Last time playwright-turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh teamed up with Colin Farrell they produced the jet black crime comedy In Bruges with McDonagh’s tightly wound script providing a pair of hyper-articulate hit men with one of the worst Christmas vacations ever captured on film. Now, the director/star duo is back and right from the title its clear Seven Psychopaths will be a little different. The film is a wacko meta-movie comedy with Farrell playing an alcoholic Irish screenwriter named Martin (no comment) struggling to piece together a screenplay about seven, you guessed it, psychopaths only to have his two strange friends (a perfectly cast Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken) get into a mess with a local gangster (Woody Harrelson) and pull the whole gang into their own violent adventure.
While In Bruges was carefully plotted and layered with the melancholy McDonagh brought to many of his plays, Seven Psychopaths is a bright, wild, and bloody comedy of digressions that pulls apart the crime movie genre for self-conscious cinematic in jokes. The film premiered to waves of applause and an audience award at the Midnight Madness program in this year’s Toronto Film Festival and we got a chance to chat with the director and star during their visit to the city. The conversation proved to be almost as hilarious and cracked as the movie itself, diving into everything from shih tzu puns, to making Charlie Kaufman’s head explode, and Sam Rockwell’s less than thrilling Irish accent. It’s not a bad introduction to what could very well be the future cult classic of 2012.
Colin, when you came to town for Fright Night you called the script for Seven Psychopaths “fucking mental stuff, but good.”
Martin McDonagh: Oh that’s nice.
Colin Farrell: That’s good, right? Could have been the tagline. And also, “they don’t give a shih tzu.”
MM: I hate the shih tzu puns.
CF: I know that wasn’t your thing. That was someone else. There’s no need to go there. They do what they do as gracefully as they do it.
I guess I wanted to get you started on discussing the script development because it’s interesting how you play on that within the film. What got you writing this?
MM: Um…I think the germ of it was having those short stories about the serial killers. They were written prior to the script and I was starting to think of what kind of writer would come up with those stories. At the same time, I wanted to set something in LA and then I guess I wanted to explore my opinions about violent movies versus something a bit more gentle or serene or spiritual even. In some way I think of it as a war between Sam Peckinpah and Terrence Malick. If they had a kid, what would that kid be? [To Colin] Please don’t answer that question. So that’s I think where the first starting point for the script came from. It was written just after I wrote the script for In Bruges, but before we made it. So I had both scripts in front of me and knew that this one was too big in scope for a first time director. I enjoyed the script, but didn’t think I had the skills to do it. But after we made In Bruges together—
CF: I remember the day we’re done singing, “Haha that’s the end of this!”
MM: But after that it was still a year to make it. That came with the realization that making a film is tough, but it’s not quite as terrifying and intimidating as I thought before making In Bruges. So I knew it was going to be scary, but if I had a good bunch of actors around, we could get there.
CF: Too bad you couldn’t find them.
I had a question about meta-fiction and was as an actor or interests you about diving into that world?
CF: The metafiction aspect of the story is really more to do with how the writer uses it through his creative lens. For me as an actor in the film, my story felt incredibly limited. Having read the script, I’m aware of the tangential aspects of the story and how it goes into the different segments. I enjoyed that the movie explored as many genres within the film, as many eras, as many different looks, as many seasons because the production tree has a kind of winter/fall feel to it and LA has something to do with it. So for me it was very straightforward. The arc of my character is presented in a fairly straightforward way. I mean it’s a bit odd when you’re friend is presenting you dramatic concepts that seem fairly ingenious for a friend who is not really known for writing and then you find out that your he’s actually been killing the people that he’s been telling the stories about. That’s of course a bit bizarre and obscure for Marty. In the whole thing, I’m kind of the central force of normality through which all of this chaos and madness revolves around. So yeah, it’s interesting because it’s a role that was about observing and very reactive. It was different, so it was nice to exist in this world that feels very much like a Martin world, but in a very different style from In Bruges.
Martin, I thought it was interesting that the movie opens up with you kind of giving a nod to In Bruges almost with these two very similar character getting killed off right in the opening. And then it proceeds to go into the story of someone who has a severe case of writer’s block. Was that something that led into you crafting this script and was even bringing Colin on board something to connect this as a follow up movie in any way?
MM: (laughs) I wish. Maybe, it should have been the Colin and Brandon in the first scene.
CF: That would have been so fucked up. (laughs) Charlie Kaufman’s head would have fucking exploded.
MM: The writer’s block thing, no. I’ve never subscribed to the notion of there being such a thing. That’s just lazy writers. But yeah, I guess. Not in too big of a way. I don’t think anything about the story of this is reacting to In Bruges or the violence therein. But I’ve always wanted to explore that kind of struggle that a writer has, especially someone who writes dark or violent stuff. I don’t really question that it’s a bad thing to put things like that into the world because I’m always trying to write from a place somewhere near my moral center. There is one there in In Bruges and this too. But we certainly play with questioning that. Questioning violence in movies and is that legitimate? But also to me the idea was almost like setting up a story and following the writing literally and taking that forward.
I’m always interested in foreigners in Los Angeles who see that culture differently than those who live there and I was wondering if that played much of a role in this movie?
MM: For me, I’d never really spent an awful lot of time there and go through the movie business. In Bruges was entirely done outside of Los Angeles.
CF: Oh, it was great fun.
MM: So I did want to try to capture an LA on film that was a little bit different than what has been captured recently. I tried to make LA as much of a character as Bruges was to that film. I don’t think that’s quite true because I don’t think there’s a place in LA as identifiable as Bruges. Any time you turn around there, there’s something cinematic whereas LA is kind of generic. But that’s part of what I wanted to capture, the absence of personality in LA and also the majesty and beauty of the desert too. I wanted to put something serene behind violence. So, yeah to explore a different LA was one of the first things I thought of. I don’t think I have enough of a grounding in LA to say that anything about this is truly LA. It’s more about storytelling and LA is more of a backdrop than anything else.
CF: There is a relationship between the power of will and the power of ambition that both characters have in varying that’s true to that setting. It’s something that Billy Bickle [Sam Rockwell] has and he wills into being into the story. And Marty’s ambition is very prevalent in certain parts of LA, particularly in Hollywood. There’s probably nowhere in the world with the amount of energy that’s put into dreaming in that city. And that’s a pretty powerful force, you know? So, in the two characters there’s an element of that there. You can kind of reinvent yourself easily there as well. It’s a place of many different social pockets and fads. Rockers, surfers, communists, it’s hilarious that there are all these different archetypes and it’s a fascinating place. Bruges was so cool. It’s such a presence and there’s so much history there. It’s so dense and unusual and medieval. There isn’t much change, whereas Los Angeles seems like it’s constantly in flux. It was never that well designed, but it’s a fascinating place. I’ve lived there for six years. There are so many parts of it and the least fascinating places are the producer’s offices and all that kind of stuff. What you see on the tin is what you get and movies like The Player or LA Story aren’t that far from the reality. But there are pockets of it that are amazing. The hills are just astonishing. I was there for about six years before I even discovered those. The hills? I thought there were just some fucking letters up there.
MM: It’s a world of broken dreams in LA as well.
CF: Absolutely. You see it all the time and there are so many homeless. It’s shocking. I joke that if I were homeless anywhere in the world that’s where I would be. But it’s really shocking how many there are. And kids as well. It’s a bizarre, bizarre place.
Martin, I was curious to ask given that you write such specific dialogue, who gave you the most unexpected line readings Christopher Walken or Tom Waits?
CF: Oh, Chris!
MM: Well, you kind of expect Chris to give an unexpected line reading.
CF: The strangest thing Chris can do is give you a normal reading. What the fuck? (laughs)
MM: (laughs) That one even had a comma!
CF: I wasn’t there that day, I guess.
MM: Strangely Tom is very strict to the writing. He actually got frustrated if he missed out on a word or two. But he kind of almost does it almost like a spoken word song. There was a musicality to his delivery. Chris is always…
Does he speak like that normally?
CF: Let’s go ask him. (laughs) I would imagine that in Chris’ life he doesn’t often find himself in the level of dramatic action that we put him through in this. So I think that lends itself to a certain emphasis or a certain cadence, which is very much part of who he is and the characters he explored over the years. He’s got a very unique way of working and there’s no mistaking it.
I thought that the entire cast fit their roles perfectly and was wondering if you wrote with all of them in mind?
MM: No, I didn’t write for any of the guys. It was written about 7 or 8 years ago. But, I think every single person was the right person for the roles. Chris was one of my favorite performers since when I was a kid. Tom Waits too. Obviously I love Colin. Sam I kind of knew a little bit. Chris and Sam and I did a play together in New York years ago. And strangely, Woody I knew I think before any of you guys. About ten years ago we started hanging out when he came to the theater to see some of my stuff and I almost worked with him on a play. Bonnie the dog was the only one I didn’t know.
CF: She was good. First take every time.
You joke in the film about not being able to write strong female characters…
MM: (laughs) This is for you Colin
Are you not able to do that?
CF: You’ve seen the film, right? (laughs)
MM: Yeah, just watch the film.
So, maybe make an effort.
MM: (laughs) On the next one, I promise that I will. It’s already written and it’s the strongest female character you’ve ever seen from me. 55 years old, strong woman character.
CF: Do I have to be 55? Can’t I play a woman closer to my own age? Come on!
MM: Yes, during the editing process there were a couple more scenes that if they stayed in I think would have given more shape for those characters. I will get better.
I’m curious what brings you guys back together? Why do you like working together so much and will we see more?
CF: Absolutely, yeah.
MM: He’s a great lovely guy to be around. We really have a lot of fun.
CF: Yeah, we really do. I think we both have the same love for the work and storytelling. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. It just seems easy. There’s a short hand. We knew each other for about four of five years before In Bruges. He’s interested a the kind of emotion and spirituality that exists in the world that I find mixes with the horror of the violence and the comedy in a cocktail that just works for me.
MM: He’s very open and sensitive about things that certain actors wouldn’t be. That’s something that works very well for us.
It seems like Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell have known each other for a while and have a real chemistry together.
CF: Chris and Sam? Big time, man.
So, what was it like working with them and having that history there?
CF: Well, this is kind of telling tales out of school, but you can see there’s a good bit of love there between the two of them. Did they meet on your play?
MM: I think it was maybe just before.
CF: They just have a really good rapport. But actually neither of them ever made me feel like I was on the outside. I’d never met Chris before, but it really was so much fun. Sam I’d met a couple of years before, so easy man.
Did it take Sam a while to get his fake Irish accent down?
CF: Have you heard his version of it? It’s fucking atrocious. (laughs) He needs to go back to the drawing board.
MM: It’s as bad as my Irish accent.
CF: Yeah and Sam wasn’t fucking born there either. At least he’s got excuses.