John Michael McDonagh is a busy man.
In the space of just five years he’s written and directed three films, with countless more projects in production, and has emerged as the main proponent of a violent new type of jet-black comedy where no one is safe and nothing is off limits.
Having found success with The Guard and the similarly lauded Calvary, War on Everyone sees McDonagh take things transatlantic, with the action moving from rural Ireland to New Mexico with Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena drafted in for a homage to the 1970s cop dramas he watched.
Ahead of the film’s release, McDonagh sat down with loaded to talk authority, comic book films and his future plans with HBO and Brendan Gleeson.
loaded: War on Everyone sees you return to territory familiar to fans of The Guard – corruption and the police. Do you distrust law enforcement?
McDonagh: No, not specifically law enforcement, I distrust all authority. I’ve never voted – I’m an anarchist at heart and hate all politicians.
I hate everything that is going on with the US elections where you’ve got a choice between someone who is corrupt and someone who is corrupt and racist. What a great democracy that is, though ours is not much better.
It’s more of an anti-authoritarian thing, which kind of fits into the whole 70s cop vibe of this film, with all these mavericks going out on a limb. It’s take no prisoners sort of comedy. It’s not just against authority either, it’s against everybody and every constraint whether political correctness or anything else.
“Comic book films are kids movies. Let’s just come out and say it, they are kids movies”
loaded: How did the experience of working with Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena compare with that of Brendan Gleeson?
McDonagh: Irish actors are much more faithful to the text. Alex is as well but Michael would be freewheeling. American actors tend to be a bit looser with the script because a lot of the time the writing is shit, so you almost have to convince them that this is a good script.
I don’t mind a bit of improvising, just don’t fuck around with it too much. But then Michael came up with a lot of good improvisational stuff so it’s a pay-off.
loaded: You’ve never been afraid of tackling taboo subjects in your work – do you think a lot of filmmakers play it too safe?
McDonagh: That’s certainly the case with religion. It’s a topic everyone seems to be steering clear of right now. There are a few gags about Muslims in this film, which have actually drawn gasps from the audience in a couple of the screenings. Because you can make gags about everyone else but you can’t go there.
My point of view is that by not going there you somehow view those people as other and different to us. As though they have no sense of humour and they can’t take the joke. Isn’t that racist? To me it is. I want to say ‘no you are like us, you can take a joke and we are going to include you in this scattergun comedic approach that attacks everybody.’ To me that is anti-racist.
People are on tenterhooks with that kind of comedy. It makes them uncomfortable. Some people laugh and then the laugh gets stuck in their throat.
loaded: So you would like to see people take more risks in comedy?
McDonagh: Sometimes you take a risk and in your ignorance you do go too far but then aren’t you just playing it safe otherwise? Especially in comedies which have become some of the most lily-white films being made now because no one wants to offend anybody. They may as well be TV sitcoms.
I was trying to think of a funny comedy that’s been released this year but I can’t think of one, can you? Maybe Deadpool, but that goes in a similar direction of tackling taboos.
“On a basic level, I just have little patience for CGI and special effects”
loaded: Do you think too many comic book films are being made over original scripts?
McDonagh: I no longer watch comic book movies in cinemas, I got tired of them. I like to be on a plane and watch them on a really small screen while I am drinking, just to give them the level of attention they deserve.
Comic book films are kids movies. Let’s just come out and say it, they are kids movies. They are made for people who are basically kids. Or for people who don’t want to think too much and just want spectacle and that’s okay but let’s not pretend they are not kids’ movies, they are.
Something like Deadpool has at least taken that setup and gone somewhere else with it. So that’s fine, I like that, but I don’t care about those films. Most people do them for the money.
loaded: So no plans to direct a Marvel movie any time soon then?
McDonagh: Well, just on a basic level, I just have little patience for CGI and special effects anyway, so [as a director] I would just get bored on a set with loads of green screen.
If I am directing two actors over there now with just a single camera, it takes a lot of effort to suspend your disbelief anyway. If you just have a green screen behind them and it’s meant to be New York being destroyed, I would just be totally lost with it all.
loaded: How are things going on The Lame Shall Enter First? (the third and final film in McDonagh’s Brendan Gleeson trilogy)
McDonagh: It’s not written yet but I have a lot of notes for it, dialogue and plot-wise. Before I start writing, I usually have the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes of a film in my head, so then I just have to sort out the difficult middle section.
loaded: What are you working on at the moment?
McDonagh: I’m doing an HBO mini-series based on a book at the moment. With it being HBO, they are hour long episodes and that equates to almost four films, which I am going to write and direct, which is a lot of work.
I’m getting a bit jaded with writing original screenplays – all three of my films are original screenplays – I often feel it’s not really appreciated. As if writing an original screenplay is the same as writing an adapted screenplay. It’s not, you’ve got the text to work with which is much easier.
Especially if it’s a good book, you’d have to be a complete moron to go wrong but then there are a lot of morons out there who have gone wrong.
“I get scripts sent over from America all the time but they are all crap and all written badly”
loaded: Can you tell us a bit more about the HBO miniseries?
McDonagh: It’s based on a great, not well known book, focusing on a real crime. So that idea is that we are telling the story of the crime from multiple viewpoints over the eight episodes.
So it will go back and forth with seemingly peripheral characters suddenly becoming the focus of the action. It’s that kind of kaleidoscopic view of a crime we all think we know – or knew at that time.
loaded: Are you looking to take on more TV projects?
McDonagh: No, even if this HBO miniseries goes well it may end up being the only one I do because it’s just too much work. Eight hours of television is like three or four films, so I could have made four films in the same amount of time. It’s really only this current project that I’m really enthused about.
I’ve got this script called The Bonnot Gang about this gang of bank robbers in Paris. It’s kind of like a mix of the Wild Bunch and Le Samourai, but I felt like I needed to have made three or four films before I attempted it. Now I am near a stage where it is possible.
loaded: Would you like to see more new filmmakers get opportunities?
McDonagh: Depends. Are we talking about these young people that have just come out of film school? What life experience do they have? What are they going to tell us? That’s what I would be worried about.
One of my favourite authors is a guy called Donald Ray Pollock. He only started writing in his 50s, so he had a whole lifetime’s experience behind him.
Encouraging new filmmakers is all very well, but what story are they going to tell us? I’ve seen a lot of young filmmakers come out and essentially tell us the same story, so I’m not sure. I’ve got to be careful not to slag off too many people here.
loaded: Do you ever get approached to do big budget films?
McDonagh: I get scripts sent over from America all the time but they are all crap and all written badly. It’s the same shit you have seen time and time again, so I pass. Then you see someone else has taken them on and because you know the script is shit, you know they are only doing it for the money.
Every now and then you get a good one like Wilson, which is now being made with Woody Harrelson. I liked the idea but I just didn’t think it was for me. But it’s usually like 1 in 20 scripts are good. My thought is why not just work on your own?
War on Everyone is in cinemas now.