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Twenty years ago, British-Irish director Martin McDonagh was riding on a Greyhound bus somewhere in the American South when he spotted a series of angry billboards, one after the other, criticizing the local police.
That memory stuck with him for the next two decades until he wrote Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, his dark comedy starring Frances McDormand as grieving mother Mildred, who puts up three giant signs by the highway attacking the local police force for not finding the person who raped and murdered her daughter.
McDonagh brought the script to producer Graham Broadbent while they were making their second film together, and soon enough, they were off to North Carolina to shoot the film, which also stars Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell (both of whom landed Oscar nominations, along with McDormand).
Three Billboards earned Broadbent, 52, his first Oscar nomination (alongside fellow producers McDonagh and Peter Czernin). The British producer reveals to THR what he thought of the script when McDonagh first handed it to him and why they didn’t actually shoot the film in its titular Midwestern state.
How did this movie come about?
It’s the third film that we’ve produced with Martin, so we did In Bruges with him, we did Seven Psychopaths with him, and I guess the brilliant thing about working with Martin is that he delivers brilliant and extraordinary scripts when he does them, so that’s the producer’s dream. The frustration is that he just likes to make films every three or four years — he doesn’t like to do loads. He also does plays and does other things and has a real life. So you sit tapping your fingers on the desk waiting and hoping the script might arrive.
What did you think of Three Billboards when you first read the script?
I thought it was extraordinary. I was like, “It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s full of humanity, and I don’t know where it’s going to go, and that makes me page-turn quickly.” You have no sense where the narrative’s going — that’s what we’re hearing back from audiences now is that they don’t know where the narrative goes — and that’s great. He also asks you to love characters that you might not otherwise love, be it In Bruges — the assassin Colin Farrell who just killed a kid — or in this case, Frances McDormand, who’s taking on the town, or Sam Rockwell, who’s had his own issues.
What was your next step?
It was only a question about when do we want to line this up to go? We did Seven Psychopaths and then sort of tried to find a time around 2015, 2016. Martin had written a script for Frances McDormand and for Sam Rockwell, so how do we thread the needle of getting their availability, the right weather and the right state all together at the right time?
Was it difficult to get funding for the $15 million budget?
We ultimately did a deal with Fox Searchlight. It turned out to be a sort of 50-50 financing deal from Film4 and Fox Searchlight — which is pretty bold for Film4. Searchlight had worldwide distribution, which is terrific, and they’re very good at these sort of things.
Bold because of the amount of money they were putting up?
Yes. Film4’s normal business is not that amount of money. They often do U.K. rights deals and that sort of thing, but somehow, they felt that they wanted to be a part of a bigger piece of it, which is great.
You shot in North Carolina. Did you consider Missouri at all?
No, we didn’t. If you had seen me in my office in London, you would’ve seen me with a literal map of the United States on the wall sort of just ticking them off going around one, one, one. Martin will tell you stories of driving through various places — Mississippi, New Mexico. There was a creative brief that he wanted a very specific one-street town in the southern U.S. But those tax credits are important because the resources don’t always match the ambition, so if you’re putting together all these people, that tax credit makes a difference in how it works. The other thing about Martin as a director and this script is that people would come for a couple of days. We’d be lucky enough to get John Hawkes to come, Pete Dinklage to come — a lot of really wonderful actors came to North Carolina, and it wasn’t for the money, that’s for sure.
Peter Dinklage’s character is mocked for being a little person in the movie, and I’m wondering if he had any hesitation about that.
No, Martin knows Pete very well. He knows him from the theater from many years back, and they discussed that at some length. The feeling is the representation works well, and Peter was obviously very comfortable with it, but Martin has enormous sensitivity as well to make everything feel right.
How did the shoot go? Were there any challenges?
We shot in spring 2016, 33 days in North Carolina. The shoot was pretty smooth, I’d have to say. It’s a funny thing because as a producer, what you’re trying to do is anticipate and firefight. I personally don’t like the production process — I’ve never liked it because I love the development of putting things together. Production, you can be wrong-footed at any stage and quite large things can go wrong. With Martin — having made three films with him — we’re never going to look at each other and say, “How the fuck did we get in this situation?” because we know what we’re doing. That’s a really helpful thing if you’re a producer.
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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