“He enjoys a well-crafted shoot-out.” Martin McDonagh is talking about the main character of Seven Psychopaths, his latest film. “He thinks… No, wait, that’s me. I enjoy a well-crafted shoot-out.”
It’s easy to see how Martin could get confused. Played by Colin Farrell, Seven Psychopaths’ main character is Marty, an Irish screenwriter making a film called Seven Psychopaths starring an Irish screenwriter called Marty. McDonagh is well aware of the danger of being so meta: “It’s something you can only really get away with once in your career, if at all.”
From his debut play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1996, through to his superlative 2008 film In Bruges, McDonagh has become famous for his black comedies that veer sharply between melancholy and violence. In Seven Psychopaths, the character Marty is tired of writing violent films, wanting to make something, “as much about Gandhi and peace and love” as it is about carnage, even while he’s drawn into a world of serial killers and dog-nappers.
It would be understandable to assume the character’s exhaustion is in some way a reflection on McDonagh’s own career, but he feels that’s where the similarities peter out. “I didn’t want to get away from violence, because I never felt like that was all there ever was in my work. Hopefully there’s always been a moral through-line in my writing. Seven Psychopaths isn’t so much about myself, but about questioning Hollywood’s fixation with violence. Does everything have to be about men with guns, and psychopaths? But I had my cake and ate it, because the film is violent. I didn’t want to run away from it, but to use it as a way to talk about more interesting things.”
Martin’s darkly hilarious plays—of which he penned seven before his film debut, In Bruges—were born out of a distaste for safe, conventional theatre. “When I started writing, the things I was seeing on stage were so undramatic. They were all about chatting and drinking tea and politics and nothing would ever happen. And I wanted it to.” Martin understood how violence could raise a play’s emotional stakes: “On stage, if someone hits someone out of the blue, or even just takes out a gun, things change. The appeal of those violent bits is that you can go anywhere after them. There’s something exciting for an audience member to see those things and be worried and scared for the characters. The idea, ‘Fuck, anything could happen.’”
Martin says he never set out to shock or be controversial. His violence and outrageous humour are always there to serve the story. He gives the example of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, his play about the terrorist group INLA. “If you’re dealing with men that violent you have to be truthful to that on stage. I guess doing a black comedy about that subject is going to be a bit controversial, but I’m probably always going to write black comedies about things. It’s just the way I think.”
As a consequence of his uncompromising writing, Martin’s well-observed characters and fine ear for dialogue were sometimes lost in the hysteria over his plays’ brutal lurches. “I definitely felt like an outsider at the time, having Irish heritage and writing these black comedies that had degrees of violence in them. The theatres that put on my work supported me, but around the milieu of theatrical people I always felt like we were the dirty outsiders.”
From a notorious incident where he swore at Sean Connery at an awards ceremony (“He started it!” Martin says, gleefully unrepentant fifteen years later) to his increasingly challenging plays, Martin learned the value of his outsider image. Belying the content of his plays and his reputation as a provocateur, he is warm and playful in person, “I liked playing up to the perception,” he admits. “I come from a punk rock background so it was cool to kick open those doors and shake things up a little bit.”
In 2006, McDonagh made his most shocking declaration yet: fêted as one of Ireland’s best playwrights and aged only 35, he had said enough as a playwright. It was a declaration that later proved to be premature but, nonetheless, McDonagh feels that theatre isn’t the best place for him. “I always loved films more,” he says.
What held him back from making the leap earlier was a concern over control. “I would have found it impossible to just hand over a script to someone else. With a play not a single line can be cut if you don’t cut it yourself, and if you’re there the whole time there can’t be a line said in a way you don’t agree with. But with film, a screenwriter is the lowest form of life on most sets. Your opinion is lower than the tea ladies’.”
Martin decided to wait until he could both write and direct something, making his debut with the short film Six Shooter. Although he had never even directed a play before, the short won an Oscar, which now sits on his kitchen shelf. Six Shooter’s success gave Martin the confidence to make a feature film, In Bruges. The film has become a cult favourite but not the smash McDonagh might have hoped for. He shrugs it off. “I liked that it wasn’t very successful. I remember liking the early De Niro/ Scorsese films and almost all of them flopped when they first came out. You don’t care about that as a fan. You just love the film for the film. That’s all that really matters.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Thirteen . Photograph by Trent McMinn.