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Interview: Writer/Director Martin McDonagh Discusses His New Film, ‘Seven Psychopaths’, His Writing Process and the “Genius” of Christopher Walken

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I’m a huge fan of Martin McDonagh’s work. I’ve read his plays (The Pillowman and A Behanding in Spokane being my favorite) and loved his 2008 directorial debut, In Bruges. So, when I got a chance to talk to him prior to a screening of his new film, Seven Psychopaths, at the San Diego Film Festival, I was incredibly excited.

Starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, Seven Psychopaths is a crazy and hilarious movie about, yes, psychopaths but it’s actually more about friendship. The story follows a struggling screenwriter (Farrell) who is trying to write a film while his friend (Rockwell) is secretly teaming up with a dog-napper (Walken). When they steal the dog of a mob boss (Woody Harrelson), all hell breaks loose. 

I could have talked to Martin all freaking day and chatting with him felt like having a conversation with an old friend. We talk about the cast, his writing process, the great Christopher Walken and a whole lot more!

Seven Psychopaths opens on this weekend. Go see it!

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

Martin McDonagh: We had some nice actors in this one.

Yeah, they were ok.

Martin McDonagh: [laughs] It was like my dream. Literally, I couldn’t think of a better actor in any of the parts, or like a dream hero actor for any of them.

I know you worked with a lot of the cast before. Did you just ring them up and say, “Hey, what’s up? What are you doing in March?”

Martin McDonagh: Pretty much, yeah. Colin, obviously I’d done In Bruges with him and we’d said we’d work together anytime we wanted to. We talked about the script, he read the script, and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Then we said we’ll get back to it sometime.

Then Sam and Christopher, I did the play [A Behanding in Spokane]with them in New York about 2 or 3 years ago and I’d known Sam a little bit, I’ve been trying to do a play with him for a few years. So I’d been watching his stuff for 10 years or more. I’ve known him for like 7 or 8. So that was, you know, “Do you wanna do this?” “Yes.” “Ok.” And Christopher, yeah, just sent it to him, he had a couple of questions, we spoke on the phone, and then he said yeah. And… then literally in a day after sending him the script.

And Woody I’d known for… Woody’s a big theatre guy, so he knew my stuff from years ago. I’d known him for like 10 years and he said yes straight away too. So it was like a dream.

Tom I almost did a sort of stage musical thing with him and I thought, “He’ll be fantastic. He’s not in films very often” But I… in fact, I just emailed him and told him a bit about it. I was like, “I know you’ve got a new album coming out and all that stuff.” Told him about the character, he said, “What, I get to carry a gun and a rabbit? I don’t need to read the script.”

And they’re all really lovely people too, so it wasn’t like having to work with… work around a movie star who’s gonna be a shit everyday because I couldn’t work… if they were like that, I just wouldn’t do it. But I’ve been so lucky on this, and In Bruges, that everyone is just a dream. In terms of actors, I think really good actors are that way. They don’t… it’s the insecure ones who aren’t good enough who give you that movie star shit.

When you get these guys in your film, do you go back and kind of touch it up a little bit, rewrite it for sort of their, you know, forte I guess?

Martin McDonagh: Not really, no. I mean, Christopher will make whatever script his own, and he’ll… every single word is intact.

Was it?

Martin McDonagh: Yeah. It’s just… every single comma wasn’t, every single question mark wasn’t. So he’ll say every single word, but it’s in Chris’s way.

I read an interview where he said he actually just types everything out in one long sentence.

Martin McDonagh: Yeah, yeah. No punctuation, no… yeah. And it’s genius, it works. But I think probably for… I mean, Colin’s character was originally not Irish, but once he was cast it would’ve been silly to, you know, it was actually more fun to make him more Irish and have more aspects of my character in some ways. So there are a few Americanisms that we changed.

Aside from that, no, I kind of… once I give a script down I’ve usually had it for months if not years. I’m not really into shaking that up too much.

Yeah, this is Christopher Walken’s… I don’t wanna say the best role he’s done in years, but man, he was just perfect in this.

Martin McDonagh: He knocked it out of the park. Well, he’s got that… he’s always got a kind of danger, you know, you’re always a little bit scared of him. But he’s so kind of vulnerable and sweet with the danger and such an integrity to what he does on the screen, always, but in this especially. But, yeah, he’s… he is a genius.

Do you direct him or do you just turn on the camera and say, “Action.”

Martin McDonagh: You kinda… you have… with all the boys I had like about 2 weeks rehearsal and I had the same on In Bruges, about 3 weeks. Which for me is just like talking the script through, making sure we’re all on the same page about character and what each line means. And after that, especially with Chris, yeah, no. you just kinda let him go.

And as he said to me on the first or second day, he said, “I’ll give you it 5 or 6 different ways. Don’t worry about it.” And it wasn’t really until I saw it back in the editing when I’m seeing each, you know, 5 or 6 takes that they were all so subtly, all strongly different. You could’ve made this each of the scenes completely comedic or terribly sad or very angry, and so… and he gave you all that and it’s… but it’s also kind of subtle that you didn’t really realize on the day. So no, you don’t really direct. But it’s good, now going into it I would do even less of that because I trust him so much.

Is that easier for you when you go into the editing room? See all those choices?

Martin McDonagh: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think…. I used to think it was all about keep doing it until I hear it the way I hear it in my head, but I don’t think that’s as true anymore. Especially with this one, it’s more about being a bit more freeing with them because you know they’ll give you so many options.

You said you took a 4 year break, what were you doing?

Martin McDonagh: Just traveling and writing and… because I wrote the play that Chris and Sam were in in that kind of 4 year break. So I always say I’m doing nothing for 4 years, but I’m writing. [laughs] But I just mean not making another film, because it’s not hard work like a coal miner or a nurse or something, but it’s 2 straight years of only thinking about that. So no, I like to travel and read and write.

What do you like better, writing screenplays or plays? Or are they kind of different things for you?

Martin McDonagh: They’re kind of similar to be honest. And I enjoy them both right now because I’ve done 2 or 3 film scripts back to back. There’s like one that’s ready to go that hasn’t been seen. I’m kinda in that mindset, so it almost felt easier about writing another film, I have to kind of unlearn a couple of things to go back to writing a play. But no, I enjoy them both.

You know what I loved about this movie, is that even though it’s called Seven Psychopaths and it’s violent and all that, but I think at it’s heart it’s a film about love and friendship. You know?

Martin McDonagh: Oh good, that’s what I was hoping it would be.

I guess if you take a step back, it’s kind of sweet too. You know?

Martin McDonagh:  Yeah. I mean, I… because Colin’s character says that at the start, that he doesn’t want it to be about guns and violence and all that sort of thing. And hopefully by the end of it, even though we have had a lot of guns and violence and matches, what you come away… well, what I intended was that you come away with the place that Chris’s character takes us to in that story about the monk and that it doesn’t have to be that. It doesn’t have to be the typical Seven Psychos film, you can have a film that’s called that but still be talking about peace and love and kinda get there. So I’m glad you got that.

But also the love between Colin and Sam’s character I think is kinda what it’s about, this friendship that is kind of skewed and at one point one feels like the top dog and then it kind of changes. But the love between them is kind of palpable throughout.

Yeah. And even though Sam’s character’s clearly a complete psychopath, a lot of his motivation is just out of love.

Martin McDonagh: Yeah, almost all of it, it’s just a push. He thinks Marty is this genius and he just wants to push him to make the best script that he can possibly make. The trouble is that he wants it to be kinda his own version of the script, but it’s still… it’s all pushed out there. It’s like a stage mom, not realizing how screwed up you are because you wanna do that.

In the script, was it ever stated how successful of an actor Sam’s character was?

Martin McDonagh: No, he was always pretty unemployable. [laughs]Like the getting into fights at auditions is, I think, a recurring theme. And I think the dog kidnapping always made more money than the acting did.

Your films are heavily dialogue driven, and a lot of films that are like that I can honestly care less, I just want them to get on with the story. But your stuff, if you spent another 10 minutes with just your characters just talking, it’s just thoroughly enjoyable. How do you keep that enjoyable while other films are just like, “This is just awful.”

Martin McDonagh: Yeah, I think it’s… no, I love dialogue and I love good, odd… I mean, mine is kind of odd dialogue and they go to odd places and it’s not about… the dialogue isn’t about exposition or moving a scene on. Sometimes it’s about stopping a scene and talking about bullshit.

But it should never feel like you’re going, “Isn’t this bullshit?”

And you find out so much about your characters that way.

Martin McDonagh: Yeah, it’s almost all of it because it’s the way we are in real life too. But there’s a joy… plot sometimes is, you know… it’s kind of similar feel from film to film. But dialogue and characters don’t have to be and it’s not… this is not about what’s next in the dog kidnapping thing or what’s next with Woody Harrelson when… like, the whole idea of going to the desert and stopping was kind of fun. It’s like, “Screw the plot. We’re gonna talk for a bit.”

But, at the same time, you can only play around with those conventions so long without losing your audience and without being kinda smug and thinking you’re better than your audience I think. So it’s a balancing act.

There was probably like 20 or 25 minutes of really cool extra scenes in this, but it just… which did, what you said, 10 minutes more of talking. It did slow it down and it was too much fun. So as much as I like that stuff too, you do have… this a version of what it has been.

What’s your writing process like? Do you wake up early and just write like a madman?

Martin McDonagh: If I’m working on something then, yeah, I’ll get up at 8 or 9 and… I’ll do a set number of pages a day or a set number of hours a day, but it isn’t too many. Maybe like 3 hours… 3 or 4 hours or 3 or 4… 4 or 5 script pages.

And then just leave it for the rest of the day and go back to it the next morning. So… but then keep doing that until the whole thing’s finished. And each day kind of re-reading the previous page and then moving on 3 or 4 pages more.

But then when it’s done I kind of don’t do anything for months and months. I might go back to it after that, but I can’t… kind of don’t usually say something’s finished until it’s ready to go completely. I won’t send it out until I think it’s fit to be a film or a play. You know, because I don’t get notes from anyone else and I don’t listen to agents or friends or… I just… I won’t say it’s finished until it’s finished.

Do you have an outline before you start writing or do you just…?

Martin McDonagh: No.

Pen and paper…

Martin McDonagh: This one was just write all, literally pencil and notepad.

Oh, you write with a pencil? Oh wow.

Martin McDonagh: So… because I can travel with it and write on beaches or on trains.

And then do you just give it to somebody to type?

Martin McDonagh: No, then I’ll type it up at the end. Because that’s like a second draft too.

And… but, yeah. No, I didn’t know where it was going, this one. I kinda… I think I had the Quakers like that story just a little short story, and the idea of Colin’s character having a title for something but not having enough psychopaths but still not wanting it to be violent, and that’s all I had. And then his friend popped up and then his other friend popped up. And then I thought, “Well, what if that friend was the guy in another psychopath.” And then… so it just kinda built like that. But I didn’t really know where it was going scene to scene.

When you’re writing and creating these characters, do images of certain people pop up in your mind?

Martin McDonagh: Not so much. No. Not so much. Sometimes a line of dialogue can give you a key to the whole character, it can read just odd or it can be a southern lilt  or it can just be just skewed and that will give me an entire characterization I think.

What are you working on next? What’s coming up?

Martin McDonagh: I’ve got a film script that’s the opposite of this, and it’s got a really strong female lead who’s like 55 years old and is kind of interesting and doesn’t get her head blown off. [laughs]It’s the exact opposite. But I’m not gonna do anything for another 3 or 4 years. I’m gonna travel and write and think and grow up.

Do you have another play coming up?

Martin McDonagh: No, they’re going to… I think Daniel Radcliffe’s gonna do the… one of my Irish plays next year in London. So some of the old ones are gonna come back around. No, I mean, in the next 3 or 4 years I might write another one. I haven’t done that for a bit, so… but no new stuff.

You might write another one. “Yeah, I’ll just bang another one out.”

Martin McDonagh: [laughs]

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