“I’d never let any of my plays be made into films, even though we’ve had offers,” said Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh during a recent visit to the Guthrie Theater.
“If you’re thinking of a play as a blueprint for something else you’re never going to go for it. You’re never going to make it the most amazing, entertaining play it could be if in the back of your mind you’re thinking, well, we’ll get it right when we turn it into a film.”
The movies need McDonagh more than he needs the movies. The tall, trim 37-year-old playwright has made a large name for himself with blood-spattered, darkly humorous stage works that owe more to Scorsese and Tarantino than to O’Casey and Pinter. His plays have earned four Tony Award best play nominations on Broadway and an Olivier Award in London. Without visibly breaking a sweat, he won a 2006 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for “Six Shooter,” which he wrote and directed.
Now McDonagh is reaching out to a wider audience. His first feature, “In Bruges,” was the opening-night selection for January’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a madcap, violent, eloquently profane crime thriller that announces McDonagh as a major filmmaker.
Some twit will inevitably call “In Bruges” “Pulp Fiction” with an Irish accent, but McDonagh’s not merely retilling ground plowed to exhaustion by earlier moviemakers. He enriches the genre with compelling characterizations, a rare talent for grounding the absurd in reality, and a knack for getting heavyweight dramatic actors to reveal their inner clowns.
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play Irish hitmen on the lam in the picturesque Belgian tourist town, wrestling with conflicting allegiances to each other and to their psychopathic boss, played by Ralph Fiennes.
McDonagh, a self-confessed child of junk food and trash culture before turning to the stage in the 1990s, said that while films were his first love, he never considered writing plays a path to filmmaking.
“Even though theater wasn’t my first love as a kid, once I got into it I did grow to love what it could be, and what I’ve tried to warp it into,” he said. He has steadfastly rejected bids to put his plays on screen `because I think you have to be pure to your art form.”
Filmmaking required McDonagh to draw on “a whole other part of your brain to think in pictures. I was a big comic book fan as a kid so I just approached storyboarding just like that,’ sketching out suspenseful scenes in Hitchcockian detail. But he also relied on techniques he learned in the theater, rehearsing his actors for three weeks and insisting that they stick faithfully to his screenplay.
“Though they knew why they had to stick with the words, down to a comma, they had the freedom to play within it in a comedic way or a dark way,” bringing deft touches of characterization to their roles. Before Gleeson’s killer meets his fate he takes a moment to adjust his necktie, a gesture that combines touching dignity with the tie-twiddling foolishness of Oliver Hardy.
“I loved that stuff. They trusted me and I trusted them. Colin’s never really done comedy before. Ralph, you wouldn’t think of him as the go-to guy for comedy. But my feeling was you just go to good actors. Hopefully the script will be funny enough that that will come through.”
The unstable blend of moods is characteristic of his stage work. “All my stuff has been despairing but outrageously funny at the same time. It’s kind of a nice thing to work at within the space of a couple of lines” of dialog, he said. Comedic distractions and emotion-charged truces interrupt the movie’s third-act shootouts. Then, when the audience lowers its guard, bloodshed erupts.
“I wanted the violence to be sickening, as dark and ugly as violence is in real life,” he explained. The point is to get viewers to the point that “people don’t know where they are. If you don’t know whether this is a comedy or a drama, it’s like magic,” misdirecting the spectators and then producing a stunning surprise.
Sometimes, though, McDonagh’s instinct for laughter won’t be denied. One of the film’s colorful sideline characters is an actor shooting a horror flick in the medieval city. He is a reprehensible character, in some ways worse than the hitmen, a drugged-up, hard-drinking, sex-addled racist who is played by a dwarf. Was McDonagh using this vivid oddball to make a comment on actors he has known?
He paused a beat before replying, “I don’t know any racist actors.”