Playwright Martin McDonagh has made a substantial mark in the modern theatre with his Irish trilogies and his Kafaesque “The Pillowman.” But it was always his desire to make movies, and he came to Dallas to promote his first feature as writer-director, “In Bruges,” a seriocomic tale of two Irish hit-men (played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) sent to lie low in the Belgian town, with its well-preserved medieval core, after botching a job back home.
“It was my first love, really,” McDonagh said in a recent Dallas interview. “I didn’t really know anything about theatre when I was a kid. I had a love of films. But I just fell into this kind of treadmill, I guess, of putting plays out, and I got to enjoy it very much. But it wasn’t anything I was ever brought up with, or knew about. Film was always that.
“I always had in my head the idea just to make one film, and leave it at that—just to see if I could. And I’ve done that now, and I’m not sure I’m going to leave it. I thought it would be much more a horrible, difficult process than it actually turned out to be. I thought there’d be a lot more, you know, notes from the producers, a lot more people who wanted to change the script or the tone. And I thought working with the actors would be lot harder than it was. But it turned out [well].
“I realized I had learned a lot from all the plays. I’d always been in rehearsals. I’d never directed a play before, but I’d always been in rehearsal rooms and always been talking to the actors. So we had three weeks of rehearsal for this, and I realized that I had learned a lot from back then, and I kind of knew what the process is about.”
It certainly hadn’t hurt in finding backing for his debut feature that McDonagh had already made a short film (also with Gleeson) called “Six Shooter” (2005), which went on to win an Oscar—an experience he said hadn’t really changed him. “The whole thing seemed so strange,” he recalled. “I mean it was fun, but it was weird. But you just go back home and write another stupid play or another film, and it doesn’t really affect you. Sometimes you wake up in the morning and go in the kitchen, and there’s an Oscar there. And that’s rather cool. But you certainly don’t ever make a short thinking that you’re going to win an Oscar!”
Of course, the fact that McDonagh’s script boasted his characteristically darkly comic take on explosively violent situations was a factor, too. “It’s strange,” he admitted. “You can’t quite define it as a comedy, or just as a drama, or just as a shoot-’em-up. It’s got elements of all those things, and goes to a strange place….[It’s] trying to explore despair and redemption and guilt. When a hit goes wrong, how do you deal with the horror of that?”
And why Bruges?
“I went there on a weekend vacation,” McDonagh explained. “I heard it was a pretty town. I didn’t really know anything about it. It was only, like, two-and-a-half hours away on the train from London. And I was walking around, just stunned by how beautiful it was. Beautiful but dark and brooding, and medieval and Gothic, too, especially at nighttime. And I just thought, this has never been used in a film before, as far as I knew. And wouldn’t it be cool to have this place as a character in a film?
“So I went to all the churches and museums and all of that, and in the middle of the second day I was bored out of my head. And that became the two characters in my head—the one who appreciates the culture and the churches, and the other who wants to get drunk and meet women. And I thought, why would these two people be there when they didn’t have to be there? Then they became hit-men there to escape a horrible situation. It was kind of like a set-up—the fish-out-of-water hit-men situation. But then [I] take it to a whole different [emotional] place as well.”
And McDonagh remained committed to the idea of capturing the specificity of Bruges, pointing to Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” (set in Venice) and Patrick McGoohan’s famous television series “The Prisoner” (set in an oddly remote Welsh village) as touchstones. “I wanted [the film] to be very authentic,” he said. “I wanted Bruges to be like a fully-fledged character in the film. We see it in every shot. It’s kind of palpable, especially at night—there’s a darkness to it, a brooding quality.”
But despite the fact that very dark and bloody things happen in the picture, McDonagh says, “I think Bruges does come across as a beautiful place to visit.” And apparently the city fathers agree, expressing no regret for the virtual carte blanche they gave the company to shoot in their city.