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‘Seven Psychopaths’ Director Martin McDonagh: How to Make a Bloody Buddhist Movie

Writer-director Martin McDonagh says "Seven Psychopaths" is a violent movie that questions violence — and an example of how to get away with writing awful female characters


It's called "Seven Psychopaths. " It stars Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson. It was written and directed by Martin McDonagh, an Irish author who made his mark with blood-splattered and award-winning stage productions like "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and "A Behanding in Spokane" and whose feature-film debut was the twisted and very funny "In Bruges" from 2008.

And that's probably all you need to know about "Seven Psychopaths," which made an uproarious midnight debut last month in Toronto and should fully satisfy fans of mayhem, blood and black humor.

Kevin Winter/Getty ImagesThe story of a down-on-his-luck screenwriter (Farrell) trying to write a script while being sucked into a dog-kidnapping business run by pals played by Rockwell and Walken, the film is raucous and twisted and self-referential.

It's a violent film that questions its violence as it tells the story of a screenwriter (also Irish and also named Martin) questioning the violence in the violent film (also called "Seven Psychopaths") that he's writing.

Also read: 'Seven Psychopaths' Review: It's a Throat-Slitting, Bloody, Lunatic Hoot

Yes, it gets complicated, but it's also a hell of a lot of fun – and a worthy successor to the Oscar-nominated "In Bruges" (Best Original Screenplay, 2008) and the Oscar-winning short "Six Shooter," which McDonagh wrote and directed in 2005.

And while "In Bruges" was not a box-office hit, "Seven Psychopaths" is already such a buzz-worthy property that it has prompted a parody trailer featuring cats.

Also read: 'Seven Psychopaths' Gets the A-cat-emy Award Treatment (Video)

TheWrap spoke to McDonagh at the Toronto Film Festival in September.

We've never met, but we have spoken: I was standing in the wings of the stage when you won your Oscar for "Six Shooter," and when you walked offstage I congratulated you.
Oh Jesus, great. That was a wild ride. It was two or three days of terror, but you saw me at the moment when I was just relieved, and I thought, I can relax. It would have been relaxing if I'd lost, too. But I won. 

Woody Harrelson and Christopher WalkenWere movies always an ambition of yours?
Yeah. I always loved movies as a kid. I was never really a theater person at all. I just kind of fell into that by accident. I never thought I would get to make movies, but all of my influences are cinematic.

Was "Six Shooter" your way of getting into film?
Not a deliberate way. But I'd written a short film, and with a short you should always try to do it yourself. I didn't make it as a calling card, I made it more to see if I was happy doing it, or could do it. And it was quite a tough experience, because I hadn't been to film school or studied anything. It was really getting in at the deep end, but it let me know what I was in for.

In this movie, the Colin Farrell character is writing a movie called "Seven Psychopaths," but all he has is the title. It strikes me that it's the kind of title you could start with.
It was, I think. When I started I had the title, and a couple of the short stories that are then told in the movie, like the Quaker-psychopath story.

It was basically a character who wants to write a script called "Seven Psychopaths" but only has one psychopath, and he still wants it to be Buddhist and life-affirming and peaceful. That whole conversation that Colin has with Sam Rockwell at the beginning of the movie was me talking to myself: How do you do a film about seven psychopaths and still have it be about peace and some kind of decency? That was the through-line that we set out to achieve.

Seven Psychopaths posterIn your stage work and in your films, violence is often central.
Umm, yeah. Especially onstage, it's dramatic. And when I started writing plays, that wasn't really happening too much in theater. All the plays that were around at the time were staid and dull and nothing really happened. So I kinda wanted to bring more of a cinematic aspect to theater, and I guess that's kind of stayed over since then.

But this film uses those things but then questions the use of them at the same time, like I do.

Do you think onscreen violence has gone too far?
I don't fret over it. I fret more over real-world violence. It's more the crassness, maybe: Every film poster you see has a guy with a gun these days. It's normal to see that, but it's not part of my life, and I don't really want it to be. And so it's just a gentle questioning of those ideas that started this story as well. And as a film, I think it's anti-violence, anti-gun, pro-creativity.

You're writing a movie about a guy who's writing a movie that's sort of like the movie we're seeing. And during some of the conversations Farrell has with Rockwell, the audience could be forgiven for thinking, "Are they describing the movie this character is writing, are they talking about the movie we're watching"?
Yeah. It's fun. You hope that it doesn't get too self-referential or too smug. That was always the worry. But it's fun when you can pause the film at certain moments and then, because the female characters are awful, you can have somebody say, "The female characters are awful in this film, why don't you do something better?" [Laughs] That almost gets you out of jail for having written them in the first place.

In the movie, Colin Farrell tries to come up with characters and then figures out how to tell their stories. Is that how you work?
No. Almost the opposite, I think. I just have a blank page and set people talking to each other. I give everyone some kind of idiosyncracy, and their own truth, and then let them go, really. It's the same way I've started plays, and other films too.

But the canvas is always bigger for a film. And this is the biggest canvas I've written in any form. The scope of it was grander, and the idea of having flashbacks. I was trying to juggle a lot of balls, and I wanted it to be as big and epic as I could.

Seven PsychopathsYou don't set a final shootout in the Mojave Desert unless you're looking for something big and mythic.
Just going to the desert makes it epic, because that landscape feels kind of western-like. The whole end sequence is a bit western-like – or spaghetti western-like, at least.

You've said that you wrote this years ago but felt that it was beyond your capabilities as a director at the time. Were there times when you still felt over your head?
Before shooting, maybe. It still felt a bit out of my reach, but I had to give it a go. I couldn't give it over to somebody else. So I did a lot of prep work, and storyboarded every single scene, in great detail for the flashback scenes.

And on the set it was just about getting the details right with the actors, and making sure I was taking care of them and giving them whatever help they needed. Of course, with these actors it was more like trying to corral big kids. That's what the whole process was like.

Are you going to make another movie now, or will you return to the theater?
I've got one film script that's ready to go, but I don't know when I'll do anything about that. I like to take a nice break between projects. I'm very lazy.

But in that time I think I will write another something. I'm not sure if it will be a play or a film yet, but I'll keep going back to plays, too. It's enjoyable. Although I had so much fun on this last one that the pull is a little bit more towards films.