Interview: John Michael McDonagh (director of The Guard)

Interview – John Michael McDonagh (director of The Guard). By Simon Miraudo.

It was hardly a surprise to discover John Michael McDonagh had just as sharp a tongue as his brother Martin (In Bruges) in his feature film debut The Guard. It was truly refreshing, however, to see some of the family’s trademark barbs being flung during conversation with the man. I spoke to McDonagh ahead of the Australian release of his film, which stars Brendan Gleeson as a boozing, whoring, drug-taking Irish policeman by the name of Gerry Boyle, who is forced to team up with an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) when a consignment of cocaine is rumoured to be hitting his coast. The film debuted to rave reviews at Sundance back in January, and if the audience reaction at the Melbourne International Film Festival is any indication, it could become one of the year’s sleeper hits. It must seem like sweet justice to Donagh, who is still nursing the wounds of betrayal after being booted off the Aussie film Ned Kelly back in 2003. Read on to discover McDonagh’s inspiration for the character of Gerry Boyle, how he feels about subtitling English language films for English speaking audiences, and, in foul-mouthed fashion, his disdain towards Ned Kelly director Gregor Jordan.

SM: What was the original germ of an idea for The Guard?

JMM: I did a short film in 2000 called The Second Death, and it was a sort of ghost story. It’s this guy in a bar who’s going through a trauma, and various people circle him in the bar. One of the guys who comes into the bar is this country policeman who basically says some obnoxious things for no reason to everyone in the bar, has a pint, and then leaves. And I always wondered, ‘I wonder where all the other characters go after this story, and I wonder where he went on the night’. It’s one of those things where you think, ‘Yeah, he’s an interesting character’, that just sort of sat there. A few years ago there was a consignment of cocaine that was being brought in [to Ireland] on a yacht, and there was half a billion dollars worth. The police seized it, and I thought, ‘That could be a plot; some drug dealers coming in to the west of Ireland’. When you’ve got this confrontational, cantankerous character, what you think is, ‘Well, who would he rub the wrong way the most?’ And it would be an American, and it would be an FBI agent, and then I went on and made him a black FBI agent. You can keep going: he could be a gay FBI agent, or he could be a woman. But I thought, there was enough there to work on with. So once we set that dynamic up, we had all those buddy-buddy tropes that have been passed down through the years, but trying to subvert it as well.

SM: Looking at your filmography on IMDB, I can see that after your short film, you wrote the screenplay for Ned Kelly. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved with that?

JMM: Well, one thing I’ll say was that it was a bad experience and I don’t like the film.

SM: Fair enough.

JMM: Second thing is, the reason I’m so angry about the way it turned out was, I wasn’t a writer for hire on that project. Actually, at my local book shop, I found the Robert Drewe book Our Sunshine, read it, loved it, got in touch with Nelson Woss – who is this Australian producer I knew – and he said, ‘Well ‘I’ve got enough money to option the book, but I don’t have enough money to pay you for the screenplay’. I said, ‘I’ll write it on spec’. So we did that. And then it got picked up. So we were the originators; myself and Nelson originated that whole project. Then Gregor Jordan came on with Heath Ledger, and it basically got taken away from us, and it was totally f****** bastardised basically; it turned out to be a bog-standard studio biopic. A lot of the anger out of it was that I wasn’t a writer for hire; we found the f****** thing. We did the hard yards for the studio, and we did the hard yards for the director, and it wasn’t appreciated.

SM: That’s a shame.

JMM: It’s funny. Nelson now has a film out called Red Dog.

SM: Oh, right.

JMM: Have you seen that?

SM: I haven’t yet.

JMM: Myself and Nelson, when we were stewing over how we’d been treated, [we said] ‘When we get our next films made, we’ll get back at Gregor’. But Nelson hasn’t said a bloody word about Gregor; he’s playing the producer’s game where he keeps his mouth shut. So it’s just me here (laughs), sharing my bile about Gregor Jordan.

SM: Well, that’s alright. We’ll get your word out there, don’t worry about that.

JMM: (Laughs)

SM: Just quickly, before we leave Ned Kelly, was there anything in your screenplay about Ned Kelly you would have liked to have seen in the film?

JMM: Well, the original screenplay, it was faithful to Robert Drewe’s non-linear book. It’s sort of a dreamlike narrative. The script was similar to that. I’m a big fan of Terrence Malick and Sam Peckinpah, so the film was written in this kind of lyrical, poetic way with bursts of extraordinary violence. That was the original screenplay. Obviously, that’s not the Ned Kelly you see. What you see is a Robin Hood figure, which is so boring; we’ve seen it loads of times before. And it’s not true. Ned Kelly wasn’t a Robin Hood figure. Whatever might have happened to him that was wrong, he was still a criminal originally. Why can’t you have that in a movie? A person that is both good and bad? He has to become this innocent ‘mate’ who’s been f***** over and never did anything wrong, and we all know that’s bulls***, and I think the Australian people knew it was bulls*** as well. That’s what’s depressing. You read those books about screenwriters getting screwed, and you think ‘Oh, it won’t happen to me’, but then you’re in the middle of it. It’s you, and it’s very strange.

SM: Is that a big reason why you took a more active part in The Guard? Obviously you directed it as well. Is that something you want to hold onto going forward?

JMM: Yeah. Whatever negative things that happened in Ned Kelly, what was positive about it is I came out thinking, ‘I thought directors were going to be these intelligent, artistic people who knew what they were doing. I’ve had this experience and I now know they’re not. Why don’t I just direct myself? So the next script I write won’t be a big budget epic or anything like that. I’ll write something that’s under, say, between $5 and $15 million, and when I send the script out I’ll say, “I’m attached as director. If you want to make the film, it has to be with me as director. If you want to make it without me, that’s not going to happen”.’ That’s the way The Guard went out. So it did lead to a positive outcome really, in the end.

SM: Did it take a while for people to come on board with The Guard, with those kinds of caveats?

JMM: After Ned Kelly, I had another script that did the rounds and lots of people seemed to like. It was one of those ones where we’d get financing, but the financing would fall through, or we’d get an actor attached, and then he’d pull back. It was like stop-start-stop-start. At the end of that whole process, I was just getting so p***** off I wrote The Guard in a burst of two weeks. And from the moment it went out we just got really good responses to it. I guess on a superficial level because it’s a laugh-out-loud comedy; hopefully there’s more going on in it, but it read as being really funny. Then my brother Martin got the script to Brendan, and he said he wanted to do it. We sent the script to Don; when Don heard Brendan wanted to do it, really quickly he wanted to do it. So after developing this previous script for years, almost getting there and never getting there, The Guard went out. I wrote it in Christmas 2008 and it was in production September 2009, which is extraordinarily fast in the film business.

SM: Absolutely.

JMM: It’s funny though; Ned Kelly was similar. It’s a strange business where you can have a good script that you’re struggling with for years, and you can write something else, and for whatever reason – timing, whatever – and it just shoots off, getting green lit within two months of going out.

SM: Yeah, it’s definitely bizarre. Well, The Guard is hilarious; I enjoyed it greatly. There is such a high number of hilariously acidic one-liners per minute; that’s kind of amazing. I don’t mean non-sequiturs; the film is very sharply written. That frustration with Ned Kelly, and your previous project falling apart, is that where you channel the anger from? Maybe ‘anger’ is not the right word…

JMM: No, it is. It came directly from that; all that bitterness and resentment was channeled into Sergeant Gerry Boyle. That whole, sort of, anti-authoritarian, not taking on board the accepted wisdom [thing]. He’s someone who won’t accept what people are telling him, because he won’t believe it’s true. And he’s also kind of relentlessly honest, for the most part. He says he took crack; he’s going out to meet girls. That all came from my experience with deceitful people; you create a character who has an essential integrity.

SM: How much of you would you say is in Gerry Boyle?

JMM: Well, he is me (laughs). I don’t know if that’s a positive thing or a negative thing.

SM: In terms of when you were writing that character specifically, where you concerned about how far you could go with him, to keep him sympathetic to the audience? Or did the idea of pushing him appeal to you?

JMM: Yeah, I have to be honest, I wasn’t thinking in those terms, in the sense of, ‘How edgy or offensive are these gags?’ I think of them in terms of, ‘Is this a funny gag or not?’ I’d be more likely to cut gags or jokes I thought were too dumb, or too slapstick. I don’t really censor myself in that way; I try to detach myself or I’ll look at the material, and say, ‘No no no, that’s going to upset people’. I just write what I think is funny. Obviously, you don’t know until your first screening. You don’t know until you’re sat in the audience, if people are going to laugh or not. If they don’t laugh, you know the film has failed. If you’re making a black comedy and people don’t laugh, the film is a failure. Whereas, with a drama, you can be sat there, and you might not be sure if people are enjoying it, but with a comedy you know.  If they’re not laughing, it’s a bomb.

SM: Did the cut of the film change at all after Sundance?

JMM: The film didn’t change. We did a little bit of ADR [automated dialogue replacement]. Brendan came in for a day’s looping. It was mostly for the first 20 minutes. I don’t know what it’s like with an Australian audience, but with an American audience – or with any audience really, let’s face it – the first 20 minutes is when you’re just getting your ear attuned to a dialect or whatever. So, Sony never asked us – there were rumours we’d been asked to subtitle the film. That wasn’t true; we were never asked to do that. But we were asked to look at clarifying dialogue at the start of the thing. So we did, and since we’ve gone back to the states – we’ve been to LA – the scenes where people weren’t laughing, I had wondered why people weren’t laughing, and I realised it was because they couldn’t understand what the characters were saying. Now we’re getting the laugh, just by clarifying the first 15 minutes and getting the audience into the rhythm of the dialect.

SM: Interesting. If they’d asked you to subtitle, would you have done so?

JMM: Uhh, no. (Laughs) Thankfully I was never put in that position. To me, if people are speaking English, and you subtitle them, it’s offensive, isn’t it? I would take that as being offensive.

SM: I ask because I just saw an Australian film that was subtitled, in English.

JMM: What’s that?

SM: It’s called Toomelah.

JMM: Oh right, I’ve heard of that. It’s about Aboriginals isn’t it?

SM: It is. I thought it was a strange choice, for an Australian film to have subtitles as well.

JMM: They’ve done that over here, on some documentaries set in Jamaica where people are speaking patois. They subtitle it. But you can understand what people are saying. You just need a little bit of patience. The idea that you’re not prepared to give the audience a bit of breathing space to let their ears get attuned, you know. People are speaking English and you’re subtitling them; it is offensive, yeah.

SM: John, can you tell me what you’re working on next?

JMM: I’ve got a film called Calvary, which Brendan Gleeson is attached to. It’s about a good priest who’s tormented by a community. It’s kind of like Robert Bresson but with gags, which probably won’t go down that well.

SM: The way Bresson was always meant to be seen.

JMM: (Laughs) It’s a little bit more art house. Well, it’s a lot more art house than The Guard. It’s more of a drama, but it’s got the same dark humour as well. And I’ve got this other one about two completely corrupt policemen in Alabama, which is just a straight-forward black comedy, as we would say, a ‘70s’ type movie. I’d say that one is a sort-of cross between The French Connection and Hellzapoppin, if that means anything.

SM: It definitely does.

The Guard opens in Australian cinemas August 25, 2011. Read Jess and Simon‘s reviews from the Melbourne International Film Festival.

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