‘Banshees of Inisherin’ Director Martin McDonagh Describes His Ideal Formula: ‘A Touch of Despair and a Couple of Laughs’

TheWrap magazine: “It’s always interesting for a film to go from sadness back to comedy,” says the writer-director of his ode to friendship, niceness and severed fingers

Searchlight Pictures

A version of this story about Martin McDonagh and “The Banshees of Inisherin” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.  

Seventeen years after winning an Oscar with “Six Shooter,” an uproarious and touching short film starring Brendan Gleeson, and 14 years after making his feature directing debut with “In Bruges,” British-Irish playwright turned moviemaker Martin McDonagh now has his most successful movie for awards. “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a black comedy that reunites the “In Bruges” team of Gleeson and Colin Farrell, won four awards from BAFTA at the British Academy Film Awards, as well as taking the musical or comedy Golden Globe over Academy Award frontrunner “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It also received nine Oscar nominations, two more than McDonagh’s previous high of seven for 2017’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”  

In “Banshees,” Farrell plays Pádraic Súilleabháin, a sweet-natured if slightly dull islander whose daily pub runs with his longtime friend Colm Doherty (Gleeson) are cut short when Colm announces that Pádraic is dull and he doesn’t want to be friends anymore. As anybody whose seen much of McDonagh’s work would expect, things escalate from there to a very dark place.  

Playwright-turned-filmmaker McDonagh spoke to TheWrap about ditching an earlier version of the film, embracing melancholy and steering his career away from the stage from now on.

Martin McDonagh
Photo by Greg Williams, Courtesy of Searchlight

Years ago, you wrote two plays, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” that were supposed to be the first two parts of a trilogy set on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. And then you wrote a third play called “The Banshees of Inisheer,” which was the name of the third Aran Island, but the play was never produced. Is there a connection between that unproduced play and this movie?
No. Apart from the title, nothing else survives from that play. I disliked it so much that it wasn’t even finished at the time. But I wanted to keep a variation on that title and to sort of finish off the Aran Islands trilogy. I like the idea of three plays on three islands.


But you changed the name of the island from Inisheer, its true name, to Inisherin.
Yeah, exactly. Once we started location scouting, I knew that it wasn’t going to be filmed on Inisheer. And once we made that change, I found two very different islands (Inishmore and Achill Island) that didn’t look like Inisheer at all. And for my own peace of mind, I couldn’t call it Inisheer anymore. That gave us a little more freedom as to where exactly it was on the west coast (of Ireland) in terms of the logistics of the Civil War as a backdrop, and even accents and those kind of things.  

So what was it about the title that made you want to hang onto it?
I guess there’s something slightly mysterious or ghostly about it. But also, I like the sh sound in banshees and the sh in Inisherin. (Laughs.) Sometimes it can be something as simple as that that you hang onto.

This was always designed for Colin and Brendan, wasn’t it?
Yeah. The original iteration of the script was about seven years ago. I sent that version to both boys and I remember Colin kind of liked it but Brendan had issues with it. And then I had issues with it, too. So I completely threw that away and didn’t think about it, until about three years when I reread it and thought the first five minutes were quite good. It’s basically the same five minutes as in our film now – which is basically one guy saying he doesn’t want to be friends to the other guy anymore. I got rid of all of the plot that the previous version had and just completely focused on the melancholy of the breakup bits, and I thought that was much more interesting. And then the whole art-versus-niceness debate came up, and I ran with it.  

Did Colin and Brendan they respond to the new version right away?

I sent it on a Friday, maybe, and I think by Monday they were basically in. I think even halfway through I was emailing them saying, “Boys, this is gonna be the one.”  

Would there have been a world in which this was made with different actors?
No. If they’d said no, or if they’d cost too much, then I definitely wouldn’t have done it. Part of the writing of it was the knowledge of getting back together with these two guys after having such a great time on In Bruges. So I would’ve definitely have waited until they were ready.  

The movie turns from the story of a breakup between friends to something darker and stranger when Colm says, “If you don’t stop talking to me, I’m going to cut off my fingers.”  How did you hit upon that in the writing?
That popped up in that exact same scene where it pops up in the film. I was writing the scene, and I didn’t know he was gonna do that until he made that threat. Which was as much of a surprise to me (laughs) as it might have been to you. But I liked the idea for a couple of reasons. I don’t think his character is someone who would threaten another person with chopping off their fingers. I think there’s something in his artistic bent or in his despair that is always gonna be self-destructive. As a character, that is very interesting to me.  The hope is that the threat is gonna work and he won’t have to talk to the guy again. And things could have still been OK after the first finger. Like, he plays quite nicely with four. But that bloody Pádraic just doesn’t listen, you know?

As soon as it came up, I thought, that’s an intriguing dramatic move that I haven’t necessarily seen before. It’s not a threat to the other person, it’s a threat to himself, which should surely make that person see sense. But not with Colin’s character. (Laughs.) Which is kind of funny too. I mean, at the same time I was thinking, Oh, that’s gonna be dramatic, I also thought, Ooh, it’s got room for humor, too.  

Speaking of humor, when “Banshees” won the Golden Globe in the Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy category, there was suddenly a flurry of people saying, “But it’s not a comedy — a guy cuts off his fingers!”
That’s funny. Yeah, it’s always an interesting one. I wouldn’t necessarily say “Three Billboards” was a comedy, either, but I guess that’s the Globes’ way. I honestly think people will decipher what they think it is. But you’ve got more of a chance to win (laughing) if it’s split between drama and comedy.  

I remember seeing “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” onstage in Los Angeles. All kinds of awful things happen in that one, but you can’t help laughing. And being part of an audience that is laughing at something it knows that it shouldn’t laugh at is a great experience.
It’s the best kind of laughter, I find. It’s always interesting for a film to go from sadness back to comedy. And even though things get quite dark from the halfway point on in this, there are still quite a few laughs all the way through. I’m not really a filmmaker who wants to dwell too much in negativity or bleakness, but I do like to explore the sadness of a story like this or the melancholy or the despair of life. I like the idea of having a little touch of despair and a couple of laughs at the same time.  

Even though some seriously deranged stuff happens in the second half, this movie feels lyrical and melancholy in a way that your other films probably have not.
I think that the tone of the story lent itself to that much more. The things I have liked best in, for instance, “In Bruges” or even “Three Billboards,” were those small moments of sadness. And I think the idea of extending that sadness and melancholy was something I really wanted to explore. And I like that so much that I think that’s what I would hope to do in the next one or two.  

Are you doing what the Colm character does in the movie, thinking about what you want to do with your art in your remaining days?
Well, it was all written around the COVID time, and I guess those are questions that we all start thinking about a little bit. If we get through this, are we going to change how we spend our time? That’s a question that I always ponder for myself: I only make a film every four or five years — am I wasting time by not doing this every day? I remember thinking during COVID, “If you have the chance to do this again, are you gonna be quite as lazy in the future?” (Laughs) And now I realize the answer is yes.

The only difference is that I always thought I would alternate between plays and films. These days, I’m much more interested in the lasting imprint of a movie. You know, I did a play with Kerry Condon 21 years ago, and she was amazing in it, but no one can see that anymore. But anyone can see her brilliant work in (“Banshees”) for however long the movies last. There’s a sadness about people not being able to see how brilliant she was on stage, and that is slowly changing my mind to maybe concentrating on films almost exclusively.

I’ll never say “never again” with the plays, but I do feel like if time is running out, something that lasts is the thing to concentrate on.

Read more from the Down to the Wire issue here.

Austin Butler photographed by Corina Marie
Photo by Corina Marie for TheWrap