Interviews · Movies

John Michael McDonagh Discusses His Dark Comedic Western ‘The Guard’

The filmmaker talks about his writing process, the button-pushing ways of Sergeant Gerry Boyle, and twisting conventions.
Brendan Gleeson In The Guard
By  · Published on August 12th, 2011

“Clever” is the best way to describe John Michael McDonagh’s directorial debut, The Guard. In dialog, structure, the characters, and so forth, it all has a sense of cleverness. The playwright has made a dark comedic Western built around (mostly) ignorant characters set in the mysterious and strange land of Ireland.

Ever heard of it? Me neither.

Many will be pointing out the similarities between John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard and his brother, Martin McDonagh’s beloved film In Bruges, but there are distinct differences, and that’s clearly an important fact to John Michael. Outside of a specific similarity I mentioned to McDonagh, The Guard is its own dark comedy with a could-be-iconic lead, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (played by Brendan Gleeson).

Here’s what writer/director John Michael McDonagh had to say about his writing process, the button-pushing ways of Sergeant Gerry Boyle, and twisting conventions:

NOTE: This interview contains spoilers.

The pacing of the film is very tight. How much did you outline or prep to get the structure right?

What I’d usually do is know the first fifteen minutes of the movie and the last fifteen minutes of the movie, then I’d plot points that need to hit in the middle of the film. At that point, it becomes a case of joining the dots, like, “Okay, I got to get this character to this point and this character will have to come in and do this.”

What I find if a script is good, if the characters are taking you in a way you weren’t really expecting or if they come out with a line you haven’t thought of, and that’s when something feels like it could turn out to be something good. The best bit is when you reread what you wrote the day before, and you can’t remember where you got the idea from for a scene. It feels fresh or like someone else wrote it. You can look at it in a detached way, and say, “Oh, that’s actually quite a good scene.”

Gerry Boyle is definitely an unpredictable character, and during the writing process, is it tricky coming up with that spontaneity when you have days or weeks to write out what he’s doing?

No, because somebody who will say almost anything at a given moment is particularly easy to write. Obviously, you have to put them in a situation with a square character, who he can react against. I didn’t find it too tough. I just wrote another script during the edit of the film called Cavalry, which myself and Brendan want to work on next. That script is about a good priest, essentially a good person, and that’s trickier to write. Often it’s flawed, aggressive, or confrontational characters that are easier to propel the narrative. A good man is a tricky proposition to write, and hopefully we got it right. We’ll see.

That’s an interesting writing process. Do you always write that way?

Yeah, I always have the first and last bits written in because I’m a big fan of pre-credit and opening credit sequences, so I always have to have that. I also need a title, because I won’t sit down [and write] without having a title. I always need to know what I’m heading towards. For the middle section of a film, I’m confident I can work it out for myself. I need to know where the characters come from, and I need to know where they’re going to end up. That’s always been my approach. The only difference with The Guard is that I wrote it out of sequence, so if I got an idea for something funny Boyle could say or do, I’d write them as they occurred to me, even if that might happen in the third act, the middle, or the beginning. I’d just juggle them around and put them in order. For any other script I’ve written, I did them in a linear way.

Early on, it’s fun not knowing if Boyle is smart or stupid. By the end, you know he’s smart, but would you say he grows along the way, or was he planning it all along?

Well, he does talk about Russian literature early on with his mother [Laughs]. If the movie works properly, by the end of the film you gradually realize he did have the finale planned and he was making clever decisions through the film. I don’t want you to feel that halfway through, but towards the last act. Guns have gone missing, and that scene followed the scene where Boyle was blackmailed. He’s preparing. I didn’t want to hit the audience over-the-head with those plot developments. What I hope for is this is a film that people will want to watch twice, and then go, “Oh, there were clues all along that he was a clever guy.” With the confrontational racial gags early on, I think people are thrown by how abusive he is.

Boyle doesn’t really come off racist, but that he just likes to push buttons.

No, he’s not [racist]. He’s a man that’s bored, so he’ll say anything to anyone to get a rise from them, specifically with the character Everett. Boyle hates anyone who thinks they have power over him or tells him what to do. He’ll do anything to undermine people, and he chooses to do that with his [racial] comments early on. That’s what makes him unusual and different. I’m hoping during the course of the film that people think he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying in those earlier scenes. He’s just being confrontational.

In an odd way, Everett comes off more ignorant than Boyle. Was that intentional?

It’s funny, because he is patronizing. He comes into this small community, doesn’t know they don’t speak English, and doesn’t do any research. Boyle has looked Everett up and knows that he caught this serial killer, and he says, “I’m sure you did the same thing with me,” but Everett never did. He never looked Boyle up or see if he was ever involved in a major case. Essentially, he is a good person. I’m not trying to make any political comment about Americans or American foreign policy, and that’s all incidental. It’s more about a decent person who is patronizing. Right at the end, Everett says to the young guy Boyle never swam in the Olympics, and the young guy says he could always look it up. As we know, Everett never looks up anything, and he is arrogant in that way.

I know you didn’t set out to make fun of Americans, but you did make fun of Americanisms pretty well [Laughs], with that “go-to-go” bit.

[Laughs] I was talking to Mark Strong and he went, “You know, the only thing I regret in the script is that Liam [Cunningham] has a face off with Boyle in the diner scene and David [Wilmot] has one with him at his house, and I never get to have one.” I said to him that him and Boyle are both linked, because they both hate Americanisms. Boyle has the early scenes of saying, “He thinks he’s in fucking Detroit.”

With Clive, he’s a very self-aware antagonist. What made you want to go with a villain who was having no fun in what he’s doing, and knew exactly who the good guy was in this scenario?

Usually bad guys in movies are grasping after something whether it’s world domination, money, or whatever. Clive is a character that becomes so bored with his chosen career of crime that he just doesn’t want to deal with corrupt cops anymore, but deal with someone that’s honorable. In a way, his final line “good shot” means he’s met a happy death. He was killed by somebody he actually respects, and Mark just plays that scene in a terrific way. The level of contempt he has in the money handover scene, where the guy asks if all the money is there, I just think he’s hilarious in that scene. The character is going towards a happy conclusion because he wants out. There’s an almost Buddhist discussion early on in the aquarium, where they’re asking: What’s it all about?

I keep thinking about that line he has about sharks in the aquarium, where he says he finds them —

Soothing, yeah. People have talked about if we’ll see a sequel to The Guard, and I always like to say it’d be a prequel about how those three villains got together. They’re such dissimilar characters. One of them seems off his head on lithium, the other one reads philosophy and gets distracted by music in diners, and the other one doesn’t want to be a villain. How did they meet up? [Laughs]

[Laughs] That would be an interesting origin story. You mentioned the scene earlier about Boyle finding the guns, and how it affects the story later on. That’s the only bit that reminded me of In Bruges, where Ralph Fienne’s character bought the dumdums, and they led to a big effect. Were you conscious of that similarity?

No, that wasn’t a conscious choice. I like In Bruges, but that kind of stuff ‐ no, that wouldn’t really have been in my mind. With the guns, the audience at first thinks they’ve discovered the body of the policeman, and then it’s guns. The way I wrote the plot was when Liam threatens Boyle in the diner, two scenes later we hear guns are missing. As I said, I didn’t want to hit the audience over the head with why the guns are missing, but Boyle was preparing the conclusion that early.

Going back to In Bruges, I like all those lines of, “I want a normal gun for a normal person.” Myself and my brother, I guess, have that ear for quirky dialog that’s irrelevant to the plot. I really like In Bruges, but I wouldn’t say it had a direct influence.

When it comes to that quirky dialog, is it ever tricky transcending some parts from the page to an actor delivering the lines naturally?

I do worry about the scenes where they’re discussing philosophy, and all that stuff can go too far towards pretentious. I always hark about to the 30s and 40s screwball comedies, where it was all about smart characters saying smart things. With dialog, I try to subvert the usual scenes you see in movies. I try to think about what a character would say in a normal Hollywood movie during this scene, and then I try to write the exact opposite. That’s generally my basic rule of thumb, and that’s the way I approach dialog and setting up scenes. Even in the discovery of the body, those police procedural shows go into these long-winded things of dusting for prints, and what we have is Boyle destroying evidence and putting his hand on the corpse for a laugh. I just try to flip over what we usually see.

My final question: Based on an earlier scene, I’m guessing Boyle ends up in Tupelo. First off, why would he want to go to Tupelo?

[Laughs] When he’s talking about Elvis in the car, right? At one point, but I never wrote this down, I was going to have an end scene where the Gabreila character gets a postcard in the mail of Boyle with Goofy at Disneyland [Laughs]. He’d be more likely in Disneyland than Tupelo, if he’s alive.

The Guard is now in limited release and expands today.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.