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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.


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?


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

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?


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

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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