John Michael McDonagh • Director
by Domenico La Porta
21/10/2011 - John Michael McDonagh is finally releasing his debut directorial film after years of absence from the film world. His screenplay for the biopic about a famous Australian bandit called Ned Kelly underwent many alterations that prevented the continuation of the project and greatly frustrated its writer; in the meantime, his brother Martin achieved fame thanks to the European hit In Bruges [trailer]. Now, John Michael McDonagh is getting his revenge with his film The Guard [trailer, film focus], which has already out-grossed In Bruges at the Irish box office. Cineuropa met with the director at the Sarajevo Film Festival, where he received the highest score in the event’s history.
Cineuropa: Your wife is associate producer on the film, as is your brother, who is, incidentally, also a director and screenwriter. Did your desire to make films come from your family?
John Michael McDonagh: Not really. It came from cinema itself which has tended to irritate me in recent times, especially in Britain where completely lousy films are released in theatres every week. It’s so frustrating to think that those people manage to get money for such rubbishy films that are carbon copies of each other. My rebellion can be found in the character of Brendan Gleeson because it was my main driving force throughout the writing stage... and my brother is younger than me. He should be using me as a role model, not the other way around (laughs).
This policeman character and, through him, the film are of a political incorrectness rarely seen in European cinema. Did this irreverence have a negative impact on the financing?
Not at all. Contrary to appearances, The Guard is almost a whore which does everything expected of it. It has moments of pure comedy, action, thriller and even a social dimension like in most British films. It’s also a nostalgic film, a characteristic that usually appeals to audiences, especially to us Irish. The film was already well ahead with the financing before Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle even came on board. Of course, when Don Cheadle involved his production company Crescendo, Element Films quickly followed suit and they went to get 40% of the budget from the Irish Film Board. I had prepared myself for a long struggle for financing, but as everything was very quick, I had plenty of fierce determination and energy left for the film shoot.
Things got more complicated during the editing phase...
During shooting, I was left in perfect peace and we were financially comfortable enough to make the film we wanted. But once we got to the editing phase, the notes, remarks and alterations came flooding in from all over and it’s difficult to handle when you’re both the writer and director on a film, the only captain on board your project up to that point. I didn’t want to change anything because I loved everything. There were references that my partners didn’t understand and I thought it was a sacrilege to cut them out. I had difficulty understanding that my film wasn’t a highly specialised work that would be aimed at a small number of initiated viewers, but really a mainstream, black comedy. This film has taught me to trust this type of remark. It’s the first time when you start to feel a loss of control and at first, it’s inevitably a threat, but you have to get used to it because, sooner or later, the film must escape your grasp anyway, handed over to the audience.
The Guard wrong-foots viewers’ expectations. Did you want to play with your audience?
I wanted to make them laugh, but also say to those who are expecting an Irish Lethal Weapon that, actually, I’m Irish and we do things a bit differently around here. A buddy cop movie where the two cops hate each other all the time, where the character you’re supposed to identify with is racist, indeed even psychopathic and hampers or outright refuses any collaboration constantly, is perhaps something that has already been seen, but these characteristics rarely accompany a character through to the end of the film. I’m clearly not the only one to feel the frustration that drove me to make The Guard because the film is doing well, people enjoy themselves and understand perfectly what I was aiming for.