Exclusive: The Guard Director John Michael McDonagh

The buddy cop comedy gets an irreverent twist in John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard as Brendan Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, the main police officer or “garda” in the remote area of Galway in Western Ireland. Gerry’s been allowed to run things the way he wants, which means he rarely does things by the book – he smokes, he drinks, he takes drugs and he regular has hookers paying him a call. When it’s discovered that drug smugglers are bringing a huge shipment of drugs through the local port, a no-nonsense FBI agent named Wendell Everett, played by Don Cheadle (who was also one of the film’s producers), comes to town and immediately finds himself receiving friction from the curmudgeonly local.

There’s a good chance that crime comedies run in the McDonagh family, because John’s brother is playwright Martin McDonagh, who made his own feature film debut a few years back with In Bruges. While the McDonagh Brothers share a similar dark sense of humor and style–and of course, they share a star in Gleeson–The Guard is a very different movie from In Bruges even if they both had the honor of opening the Sundance Film Festival.

A few months back, ComingSoon.net sat down with McDonagh when he brought the movie to New York City to screen it at the Tribeca Film Festival. Once again, we ended up gushing to a filmmaker about Mark Strong, who plays a small role in the film as one of the smugglers; we may need an intervention pretty soon.

ComingSoon.net: This is your first feature film, but you directed short film a while back…
John Michael McDonagh:
Yeah, too long ago if you look back, it was 2000. Tell you what happened though. I wrote a screenplay for a film called “Ned Kelly,” which wasn’t great.

CS: I remembered you saying that at the premiere but I liked “Ned Kelly”…
McDonagh:
Was I slagging it off at the premiere?

CS: I’m pretty sure you were, but then I noticed that you made a little nod to Ned Kelly in this movie.
McDonagh:
Do you want to know the story behind that little moment? Doing “Ned Kelly” with Gregor Jordan, this sums up my entire experience on the film. So Ned Kelly had a peacock as O’Leary says in the film, because the Kelly family used peacocks as guard dogs. If you came on the property, the peacock screeched, and I was like “That’s great,” because it’s true, it’s a nice little bit of history and it’s visually interesting, right? A peacock. And Gregor Jordan changed it to a dog, and in my mind, he changed the entire movie into a dog. (laughs) That’s my anecdote and my gag.

CS: I liked the movie.
McDonagh:
The thing is that when you see people saying “Oh, I love this movie,” some people do like it, so why slag it off? I just say that I was aiming for it to be an homage to Malick and it didn’t turn out the way I planned it.

CS: I talk to a lot of screenwriters who decide to direct, and it’s got to be the most frustrating thing to spend months and months and months and years and then you see the movie and it’s nothing at all like you saw it.
McDonagh:
Exactly, but let’s be honest. It was made by Working Title. They paid quite well, so I made a fair bit of money, which is why I didn’t make another movie until years later. Maybe if I’d had no money, I’d be trying to get another movie set up quicker, but I was coasting around down in Australia on the money I’d made from “Ned Kelly” so it took a while before I went, “Actually, I’m running out of money now. I should try to get something else made.” Fortunately, it all happened quite quickly with “The Guard.” Within the course of a week, both Brendan and Don had signed on. I wrote it in Christmas 2008 and we finished shooting in Christmas 2009, which is very fast turnover. Getting a lot of those 6 million dollar, 7 million dollar movies financed, I think we got in under the wire now. I think a lot of that money’s gone, and they’re not making those movies anymore.

CS: I imagine the connection to Brendan Gleeson was through your brother.
McDonagh:
I’d met him a few times at previous Sundance like at the “In Bruges” premiere. This was why I was a bit worried about “The Guard” because the “In Bruges” premiere at Sundance, they were sort of like the first 20 minutes, “Oh, this is quite funny,” but as it went on, the gags were a little bit too heavy, they’re going a bit too far. I find it a bit of a conservative audience, so I was a bit hesitant in case “The Guard” would go down the same way, but it didn’t seem to. I think because a lot of people have affection for Brendan and Don, so it played well in that way. It was good the way it all came together.

CS: It’s great for Brendan because “In Bruges” was one of the exceptions where we got to see him in a pretty major leading role.
McDonagh:
Yeah, pretty major but he was still sort of sharing with Colin (Farrell) and in this, he is sharing with Don for a bit, but overall, he’s in nearly every scene and he is the prime movie. He’s the catalyst of the plot and all. Well, he’s not the catalyst, but he responds to what everyone else is doing, let’s put it that way. He’s a lazy antagonist. But that’s what people are saying. Brendan is a committed actor, you know. He’ll go through the script, talk through everything. “Let’s get everything logically right,” which I like, that’s fine. He was committed from Day 1, but when you see the final version, I think it’s quite an unusual character that we haven’t really seen that often, maybe going back to the ’70s. What he’s saying he means, the antiestablishmentarian stuff, the invective against the FBI, the gag about “You’re probably more used to shooting unarmed women and children,” he means that. I don’t know if we’re used to seeing that in movies anymore, that level of politicized dialogue, someone who is making a joke, but are they joking? Or are they really sticking the knife in you? Like the Waco gag at the end, that always gets a big laugh, and I think that’s because people are shocked that even right at the end of the movie, he’s saying stuff like that. He never stops basically.

When we were shooting the scene when they walk out onto the pier, Don was saying, “Boy, this character does not stop.” All the way until the outcome and the ambiguity of the ending, he just keeps going. I think that’s why audiences go with him in the end, because of his essential integrity and his honest.

CS: I was curious about the setting of Galway. You actually lived there?
McDonagh:
Well, my mother and father live there, so I’ve been back and forth a lot. It’s also, sort of in a pretentious way, it has its own historical aspect. You know Tom Ford’s parents were from Spiddal in Galway, sort of was trying to get in tune with the Western. In Ford’s movies, there’s no such thing as a minor character, there’s all that ensemble acting and everyone’s there and sometimes it goes too far and they’re doing slapsticky bits, but everyone has their reason and every character is important. The guy they interrogate is a character in his own right and comes back. The little kid keeps popping up all the way through the movie, the mother is a good character, and even the prostitutes. Usually with a prostitute, you never hear from them again, but she comes back and is important to the plot, so it’s trying to give everyone their moments.

CS: My impression of Galway is that it’s fairly remote.
McDonagh:
Well, Galway city has got a big university, very young people, but you can drive half an hour out, and there will be guys who are 60 living in a cottage on their own, and they might have only just had central heating installed. So it’s 30 minutes between two extremes, which is why I was trying to get that feeling across, and it does have the language. They do speak Gaelic. My father speaks Gaelic as his first language, so you do have that. We have the funny scene where we have Don knocking on the door and when you watch that with an audience, American audiences especially, they’re like “What’s he saying? This is freaky.” They’re having the same reaction Don is, so that when Brendan goes later on, “You didn’t know people in this part of Ireland speak Gaelic?” The audience laughs because they’re laughing at themselves, because they don’t know either. People in England wouldn’t know, but people in Ireland would.

CS: I happened to look at the map and found it in this little nook in the West of Ireland but what’s the distance to Dublin?
McDonagh:
It would be like sort of a three-hour car drive, not too far, but from there, it’s just the Atlantic and then the next place over is America, so the American influence of culture where they’re saying, “I’m on it, Sarge” or “We’re good to go.” The way that language from movies and TV has influenced what people are saying in real life. Obviously, Boyle’s character thinks that’s all dishonest bullsh*t, that you’re not being yourself, so he is being himself. Whatever you say about Boyle, whether you like him or not, he is himself.

CS: And the character of Boyle was first introduced in that short you did?
McDonagh:
I had a short, it was a ghost story set in a bar, and in the middle of the ghost story, this police officer just wanders in, says some really obnoxious sh*t to the people in the bar and then leaves, and I always thought, “This guy ain’t so bad.” A guy who is prepared to say absolutely anything at any moment and you never know what he’s going to come out with, fiction-wise, it’s easy to write that character really. You know when you’re at a party and somebody says something, and you go, “Oh, God, I wish I had that comeback line to really put that guy in his place”? Well, Boyle always has the comeback line to put people in their place, so it came out of that. And then basically, I just needed a plot and there was a massive seizure of drugs off the coast–there have been three or four over the last five years–and it was half a billion worth of cocaine. It sounds extraordinary. And there was a comedic aspect to it. They put the wrong diesel fuel (in the boat) and it ran aground, and they went for help even though they were smuggling cocaine. I thought, “Who were these guys? They must have been mildly retarded or something.” But then I thought that I didn’t want drug dealers who are stupid, so then you go, “I’ll have drugdealers who are talking about philosophy and I want a drugdealer who is bored with being a drug dealer,” because you never see that in a movie. It all just comes out. So it’s like, “Okay, that’s a plot point I’ve seen before, what would be the opposite of that?” It’s that kind of stuff.

CS: One of the things that’s fun about the relationship between the characters played by Brendan and Don is that over the years, there’s a whole genre of what they call “buddy cop comedies”–law enforcement agents who don’t get along–but this has a twist of it because it’s in a different environment…
McDonagh:
It’s in that environment and Brendan’s character doesn’t respond to Don the way Don is expecting him to respond, and also there’s also a strange, funny element to it because by the end of it, you’re not quite sure they even like each other. In buddy comedies, they grow to love each other, but not at the end of this. When we shot Don at the pier at the end and he shouts out “Boyle!” In the script, he was meant to shout out “Gerry!” and it would be the one moment where it gets personal and he says his first name, and Don goes, “You know, I don’t think I even like this guy.” I was like, “Yeah, just say Boyle” so that was one of the few lines we changed, because nearly everything was done as written. There was hardly any improvisation or anything.

CS: I was going to ask about that because Don’s a producer on this and I know he gets heavinly into working with writers on the script.
McDonagh:
On this, the only thing with Don was that he would take the line as what you want to be said and he might rework it to make it more American. I’m from London so I’m not going to be totally exact with the way Americans speak, so he would slightly rework it but get the same sense of the sentence. Also, each take, he likes to freshen it a little bit, just do something a little bit different, but any sort of improvisation of stuff we did, ended up being cut really. When you’re doing gags on the set, it’s funny, but when you get in the editing room, you have to be a bit more precise.

CS: Did you keep a couple of those things for the DVD?
McDonagh:
Yeah, there’ll be a few on there, and there are a couple of scenes that are quite funny but were sort of repeating stuff we’d already seen so we took them out.

CS: I assume those two guys just riffing would be pretty funny.
McDonagh:
Brendan and Don are really great together and the guy who we find out is corrupt, Stanton, he has the conversation about liquidating people, he’s quite funny deadpan. The three of them have a scene together we took out.

CS: You do have a great cast but it’s amazing you got Mark Strong, because he’s so busy and you can’t imagine he has time to make more movies.
McDonagh:
I know, he’s in everything. He’s Sinestro and I think he’s doing “John Carter of Mars.”

CS: The thing about Mark Strong is that he might appear in a movie without you even realizing he’s in that movie, he shows up, steals the scene and then he leaves. He’s been doing that in a lot of movies lately.
McDonagh:
He does have a very strong presence. I like the way he moves, the way he turns when we’re on the pier, just really tiny things that is very strong when you’re watching. I think why he wants to do things like Sinestro or “John Carter” is because there are only so many of those sorts of villains in British movies that you can play before it becomes a little bit too repetitive, but I quite liked him in “Kick-Ass.”

CS: He was also in the Ridley Scott movie I really liked called “Body of Lies” playing the Jordanian security officer.
McDonagh:
Oh, God, he was great in that!

CS: You would not even know it was the same guy.
McDonagh:
There you go. He had a wig, didn’t he? I liked him in that.

CS: Did it take a long time to get the cast together?
McDonagh:
Once Brendan and Don were involved, all the Irish cast were pretty quick, because I knew Liam Cunningham. That was just coffee. “Yeah, I’ll do it.” With Jina Jay, the casting director, we were like, “Who could we get to play that one?” and she goes “Do you like Mark Strong?” I said, “Yeah, I love him but would we be able to get him,” and she said, “Well, I don’t think it’s a big number of days.” He turned up, we had a few drinks and he was, “I love it.” There was no long involved somebody we tried to get we couldn’t get or anything like that. Fionnula Flanagan, she wanted to do it. David Wilmott who I like who plays O’Leary, he was in the short and I’d known him for years. The two prostitutes, that was just auditions, meeting people. The little kid was somebody who just came in off the street. That was the only thing I was getting a bit… you know, you’re two weeks away from shootin’ and you’re trying to find a kid who’s not one of those acting school kids like you’d see in American movies where they’re talking like they’re 40 and they’re only 7. He speaks Gaelic, he’s from the area and we got him with like two weeks to go, so that was where I was starting to freak out.

CS: He seems to almost be doing an American accent, so is that just from watching American television?
McDonagh:
Yeah, that sort of came through and he hated that bike, it’s a girl’s bike, but I love the scene… I hate establishing shots in movies, I find them really boring, so in the shot of the police station, I thought, “Let’s have the kid ride across on his bike” and he can’t control the bike, so the propsman, Simon, came up and goes, “I can fix that bike so it rides…” and I went, “No, no, no…” Most people might find that just silly, but I just crack up when I see him trying to ride the bike.

CS: The movie has a really distinctive look, so did you actually build any sets or was it all on location?
McDonagh:
No, the only sets were the bit in the morgue, and Boyle’s house, which has a lot of rich colors where he’s with Don and they’re getting drunk and then that confrontation with O’Leary, that was a set. Everything else was on location that we just found and stuff like that. Obviously, we built the interior of the boat, but I think it’s really important you get a real sense of place. Everyone’s in the place, so they’ll go out for a drink on Friday night so there’s a sense of community, a real sort of “we’re all in this together.” Nobody’s shooting back to Dublin to stay at a hotel for the weekend, so it was a really good mood on the set. Katarina Cas, who plays the woman from Croatia, she came in and did a bit of really good tests, and I thought that she was a really down to earth person and thought she’d get along with all these guys in the West of Ireland in the middle of nowhere just going for drinks and she did. I think a lot of movies get lost in the casting stage. You see a cast list for a movie and you say, “That’s going to be terrible” and it usually always is. I think if you can get the casting right, you’re sort of halfway there to making a good movie anyway. The look of it, Larry Smith, he shot “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Bronson” – so he’s done a $60 million movie and a $1 million movie, so I thought, “That’s great.” People who have shot a $60 million movie are used to that level of shooting, but he’s also done “Bronson” where it’s quick. “If there’s a problem then we’ll change it and then we move on,” which you need also as a first-time director. You can’t fall behind, so it’s great to have that thing where we’re moving and on time and schedule.

CS: Was he involved with creating that look? Because the movie is very colorful but the colors make you feel as if you’re watching this place stuck in the ’70s.
McDonagh:
Yeah, what we tried to do with the phones, ’cause I hate computers in movies, I hate people on Emails in movies. There’s only one cell phone, Don’s, but Don would have a cell phone, but we even have Boyle at one point, he says when they’ve taken over his police station, he goes, “Oh, cell phones, computers…” He’s so dismissive of them and that’s my world-view as well, but all that sort of color-coding, that all comes from my self, John Paul Kelly, the production designer, the costume guy–the costumes are quite detailed and rich, the stuff Boyle wears when he’s not on duty, the stuff Don wears–and then Larry. I’m not that technically-minded although I wanted those wide-screen anamorphic images and I wanted it to look rich and the colors to pop, and Larry hates Red cam, digital, all that kind of… He’s a big film (supporter) so he’s keen on that. Then it’s more that this is what I want so I storyboarded everything so Larry would go, “Yeah, this is all achievable” or “this might be difficult for that reason” and once you arrive on the set, he’ll be like, “Okay, he’s coming in the door, Don’s at the bar, I want him to get there as quick as possible. I don’t want to do a shot of him at the door…” so Larry’s big on moves that bring you together instead of cutting too much when it’s unnecessary. I was always looking for that. Sometimes you go too far, because you can go a bit too arthousey, because there are quite a lot of two-shots, wideshots and we’re not doing a lot of cutting back and forth, but sometimes you can go too far and it can get too slow.

We don’t think McDonagh has to worry about that problem with his first movie The Guard, which opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, July 29.

McDonagh also talked about his upcoming projects Cavalry and War on Everyone, which you can read about here.

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