Although he was raised in London, Martin McDonagh, the 42-year-old writer and director of the new black comedy Seven Psychopaths, is widely regarded as his generation’s leading Irish dramatist. His creative breakthrough came, in his mid-20s, when he adopted a stylized version of the Gaelic-inflected dialect of his Irish parents’ Galway home. His first five Irish plays, including such hits as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, were hits on both sides of the Atlantic.
But McDonagh also wrote The Pillowman, a Kafkaesque fable set in a fictional totalitarian state, and more recently has proved that he can write for the big screen, and write American dialogue, as dexterously as anyone out there. In 2010, the silver-haired playwright staged his first American-set drama, A Behanding in Spokane, starring a Tony-nominated Christopher Walken as a gangster who lost his hand in his youth.
His feature movie debut, In Bruges (2008), which starred Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell as a couple of Irish hit men stranded in Belgium, was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. Now he has made his first American-set film, Seven Psychopaths, again starring Farrell, as a creatively blocked, alcoholic Irish screenwriter named Martin adrift in Los Angeles among a group of unstable Americans. The cast also includes Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Tom Waits. The Globe spoke with McDonagh and Farrell at the Toronto International Film Festival.
First, an American drama and now an American film. Have you moved to the United States yet?
McDonagh: No. I still live in London. Seven Psychopaths was written in 2004, after I’d written the In Bruges script but before we made Bruges. I’ve always written things set here [North America]. A Behanding in Spokane was the first play that was American-set but I’ve got a couple of other scripts ready to go. I’ve always loved American cinema more than any other.
So the character of Martin the stalled Irish screenwriter in the film is not autobiographical, then.
McDonagh: Martin the screenwriter with the drink problem has absolutely nothing to do with me as a writer. There are details of real biography thrown in with a whole bunch of phony stuff and red herrings everywhere.
Watching the film, you feel like you’re in a series of boxes and each one explodes into a different kind of box. It must be tough on the actors to keep a back story when each sequence changes what we know.
Farrell: Not really. So much of the interconnectedness that’s obvious to the audience isn’t obvious to the performer. Each character is isolated in a particular version of existence. For Woody, it’s the return of his dog. For Sam, it’s to give his friend, my character, a kick in the arse to write the great screenplay he’s capable of writing. For my character, he’s trying to reinvent himself as a writer and get to a more significant truth. It felt more linear doing it than it might appear. But the exploding boxes is a nice way of putting it.
McDonagh: That’s what we were hoping to get to. At first, it seems like a screwball gangster comedy, and it gets more esoteric and spiritual, if that’s not too big a word. At least, it becomes something you wouldn’t normally expect in a screwball gangster comedy.
The perfect crime – an Agatha Christie plot or a Dial M for Murder – makes for a tidy story, but an imperfect crime gets a whole lot more complex. Can you talk a little about the idea of how things amplify?
Farrell: Well, these guys live in a world of overreaction. You start off with the ludicrous premise of these two men who steal dogs for the reward money, and then they steal a dog from a gangster who holds the dog in such high regard that the whole story spins on that. There’s the recovery of the dog, and the theme of revenge, and the sky’s the limit, really, for you as a writer
McDonagh: That’s the archetypal plot: These nice guys kidnap a crazy guy’s dog. But then the reveal is that one of those guys is crazier than the gangster, which means you can take the plot anywhere.
There’s a wonderful line that captures that idea of things spiraling out of control said by Tom Waits’s character. I’m probably going to screw it up….
Farrell: You love it so much you’re going to ruin it. That’s how I feel about my work.
‘People going around the country killing people going around the country killing people.’ Is that it?
McDonagh: That’s it. And Tom gives it a great delivery.
When you have actors as idiosyncratic as Walken or Waits, were you worried about them messing with the rhythms of your language?
McDonagh: I was initially a little concerned with Walken in A Behanding in Spokane but he was so great I now find it hard to think of that dialogue without hearing him speak it. The lesson is: A good actor is a good actor is a good actor. I think each of the actors in this film found their own approach.
And for you, Colin, after so many American roles, is there a freedom in speaking with an Irish accent again?
Farrell: Yeah. Sometimes it’s liberating to forget yourself and sometimes it’s liberating to re-invest yourself in your own accent, which I’ve been speaking for 36 years, though after 10 years in America it’s a bit more mild than it used to be. It’s lovely. It allows me a freedom that I have in my accent that I strive for but find it hard to have in other dialects, and Martin gets that. Though In Bruges wasn’t written for Irish characters. Originally, they were Londoners but when Brendan and I became available, Martin didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be two Irish lads.
This interview has been condensed and edited.