John Michael McDonagh interview: Calvary, The Guard

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh looks back on the release of Calvary and The Guard...

This interview contain a major spoiler for the ending of Calvary. It is marked in the text and sandwiched between two pictures, so you can skip that bit if you’ve not seen the film.

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh is two for two in our book. The Guard remains a very funny, hugely entertaining drama, with one of Brendan Gleeson’s finest ever performance. But his best comes in their second film together, Calvary, which is now playing in UK cinemas.

It’s not too often that we get to interview a filmmaker in the weeks after the release of their film, but when it happens, a different perspective tends to be placed on things. So see what you make of this…

How crucial to you is the relationship that you’ve built with Brendan Gleeson over the two films you’ve done? Appreciating the mutual admiration you clearly have for each other, what opens up for you when it clicks like that? I always think the perfect pairing of trust between actor and director is Scorsese and De Niro’s The King Of Comedy. But who else other than you and Brendan could do Calvary?

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No one else could’ve played the lead role in Calvary. After the relationship we’d built up from The Guard, I was confident in sending an early draft of Calvary to Brendan. I’ve never done that before, where I’d send an actor an early version of a script. Brendan’s notes were so great – mostly to do with making the script more emotional – that I realised I was in a very privileged place with an actor.

It’s interesting that you referenced The King Of Comedy because I think that’s one of Scorsese’s greatest films, and it was the film that, when I saw it at 16, made me finally realise what it means to be a great director and a great actor.

It’s interesting getting to put questions to directors just after the release of their film rather than just before. So can I ask: what do you make of both the critical and audience reaction to the film?

I have become more jaded after the success of The Guard. I still wanted Calvary to do well, critically and commercially, but I am no longer as emotionally invested, I can detach myself a bit more. I have to say, I was expecting the film to be much more divisive. The fact that it’s been both a critical and commercial hit, makes me think there is an audience out there wanting to see more mature movies.

How closely do you monitor admissions and reviews? Or do you sit back at that stage and let people discover the film?

I read all my reviews but I don’t get emotionally involved anymore. When I read a great review I say, “Terrific!” and when I read a bad review I say, “Oh well, fair enough.”

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How controlling were you over how Calvary was sold? It would have been very easy – yet incredibly misleading – to bill it as a sort of Guard 2, which probably would have been the easiest path to the box office. But given that it’s a work you’ve authored from top to bottom, how much – once you’ve locked the final cut – needs and gets your sign-off?

I try to control as much of the advertising as I can. Sometimes I, as the director, am overruled, by the marketing department, but I was very happy with the way Calvary was sold. I was not happy with the way The Guard was sold in the UK. It was a lacklustre campaign by people who didn’t believe in the movie. Turned out they were wrong and I was right. Lesson learned.

You talked before the release of Calvary of how you wanted to turn things on their head – to take a perception of the priesthood in modern society, and you basically made the other characters the darker ones, with a force of mainly immense good in Brendan’s character.

What did you want audiences to take away?

I never think about audiences. My first objective is to tell a story that interests me. If it interests me, I assume it will interest other people.

Would you still say the subject matter is tricky to approach and explore in cinema? Where the story needs to start, be told and end in two hours?

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If it takes you two hours to tell a story you have failed as a filmmaker. 105 minutes tops is all you need if you are talented. If you are not talented you need three hours.

Do you think modern cinema is engulfed by a fear of tackling serious material for the most part – with a few notable exceptions – whereas theatre continues to dig deeper? Where do you think the best stories are being told?

Oh man, theatre is shit. Theatre does not dig deep at all. Theatre is banality and useless morality. The best stories are being told in novels. Nothing is coming close to the work being done by novelists. But nobody reads books anymore so nobody cares about novelists.

How measured were you in the approach to the whodunnit in Calvary? Was that a core thread for you, or a Trojan horse to explore the themes you touch on in the film?

Good question. It was the starting point, but then I lost interest, until the last 30 minutes when I brought it back in. I think I got away with it.


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Was it important to you that Brendan’s character dies at the end? Was there ever a draft where he lived?

No, he always died at the end. Christ died, Lavelle dies. But Christ didn’t really die, did he? Neither did Lavelle.


Have you explored the idea of a television drama? Of you and Brendan developing a character and narrative over six to eight hours, as opposed to a cinema running time?

Absolutely not. Fuck TV.

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Is it important now for you that you direct your own material? Would you write for someone else?

Another good question. I feel like I’m getting to the end of writing original material. I’m going to finish up this trilogy with Brendan, and then after than I’m going to be looking for other material. I don’t think I’d write for someone else, but I would work on another writer’s material to direct.

Have you worked out which project you want to focus on next?

Yeah, it’s called War On Everyone, starring Michael Peña and Garrett Hedlund. An original script of mine. It’s about two corrupt cops in Texas. Trying to raise the finance as I write this.

John Michael McDonagh, thank you very much.

Calvary is in cinemas now.

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