While Martin McDonagh has taken the theater world by storm since the mid ’90s, from the London premiere of The Beauty Queen of Lenane to 2006’s Tony-nominated The Lieutenant of Inishmore (which featured more blood on stage than you thought was possible), McDonagh entered the film world sideways. He won an Oscar in 2006 for his surreal short film Six Shooter. His first feature film, In Bruges, also gets its message across sideways, starting out as a fast-talking action buddy flick before taking on a much deeper meaning. While McDonagh has been compared to Conor MacPherson in theater circles due to their common Irish roots—a likening McDonagh was quick to dismiss—in the film world he’s drawing comparisons to a much better known name: Quentin Tarantino. I recently sat down with McDonagh to discuss In Bruges.
Ethan Stanislawski: How’s it been going?
Martin McDonagh: Good good, it’s been a whirlwind tour.… It’s nothing I’ve been used to with theater.… They don’t give a fuck about this sort of thing.
ES: You wrote all your plays in this one stretch in 1994. What was it like to pick up the creative process again?
MM: Well kinda, the first drafts of them. Things like The Pillowman I went back to five years later. I fleshed it out with what I’d learned since. So it wasn’t like a year of writing and then nothing.… Every year since 1996, I’ve written at least one new film or play.
ES: That’s interesting because you’re most famous for that one outburst.
MM: That was true. There was 10 months and 7 plays, but since then I’ve done other stuff.
ES: What motivated you to go into film after being in theater for so long?
MM: I grew up loving film rather than theater and always wanted to be like Terrence Malick, to just do at least one thing and then walk away.… I want to see if I could do it well.
ES: You won an Oscar.
MM: Yeah, but I didn’t enjoy that process as much with the short film—I much preferred making a feature. I thought it’d be a lot scarier, but I felt much more in control of it.
ES: In Bruges is being marketed as sort of a Tarantino-esque, talky shoot-’em-up kind of film, but there’s a lot more going on in the film than that.
MM: Yeah, I approved it. I thought it was more of a comedy than anything else. And I kind of like the fact that people come to see a cool kind of comedy film and be taken to a different place. That’s kind of the setup of the plot. Here are two hitmen, it’s funny, but then it goes to a weirder, sadder place. I hope the marketing will help that. I’d be a bit surprised if it didn’t.
ES: The film opened Sundance. What was your reaction to the festival?
MM: It was fun. It was scary to be the focus of so much attention, but it played really well. The festival itself…aspects of it, I would sort of take issue with. It didn’t seem quite as democratic, a bit too Hollywood. I had fun, but that was mostly the snowboarding.
ES: In regard to the serious aspects of the movie, a lot of your plays, like The Lieutenant of Inishmore, seem to treat death much more lightly than In Bruges. Was this a change in you or something else?
MM: It’s just a whole different story. In The Lieutenant of Inishmore there isn’t the same kind of deaths to characters that there is to this. It’s a very angry play. I kind of wanted it to explode on stage. But then there were other plays that touched more on sadness and despair. Some stories you want a more human element, and sometimes you want to explode in rage. It’s like writing a song. You can do a punk song, something from the guts. Or you could write a sweet ballad. I think it’s interesting to make the attempt to write both.
ES: As a playwright, you’re in your own world. What was it like to work with actors as a director?
MM: With all my plays, I was in the rehearsal room every single time. I’d always be there the whole five weeks. I didn’t realize that I had those kind of tools. I like actors, I understand their process, and I’m able to talk to them. But I’m still very much a writer more than a director. To me, it’s the thing I’m most proud of.
ES: Where did the idea for In Bruges come from?
MM: I took a weekend trip to Bruges about four years ago. I walked around this beautiful place and was struck by just how picturesque and weird and medieval it was. And then I just got a little bored with it and wanted to get the hell out of it. So I just had those voices kind of talking to each other, one who loves it and one who hates it. So I just thought, “Why would there be two guys there who didn’t want to be there?” And naturally hitmen came to mind, and the rest just wrote itself.
ES: If you were looking at yourself in 1994, before any of this started, could you see yourself being in this position right now?
MM: No, never in a million years. When I was writing back then, I tried to write stuff that wasn’t out there, to shake up things, but I didn’t think I’d have anything accepted. Coming from England, the plays on stage were kinda dull and middle class, and just shit. But you’re sending plays to these theaters who’ve been doing this crap for some time, so I never thought I’d get the foot in the door.… But I left school pretty young, I didn’t go to college, and I had been writing for eight years. So even though it seemed like an overnight success in lots of ways, I put in a lot of work. The thing you’ve got to do if you’re a writer is not listen to school-taught stuff; you’ve got to shut up, stay at home, and write.
In Bruges opens in Chicago today.