John Michael McDonagh interview: The Guard

With The Guard out in UK cinemas tomorrow, we catch up with writer and director John Michael McDonagh about the making of the film…

Writer and director John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature, The Guard, could be described as a collision of buddy-cop thriller, western and black comedy. Its blending of slick, bitingly funny dialogue and familiar genre elements is so perfect, in fact, that it’s already made its way into our list of 2011’s best films.

We got to sit down to speak with McDonagh about the making of The Guard, and what he’s up to next.

We’ve been talking, back at the office, about what genre The Guard falls into. How would you describe it?

I call it a black comedy, because I don’t think the thriller element is big enough to call it a comedy thriller. And it’s sold as a buddy-cop comedy, but do they even like each other? I’m not sure, you know. So it doesn’t really fulfil that remit – to me, it’s just a straight up black comedy. I hope people going in expecting that, and they’ll get something more. That’s the best way to see it.

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There are elements of a western in there too, though, aren’t there?

Yeah. One, it’s the landscape – I wanted that widescreen, anamorphic, bleak landscape. [Sgt Gerry Boyle] is a sheriff in a small town, pottering away. And one day the villains ride in, and he has to deal with them, in a High Noon situation.

Once I had that idea, that’s why I got Calexico involved to do the music, because when he walks into the final shootout, the music in his head is Ennio Morricone. He sees himself as the hero in a Sergio Leone western. And Calexico were great, because I said I love the Calexico sound, but I want the music to sound like Ennio Morricone. But they were fine about it. They were, like, we love Ennio Morricone.

I didn’t want the film to feel like a small, low-budget Irish film, where they go, “Oh, it’s a little gem.” I hate little gems. I never go to see little gems. They’re just shit movies, basically. [Laughs]

It’s like when they go, “It’s wryly amusing.” That means you didn’t laugh. Or, “It was poignant.” That means a little kid cried. [Laughs] I just didn’t want to do those sorts of films. I wanted it to feel big, even though we didn’t have a big budget, that was the main thing.

So I think, to describe it as a western, might make people think, ah, it’s not what we thought it was.

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One of the defining characteristics of Brendan Gleeson’s character is that he loves to poke fingers in pomposity and political correctness…

Yeah. Especially with people he thinks have power over him. He really wants to undermine them. Of course, the problem is that he doesn’t have a filter on what he says to undermine or offend them. He just doesn’t think that way.

Some people could take that the wrong way. Some reviews have referred to him as a racist character. But he’s not – he says things to each individual person that he thinks will attack them the most. When he’s talking to the FBI guy, he goes for race, because he knows that will upset him the most. That’s what he’s trying to do – pick at him.

I think we gradually realise that it’s all a mask, that he’ll just say anything at a given time. What he believes is something different. You’re keeping people on their toes, in a sense, about what he really does believe. The stuff about the FBI man being used to shooting unarmed women and children, he actually means that one. But he doesn’t mean the race one. You’re walking that line. You’re going up to the edge of an abyss, and you’re trying to keep from tottering over.

I thought, especially in America, there’d be more people walking out or getting offended. That they wouldn’t they wouldn’t give the character enough time, but they haven’t walked out, which is good. Audiences are maybe relieved that this sort of comedy is coming out now, because maybe we’ve been too tense and too politically correct for too long.

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I was going to ask if Gleeson’s character is a reflection of your mood when you wrote The Guard – a sense of frustration…

Yeah – bitterness, contempt. No one deserves to get a film made, but when you’ve seen other, really bad films being made in Britain, it really starts to annoy you. The same sort of film, one after another, and they’re not very good. You think, how did they get funded? Where did they get the money from, for these types of movies?

So yeah, that’s where it all came from. And it’s funny, in a film where you’d think that a character’s so outrageous, and so obnoxious sometimes, that was the one that people connected with. Whereas, in all these screenwriting workshops, would that character ever be created?

Characters are supposed to have arcs, aren’t they? They’re supposed to learn things.

Now, that’s the thing! One of the biggest laughs we get is the line about not having such fun since that fire at Waco. The reason it’s such a big laugh is that we realise that Gerry’s just the same at the end – he hasn’t learned anything. He’s going to say the same shit at the end as he did at the beginning.

There is no learning curve. And also, the buddy element – are they friends at the end? Not necessarily. I always like the end of Down By Law – Tom Waits, John Lurie. They have a thing at the end, where they go to shake hands, but Tom Waits does the wiggle, you know? [Thumbs nose]

And you realise, no, they really don’t like each other. Just because you’ve been through the wars with someone, it doesn’t mean you like them. You respect them. That’s what we were getting at in the film.

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Was it difficult to get such a quirky film funded?

It wasn’t. The way it plays out, it has the laugh-out-loud moments, the thriller elements, and the melancholy feel to it. But on the page, people read it, and just saw it as a big, funny comedy. They didn’t see the other elements that could be brought into play.

So we got a really big response. People were interested before we even got Brendan and Don attached, but when they were, it just got bumped up a level. But we got two or three really serious offers, so we had plenty of choice when raising the money.

Coming off Ned Kelly, which was a bad experience, I set up a company called Reprisal Films with Chris Clarke, where we developed The Guard. We say developed, but it happened so quickly. We basically shot a first draft, and got Brendan and Don attached. Once we had them, we were in a bit of a position of power.

Don brought his company on, Crescendo, and we went on from there, got Element Films involved, and they accessed forty percent of the budget from the Irish film board, which was a big whack of the money. So we were in a really strong position at that point. After years of struggling, it all fell into place. It’s very strange how it happened.

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The decision to direct it, was that born out of your frustration with what happened to your Ned Kelly script?

Yeah. I was so disappointed. You know, you have this idea, when going into a film, that the directors must know more than I do, that they must have common sense. But then you realise that they don’t know more than you do, and they don’t have common sense.

Then, the next step is, if they don’t, why don’t I just make it myself? Obviously, I wasn’t going to write a $6 million film and expect to be allowed to direct it, but I thought, if I could write something that’s under $10 million, so when The Guard went out with me as a director, and the financiers didn’t want me, they’d know it just wasn’t going to happen.

I’d already done that on my previous script, which never got anywhere, though I’m hoping to reboot it. But it was sent out in that way, and to be fair to the people with the money, it was never an issue. I’d done a short film called The Second Death a few years ago, but I don’t think any of them even looked at it. They seemed to be happy enough that they could sell it as a comedy, and that it had Brendan and Don as the two stars. So fair play to them.

It got a little bit heavy in the edit, when everyone’s sending their notes in. But while we were shooting, no one ever gave me any trouble. It was quite a pleasant shoot.

What happened during the editing process? Did it change much from your original script?

The problem is, looking back now – and I can look back because I’m happy with the version of the film – as a writer director, I was too much in love with all the lines. Scenes go on too long because you’re trying to get five gags in, whereas three gags would be better for the pace. It’s a basic thing of starting a scene later, and ending it quicker.

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I’d have stuff that I thought was funny, like a Lawrence Of Arabia reference I liked, a shot that went on and on. I thought it was amazing, but no one else thought it was amazing or funny. I said, “But it’s Lawrence Of Arabia!” and they’d just go, “Huh.”

No one would get the reference. Let’s say, if you made a straight-ahead, arthouse movie, you can do those kinds of things. Those long takes, that kind of thing. But when your main idea is to make a laugh-out-loud black comedy, you shouldn’t be throwing in scenes that are one shot for five minutes. It was learning that kind of stuff. Tightening the film up. We didn’t cut very many scenes – maybe one or two from the entire film. That was the main thing, just finding trims that would make the scenes quicker or funnier.

God knows what’ll happen on another film, but hopefully I’ve learned my lesson on this one.

So one final question. What can you tell me about your next film, which I understand also stars Brendan Gleeson?

Yeah, it’s called Calvary. It’s about a priest who’s tormented by his community. It’ll have the same black humour, but it’ll be more of a straight ahead narrative. A straight ahead drama. Hopefully we’ll be shooting that in late summer next year. I’ve also got a cop film set in Alabama, which I’d say is like The French Connection crossed with Hellzapoppin’. It’s a very dark comedy with very surreal things in it, about two corrupt cops in Alabama.

Plus I’ve got things coming in from America, so I don’t know what’s going to happen there. Some of the things I get sent aren’t very good, but some are quite interesting. I guess it relies on how successful The Guard is, but the stuff that’s come in’s quite interesting, so we’ll see!

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John Michael McDonagh, thank you very much.

The Guard is out in the UK on 19th August. Our review is here.