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September 2014
Issue: October 1, 2012

Director's Chair: Martin McDonagh - 'Seven Psychopaths'

By: Iain Blair
HOLLYWOOD — Writer/producer/director Martin McDonagh won an Academy Award for “Best Live Action Short Film” for Six Shooter, his first foray into film, and followed that project with his feature film debut, the critically-acclaimed In Bruges. 

Starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson, the gangster action/comedy premiered at Sundance in 2008 and won McDonagh a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay.

In his new film, the accurately titled Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh spins a tale about some incompetent dognappers and vengeful mobsters that reunites him with Farrell, along with a stellar cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits — and a pampered shih tzu. 
Behind-the-camera talent includes DP Ben Davis (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Debt), production designer David Wasco (Inglourious Basterds, The Royal Tenenbaums), editor Lisa Gunning (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Love You More) and composer Carter Burwell (In Bruges, Where the Wild Things Are).

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, McDonagh (pictured right,on set, directing Tom Waits) talks about making the film, his love of post, and working with animals.

POST: You started off as a playwright. What was the biggest adjustment you had to make as a filmmaker?
MARTIN McDONAGH: “Scope and the size of the canvas, and to tell stories in images as much as in dialogue. It’s still a learning process. After I’ve written a script I still feel the need to pare it down. I’ll get a bunch of blank storyboards and then start going through every single scene to make them really visual, and that sometimes goes back into the script.” 

POST: How would you describe this film, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
McDONAGH: “It’s a black comedy, like Bruges, but I wanted it to have an epic quality. So the whole trip to the desert evokes visuals of westerns, and I wanted to create something much more cinematic than Bruges.”

POST: Is it true you were unsure about tackling this complex and multi-layered story as your debut film, even though you already had the script?
McDONAGH: “Yeah. It was written just after Bruges, but the scope of this was just too big — and the cast was far bigger, and there was so much more going on, with all the flashbacks and different stories and shootouts, and just the look of it. I just didn’t feel I had the ability, so I did In Bruges first, as it was more of a character and relationship study, set in one place, and more like the theater work I was used to. After I’d made Bruges, this didn’t feel so far out of my grasp. It was still a bit scary, but I felt I’d learned enough to have a go at it.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges of making this?
McDONAGH: “Probably coming up with all the images for all the stories within the stories, and the Tom Waits flashbacks. They had to be completely image-based, almost. There’s a touch of narration but they had to be told completely visually. That was the biggest learning curve for me. Acting-wise, and relating to the actors and dialogue, was fine, but trying to capture something truly cinematic was the biggest challenge.”

POST: Where did you shoot and how long was it?
McDONAGH: “We had a 41-day shoot, starting last November through January, and it was all in Los Angeles, and then out in the Joshua Tree desert. I like shooting. The prep is hard but once on set, I find it quite joyful.”

POST: This was your first time working with DP Ben Davis. What did he bring to the mix?
McDONAGH: “He’s got a brilliant eye for the cinematic shot but he’s also a great driving force on set. He’s helpful and nurturing, but he also drives you through it. I’ll block a scene out and he’ll come up with some brilliant angles or ways of telling in one shot what I thought would take five. We had a limited budget — less money than Bruges and twice as much to do, so he was crucial to keeping the momentum up and condensing storyboards and still being ultra-creative.”

POST: Did you shoot film or digital, and what guided your choice?
McDONAGH: “Early on we discussed which way to go, but Ben and I saw a bunch of tests of the newest digital cameras and nothing quite matched up to film for us. As good as they say the digital stuff is getting, it never felt quite good enough for all the night shooting and stuff with fire we had to shoot, so we went back to film.”

POST: The old Hollywood cliché is, never work with animals or kids. You have a dog and rabbits. How tough was it?
McDONAGH: (Laughs) “It was actually really easy. The dog was a dream, quiet as a mouse all the time, and the rabbits were a joy. I want to get one now.”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
McDONAGH: “Most of the money was UK-based, so after the shoot ended in January we went back to London where all the post was done in various places around Soho. We began editing a week after the shoot, and just finished in early September, so it’s been quite long — about eight months.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
McDONAGH: “I really enjoy it, especially the editing and looking through every single take and making notes and then crafting and sculpting a scene. It’s so interesting about post — scenes I felt could never be cut out when I wrote them or shot them soon proved to be totally redundant in the edit, and I was happy to lose them. I find editing very relaxing, and you have time to explore all the material as you piece it together.”

POST: When you’re working on the edit and post, does Martin the writer ever disagree with Martin the director?
McDONAGH: “No. You find that you can be really brutal about the writing at that stage. I find it very hard to cut stuff at the script stage. There are scenes on the page that, even when we didn’t really have the budget for them, I just couldn’t dream of cutting. But even though they’re good scenes, if they don’t work or slow down the pacing, it’s amazing how easy it is to just get rid of them. 
“The film is about one hour and 40 minutes now, and we had a two-hour-ten-minute version that told the exact same story with some really great funny scenes that were just too long and draggy for the piece. So all that stuff will end up on the DVD. You learn a lot from being brutal about cutting, and I wonder if that will feed back into my next script — to be spare and more succinct. But I’m always trying to do that.”

POST: Tell us about working with editor Lisa Gunning. How does that relationship work?
McDONAGH: “She wasn’t on set much but she was in LA for the shoot, and she’d cut on an Avid while we shot. So if I felt we were short of any shots for a scene, I’d ask her to cut that more quickly, to make sure we had coverage. That happened a few times, and she was great to work with.”

POST: Who did the visual effects work and how many visual effects shots are there?
McDONAGH: “Method in Soho did all the VFX. We had about 100 shots total, and a couple of really gory moments were the biggest challenge. I try to do as much as possible in camera, but when the guy gets shot at the start of the film, it was all CGI. It takes a while to get something that’s not too gory or cartoon-like, but that still has an impact.”

POST: How important are sound and music to you?
McDONAGH: “Very important, and I love doing the sound mix and finding the right songs. I really care about the music, and we recorded all of that in London; Carter Burwell came over to do it. I really like to be a bit idiosyncratic about the songs, and I mix some modern stuff with some iconic stuff from the ‘60s that’s not too well-known, maybe. 
“As for sound effects, I’m not quite so involved, but we did use them very specifically in some scenes to really enhance the tension. There’s the scene with Woody and a wheelchair, where we used a squeaky one to ratchet up what was happening behind the back of a character.”

POST: Did you do a DI?
McDONAGH: “Yes, and it was great, especially for all the flashback sequences. I wanted to give them a slightly different feel from the rest of the film, and Ben and I discussed all that quite early on. We wanted to give LA a very vibrant, clear look, and have the flashbacks be more muted. We also enhanced a lot of the reds — not just the blood, but any reds in the shot. So the DI is such a great tool for crafting a shot like that, and I find it very relaxing as well.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you originally envisioned it while writing the script?
McDONAGH: “Yes, it’s pretty close. I had this vision of a big, cinematic piece with wide landscapes, especially in all the desert scenes, and I’m happy with the look we got. It looks like a big American movie (laughs).”

POST: Are you a digital fan?
McDONAGH: “To be honest, not really. I just don’t trust it, and until it’s properly cheaper and as good as film, I can’t see any reason to shoot digitally.”

POST: So, you don’t think film is dead?
McDONAGH: “Not at all.”
POST: Would you consider directing someone else’s script on a project?
McDONAGH: “No, never. The reason is, it takes so much time to make a film — two years of your life, and you only have so many stories to tell and opinions about the world, so I feel I’ll always need to express my own. I have a big backlog of my own scripts I want to do, so it wouldn’t make sense for me.”

POST: Any interest in doing a 3D project?
McDONAGH: “None whatsoever.”

POST: What’s the state of indie filmmaking?
McDONAGH: “It seems to be pretty healthy. There’s a lot of great indie films coming out I want to see, so that’s a good sign.”

POST: Is Hollywood healthy or sick?
McDONAGH: “It seems to be fine in terms of the big event movies. It’s a tricky balancing act, I think. You have to balance the money aspect with a voice that’s strong enough to make a personal movie.”

POST: What’s next?
McDONAGH: “I’ve written a script that’s based in America and all ready to go. It’s a darker piece, like Bruges, with a strong female lead. But it’ll probably be a while before we start.”