Martin McDonagh makes 'a black comedy about despair'

Martin McDonagh
Martin McDonagh says he likes to take archetypal dramatic situations and then twisting them to create new and interesting scenarios.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Martin McDonagh says when he starts writing a script, he doesn't plan things out much. He takes ideas and just plays with them. "In Bruges" started with him thinking about the hundreds of bullets that fly about in action films.

"I always wonder where the stray bullets go, and what happens when a stray bullet hits a target it wasn't intended for?" he said. "And what happens when a fairly decent person kills a fairly decent person?"

McDonagh combined those reveries with a real experience he had on vacation four years ago. He visited the Belgian town of Bruges and was initially stunned by its medieval beauty.

"By the end of the second day I think I was kind of getting bored and in dire need of a drink. And just having those two sides of my personality talking to each other, the culture loving geek and the drunk," he laughed. "I started thinking about what if there were two guys like that wandering around this picturesque town?"

He ended up creating two Irish hit men hiding out in Belgium after a botched job.

When asked if he considered writing "In Bruges" as a play, McDonagh said no.

'In Bruges'
Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell star in Martin McDonagh's film "In Bruges," a black comedy about two hit men on the run
Image courtesy Focus Features

"I like dialogue and I like the fact that there is a lot of talk in the film," McDonagh said. "I also wanted long moments of pure cinema if I could achieve them. Yeah, it was location pretty much that told me it was a film rather than a play."

McDonagh said he wanted to use what he called the beautifully odd backdrop of the city of Bruges itself to address deeper and sadder things.

McDonagh is best known for a series of seven plays, telling bleak stories of anguish and violence, mostly set in the rural Ireland of his parents. Yet, his writing and his macabre sense of humor have made the 37-year-old McDonagh one of the most sought-after playwrights on the West End and on Broadway.

Remarkably he wrote all seven plays during a nine month period in 1994 when he was unemployed in London. He's spent much of the time since getting them produced.

While McDonagh wrote his plays quickly, he resisted any changes to his scripts.

"I am not really one who is into 'workshopping,'" he said. "If I am coming to something, I have lived with the script probably for two years or more and there's a reason why every single line has every single syllable and comma."

The most recently produced of his plays was "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," which begins with the death of a cat called Wee Thomas. Everyone is sad, not so much that the cat is dead, but more because it's the only thing ever loved by a man too violent for the IRA, and they know he'll be upset.

Ralph Feinnes plays Harry, Ray and Ken's boss. He's very violent, but bound by a twisted sense of honor,
Image courtesy Focus Features

McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" is about the interrogation of a writer whose horrific tales seem to be inspiring a serial killer preying on children.

Frank Theater's Wendy Knox recently directed a production of "The Pillowman" at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Knox shakes her head and smiles when asked what attracted her to McDonagh's work.

"Well, how wrong it is," she laughed. "I mean, it's not everybody's cup of tea. It's black, black comedy. There is stuff that is so offensive or wrong or upsetting, and then the next moment there is something that is hysterically funny."

Knox said at one point a brutal interrogator roars he's tired of how some people claim they are violent alcoholics because of a lousy childhood. When it's pointed out that he's a violent alcoholic, he counters that in his case, it was a personal choice.

St. Paul Pioneer Press film critic Chris Hewitt saw "Pillowman" and McDonagh's first drama "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" on Broadway. He said the playwright uses humor differently on stage than on screen.

"In the plays the humor is even more subversive, because it's used almost to bring us up short and say 'OK, you are watching this play that involves the exploitation and murder of children and mental illness in potentially a sort of police state and a family that's a complete trap for everybody that's involved in it, and you're laughing.'"

Hewitt described "In Bruges" as much sunnier than the plays.

"It's completely about the potential for redemption," he said. "The two characters, there's a lot of talk about if you can't save yourself, is it possible for you to help provide for the safety of another."

For his part, Martin McDonagh wanted "In Bruges" to explore how despicable characters can have senses of honor, compassion and duty.

"These people can't possibly think about things and certain crimes the same as we do," he said. "I think if you are true to each of those personalities, you can get to an interesting place by the end. It could be a place of despair, or sadness or hope. You know, I come away from the film feeling there's a sense of hope to it, you know."

Martin McDonagh has been writing since his creative frenzy of 1994. He's written several plays and a couple of film scripts, but he said the energy he's expended getting his plays produced has left him wanting to spend more time at his desk.

"Just to go back to the place where I was 10 years ago," he said. "Where I was just writing when I was in my room and I was unemployed and I was telling stories for the sake of telling stories."

McDonagh said he knows that he must have changed as a result of his success. He just wants to find out what kind of writer he has become.