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John Michael McDonagh Talks Calvary
The director on his follow-up to The Guard

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The Guard saw Brendan Gleeson star as a hard-drinking, drug-taking, whore-frequenting policeman who takes up arms against a drug smuggling cartel. Director John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up, Calvary, is a very different affair. Gleeson still stars, but this time as a good priest who’s told in confession that one of his parishoners will kill him in a week’s time. We talked to the director recently to go into the film in more depth – and while we’ve avoided specific spoilers, there are a few more general questions addressed, and we have put in a spoiler warning before the last two questions for the really sensitive.

John Michael McDonagh Talks Calvary

So you’ve talked about the genesis of this film coming up when you were finishing up on The Guard. How quickly did you bring the story and then the script together?
Well I’m not one of those writers who then goes and sits down and battles with writer’s block every day. I’ll brood on an idea for two or three months or whatever, and I won’t start until I know what the first twenty pages is and the last twenty pages. Y’know, it’s boring sitting on your own in a room for three or four hours struggling, so I usually have a fair idea of what I’m going to do up to a point, so once I do sit down, I do it very quickly, so it was nineteen days altogether. That nineteen days, it was basically write one day, re-read the next, write again. That’s my process.

I knew I was going to kind of rip off the Hitchcock “I confess” structure, him being threatened and the confession, so I had that as the starting point. I knew it was going to have this Agatha Christie-like “Who’s going to do it?” aspect. Then the framework I found was… people have asked if it’s the Seven Deadly Sins, but it’s actually structured around the five stages of grief, so it’s denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance and hope. Those are the five movements. Once I had that structure, I was more or less ready to go.

Then, you’re just filling in the blanks. You’re going, “Okay, I want a really dark scene at the middle of the film that will turn the film into a much bleaker area, so that would be the scene with Domhnall Gleeson’s character. Then as you’re getting towards the final act, you have to raise the stakes with the priest. So I had quite a lot and that enables me to write that fast. Then because the editing went on so long on The Guard, by the time we’d finished the editing, I actually had the script for the next one.

Let’s talk a bit about the who-will-do-it aspect. Without giving spoilers away, in that opening scene you have the killer threaten the police in confession, and it’s not clear whose voice it is – to the audience, at least. Did you dub several characters’ voices, or mix them to keep people guessing?
The priest’s robe is like a Samurai warrior putting their armour on every day to go out to battle the forces of darkness.
It’s a good question because this is what I had to grapple with. People’s voices are quite distinctive and obviously a priest in a small town in a confessional, he’ll know! There’s been a couple of reviews when they’ve said that the priest isn’t sure; he is sure! He does know. He says to the Bishop, “I know who it is”. If you’re a priest in a small town, you know who that person is, the voice is distinctive. But I can’t actually use the voice, can I, because then the audience will know.

So we got all the actors to read the opening threat and we did stuff using the actual killer’s voice, but it is too distinctive. We tried to muffle it; it’s still distinctive. I had this conceit which was every person it could possibly be, to layer their voices, and we had that at the first screening, when the film still needs another ten minutes cut and stuff like that. I played it and I asked my brother [fellow filmmaker Martin McDonagh] and he said, “Yeah, I think the people in the audience, they knew what you were intending, to line up all the suspects, but it takes you right out of the movie right at the start. It becomes like an intellectual exercise”, so I was like, “Yeah, I think it does”.

So what we did in the end is we used not the killer’s voice; it’s the voice of someone whose voice was close to a lot of the suspects, so the audience isn’t quite sure. And what I noticed, once we’d made that decision, is that the audience lose track of what they heard right at the start of the movie, so somebody will swear blind that it’s this person’s voice. There was a review in the States, a guy who writes on HitFix, who gave it a really good review but he said, “I think they had a misstep by using the killer’s voice, because is so distinctive it could only be him”, but it’s not his voice!

So people are going to retroactively go, “Oh, of course it was his voice all the time”, so that was the thing I was most worried about, but I think we got away with it. I think ‘cos it’s right at the start, people forget- but then the problem is when you’re issuing the trailer, people can keep replaying the voice before they see the film, if they choose to, although I don’t think most people would do that.

I was trying to find out if it had ever been done before, that kind of trickery with sound or whatever, and the only one I came across was David Fincher in Zodiac, which is a great film. Everything is pointing to John Carroll Lynch, this sinister worker, and that’s what the film is telling you basically at the end, but the voice we hear on the phone at the beginning, that’s not John Carroll Lynch’s voice, so I thought, “Well, if David Fincher did it, I could”.

What about casting all these guys who are mostly known for comedy in quite dark roles? Were these the guys who you’d met and wanted to work with, or was it actually actively trying to cast against their type?
It was a bit of both. I mean, on a pragmatic level, those comic actors are fun to be around, they don’t have the wanting to play Hamlet thing, and they’re not gloomy people. And it’s wrong-footing an audience, where they think they’re going to get one thing and they get something completely opposite by the end of the film.

Somebody like Pat Shortt I obviously worked with in The Guard, and I knew he was great, and Gary [Lydon] is a very strong, dramatic character, and a lot of those comic actors are looking for meaty parts and they’re not given them enough. They’re underrated, as if doing comedy is somehow not as sort of strenuous, or it’s not acting in a way, whereas doing drama is really important, or it involves more technique. It doesn’t, it’s exactly the same. So they’re always looking for those sorts of parts.

Chris O’Dowd, I saw him presenting at the BIFAs, where he was drinking and presenting and he got more and more acerbic and confrontational as it went along and my wife suggested him for the role. He came back within a day, so it was a really fast response. Dylan Moran was suggested to me by Jina Jay, the casting director, and I thought, “God, I haven’t seen him in anything in ages”. Y’know, Shaun of the Dead was the last film I remembered him in, and obviously he’s memorable now and always has been for his worldwide comedy tours, but I thought it’s great to bring an actor back, and he has a really interesting character to play. I think I will always write scripts to have comedy in them, so I’m always probably going to use those types of actors all the time.

How about M. Emmett Walsh?
M. Emmett Walsh was like, “God, it’d be great if we got M. Emmett Walsh, y’know, a great character actor”, and you send him a script and he rings you up and goes, “Yeah, I’ll do it”, y’know! It seems very abstract and impossible but all you have to do is send them a good script and they’re usually up for it. He was really good fun on set actually, M. Emmett; he is a character.

He must have great stories as well.
Yeah, what did he say to me? Oh, he said, “Oh, I just met your wife; you have very good taste”, and I said, “Oh, thank you”, and he goes, “I wish I could say the same for her”. And then I was talking about my brother and I goes, “Do you know my brother, M. Emmett? He did In Bruges”, and he goes, “Yeah, the only reason I’m doing this movie is so I can get to him”. And he hands out two dollar bills, which are seen as unlucky, that he signs to all the crew, so he is exactly as you would expect M. Emmett Walsh to be. Good fun.

John Michael McDonagh Talks Calvary

You had Brendan Gleeson in the bag, because he tipsily agreed to do the film when you first pitched it so you obviously held him to that, and wisely so. What about his look in the film? He wears the soutane throughout; he’s literally wearing his colours on his sleeve, and also that magnificent beard.
The beard is great. I think the beard makes him kind of look iconic. And the soutane, obviously priests don’t really wear them anymore, so you’re harking back to a different era, but it’s such a strong image. I’m always reminded of Sergio Leone Westerns, y’know, because there’ll always be a priest in there somewhere, so it was kind of that, as well. But it was the fact that the priest can’t hide; we can see him coming, which becomes important visually. And for Brendan, it’s one thing to intellectualize playing a priest, but when you actually put the soutane on, which is basically a man wearing a dress, it will have helped him with his performance. It must be like a Samurai warrior putting their armour on every day to go out to battle the forces of darkness, so that’s what it became, I guess.

Have you had reactions from priests?
No, we haven’t had anything yet. On The Guard, we showed it to the Garda and I think we had a screening later on at Scotland Yard. Policemen loved The Guard, ‘cos they all see themselves as being heroic, y’know. They see themselves as the policeman who rides, or walks, into the High Noon situation at the end. I don’t see this film as being particularly anti-religious; it’s more anti-authority I think. At the end of the day, the priest is the hero in the movie, so I’m not expecting a big backlash or anything.

It would be just interesting to hear if it chimes with their current experience of being a priest in the modern world.
Yeah, to know what their take on it was. I mean, at Berlin we won the Ecumenical Jury Prize, which apparently is for films promoting spiritual values. I think that you could be an atheist and have made a film that deals with spiritual values, y’know; it doesn’t have to be something that’s proselytizing a particular religion or anything. But I think they’re trying to encourage films that deal with those mature themes, which is a good thing I suppose. We don’t really see them anymore, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to make Calvary. You either have the big mainstream films, popcorn movies, or you have the the hip, ironic, art house movies, and I didn’t want to do that either.

It’s getting a lot of pre-release attention in Ireland.
It’s on the radar over there, yeah.But it’ll be interesting ‘cos I’m trying to get across that it’s not going to be The Guard 2! So, y’know, you’re in for a shock!

You weren’t tempted to go the Russell Crowe route and try and get the Pope to watch it or something?
I’m trying to get across that it’s not going to be The Guard 2! So, y’know, you’re in for a shock!
No, no, I’m not. That makes me a bit queasy, all of that kind of schtick, y’know. I mean, I quite enjoyed Philomena and they went and trooped over to meet the Pope, didn’t they? But I think there was some political element to it, wasn’t there? They were trying to get rights for victims, which is fair enough. But no, I’m not into that kind of a junket. I’m not sure what Russell Crowe would say to the Pope.

So what’s next? Is it War On Everyone?
Yeah. It’s happening quicker than I thought. Michael Peña and Garrett Hedlund are the leads, two corrupt cops in Texas, and the producers are quite confident. We’re looking for $8-10 million. I mean, looking back, The Guard was obviously a popular success at the time, but it’s Brendan Gleeson, it’s an over-the-hill cop in the middle of nowhere, and a lot of the humour is confrontational and quite dark, so it’s always a tough sell. I was quite surprised at how quickly Calvary’s came together. Once we had Brendan and Chris involved, y’know, we raised the money quite quickly. But $8- 10 million, it’s a bit of a tricky area. It’s not a big-budget film, but it’s also not a million-dollar, scrabbling around-type movie either. But we’re going to do a recce in Texas at the end of May, I think, and Michael Peña and Garrett Hedund are very keen to do it so if it all goes ahead, it’ll be October.

That’s pretty quick.
Yeah, it should be good. There’s a villain, so I still have to cast a British villain.

Well, throw a stone in London and you should hit a good one.
They’re all over the place! But I want to get somebody evil we haven’t seen for a while, or, y’know, Henry Fonda coming into Once upon A Time in the West and shooting the kid. Get somebody sort of iconic in that way, but we’ll see. You never know with casting. Sometimes you have happy accidents. That’s why, if I offer a role to an actor and they pass on it, I’m never that annoyed. I always think, “Well, if somebody else will come along that will enrich the film in another way…” and they usually do.

In terms of the Texas film, are you worried at all about True Detective having sort of done Texas and cops for a bit?
No, I mean Texas is just those landscapes. That’ll be the good thing about going on the recce; it’s just trying to find things that are a little bit more obscure, that you might not have seen before. Obviously, I like True Detective, but this will have a few more laughs than that!

And then are you hoping to do the third part of your trilogy with Brendan?
Yeah, yeah! I still have to write it but I’ve got quite a lot of ideas. People seem to respond to the idea of Brendan scuttling around south London in a wheelchair, getting into rows with people as he tries to solve a murder. What’s good now is the relationship with the Irish Film Board and the BFI, so once it’s written, hopefully, if it’s a good enough script and Brendan’s on board, we should be able to put that through, I hope.


We weren’t sure if we should publish the name you’re giving the trilogy, so we took it out of the mag in case it was a spoiler.
The Glorified Suicide trilogy, yeah. It’s funny, I was asked that today, because other people have printed it, and the guy said, “Don’t you think that gives it away, Glorified Suicide?” But glorified suicide doesn’t mean they actually died. They’d gone into a suicidal situation, like the Guard does at the end, but whether he died is up to you to decide...

That’s comforting, because I mentioned the trilogy name to someone and they got quite upset and said, “But he didn’t die at the end of The Guard”.
I know! When I do a Q&A for the film in Britain, and you bring that up, they’re like, “Oh right, okay, ambiguous…” If you bring it up in America, the audience goes, “No! He’s alive!”. I used to say, “I believe he’s dead” and they’d go, “No!” because they don’t want that darkness. They don’t mind darkness up to a point, but as long as you give them a way out at the end… So it’s funny, the different responses.

Interview by Helen O'Hara

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