John Michael McDonagh Talks "Jet-Black Comedy" Film 'War on Everyone' and Turning Down Big-Budget Movies (Q&A)
The London native tells THR of setting his newest Berlinale-premiering film in New Mexico, the role alcohol plays in his casting process and why he'll never work in TV.
In the space of just two films, The Guard and Calvary, John Michael McDonagh has carved out a niche for a brand of comedy that sits prominently at the darker end of the color spectrum.
With War on Everyone, the London-born writer-director is at it again, but this time he’s swapped the lush greens of rural Ireland for the reddish hues of New Mexico. A "jet black comedy," the film — having its world premiere in Berlin’s Panorama section — stars Michael Pena and Alexander Skarsgard as corrupt cops out to blackmail every criminal they meet.
Here, McDonagh tells The Hollywood Reporter about his beer-based casting process and going all Michael Bay, but with a mariachi band.
The American Southwest seems a sizable departure from Ireland. Was this an active decision when you decided to start writing?
I don’t think War on Everyone is that sizable a departure. The Guard and Calvary were both Westerns, ostensibly, so I thought I might as well locate to the actual West. Earlier drafts of the screenplay were set in London and then Dublin, but they never felt quite right, either tonally or visually. It was only when I latched on to the New Mexico location that my vision for the movie started to cohere. It’s also nice to wake up in sunlight and not get rained on all the time. Plus, I like burritos.
Is New Mexico anything like rural Ireland?
New Mexico is a beautiful place, a lot of blue and a lot of red. I found Albuquerque to be visually very interesting, lots of idiosyncratic locations. The people there were as welcoming to us as the people in the west of Ireland. As regards to the comedy elements and characters, these are all figments of my imagination and so can be found at any location I arrive at.
Like The Guard, War on Everyone does appear to be another buddy cop comedy and involves a fair splash of corruption, too. What it is about police corruption that you’re so drawn to?
I don’t consider Gerry Boyle in The Guard to be corrupt, more bored out of his mind. Bob Bolano and Terry Monroe in War on Everyone, however, are totally and irredeemably corrupt. I think characters who are supposed to be in positions of authority, and who are supposed to respect the law but don’t actually give a shit, are always funny. That’s why Duck Soup is one of the funniest movies ever made.
You brought your first two films to Berlin as well. What is it about the festival that you like?
I like the big red curtains at the Zoo Palast cinema. German audiences in particular have been very responsive to my style — both The Guard and Calvary were art house hits there. In hindsight, though, I felt Calvary should’ve played in competition — Brendan Gleeson would’ve had a good shot at best actor.
Your producer on this said that alcohol is at the genesis of many of your projects. Was alcohol at the genesis of War on Everyone?
No, but I continued my casting remit of only hiring actors who like a good booze-up. Brendan, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Caleb Landry Jones, Tessa Thompson — they’ll never say no to a few pints. I actually cast Alexander not because of his great performances in Melancholia, Disconnect or What Maisie Knew but because I saw a YouTube video of him drunk at a Hammarby football match trying to incite the crowd.
Is it true you wrote Pena’s character with the actor in mind?
I loved Michael in End of Watch, but I wanted to work with him because of his now-legendary performance as Dennis, one of the security guards, in Jody Hill’s Observe and Report. “I’m not gonna lie to you, Ronnie, there’s nothing good about this at all!” That’s one of the best U.S. movies of the past 10 years.
You once described the first scene of Calvary, in which Gleeson’s priest is told he has seven days to live, as your cheaper version of a “Michael Bay pre-credit opening sequence.” Does War on Everyone have any more Bay-esque moments?
Yes, I have an automobile assault on a strip club that turns into an extended chase sequence across Albuquerque. However, it involves a Mariachi band, a stripper with a python and a very large dude on a mobility scooter. I don’t think Michael Bay has ever attempted that, except maybe in Pain & Gain. Which was a good film, by the way.
You’ve said you were planning to make a final film in a trilogy started by The Guard called The Lame Shall Enter First, about a paraplegic ex-London policeman, with Gleeson.
The Lame Shall Enter First has been put on the back burner. I haven’t got around to actually writing it yet. To be honest, it’ll be the last original screenplay I ever write. I don’t think original screenplays are respected enough as to just how difficult they are to write, and I really can’t be bothered anymore.
Could you see yourself directing a big-budget film?
I’m sent scripts for them all the time, but unfortunately, they’re not written to a high-enough standard. Or they’re not written to the high standard of my writing, let’s say. Producers seem to prefer to persevere with scripts filled with outright banalities.
And what about television?
TV can’t afford me — too little money offered for too much work. I’d rather sit in the sun with a cold beer and a hot blonde.