EVERY year as a child John Michael McDonagh would find himself in Connemara. For six weeks of the summer he and his younger brother, Martin, would be lifted from the environs of London’s Elephant and Castle and planted into that rugged region on Ireland’s west coast.
Exposed to the wild landscape, they would explore the nooks and crannies of Spiddal, board a curragh to Lettermullen, the Galway fishing village their father grew up in, and meander up the Atlantic coast to their mother’s home of Easkey, Co Sligo.
Their experiences were little different to many second-generation Irish children, but they were nonetheless holidays that had a lasting impact on both men.
Some three decades on, both brothers are internationally renowned, having made their living, in part, through the experience of those summers. Martin is an acclaimed playwright, screenwriter and director who sprung to literary fame in 1996, aged 25, with a run of plays that included The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Cripple of Inishmaan. All were set in-and-around his father’s home place of Co Galway.
Acclaimed as one of the most important living Irish playwrights, the 44-year-old has since moved into film, winning an Oscar in 2007 for his short, Six Shooter, and earning plaudits for two features,In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.
Although it was in his initial footsteps that Martin followed — from early school-leaver to dole dependent writer — 46-year-old John Michael’s success has been harder fought.
Winning a scholarship in 1994 to the University of Southern California in LA, McDonagh began scraping together a living developing screenplays before hitting a breakthrough at the turn of the millennium. After reading a novel about Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, McDonagh secured the book’s rights and his adapted screenplay was made into a 2003 film, Ned Kelly, starring Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom.
It meant a big payday for McDonagh but the boost to his bank balance was offset by the devastation in seeing the finished film. Lambasting Australian director Gregor Jordan for “destroying” the work and treating him “unbelievably shabbily”, the learning curve saw McDonagh vow never again to relinquish control of his work.
Almost a decade in the wilderness followed as he traversed down various avenues before raising the cash to make The Guard in 2011, his first feature as a writer-director. A darkly humorous tale about a sexist and racist garda who takes on a trio of drug-smugglers, the feature starred Brendan Gleeson and went on to become the most successful Irish film of all-time.
It’s follow up, Calvary, a dark drama about a good priest handed a death threat by his parishioners, and once again starring Gleeson, was released in Britain last month to glowing reviews. It is already the most successful Irish movie of the year, having taken more than €1.5million to date at the box office, and will be released in the US in August.
I meet McDonagh in an upmarket hotel in central London during his publicity tour for Calvary. Although it’s my second time meeting him, this is our first formal interview and we have been given a ridiculously short 10 minute time slot by the movie’s publicity team through which to delve into his career.
Dressed in a blue shirt, jumper and jeans, McDonagh is quietly spoken and unassuming, yet emphatically assertive. Often sitting slightly forward in his chair, he keeps his arms folded for much of our meeting. But for a slight smile that occasionally draws across his face, this only adds to his bullish appearance, although what might be mistaken for standoffishness is more probably an innate shyness. You can be certain though he pulls no punches.
With his strong south London accent, urbane background, and the thrill of growing up in a 1970s Britain soundtracked by punk music, I’m eager to find out what drew McDonagh’s head out of that exhilarating world and into Ireland?
He immediately recalls those summers in Easkey and Connemara, those “six weeks that felt like three months when you’re a little kid.” His sense of Irishness, he says, was always present. It was there in the books that he read, punk heroes such as John Lydon, right through to his parent’s unsuccessful attempts to get him to play Gaelic games and the neighbours and school friends he socialised with.
“I never really went to what you’d a call a stereotypical English school,” he says. “Where we lived in the Elephant and Castle, we were in these prefab houses. There was about 10 of them and virtually every one there was Irish. Then the school [I went to] was Catholic school. Secondary school was the same, so that element was always there. No one I ever associated with, or grew up around, was English.
“You could call them English if you wanted, they were all first-generation British, but then they were all called Murphy or Healy or whatever. They were all second-generation Irish. My brother’s success later meant that all our friends are the Irish actors who were in those plays. Even going on now, all my friends are Irish. I’ve very few English friends.”
Being engulfed in that Irish world, even in London’s heartland, meant that it was quite natural for McDonagh’s imagination to be filled with Irish voices and characters. The decision however to set his first two features in Ireland was, he says, more rational than driven by any over-riding fascination with Ireland.
“In a way it’s sort of a pragmatic thing,” he says, “because, say with The Guard, you’re saying, ‘okay I want to do a buddy-buddy comedy but I want it to feel slightly different. I don’t want it to feel like a Guy Ritchie movie and I don’t want it to feel like an American movie’. So you go, ‘why not set it in Ireland and have it be an Irish cop?’
“That then just becomes a bit of a no-brainer because I know loads and loads of locations in Galway that I’ve never seen on film before. Martin can get the script to Brendan [Gleeson]. I know lots of other great Irish actors who can do the supporting parts… so it’s a pragmatic decision. It’s much easier to set that sort of a film up. It was the same thing with Calvary because I knew a lot of those locations in Sligo.”
If the locations of McDonagh’s movies have a personal resonance, then the characters he’s created are also seeped in his own sense of the world. It’s interesting to note that all of McDonagh’s central players are outsiders. Sergeant Gerry Boyle in The Guard is a maverick cop at odds with the rest of the force; Father James is a good priest amid a wicked bunch of parishioners, while Ned Kelly was the atypical outsider.
I put it to him that being Irish in England, yet English in Ireland, pointed him towards characters that don’t fit with the environment around them.
“Yeah, obviously when you go to Ireland, you’re not Irish but when you’re in England you’re not English, which I didn’t mind,” he says. “I don’t mind being an outsider in that way. I never felt like I wanted to be wholly accepted by either side of community. It never really used to bother me.
“The only one time [that it did] was probably at the height of the Celtic Tiger, where I went back and was in the Galway Rowing Club in Galway city. Some guy, as a joke, called me a Plastic Paddy, which was the first time that I ever heard the phrase. And I just thought, ‘that’s interesting’.
“People had to leave the country to go out and find work; your own country couldn’t employ you so they leave the country, they bring up their kids in another country, usually England, those kids go back and now you’re at the height of this financial success and you disparage those people for leaving and you disparage those kids? It’s very strange. Since it has all crashed where are those people now who were looking down their noses at ‘Plastic Paddies’.”
You obviously find the term deeply offensive, I say, noting that his father, a construction worker, and his mother, a cleaner and part-time housekeeper, met and married in the nineteen-sixties, in London, where they had moved from Ireland in search of better wages.
“Yeah, because the people who say it, they might say that they’re joking about it, but they mean to be offensive,” he adds. “They’re kind of trying to diminish you, and why? The Irish government couldn’t employ its own people. They had to leave and they’re still leaving now with the whole thing [the Celtic Tiger] coming apart. Hopefully that’ll be the end of it for those kind of pricks,” he adds laughing.
McDonagh’s own outsider status seems to carry through to the reception his work has received in Ireland, something his brother Martin has also had to contend with. Revered on Broadway and the West End, Martin McDonagh’s plays, which don’t paint Irish people in the best light, are not as feted in his parent’s homeland as the works of first-generation playwrights such as Conor McPherson or Enda Walsh.
Although The Guard was a success, John Michael’s Calvary, which depicts the Irish locals in the main as morally repugnant, has similarly not been as well-received in Ireland as it has in Britain, despite what box office receipts might tell you.
On this writer’s investigations, anecdotally, Irish cinema-goers have been disparaging of the work, some even walking out, while British audiences have universally lauded the work. In the media, theIrish Times deemed the work “scattershot” and “problematic”, while their British equivalent, The Guardian, termed it “terrific” adding that McDonagh’s work “touches greatness”.
“I intended the film to be a universal film,” says McDonagh. “It’s not really a state of the nation attack on Ireland or anything. I would hope that the film would be received well anywhere. To me you could remake Calvary in a small town in Spain, or a small town in Italy, anywhere that’s dealt with all of those issues — religion, the financial scandals.
“It should be able to play anywhere so I’m not specifically trying to say anything about Ireland. It’s just that, again, I know those type of characters and I know those actors who can play those characters. But I’m not specifically saying that this is what Ireland is because, let’s face it, all those characters are heightened. It’s not naturalistic. It’s not a Ken Loach movie.”
Despite The Guard and Calvary being part of what McDonagh calls “the Glorified Suicide trilogy”, the concluding part won’t be set in Ireland. “Now that I’ve done it twice, I think that might be it for a while,” he says. “I think I’ve done as much as I want to do in Ireland at the moment.”
Instead, he says, that third feature will be set in London, rounding off his family’s locales. Next, though, he hopes to shoot a film about two corrupt cops in Texas, entitled War on Everyone.Although actors Michael Pena (Crash) and Garrett Hedlund (TRON: Legacy) have signed on, the November shoot will depend on raising the $8million needed for filming.
I tell McDonagh that in spending almost two decades pursuing a career in film, and with creatively fulfilling success eluding him until he turned 43, he must have had considerable drive and self-belief to persevere?
“I think that it was more the fact that there was nothing else that I could do really,” he says. “I hated nine-to-five jobs. I tried to do them but I’d get so bored that I’d almost want to throw myself out of a window. When you know that you can’t actually do anything else, you have to sort of persevere at the writing. I used to try and write novels.
“I wrote about five novels but they were terrible really, looking back at them. It was only when I started writing screenplays that I got an immediate positive response and I decided to stick with it. Of course it’s a progression. So you start with getting Ned Kelly made but then I wasn’t happy with the way it turned out.
“So then I thought, instead of continually berating and criticising the director of Ned Kelly and bemoaning your fate, why don’t you just step up and direct the film yourself? So that then led intoThe Guard, which was a manageable, low-budget movie that I thought people might give me $6million to make. Up until that point I’d been writing scripts, a lot of which were $40-50million big budget action movies.
“No one is going to give me that money on my first film. So The Guard was something that I wrote that I thought maybe somebody would give me the $6-7million, which is what happened when I got Brendan involved. It’s just sticking with it really.”
***This interview was originally published in The Irish Post in May 2014**
© Steve Cummins.