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.
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
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.
Not to get too writerly about it, but how do you balance those tones?
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.
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
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
… Nicolas 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
Don’t worry, I wasn’t about to accuse you of sharing Ray’s anti-Americanism, either.
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
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
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.