Taking place on a stag do in the middle of the forest between a group of friends, McDonald’s The Machine (third from the left, above) is the bride’s older brother, and his offbeat, overzealous enthusiasm isn’t one welcomed by the other guys – as his macho, red-blooded nature drives them all mad. McDonald discusses the enjoyment had when crafting this character with fellow writer and director John Butler, while describing to us the experience of jumping naked into a freezing cold lake in the middle of November. He also talks about balancing the comedy with the drama, and what he has planned for the future.
The Machine is the funniest character in the film – he must have been such a great role to write for and play?
Yeah he was, myself and John [Butler] did laugh a lot when we were writing him, but we had to walk a fine line because we wanted to make sure that the audience were able to invest in him emotionally as well, and that we remained within the boundaries of authenticity. He’s such a big character and a dominating force when people meet him, but we always wanted to include the moments where he’s vulnerable.
Are there many people you know in real life that you based The Machine around? Is there anyone quite like him?
What we based him around was not someone who inspired him, but we’ve all met people who have that overpowering dominance in a social situation, and they can be women as well. When you’re around people like that, quite often you get a bit tongue tied and you don’t say what you normally would say, you’re just dealing with their intensity. This type of energy dropped on this guys was really funny to us. Also, we’ve all met people who have no edit function, they just say what they want to say, and The Machine falls into that category. Whereas the other guys are very wordy and finesse their articulation of certain things and as it turns out, are hiding their emotional stress from each other and not letting what’s inside them come out. So that’s what we were thinking of, but of course we’ve all met guys like The Machine.
We never find out why he’s called The Machine – did you both giving him a back story, or did you prefer to completely be ambiguous about it yourself?
Myself and John have an idea between us as to why he’s called The Machine, but we’re going to keep it to ourselves. It’s better to let people’s imaginations roam.
The Machine likes to take his clothes off – it must have been freezing?
Really cold. I had to jump into a lake in the middle of November, which is pretty intense. One of the hardest things, for me, was that The Machine, whenever he was naked, all the others would be freezing but he was the only character who couldn’t look like he was freezing, because he’s surviving off such a mad energy that he’s batting away the elements. So that was the hardest part. But because we were all in it together, there was a kind of unspoken between the cast that we were never going to complain about it, because once you start one little moan it spirals really quickly. It sounds like a cliché, but the other guys never, ever complained, even when it was a cold morning in November, and they were running through a forest naked, they didn’t say one thing.
I’m assuming there weren’t too many takes of you jumping in the river?
[Laughs] No there weren’t too many, it was pretty cold water there. A guy had to get in with a west suit before me and check the area, and it’s quite funny because our producer Rob Walpole had someone else jump in at the very spot I was jumping in, because if I got injured we’d have been in a lot of trouble, so Rob stripped down and jumped in. When I jumped in, I had to stay in there for a few minutes as I had to be under water before coming back up at the other side of the lake, but it wasn’t too bad. One of the art directors, when I came out of the water, gave me a little shot of hot whiskey, so I warmed up then!
Did you allow much room for improvisation? Especially for yourself, playing a character you co-created, you must have felt so comfortable in going off-script?
Well what we did was we got the actors together and we had four days rehearsal before shooting, and myself and John were determined for them to try on the characters, flex them around a little bit and find out what was working for them and what wasn’t, and if anything funny came up or someone said a line wrong, we’d push it in that direction and go that way. But we wanted the script to be really tight and we didn’t want to have this improvisation on set. You know, people are doing a lot of comedies now and though very funny, the audience can tell what’s going on and the character development and emotional aspects are compromised for the sake of the comedy, and so we ironed those things out in the rehearsal room. We had the occasional moment of improvisation though, like when they get stuck in the tent, we just let them run, but for the most part it’s scripted.
As co-writer and star, is it tough to balance the two? Did you ever find yourself getting almost protective over certain lines, or frustrated if said in a different way?
I would have if I didn’t have such a good relationship with John and such a good relationship with the other actors. If I had any concerns I would talk about them in a very collaborative spirit and John would listen to me and we respect each other very deeply, and he’d understand what I was saying and he always wanted to know what I thought, and that was great. Maybe in another situation and with other people, it could have been a problem, but there were no egos on this.
There is a poignancy to this title, and there’s that stand-off between the groom and best man. Was it tough for you to balance that whole side of the movie with the comedic elements?
Well first of all it’s music to my ears that the balance works for you, because it’s exactly the type of movie we were tying to make. From the very get-go we wanted to make a film that never shortchanged you in terms of your investment in the characters for the sake of more laughs. So without naming any one particular film, a lot of comedies nowadays that tends to happen. You go in, you have a really good time and you have a lot of laughs, but when you come out you really don’t feel anything for the characters, but John and I wanted people to connect with this emotionally, to genuinely experience these guys emotions, in an authentic way, otherwise it simply wouldn’t work. My inspiration were more like Swingers, as opposed to The Hangover. On top of that, we wanted the characters to remain authentically Irish and not cutting any corners on that side of their nature and where they come from. In many respects, in those areas we wrote it from the heart and tried to really understand what would be going on between those men, while at the same time keeping an eye on entertaining the audience and mixing between moments of empathy, to The Machine nearly having his balls bitten off by a dog.
So finally, this is your first screenplay for a feature length film. Is this something you’d like to do more of in the future?
Yeah I plan to keep doing this. Obviously I’m still acting and I’ve directed some short films too, so I hope within the reasonably near future to have my directorial debut as well. But yeah I will definitely continue in this path.
The Stag is released in Ireland on March 7th, and the UK on March 14th.