Three Billboards Director Martin McDonagh on Finding Hope in Hopelessness

The writer and director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri tells how his brilliant new film was conceived.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the brilliant new black comedy/drama from playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh, who also wrote and directed the excellent In Bruges (2008) and its wickedly funny follow-up Seven Psychopaths (2012). Three Billboards… stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a divorced mother who is driven by grief and rage over the rape and murder of her daughter to take out ads on three abandoned billboards just outside town, asking the chief of police, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why there is no progress in catching the girl’s killer. Willoughby is frustrated yet still sympathetic to Mildred, even as he faces his own personal crisis, while his deputy, the racist Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes more brutish actions against Mildred and her billboards.

McDonagh weaves small town politics, unexpected occurrences, dark humor and three outstanding performances into a story that feels like it’s squarely about America in 2017, and how hate and anger just lead to more and more of the same. For fans of McDonagh’s previous films, this may be his most satisfying and fully engrossing effort yet, and it’s easily a contender for best film of the year (with McDormand and Rockwell almost certainly locks for awards consideration as well).

Den of Geek was delighted to sit down recently with McDonagh in Los Angeles to discuss this superb film, its timely arrival and the unforgettable characters at the center of it.

Den of Geek: So what came first, the billboards or Mildred?

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Martin McDonagh: The billboards, because I saw something similar to what we see on our billboards about 17 years ago on a bus journey through America. And it was similarly calling out the cops, and you could see the place of hate and rage that had caused these billboards to be put up there. But it stuck in my mind, and I didn’t do anything about for 10 years or more. But then, when I decided that the person who put those up was a mother, Mildred’s character popped out fully formed, almost. Because I knew she would be just different, you know? You have to have some kind of bravery to put those things up, along with rage and pain. I didn’t plot the thing beforehand, but just coming up with that idea and that character propelled the entire story.

What usually gets a screenplay or a play going, is it a character or an incident?

It’s usually character, I think, actually. Yeah, it’s more character based. In Bruges, that was the town and the two characters almost simultaneously. I was in Bruges and wandering around and half thinking this is boring and half thinking is beautiful. And those ideas became two characters, and then it became a question of why would two people be in this town having that argument? Then the plot fell into place. And then Seven Psychopaths was kind of character based too. What does a writer do if he doesn’t want to do violent films anymore, but still wants to make films at the same time? So yeah, it’s always that way. I never plot things out or structure them beforehand. (Three Billboards) in particular was completely organic. It was literally, how do people react to what she’s doing, and how does she react to that. I mean, that’s the whole story, you know. And that’s why I think it’s quite surprising in places, because there isn’t any typical plot structure to it.

Writers will sometimes say that the characters take on their own life and do things that they don’t expect. Does that happen for you? It certainly feels like that would be the case with this movie especially.

Completely. When it’s going good, writing wise, it’s all that. You’re trying to keep up, and you kind of can’t believe what they’re doing next and what they’re getting into. Hopefully at the start, you make sure the characters are quite different from each other. So Sam’s character in this is quite the opposite of Mildred in a way. And then Woody’s character is almost more of the hero of the piece than the villain he’s pointed out to be by Mildred. But yeah, the best times of writing are when they’re just running away from you, interacting.

Once you set up three desperate characters, the situations they can get into are kind of infinite, especially because you haven’t decided that a character is going to be all virtuous or all evil. You’re trying to see the human being behind all those details. Anything can kind of happen; they can be humane in one scene, they can be completely out of order and wrongheaded in the next. The really interesting thing about Mildred is she’s set up as this tough, strong woman, but you can’t quite agree with everything she does in the film. Similarly, the person who would usually be the typical bad guy, the racist, brutish cop, you have to be able to see the humanity behind that too. And those things will take a film into a completely different place.

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I think the happiest thing about this film was I thought it was going to be all about rage and pain and loss. It does start off in that place, and is hopefully true to those aspects of the story and that person. But it actually becomes about something a bit more hopeful and human and that’s as much about change as it is about anger.

This film is sort of about finding hope out of hopelessness. Does it feel relevant to 2017 and the larger world around us?

Completely, completely. It does feel much more zeitgeist-y than I’d have ever imagined. Even when we were making it, like a year and a half ago, the election could have gone either way at that point. We were filming it just before the election was happening. So you never are quite sure what the world’s going to be like when you put a film like this out. But I’m kind of really happy that it touches on some of the things that the country’s feeling, you know, rage and anger and polarization of people and all of that. But the film doesn’t stay in that place, because there is humanity and hope in it. I think it’s really cool to be putting something like this out in America and in the world right now.

Could this be a small town anywhere? If it was set in a small town in Ireland, are the social politics the same there?

I think a lot of it is specific to small towns, but there’s something very American about this story. I think the size of it, the sort of cinema of it. The size of the characters too. I don’t think you could believe a Mildred figure in Europe or in Britain. I don’t think you could believe it as much as you can over here. And also, I think the police racial tension thing, there are other tensions in Europe and in the UK. But in the UK, cops don’t have guns, so it’s less pointed, shall we say, because people aren’t getting killed because of those problems. So, I think yeah, just the size of this, and just the cinematic sweep of that landscape, I couldn’t have seen it in Europe, in England or Ireland.

You saw Francis as Mildred fairly early on.

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It was written for her, completely.

What qualities does she have that made you think that?

She’s a brilliant actress. She’s got a complete integrity, both on screen and off screen. I like that she doesn’t do all the awards stuff. I like that she cares more about the acting than the publicity side, or the fame side. Because that shows itself on screen, I think. You know, she inhabits characters rather than displays them for awards purposes. But she’s got enough of a dexterity with comedy that she doesn’t have to overplay the comedy. Like every scene was about the truth rather than a wink to the audience this is a funny scene, you know. Also, we both come from kind of a working class background. So Mildred comes from that too, and we didn’t, for a second, want to sentimentalize that or patronize it, but to show her and that background with honor. So that was part of it too.

You’ve worked with Woody and Sam before in Seven Psychopaths. Did you see them as Willoughby and Dixon off the bat?

Yeah, very much so. Sam particularly; his voice was in my mind for both this and Seven Psychos. Not that it’s his voice or his character, but knowing that he has gone to those dark places on film before meant that I knew that 100 percent he would get the brutishness of the character. But also, there’s something so tender and lovable about Sam that I knew that he would be truthfully…we’d be able to believe the change in him because of his, again, humanity I guess.

I read that you prefer filmmaking to playwriting.

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I go back and forth. Now, the writing of both are kind of equal. But in fact, up until this point I found the filmmaking process quite hard, because it’s so long and involved, and everything’s on you. When I write a play, I don’t usually direct them. I’ve never directed one. So you kind of do your job, and you’re in the rehearsal room, you have all the control you need, but you don’t have all the pressure of directing as well. Whereas it’s all on you as the director of a film.

But especially with this one, it was the happiest experience of making the three. And that’s partly because the non-interference from the financiers was perfect. Dreamlike. Dreamy (laughs). But also, I’ve started to building up a repertory company of actors now, so every day it’s an old friend instead of a brand new actor coming on. So the making of this was pretty joyous. But I’ll have a new play on in New York in the new year, and that will be just as much fun I think. So I’m kind of even about the two now. But I do love movies more than I love plays.

Do you know what the next movie might be yet?

No. I kind of want to get Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson back together at some point, in Ireland. So I’ve got a script that’s kind of ready, but not as good as it could be. But I want to do something maybe with two strong, younger female leads too, because the experience of this was so exciting, with a strong woman in the lead. So that’s another thing I kind of want to write. But I want to have a choice of three films to go before I decide what to do next.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is in theaters Friday (November 10).

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