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TSR Exclusive: 'The Guard' interview with writer/director John Michael McDonagh

In the movie world, the last name McDonagh might particularly stand out to those who really enjoyed In Bruges, which starred Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Martin McDonagh made a triumphant debut with his film about assassins on holiday in Bruges. Now, Martin's brother John has stepped up, with his own film starring Brendan Gleeson called The Guard.

In the film, Gleeson plays a crude Irish sergeant who works with a serious FBI agent (played by Don Cheadle) as they attempt to stop a group of drug smugglers (lead by Mark Strong).

I sat down with John Michael McDonagh at Chicago's Peninsula Hotel to discuss the film's Western influences, the creation of the character, and McDonagh's dream of putting gangsters on a roller coaster.

The Guard opened in Portland on 8/12, and will be expanding across America throughout the end of summer.

READ - Nick Allen's Scorecard Review of "The Guard" READ - Jeff Bayer's Scorecard Review of "The Guard"

Have you been interviewing all day?

It’s nothing too tough. I always say it’s not like shoveling cement. It’s not a tough day really. You get free booze. I love a bourbon in the afternoon.

I read that you pictured this movie as a sort of Western. What Western movies influenced The Guard, and its characters?

My favorites are the Peckinpah films, Pat Garrett. Obviously The Wild Bunch. I think the reason for that is not just the mythic element, but there was always something melancholic about Peckinpah’s movies. The way that westerns played into my mind thematically, was one, it happens in a small town, and Boyle is basically a sheriff. The bad guys arrive, and is he going to stand up to them or not? The second way was with the landscape, which had that bleak, windswept sort of place. I was hoping that the setting would lend itself to something mythic.

I watched a lot of John Ford movies. Because when you’re a kid, you watch those movies because it’s a John Wayne movie. But later you’re like, “Those movies look pretty good … Oh, it’s the same director! Maybe I’ll watch some of his other movies.” So then it was The Searchers, Wagonmaster, and all those films. I didn’t want this to be a small, parochial Irish film. I wanted to give it a big, widescreen mythic dimension. And then I got Calexico to do the soundtrack, that really bumped it up. And I really like the John Denver movies of the seventies. The singer-songwriters in general of that decade. I’ve got one script I’m working on right now, where there are two bad cops and one of them is a huge Glen Campbell fan.

Talking about mythic qualities of the film, The Guard uses some interesting sets for wide shots, like when Mark Strong stands at the pier. Do you have any unique memories with these places?

I’ll tell you what’s funny about that. The way that it was originally set up was that Mark would be on that pier, and then literally in the location across the road from that pier would be an amusement park. The scene that we see in the aquarium, I was going to have them all be on a roller coaster. So they’re having this discussion on a roller coaster. And we arrive to the location, and I didn’t realize that they pack up roller coasters and put them in storage. But I do like the area, because my parents are from the area. From where we were standing there was the aquarium, and it was probably one of the world’s worst aquariums. But we got there, and it wasn’t too bad. And then my film buff mind started to think like, “I could do a reference to Lady from Shanghai.” But the one shot we didn’t was this large tank of conga eels, and I thought, “This would be great to reveal the villains’ psyche.” But the minute we turned the lights on, the eels disappeared. Which made it strangely phallic. That’s one of the great things about filmmaking, when something goes wrong, and it actually leads to a better idea. But I still want to make my gangsters on a roller coaster movie.

I’ve never seen that before.

And I wanted – there’s three of them – it would be two and two, and with them is a little kid who has got nothing to do with their discussion. Mark Strong next to the little kid, talking to the two in front.

Were you at all like the little boy who pops in and out of the film?

I guess because I had my brother (Martin McDonagh) I was never really alone. I had a lot of friends. That kid was great. He was from the area. The thing I was concerned about the most is that I hate kids in movies – you can tell they’re being pushed by their parents, they went to stage school, etc. They’re just like 30-year-old men, in the body of the child. So it all came out of [that] I hate establishing shots in movies. So I thought, “What can I put into the shot of the exterior of the police station? Oh, I’ll put a kid on a bike. But who’s the kid?” So then it lead to, “Oh, he can be the kid who finds the guns.” That happened as I was writing. He just kept popping up from that point on. Again, me being bored with an idea, has lead to something interesting. [The kid] didn’t like driving the little pink bike. We even screwed around with it so he couldn’t ride it properly.

How did the character of Gerry Boyle change from the first thought you had of the character to now?

I had made a short ten years ago that had the peripherals of this character. When it first came to mind, I thought it was an interesting character – a police officer who should be working but he’s in a bar drinking, and he’s being obnoxious to people for no reason. And he just leaves, where does he go? From that point, I started to seriously thinking about the idea of an obnoxious, cantankerous, and confrontational personality. That cop. Who would he annoy the most? I thought, an American FBI agent. Haven’t we seen that before. Then I made it a black American FBI agent. You could keep going. You could be a woman, but I thought, “I’ve got enough material, I think I can offend a big enough group of people with what I’ve got. I don’t need to wipe out everybody.” What people get with the film is that I’m not just picking on Americans, or black people. I’m picking on the English, the Irish themselves. I’m picking on everybody. I’m not just honing on one group of people.

Did Don Cheadle have any experience in real life similar to what kind of naïve racism his character goes through in the film?

There was one thing, I’m not sure how many people know of Thierry Henry, a football player who now plays in the MLS. There was a big incident just before we were making the film where he handballed the ball. And it put Ireland out of the World Cup. We went into a bar, and Don was the only black guy in the bar. These two Irishmen were totally hammered, and they go, “Oh, it’s Thierry Henry!” And I was like, “Oh for f*ck’s sake.” And Don turns to me and says, “You’re right, they are all racists aren’t they?” Later on, Don came up to me and said, “Did you ask that guy to apologize?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Oh, he came up to apologize later on.” I think it was that naïve innocent racism, which is still racism, but they don’t mean it in a nasty way.

Which is exposed in this movie.

Which is what Gerry presents himself as. He pretends to be the country bumpkin who is a racist.

Is it more fun to cast Mark Strong, or the hookers?

[laughs] If I was a single man … but I had my wife with me. That shooting was the first day, when they were in bed. Of course you realize, “Okay, I’m nervous.” But then you realize, everybody’s nervous. But then as the day goes on, everyone gets jokey, and forget they’re not wearing much clothes. Brendan was nervous because there needed to be an innocence about that scene without it coming off as sleazy.

The hookers come off as nice.

I was asked at a Q&A if hookers in Ireland were actually that nice. And in my experience, they’ve always been quite pleasant.

The beginning of your movie is very interesting. I hardly see movies that begin like The Guard, where it has that N.E.R.D line. It just grabs you, and it’s so loud too.

It was meant to be … I was sort of saying, “F*ckin’ posers” to the British and Irish film industries. That was going to be my first line with my first film, I had every intention.

That was always something you wanted to do?

That song wasn’t written into the script, but I put it in quite late. You listen to songs that you might use, but you can’t afford them. I decided that I wanted to get the N.E.R.D song, and I had to pay for it. Liz Gallagher, our music supervisor, said it wasn’t a bad deal. Once it’s there, I can’t see the movie without it. And you see the kids, and you think the story is going to be about them, and then they are dead. And then he takes the drugs. But even to that, there’s a secondary level. He doesn’t want them to be vilified, so he’s kind of doing a nice thing. So you’re setting up the dichotomy of the character very quickly. And he says “What a beautiful f*cking day,” and I did write that, but it wasn’t a beautiful day outside. I just love pre-credit sequences in movies. I love big titles.

I was gonna say, the last time I had seen big title credits like that was maybe Bronson.

Yeah. I think Kubrick used big titles a lot. Godard did quite a lot. Have you seen Submarine? He uses that Godard sort of typeface.

And Sgt. Boyle doesn’t really do any drugs after this opening scene.

Yeah, it becomes clear that he’s tried everything. That was part of the backstory, that he was a curious individual who tried every drug at least once. I think he looks at the acid like, “That’s unusual, I haven’t had that.” I actually had a scene right at the end, after the closing title, back on the bridge, but people who read it seemed to assume the whole movie was an acid trip. It was him with his eye’s closed. Whenever someone has their eyes closed, it’s a reference to death. But I thought, “Oh no, I don’t want people thinking it’s a dream or an acid trip.” I hate those movies.

On the outside, this could seem like a “dirty cop movie.” I was wondering what clichés you really hate about the dirty cop genre?

In the Jason Statham film Blitz, they do the exact thing that I hate. People sit around going, “Brett, he’s a real tough maverick cop.” And then Brett enters. “We’ve got to set up the star.” I hate that. And there’s another one that happens, it doesn’t get referred to a lot, and this happens with Denzel movies, and there’s this old fat white cops, and he comes in and says, “You do this, you do that.” They go, “Wow, he just sorted this out. It would have taken us hours.” So that’s why I like and dislike the cliché. It’s so obvious. Tony Scott seems to like doing it, but I like Tony Scott and True Romance. It becomes a cliché, I hate characters talking about the lead character before he arrives. “Oh, he just divorced and he has a drinking problem.” I’d like to see a film about a guy who doesn’t drink and is happily married.

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