The War on Everyone writer/director opens up about his conflicted relationship with his craft.
Born in London in 1967 to Irish parents, John Michael McDonagh spent the early part of his career exploring his cultural roots, initially making his name as a screenwriter with the Heath Ledger historical drama, Ned Kelly. But where his first two film as a writer/director, The Guard and Calvary, each contain subtle autobiographical references to his Irish upbringing, McDonagh’s third sees him head in a bold new direction – specifically, west to Albuquerque, New Mexico with Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña in tow. He describes War on Everyone as a contemporary western, and indeed it is indebted as much to the films of John Ford as classic buddy cop comedies like 48 Hrs, and Lethal Weapon. Here McDonagh discusses some of his influences while candidly dispensing some sage advice about the finer points of filmmaking.
LWLies: What do you do the day before you start shooting a movie? What’s your mood like?
McDonagh: How nervous you are on your first film is the same as how nervous you are the day before your second film. It’s the same for your third film. The only thing is, on the second and the third film, the nerves go away quicker. By the time you’re on day two, you’re more into the swing of things. But that nervous feeling never really goes away. I’d like to hear from directors who’ve made 15, 20 movies, whether it does ever go away. You’re still tense, because you never know what’s going to happen. The thing with filmmaking is, you could be three or four hours into filming, and suddenly, like what happened on The Guard, you’re just about to do a shootout and it starts raining. Three days into the shoot, if it keeps raining, you’ve got no end to your movie.
And on War on Everyone?
This is what’s good about Albuquerque: it’s a very sunny place. I love going to Ireland – my family live there and everything – but we were shooting in October so it was dark at four o’clock so it was a little bit miserable. I found that my mood was a lot better in Albuquerque. I was a lot more optimistic. That weekend, I’d probably gone out on the Saturday night and enjoyed myself, then relaxed all day the Sunday. Just have a quick look at the next few day’s storyboards – because I storyboard for the entire movie. So just go through the next few days, go through each scene and start writing notes on anything you think the actors might bring up or question you about. And then just try to forget about it, don’t think about it again until you’re on the way to the set. On The Guard, the first day on set I was physically trying to stop myself from shaking. You’re basically trying to be an actor, to act the part of a director that knows what he’s doing.
You don’t feel like you have to act that part as much now?
Not really, because I felt confident enough after the first two movies. Michael and Alex had seen them so they know the tone. I guess, if your first two films are bombs, maybe the actors feel more leeway to browbeat you. But if your first movies do well – which mine did critically and commercially – then they obviously have more faith in you. Then it’s just how you behave on the first day. I remember the first scene we did was the scene in the diner where they’ve got the kid beside them, and they’ve got this rapid dialogue where they’re talking about what to do with this kid. At first they were doing the dialogue too slow, so I explained that it needed to be fast. From then it was fine. It helps if you’re the writer of the script, because then you can give that note.
Why did you shoot that scene first?
It was probably just location. I always like to start movies with an interior, because with exteriors there’s a lot more that can go wrong. If you’re starting a movie with a massive tracking shot, you’re probably going to get into trouble immediately.War on Everyone ★★★★ review
Was there a scene that was particularly challenging on this movie?
Well, Alex isn’t the greatest dancer in the world. There’s this scene in the middle where he’s dancing and it’s this joyful exuberance. On a big budget movie you’ve probably got a dance instructor for at least three weeks. We had a choreographer, but they probably only had time to spend about three days with Alex. So you know, Alex had a more negative viewpoint of the work he’d done. I was like, ‘I think we’ve got enough,’ and he was like, ‘No, no we haven’t got it right.’ We were getting to the end of the day’s shoot and you can’t keep going over on a low-budget film. So that was the only time it got a little bit tense between us.
Luckily, we were back at the same location the next day. So we did the scene with Alex and the kid on the couch, and that kid was great. They just flew through the scene and we had a spare maybe 30 minutes to an hour. So they came back in and did the dance again. Alex has been given a second chance. He’s more relaxed. So, they get it in the three takes. Overnight I thought, ‘Why didn’t I do a swirling Steadicam shot?’ So I got that in. When it came to reviewing the footage in the editing room, I realised Alex was right – the first one was crap.
When you’re on set with an actor and things aren’t going well from you’re point of view, how far do you push them?
I was talking about this the other day. Somebody mentioned The Shining, and how Kubrick pushed Shelly Duvall for 80 takes in one scene. If you’re doing 80 takes with an actor, you’ve cast the wrong actor or you’ve got something psychologically wrong with you that you’re trying to destroy them for some reason. Shelly Duvall’s a fucking great actor – I just watched her in 3 Women by Robert Altman and I’m sure he wasn’t doing that many takes with her. And what happens when you actually get into the editing room? ‘Christ, I’ve got to go through 80 takes…’
‘…The tenth one was fine.’
As a director, I very rarely go above five takes. If it’s something technical like the dancing sequence or a stunt or something, then maybe you need a few more to perfect it. But 80 takes… how different can they actually be? I’m not a big fan of those types of directors who think they have to destroy an actor to get a performance out of them. I have a big thing for John Huston. The acting is in the casting. Cast the right actor and the acting will take care of itself. If you do ever have a disagreement with an actor, you have to remember that they’re still trying to do the best they can. They want to play the character the best they can and they want the film to be really great. You can have arguments with other people on the set and the crew – you can tell they don’t really give a shit if it’s going to be a great film or not. They hope it is, but it’s a job, you know. With an actor – the actors that I’ve worked with at least – it’s not just a job.
There’s a story Aidan Gillen tells about you instructing him to verbally abuse Brendan Gleeson on the set of Calvary.
It’s the scene where Aidan’s character has just taken coke with Veronica, and Brendan’s character interrupts them. I said to him, ‘When he closes the door, tell him he’s a fucking cunt or something.’ Now I don’t know if Brendan thought Aidan himself was calling him a fucking cunt or whatever, but the next time he came in there was something in his face. Afterwards I realised that I’m not keen on that sort of manipulation. I kind of felt it was a mistake to do that.
How easy is it to find good actors?
With Brendan, we had such a good experience on The Guard that the character of the priest [in Calvary] was specifically written for him. You mentioned Aidan Gillen; once I’d written that part I thought it would be perfect for him. Somebody like David Wilmot – who’s been in all my films – is that kind of malleable character. Not only is his performance different from film to film, his appearance changes. The killer in The Guard is so different to the stupid priest in Calvary. But if you start writing a part for a particular actor, you’re on a hiding to nothing. If you don’t get them, is your film then ruined?
So why Alex and Michael?
Michael’s character was originally going to be African-American. But then I thought if we’re down in the southwest why not make him Mexican-American. I’d always loved Michael’s performance in Observe and Report, so I reworked his character in the hope he would get it. I remember with Don Cheadle, I saw him being interviewed and I thought, ‘Oh wow, he’s really witty and funny and seems down to earth,’ and then he turned out to be that way. If I see an actor and think, ‘They’re a prick,’ I’m going to avoid them.
I saw a YouTube video of him drunk at a Hammarby football match, trying to get the crowd going, and that’s kind of the Terry character right there. I only had a couple of phone conversations with him, and he came across exactly how I expected. If I think someone’s going to be really hard work I’ll get someone else. That’s my approach to it. If you have one bad apple it’s going to ruin the whole thing.
What do you love about movies?
To be honest, I’ve become more jaded the more films I’ve made. The initial impressions made on me were, ‘Wow, that’s what art can do.’ It can change your life. I’m thinking specifically of films like Badlands or The Night of the Hunter. I don’t have that as much anymore but still, every now and then a film will come along. One that comes to mind is Chungking Express. I remember being so taken aback by it that I went back again the next day to watch it again. I remember seeing an early Takeshi Kitano film, Sonatine, and I had to watch it again and again because I found it so odd. It’s actually influenced my editing style. He often shows the reaction to the event before he shows you the event itself. He shows the observer first. And then he holds on the violence. A lot of violence in movies is quick cutting. I guess the childlike innocence of it has been lost on me. Before it was like, ‘This could change my whole life,’ now it’s, ‘This could change a scene in my film.’
War on Everyone is released 7 October.
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