The story behind 'The Guard'

Unlikely crime-fighters
Don Cheadle and Brenden Gleeson appear as an unlikely pair of crime fighters in John Michael McDonagh's "The Guard."
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Consider this for a movie idea: An iconoclastic writer toils for decades, with no recognition. Then his brother puts pen to paper and overnight becomes an international success.

Sound good? This is actually the story behind "The Guard," a new comedy film opening this weekend in Minneapolis.

It's directed by John Michael McDonagh, an Irishman who grew up in London.

For years, John Michael McDonagh has worked in London following his dream of writing films. A few years ago, Hollywood bought his script for a movie about the armored Australian folk hero Ned Kelly. It didn't go well.

"The script was written as a, let's say, an homage to Sam Peckinpah and Terrence Malick," McDonagh said. "But it was changed by the director and the studio into basically a standard biopic, which was pretty boring and humorless, and it reflected the personality of the director, let's put it that way."

McDonagh says friends told him it was great having his name on any movie, even a bad one. But after "Ned Kelly" came out in 2003, he couldn't get any work. He decided then he'd direct his own scripts. And he kept on writing.

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"There was nothing else I could do," he says with a resigned laugh. "I couldn't really do a 9-to-5 job because I could never get up early enough in the morning to do it. So I think people who persevere and become successful in this business are people who have no other option."

John Michael McDonagh
Screenwriter John Michael McDonagh says he learned from his experience on "Ned Kelly" that a script can be ruined by a bad director, so he decided to become a director to protect his scripts.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

To make things worse, McDonagh's brother Martin had become an overnight sensation in London and New York with a series of award-winning plays, including "The Cripple of Inishmaan" and "The Pillowman."

"I hate the theater," John Michael McDonagh states bluntly. "I only go to the theater when he gives me free tickets for his own plays. Because I find it really boring. So he could have had all the success he wanted in the theater world and I wasn't bothered."

But then, Martin McDonagh started making movies.

"I think when he won an Oscar for his short film, that's when I say a little ulcer started in the pit of my stomach, and it grew when he got 'In Bruges' set up," said John Michael.

"In Bruges," a dark comedy about two Irish hitmen hiding out in Belgium, was an indie hit in 2008, snagging Martin McDonagh a best screenplay Oscar nomination.

John Michael says he's close to his brother, but they rarely talk about work.

Martin McDonagh
Martin McDonagh, John Michael's brother, has attained international acclaim for his theater work, and an Oscar for his short film "Six Shooter."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

And now it's John Michael's turn in the spotlight. He's the writer and director of "The Guard," an even darker comedy about Sgt. Gerry Boyle, a small-town cop in the rural west of Ireland.

Boyle, played by veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, is foul-mouthed, cantankerous and obstructive, with a taste for prostitutes and drugs.

Boyle is always saying the wrong thing, as evidenced by his first meeting with Wendell Everett, an African-American FBI agent played by Don Cheadle -- who is also a producer on the film. Everett has come to Ireland to lead an international drug smuggling investigation.

Boyle stops everything dead after voicing his stereotypical understanding of the ethnicity of all drug dealers, and is ordered to apologize for his "racist slurs."

"I'm Irish sir," Boyle responds. "Racism is part of my culture."

John Michael McDonagh says he can't hope to match the Hollywood budgets of summer blockbusters. But he can compete by offering outrageous humor and original memorable characters.

Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brenden Gleeson) is hard at work on a case in "The Guard."
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

"And what they present themselves as at the beginning is not who they are at the end," he said.

After triumphant screenings of "The Guard" at film festivals in Europe and the U.S., including Sundance and Tribeca, he says audiences seem to get the joke.

The secret may be that "The Guard" initially plays with the elements of a standard police drama, like CSI.

"I hate all those shows," he said. "But that landscape in Connemara lends itself to that sort of Western dynamic, of the small-town sheriff who has to deal with the baddies who ride into town, like a 'High Noon' type situation."

McDonagh notes legendary Western director John Ford's parents also came from the Galway town where his parents now live. He hoped for what he calls some sort of creative osmosis as a result, and believes he got it.