Celebrated playwright Martin McDonagh hasn’t written and directed all that many movies, but he might find himself as a nominee at the Academy Awards for a third time in a few weeks. He won for “Six Shooter” as Best Live Action Short at the 2006 ceremony and contended for Best Original Screenplay of “In Bruges” at the 2009 show. Four of his plays have competed at the Tony Awards: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” (1998), “The Lonesome West” (1999), “The Pillowman” (2005), and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” (2006).
His latest film is “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which stars Frances McDormand as a small-town woman berating local police officials (including Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell) for not solving her daughter’s murder. He could receive nominations at the Oscars for directing, writing, and producing this movie, which has upcoming bids at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice as well as the three actors listed above and the full cast contending at the SAG Awards.
Watch the video of Gold Derby’s webchat with McDonagh above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Martin McDonagh, “Three Billboards” opening soon nationwide, worldwide. To you, what is the theme of this movie? Why would somebody wanna go see your film?
Martin McDonagh: It’s a story about a mother’s rage at the loss of a child, and it’s about her attempt to seek justice for that. But it’s done in a blackly comic way, with a character that’s a force of nature. So if people like good acting and a couple of laughs but also a meaty story, then I think they’ve come to the right place.
GD: We were talking in our editors meeting this morning, several of the characters in the movie, not just Frances [McDormand]’s character, but several have this rage within them or are seeking revenge of some sort or have some kind of anger issues. Talk about that thread weaving through several characters.
MM: I think it is sort of prevalent in the world today, not just in America today. It seems to be something that’s been going on for a while and I kind of tapped into my own latent rage a little bit in the writing of this, so it’s kind of exciting to set a character off from that place, of a take-no-prisoners woman who’s seeking justice. But I’m glad to say the film is a little deeper than that. It’s a little bit more about humanity and change and hope than a story that stays in an angry, raging place. At the same time you want it to be as truthful as possible to that anger.
GD: I do wanna mention to anybody watching, if you haven’t seen the movie yet you might wanna watch this video a little later, ‘cause we are gonna get into a couple of plot points.
MM: Spoiler alert.
GD: Tell us about Frances. Did you write this with her in mind or how did you come about bringing her on board?
MM: Yeah, it was completely written for her. She’s, I think, the best actress of her generation. We met each other about 16 or 17 years ago after a play that I’d written that was in New York. Then we bumped into each other again about five years after that. We said we wanted to work together on something. I said, “We should do a play.” She said, “No, we should do a film.” But she was always gonna be my no. 1 person to go to for my first female lead anyway, particularly for a character like Mildred, who had to be tough and single-minded but someone you kind of love at the same time, and someone with a dexterity for humor as well, which we’ve seen over the years in her Coen brothers work and most of her work. But also, she’s someone who I knew wouldn’t sentimentalize the character or make her more palatable when she needed to be. One of the most important things for us was to let the audience in but to not give them an easy ride, because she’s not the perfect person that she might appear to be at the beginning of the film.
GD: No, most of her town doesn’t like her at all and that’s even before the billboards.
MM: Yeah, exactly.
GD: Now that you’ve worked with her, and you knew what you probably would get going in but then once you actually had the process of working with her over those weeks, how was she similar to what you thought she would be in terms of an actress and how did she even surprise you?
MM: She was almost more similar to Mildred than my image of Frances. She was very singleminded. I think both of us, between us, had a love for Mildred, had a love for the character, and were doing everything we can to defend our version of her. Luckily, that kind of coincided completely. Maybe there was like 5% that we might have a little bit of friction on, but I think even that friction added to Mildred, because I think she was equally at war with me at times as she was with the town, and I think that created an exciting frisson to the movie, too.
GD: I love this ironic fact in real life, that her most iconic character, Oscar-winning character in “Fargo” being police, and that’s what we see her as in terms of maybe our favorite character. Now she’s totally on the opposite side of police.
MM: Yeah, completely on the opposite side. She’d probably throw something at Marge if she saw her in town. But yeah, that just shows Frances’s range I think. She can be a completely convincing police officer and a woman who’s going to war with them, equally.
GD: You had worked with Sam [Rockwell] before. You had worked with Woody [Harrelson] before. Were they also in your mind as you were writing those characters?
MM: Yeah, very much so. Sam particularly, I had his voice when I was writing the Dixon character because I knew Sam could go to all of the dark places required, ‘cause it’s a pretty dark character, particularly at the start. And I knew he wouldn’t, again, sentimentalize him or make him too soft, but I also knew that because there’s something so lovable about Sam as a person as well as an actor, that the change in the character would be believable, and that’s more down to Sam. Woody is a beautiful actor and we needed someone in there who you instantly love, instantly see as a decent human being, even though Frances’s character is saying he’s not, or he’s not doing his job. We needed it to be an actor who the audience loves, and that’s true of Woody, ‘cause he’s such a lovely, humane guy and a great actor. So I couldn’t have hoped for three better actors in this.
GD: The switch you talk about that happens two-thirds of the way in the movie, I think part of that, not just Sam’s portrayal but part of your genius in the screenplay is the letters that Woody writes, especially the letter that Sam is reading where the audience is not on Dixon’s side all through the movie up to that point. He seems like the evil police character that might be in a movie but the fact that Woody’s character, Willoughby, thinks that there’s good within Dixon, and you hear that in the voiceover, you hear that from the letter, I think really helps the audience make that transition.
MM: I think so, yeah. I think that’s true. We’re kind of allowed to see Woody’s hope for Sam’s character almost. That does allow us in, because Woody’s character is probably the hero of the film, strangely. His heart beats throughout the length of it and his humanity I think is what sort of changes everyone.
GD: It’s a beautiful movie to watch. Tell us about assembling your crew and some of the key people behind the scenes.
MM: Sure, well Ben Davis was the DP and we worked together on “Seven Psychopaths” too, but he’s also done big Marvel movies, he did the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Doctor Strange.” This is very different to that but we kind of wanted to make a film… some of our favorite films are American movies of the 1970s, so we wanted this to have that look and that feel and that kind of downbeat aspect but a beauty to it, too. And I used the same first AD from the last one, too, and there were about four or five of the actors that worked on the last movie or the first one, so it felt like a repertory company this time around. There was an ease on set, ‘cause it was like old friends working together, and I think that kind of shows maybe in the film. Even though there are dark aspects to it, there’s a lot of hope and humanity and fun to be had in the film.
GD: And the production design, building this small town, making it so believable, and I love the way you and your team position those billboards off and the angle where you can see all three of them, either from behind or from the front. Your production design, I guess what I’m saying, was just miraculous here in the way that you put all that together.
MM: Thank you, that was Inbal Weinberg who was the production designer on this. First time I’ve worked with her, but she was great. We searched a lot of roads for that perfect road, ‘cause we had to find somewhere with houses that would look down onto the little stretch where the billboards were gonna go, and then choices like the color, even, of the billboards, and the design of the billboards before they’re taken over by Mildred, and after, was quite important. We first see the billboards and they’re kind of disheveled and dilapidated, but quite beautiful and iconic, too. And then they change into this stark red and black message. We were really lucky we chose the red, I think, because at nighttime it kind of pops out as if it’s glowing in the dark. That was something we hadn’t quite counted on, but I think it gives the film an iconic quality in places.
GD: Why did you want to make this an American setting as opposed to European?
MM: There’s something so cinematic I think about the American landscape, something that you couldn’t really do anywhere else. But also, I knew it had to be one of the Southern states in America. It had to be somewhere where there is this kind of underlying racial tension and we have those issues everywhere in the U.K. and Europe, too, but I don’t think it’s quite as pointed or on the surface as it is here, so I think that was another of the reasons to make it American. But also, a character like Mildred, it feels like such a proper, big American part. I can’t imagine a European woman lead of a film having that kind of go-getting, take-no-prisoners kind of energy. Maybe I should try and write one. This one is going pretty well (laughs). Isabelle Huppert, she might have something to say about that.
GD: That’s right. Well you just mentioned, incredible reviews already coming out of the festivals, and now that the critics and other people are seeing it within the industry, the public will weigh in soon. We all feel like — we’re an awards website — we’re about to see you on a lot of red carpets. I think not only you but some of the behind the scenes people we mentioned, some of the actors. What would that mean to you and the movie if it starts getting that kind of awards recognition?
MM: I’d love it. I’d especially love it for the actors, for Frances, for Sam and for Woody, because I think their work is so phenomenal in this. It would be great to walk the red carpets beside them. But when you make a film like this, the subject matter is a little dark in places, so we weren’t sure two months ago if people would go for it, if they would be allowed in to get the humor or to love the characters or to accept the story. So now we’re in a position where everyone who’s seen it, seem to have really gone for it. And it’s much better to be talked about in terms of awards than not to be. This is a film that very easily could have gone under the radar some years, but there’s something kind of exciting about it, so I’m looking forward to it.
GD: I think it’s gonna be the kind of movie that especially audiences, they’ll discover. They’ll be talking to their friends and their family and they’ll say, “Hey, have you seen ‘Three Billboards’ yet?” I think it’s gonna be that kind of movie going forward.
MM: Hopefully. Also, the title is quite peculiar, too, so it’s kind of like, what’s that movie with the long—
GD: They won’t get it confused with another title, that’s for sure.
MM: (Laughs.) Exactly, exactly. But I like movies that you kind of discover yourself. I think I saw “Moonlight” pretty early last year and it felt like it was something only I knew about almost but it turned out not to be.
GD: It’s almost fun that way for a while, when it is a movie that you’ve seen and others haven’t. It becomes your personal possession for just a short period of time.
MM: Yeah, exactly. And I think sometimes the earlier you see something, especially with a film like this which has got lots of twists and turns, you kind of wanna get in there before you’ve accidentally heard what those are. There’s something kind of joyful about the characters in this film, so I hope audiences will take them to heart.
GD: One last question, you won an Oscar a little over a decade ago. You’ve been nominated again in Screenplay. I believe you joined the Academy about then, right around the time of “In Bruges” or somewhere around then? You’re in the writers branch?
GD: What do you like most about voting on the Oscars, and taking your own films out, what sort of a screenplay grabs your attention that makes you wanna vote for it? What are you looking for within the structure or in other ways that makes you wanna vote for a screenplay?
MM: For me I think it’s originality. It’s seeing something that hasn’t adhered to the usual Hollywood tropes, something that you can see the people push the envelope, or just told a completely personal story. I think last year was pretty good for that, ‘cause there were three films going head to head, “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” and “La La Land” in a slightly different way. But you could see it was like three people and their vision about the world, or their idea for a story about the world, that wasn’t really diluted by commerce or what’s been done before, so that’s what I always look for when I’m voting, both for script and for Picture and in the acting categories, too.
GD: Well you’ve done that. This is one of the most original films I’ve seen in many years and good luck with it. I’m really hoping to see you on a lot of these award show red carpets over the next few months.
MM: Thanks, I hope to see you there, too.