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Martin McDonagh on “In Bruges”

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By Aaron Hillis

Martin McDonagh makes creative success look ridiculously easy. Having already racked up Olivier, Obie and Drama Desk awards (not to mention four Tony nominations), the Irish playwright wrote and directed his first short film in 2004, “Six Shooter,” and won a freakin’ Oscar. The short starred Brendan Gleeson, who has reteamed for McDonagh’s feature debut and Sundance 2008 opener, “In Bruges.” After an underworld assignment in London goes tragically wrong, hit man Ken (Gleeson) and his snarky, younger partner Ray (Colin Farrell) follow orders to hide out in the titular Belgian town. However, Ray’s fidgety boredom and uncanny ease at starting a public commotion put the two in the crosshairs of the police, a hot production intern and her psychotic boyfriend, a dwarf actor and the criminal duo’s menacing boss (played by a scene-stealing Ralph Fiennes). McDonagh sat down with me to discuss bigoted characters and why “In Bruges” isn’t just another hit man flick.

What do the Belgians think about a film whose protagonist not only hates the city of Bruges, but is quite outspoken as a naysayer?

He is. I was a little bit worried about that because they welcomed us with open arms, and helped us out completely. We showed it to the mayor’s office, the tourist board and all of the Belgians who worked on it three weeks ago. They all liked it and were behind it, that was kind of a relief.

Me, personally, I think it’s a beautiful, amazing town. What I

wanted to capture on film is just how pretty, strange and worth a visit

is. For a younger guy, it’s probably not the most exciting place in the

world. Outside of the museums, churches and the architecture, there’s

not a tremendous amount to see. When I was walking around the place on

a little weekend break about four years ago, that’s what popped up in

my head. Half of me was loving the culture, and half of me was dying to

get a drink, or meet a girl or anything to get away from the boredom.

That’s sort of how the story popped up, having a guy who hates it and

is just bored by the architecture and galleries, and another guy who

loves it. So then I thought, why would two people who have these

opinions be stuck in a place like Bruges when they didn’t want to be?

That’s when the hit man idea came up… escaping a horrible incident,

being sent there and told to chill out for a couple of weeks.

When

you decided the characters would be hit men, were you concerned that

the “soulful hit man” movie has been done to death in the last decade

or longer?

I think part of the idea was to set up that “it’s

a cool hit man movie” fish-out-of-water story that we’ve seen before,

but then try to subvert that, and take it into territory that’s a lot

darker, more despairing, or sadder than most “soulful hit man” films

ever really go to. Guilt and sin are addressed, but it’s more of a

lapsed Catholic take on it, you know? It has the balance of the comedy,

but I think the sadder place it goes to is what makes this different.

02112008_inbruges_310x229_2.jpgNot to get too writerly about it, but how do you balance those tones?

I

honestly don’t think about it. Most of my plays have been that way.

It’s just the way I write naturally, it always tends to come out as

black comedy. I guess it’s just kind of the way I see the world. I see

all the horror, war and pain, and in some ways, I just want to

politically take the piss out of it, of all the people who are causing

that stuff. If you let it get you down, you’re gonna die, you’re gonna

kill yourself. [laughs] So I’m kind of laughing at this stupidity,

which sometimes is the only thing to do. It’s partly about redemption

and honor and decent things, as well as the darker things.

It

seems like theater people who get into filmmaking tend to make flat and

stagey work, but “In Bruges” is rather cinematic for a playwright’s

feature debut.

Well, exactly, that’s exactly the kind of

film I didn’t want to make: Two guys walking around talking for two

hours, or sitting on a bench and talking for two hours, or sitting

somewhere else. That was my biggest fear. I grew up loving films. I

never really had much of an interest in theater as a kid because I

wasn’t ever brought to it; you know, I didn’t really have the money to

go to it. Film was always my first love, and is something I wanted to

get back to, and all of my influences are cinematic ones. All the De

Niro-Scorsese films, Terrence Malick, Kurosawa, Sam Peckinpah, David

Lynch… um…

… Nicolas Roeg?

Roeg,

yeah. I wouldn’t have said an influence necessarily, but “Don’t Look

Now” is very much a template of this, of trying to capture a town as a

character. So yeah, I always wanted to make something that was

cinematic instead of wordy. I storyboarded for three straight months

before we started shooting just to get the visual side into my head.

It’s something that doesn’t come naturally, so I just broke down every

scene and drew pictures. Bruges itself helps — it’s such a cinematic

place. I just forced myself to work in angles, two-shots or one-shots

or all those things, it’s just time, effort and forcing yourself to

learn a different skill. At the same time, I know what I like and what

I’m good at, which is dialogue and character, so I didn’t want to run

away from that completely.

There’s a casual bigotry

to Ray, who has something bad to say about gays, blacks, dwarves and

pretty much anyone who’s not like him. When you write protagonists like

this, how careful should you be in letting audiences know you’re not

condoning ugly behavior?

I guess the easy, honest answer

is not careful at all. I’m pretty P.C. as a person, but sometimes it’s

more interesting to create a character who is the exact opposite in

lots of ways, not a voice box for your beliefs. If your spirit is

against bigotry, that’s what you hope will come through overall. You

hope that an audience member will see that filmmakers don’t necessarily

subscribe to a character’s point of view.

Most everything that

comes out of Ray’s mouth is, at best, childlike and kind of dumb. I’m

sure some would say Ray is homophobic, or whatever else. He’s also a

killer! I don’t subscribe to that point of view either, but with

everything Ray says, there’s an honor. It doesn’t feel like there’s any

hate or malice to it. That’s also countered with things that Ken says

about his wife who died, who was black. I hope the picture comes across

that these are well-rounded characters that I don’t necessarily agree

with, but you have to be as free with your writing and characters as

possible.

Don’t worry, I wasn’t about to accuse you of sharing Ray’s anti-Americanism, either.

[laughs]

A lot of my best friends are American! Creatively, everything has

happened for me here, more so than in London or anywhere else in the

world. Anti-Americanism is just as dumb as anti-black or anti-gay, but

lots of people in the world are kind of subscribing to that point of

view. With this film, I’m not doing anything to stamp it out, but I

think governments are the bigger issue. I’ve always been anti-American

government, but I’m always “anti” to British government, Irish

government…

So maybe you’re addressing you own

anti-authoritarian ways when Ray insults the fat, Midwestern American

tourists, as if they represent the half of the U.S. who voted for the

current administration?

Yeah, but was it half? [laughs] Even those people Ray takes the piss out of, he’s not right… Okay, he is a little mean-spirited about that. But it’s funny!

“In Bruges” is now in limited release.

[Photos: Focus Features, 2008]
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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.