Born in Britain to Irish parents, playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh always looked westward for inspiration, but “Seven Psychopaths” is his first film set in America. McDonagh's previous two movies, the Oscar-winning short film “Six Shooter” and 2008's feature-length dark comedy “In Bruges,” were set in Ireland and Belgium, respectively, but “Seven Psychopaths,” starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, is as Californian as a Raymond Carver short story.
“I think I've always written film scripts with American characters and American settings from Day One, actually, but they either have not been good enough or they haven't seen the light of day yet,” McDonagh said in a recent phone interview. “But I've always been fascinated with American films particularly and theater in some ways. My early plays are almost a species of David Mamet ways of talking, but over the years I've gotten more confident in telling those kind of stories, and years of coming over to New York for plays, I've experienced America first hand in that way.”
For “Seven Psychopaths,” McDonagh finally makes that full artistic immigration. The film stars Farrell, one of McDonagh's leads from “In Bruges,” as Marty, an alcoholic screenwriter working on an overdue script, also titled “Seven Psychopaths,” about a web of petty criminals and blood-lusting maniacs whose killings and obsessions intersect over the course of several bloody days in Los Angeles.
The film brings these criminals together through a complex narrative that contrasts sharply with the linear “In Bruges,” which focused primarily on two characters. The first draft of “Seven Psychopaths” was written about seven years ago, shortly before McDonagh won the Oscar for “Six Shooter,” and he said the interwoven structure of the new film is more in keeping with his preferred style and taste.
“Yeah, I wrote a play called ‘The Pillowman' a few years ago, and that too had stories within stories and boxes within boxes, and it was just fun — I think it's just how my mind works,” he said. “I like a story to be layered and detailed like that.”
In addition to Farrell, Walken and Rockwell, “Seven Psychopaths” collects a large group of capable actors to bloody the screen, including Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits. McDonagh said that casting for the film came together from his successful partnership with Farrell on “In Bruges” and his experience on his recent stage play, “A Beheading in Spokane.”
“After ‘In Bruges,' Colin and I said we'd definitely want to work together on a film thing, so that was always in the back of my head, and I've always liked Sam Rockwell for a very long time, and I did a play with him and Christopher Walken a few years ago, so it was a no-brainer to ask them to do it,” he said. “Woody Harrelson goes a long way back, too, and I almost worked with Tom Waits on a stage musical, but it didn't quite follow through.”
As he has incorporated more American settings and characters into his stories, McDonagh's other main transition has been his move from stage to film. Beginning in the 1990s, McDonagh received acclaim for his “Leenane Trilogy” of plays and his “Aran Islands” trilogy, and his stage work continues to be popular, but he said that film work helped expand how he looked at storytelling.
“To write a film, you have to get your head around a vaster canvas,” McDonagh said. “You know, you can jump around in time and geography, whereas with a play it's almost all dialogue and conversations go on for pages and pages, and they don't really jump around in time or place. That was the biggest thing: to keep all those balls in the air with some kind of skill.
“I think now, I almost feel more comfortable with film now, and I need to rework those playwriting muscles for when I go back to it,” he said.
“To write a film, you have to get your head around a vaster canvas. You know, you can jump around in time and geography, whereas with a play it's almost all dialogue and conversations go on for pages and pages, and they don't really jump around in time or place. That was the biggest thing: to keep all those balls in the air with some kind of skill.”