and they’re all going to be at the same hotel. So it’s not just about getting the best people but also actors who are going to put up with that struggle and the weather and coming back to the same hotel all the time and there were great. Mark Strong came in and got along with everybody immediately and then Brendan obviously… He’s in every scene so he can’t go out every night for a drink but even Don started coming out with the cast on a Saturday night for a few drinks – so it all worked out quite well! That’s the hardest sort of thing thought, they call it a fish out of water story I suppose but Don actually is a fish out of water, he’s the only American in the movie! He’s come to a place he’s never been to before, he’s on his own but it all worked out really really well.

HeyUGuys: Did Don and Brendan have a good relationship on set then?

Sometimes you get worried about it because you have some actors who get on really well on set but it turns out to be a terrible film or people who hated each other in real life but have great chemistry so it doesn’t show in the movie! Luckily enough they did like each other and the chemistry between them definitely comes across.

HeyUGuys: Do you think you have a particular style as a writer and a director, one that might flow into your future projects?

I think it is specifically that dark, comic sensibility. As a director I think I’d need a few more films to develop the style, I think it’s more to do with that skewed, very black and comic view of the world. I think that’s the stamp I put on my films. But in the scripts I’ve written recently I’m finding I can’t sit down and write a straight drama because I always want to slightly undermine it with humour. So it’s always more along that black vein of comedy which is my style.

HeyUGuys: Any projects in the works… what’s next?

I have a film that Brendan wants to do called Calvary about a priest who’s tormented by his community but that’s kind of what I was talking about. It started off as a straight drama but I started to weave in all these strange and eccentric characters so hopefully that will get going late summer next year. I’ve also got an American comedy called War On Everyone (laughs) about these two cops who go around framing and blackmailing everyone that they meet so it’ll either be one of those that will kick off next year.

HeyUGuys: So your films are really establishing a commentary which undermines how society perceives itself at the moment?

It’s all about writing against the grain. I go to see the latest American comedy and I try to do the exact opposite  (laughs) that’s how I approach movies!