Seven Psychopaths

Ahead of the release of Seven Psychopaths we caught up with its director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh to ask him about the genesis of his new movie, the departure of Mickey Rourke and the challenge of balancing the drama and comedy in a film.

Where did the idea for Seven Psychopaths come from?

The script for it was actually written straight after the script for In Bruges was written, but before I made In Bruges, so I kind of had them both ready to go at the same time. But this one I guess I wanted to deal with Hollywood filmmaking and gangster films and the necessity of violence in those, and is there another place to take it to? And I guess Colin’s character having the title [Seven Psychopaths] but wanting it to be about love and peace was the initial idea, so where do you go from there? And I think I had one of the psychopath stories – the Harry Dean Stanton back-story. So that was it, what do you do when you’ve got that title, only one psychopath and you want it to be about love and peace. Explore. And that’s what I did in the script I guess.

So is Colin Farrell’s character of Marty starting off with those very same ideas for his screenplay pretty much you placing yourself into the movie?

In this story, yes. I thought because it was always going to explore the nature of writing and movie scripts it seemed fine to draw on what I was feeling and thinking at that moment. Pretty soon you throw a Sam Rockwell’s character into it and Christopher Walken’s character into it and it explodes exponentially. But yeah, initially the impulse was to throw a little bit of my questioning of Hollywood into the early part of the story.

So was it important to make the film outside of the Hollywood system with Film4 and the BFI?

Yes, but there’s a bit of, maybe a quarter is CBS money. But that balance meant no studio had any power to tell you what to do. So that was important and to have final cut was important. In Bruges turned out exactly as I wanted it to but there was too much bickering about stuff with the studio for that, and I didn’t want to go through that again with them. So I wanted the structure with the money to be, yeah, to a degree outside of what we know as Hollywood and the studio system. But obviously it was all filmed in L.A. and the desert outside of L.A. and that was always an important thing to capture L.A. in the same way that Bruges was captured. The tricky thing is though that there isn’t any town in L.A., it’s just a couple of streets. But there are a few pockets that are interesting so we tried to find those and show them.

So if Colin’s character starts out like you, how close does he stay to you as the film progresses?

I’d say pretty close. I guess in some way he has the thankless task of being the audience member, or being the straight man in some ways, where all these crazies are revolving around him and taking the story to their places. So I guess he was playing where I would be in that type of story, as a non-violent person who’s just shocked and trying to get through it with his life intact, and at the same time trying to come up with a piece of art that was decent and human. There’s a degree of me in him, or him in me. But Colin and I never really talked about him playing me or any of that, I think that it’s one of those back issues that help a little bit but don’t really matter.

If you’re identifying Colin Farrell as the audience member, do you think there’s a bit of the audience in Sam’s character as well – the kind of audience that wants to see that big shootout at the end?

Yeah, maybe. Although I was maybe seeing him as more of a generic Hollywood schlocky studio person to a degree. But maybe that’s the audience to an extent too, maybe that’s why those sorts of things do so well. Sam’s character is much more fun to write than most because he can do anything at any given moment, and it’s always fun to be able to write that kind of anarchistic character.

Was it fun to be able to craft this critique of Hollywood but also be able to throw a few of those elements and tropes in there?

Yeah, that was a joy to throw that stuff in there. To go all out, to almost comment on a bad Tarantino rip-off…or a bad Tarantino [laughs]. Yeah, to almost have your cake and eat it, to go down that schlocky, hyper-violent way of storytelling, but at the same time keep it funny and keep it within the parameters of the bigger story that you’re trying to tell. But it’s one of the scenes [the shoot-out scene] that I enjoy the most I think in the whole film.

I noticed that one of the gravestones in that scene had the name ‘Rourke’ on it…

Good spotting. I thought that would be funny…no, we just happened to be in a graveyard and that just happened to be one of the stones.

What happened with Mickey Rourke, because he was originally attached to the part Woody Harrelson ended up playing?

He wasn’t actually signed on, but it was coming very close to it. To be honest, he’s a great actor, he always will be. I just think his advisors don’t really care about making good films; they care about money and other things. And no one else was coming to the film with that much baggage, so it just didn’t work out. But he’s a great actor, and I met him twice and on a personal level and I liked him both times. But we were in a place where the film was almost going to fall through unless he signed up and agreed to where we wanted to go, and it still wasn’t happening so we had to jump ship.

Did you find it hard finding the balance between the drama and the comedy?

I guess all of my stuff is like that, even the plays will go from moments of comedy to high tragedy to melancholy within a scene, and then back to comedy. It’s not really something I have to work hard to address that fine line. It’s not even a line, it’s just always there. Some scenes are funnier than others, and some scenes are darker, and some are more sad I guess. But it’s always about finding the truth of those things. You don’t want the comedy to be schlocky or big or showbizzy, but if you just try for the truth of every scene and every line then hopefully you’ve done enough work as a writer that it’s all going to patch together.

And did it help having a cast that you were able to attract, because most of them have a pedigree of switching between comedies and dramas?

I guess I didn’t think about that so much as much as I was thinking about how they were all great actors, so they’re bound to be able to do it. But looking back on it now they’re all great comedians and all great dark, scary actors too – but I was more thinking of them as just great actors. You know you’re in good hands when you’ve got Rockwell, or Walken, or Farrell.

And even in the small roles – in the first scene you’ve got Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt…

Yeah, exactly. And that’s great because you come in and you’ve only got half a day to do that scene so everyone’s got to be on it. You know it’s going to be the opening of the film and it has to be iconic and scary and funny and dangerous, so it’s all about getting the right actors really.

Do you find yourself more drawn towards film and cinema now, or would you like to continue balancing it with your theatre work?

I’ll keep balancing I think. Films I find quite hard work so I can’t do them as often as other people do. I can’t see how people do films back to back. So now I’m just going to go off and write something and it could be a play, it could be a film. If it’s a play I know I can get it up and on within a year, so there’s a turnover about plays that’s kind of cool. But right now I think the two ideas of stories that come into my head are more filmic, because I’ve got a good relationship with these actors and I want to work with them all again so that kind of prompts maybe a film script.

Seven Psychopaths is out today.