John Michael McDonagh: a career in scenes

Image for John Michael McDonagh: a career in scenes

Three movies into his filmmaking career and John Michael McDonagh's work remains as brilliantly offbeat as ever. His latest, anarchic cop comedy War On Everyone, unleashes Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård's 'tecs on the criminal underworld of New Mexico. Its budget ($10 million) marks a step up in scale but the key ingredients of a McDonagh movie – blackly hilarious patter, left field characters and a defiance of most moviemaking norms – are happily all still in place. Empire asked the writer/director to walk through five of the key scenes from his filmography to date and reveal what lies beneath.

SPOILER WARNING: contains Calvary plot points

The foot chase

Movie: War On Everyone (2016)

Corrupt Albuquerque cops Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) are in pursuit of key suspect Birdwell (Caleb Landry Jones) in the hope of busting open a case.

“Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård's cops have just smashed into a strip club and now they're chasing Caleb Landry Jones down a Starsky & Hutch alleyway. Caleb really hit that guy on the corner full tilt – and he's not a stuntman. Our concept with Birdwell is that he is a really horrible, sinister character but he's actually physically brave. He's not a coward. Me and the costume designer looked at Mick Jagger's outfits from the '70s for him, but he's also got a bit of a Manson vibe. The running style is all Caleb, though. It was really early in the morning when we shot this and Caleb was really hungover, so we did about three takes of him running behind the pillars and then we found him by a garbage can puking.

That mariachi band was actually welcoming guests in that conference hall two days before we shot, so I thought I'd put them in the middle of the shootout. If you look closely later in the scene, you can see Michael Peña get hit in the hand by a splinter of wood.”

The stitch-up

Movie: War On Everyone (2016)

When Monroe and Bolaño plant drugs on informant Reggie (Malcolm Barrett) in the loo of a bar, it's the prelude to a dialogue scene that plays out practically in double time.

“People on cocaine speak more quickly and that influenced how we planned the scene. There's quite a lot of information in it, which maybe gets lost in the telling, but I was more interested in how funny it was for them to be speaking really, really fast. It was in my mind when I was writing but it became more apparent on set. Michael Peña speaks quite quickly anyway and when we were rehearsing it I just told everyone to speak really fast. There's a good ad lib in it – "We are the cops!" – which happened when an actual police siren started to sound during the scene.

Some people think Malcolm Barrett's hairstyle is based on Jules from Pulp Fiction, but he's actually more based on a shot of Huey Newton from the '60s. His character, Reggie, is a rat but he turns out to be one of the nicest people in the movie.”

The face-off

Movie: Calvary (2014)

A key scene in Calvary, especially in the context of later revelations, this prickly confrontation between Brendan Gleeson's priest and the local butcher (Chris O'Dowd) is laden with sinister subtext.

“Initially Chris O'Dowd's character isn't sure what Brendan Gleeson is there for. Is he going to reveal what was said to him in the confessional? His first line – "I hope we don't get locked in here, we'll have to make love to keep warm" – is a really dark one when you know he's [the prospective killer], because he's been abused by a priest. It's a real "fuck you" line. I figured out who the killer was going to be about two-thirds of the way through writing the script, then I went back and did a polish on each scene featuring the killer. Obviously you've got dead meat in the background and Brendan is going to be dead meat by the end. He has the blood on his jacket here, and at the end of the film he'll have blood on his shirt.

We were worried about casting Chris, because he was more famous than the other actors and we thought people would think he was the killer – we also thought Game Of Throne-rs might think it was Aidan Gillen – but, then, with some murder-mysteries there's the double bluff.”

The anecdote

Movie: Calvary (2014)

Father James' (Brendan Gleeson) path to boozy oblivion is interrupted by Aidan Gillen's atheist doctor in his local pub. The ensuing story, about a disastrous anesthesia and its young victim, is a piece of malevolent game playing with a very deliberate narrative endgame.

“I was building up to some really dark, bleak stuff at this point in the film and this is a really dark scene. When Aidan walks up to Brendan it reminds me a bit of Shane or something, a Western where the villain walks up to the hero who's minding his own business. Philip K. Dick, who's a writer I really like, was obsessed with this idea of being trapped in a spaceship you can't escape from, and I kinda reworked the whole story as something Gillen's character might tell. The thing is, people say it's an awful story but what is the philosophical response to it? The priest doesn't have one. It has to lead on to him drinking even more heavily and shooting up the bar. It's the catalyst. It was only when we were editing and then going into sound that I realised how heavy this scene is.

The script for Calvary was easier to write that the others, because it was just the priest meeting the different characters, and easier to shoot. It was designed as an arthouse movie, like a Bergman or Bresson, with quite simple angles. It was only three or four drafts. With The Guard and War On Everyone I was always trying to improve the jokes and set pieces.

The insult

Movie: The Guard (2011)

Nihilistic but honourable copper Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) interrupts a police briefing with a choice selection of racist epithets. But, as McDonagh explains, there's actually method in his apparent madness.

“Apart from Don Cheadle, Brendan's character is the only man in this room who isn't a racist. He knows all these other cops and he knows they're probably all racists, so he's almost saying the worst thing he can think of to try to wind them up. Gerry Boyle is a good man and he's working with people who aren't good men. The two characters trying to stop Gerry saying his confrontational comedy bullshit – the policeman Stanton and the other aggressive cop – turn out to be corrupt. I think Don's FBI man knows that Gerry Boyle is a deliberately confrontational character and is essentially not that way. This is more about a power dynamic than racism. Gerry knows that he wasn't at Langley and Don probably knows that.”

War On Everyone is in cinemas now