John Michael McDonagh interview: 'Now social media is around, PC Culture has become so strong'

The War on Everyone director lays into vanilla cinema, The Nice Guys, and sh*t scriptwriting

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The Independent Culture

Hi John Michael McDonagh, thank you for taking the time to see me. I saw War on Everyone a couple of weeks ago, was really fun, thoroughly enjoyed it!

Where did they screen it?

The Vue in Leicester Square, I think. There was a Mariachi band there!

It’s funny because when we did that scene, obviously it’s a big long chase sequence but the band was not in the script, and I thought ‘What could we do that will break this up?’ We went to the location, this conference room, big room, and there was this Mariachi band greeting businessmen at this convention, so I thought ‘Would that be funny? Putting a Mariachi band in the middle of a chase sequence?’ Maybe, if it was my first film, I would have been too reserved to do it. But we just went ‘f**k it’ and got in touch with the band members. What I like about that scene is they just keep playing, don’t even react to the gun shots. Also, you can do a funny thing with the music where it goes Fun Lovin' Criminals to Mariachi band, back to Fun Lovin' Criminals. One of those happy accidents. I’m always trying to look for that stuff on location, just try to add something different to each scene that you didn’t think of in the script. 

When you are out on location, do you often get very inspired?

I’m very keen on using locations to inspire you or change the scene in some way. One of the biggest ones was with Tessa Thompson practicing her majorette routine. It was supposed to be set in a park. It needed to be sparse, no trees, so when she threw her baton it would go all the way up and you would see the sky. We were getting very close to shooting and the location manager, who was great, said ‘I guess a football stadium wouldn’t work?’ I was like, ‘Yeah it would!’ And now it's one of the most visual scenes in the movie and it was just an accident suggested at the last minute. You have a tendency to fall back on stuff you’ve seen before, even though you don’t want to. In our chase scene, where they are chasing someone down an alleyway, it’s a very Starsky and Hutch moment, but at the end, they beat him up badly and we added the band. Those un-preconceived moments are the most enjoyable to watch, for me.

You’ve never directed someone else’s script. Why do you think other directors are more comfortable filming other people’s scripts?

When you look at it, writer-directors constantly do their own stuff. It’s unusual for them - unless you’re the Coen Brothers - to direct someone else’s script. And if you’re a director for hire anyway, you’re a director for hire. Most of the scripts you get sent are pretty poor, that’s probably the reason I don't. Normally I think ‘I could probably write better than this, what’s the point?’ I did once get sent a really good script. Richard Ford's Canada. A really great book. The script was pretty good, pretty literate, only a few things I would change. I sent Richard Ford a series of notes. Now, whether these notes were too much for him, I don’t know, but he suddenly pulled out of the project. Generally speaking, you get these scripts and there’s a rape on page two or some sh*t, the dialogue is always f**king awful. You always get the feeling they’re written by someone just out of film school who lives in Orange County with their parents. They always fall back on things like ‘He’s 35, he’s a maverick, but really handsome.’ You think that’s a cliché but that’s how they’re written. ‘She’s beautiful. She’s a lawyer, and a neuroscientist, but she’s beautiful.’ They’re actually written like that.

How would a script stand out?

I used to give scripts the benefit of the doubt and read at least 30 pages. Now, I read five. Sometimes just the first page and you know it’s going to be sh*t. Normally the dialogue is sh*t. Unless it’s based on a book, but then the novelist has done it. The dialogue is the main thing that stands out as being really poor. Sometimes you can read something and think the plot is OK, but the characters will be cliché and the dialogue poor. It’s rare they all come together in that way. Most European writers direct their own scripts so they’re almost always American and of a certain low standard. My agents have just stopped sending them to me now. It’s pointless. 

Your agents must go through hundreds before sending them to you.

And they send through the better ones! But, David Mackenzie has just done Hell or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan, and is a really good film. Taylor also who wrote Sicario. I’ll have to speak to David about how he got that one and I didn’t, because I might have done that one if I got it. Maybe he has better agents than me. 

The dialogue in your film, at times, is quite dark. It’s literally a War on Everyone, you offend people across the board. Were you ever worried you were going too far? 

I try not self-censor myself because... I had lines in The Guard I thought were quite risky but would often get the biggest laugh across the board. Humour is individual to everyone. There’s now this idea that you can’t make jokes about certain religions and gender stuff, LBGT. We seem to be getting to this place where ‘you can make this joke but can’t make that joke.’ Do I have to read a table of jokes I can or cannot make? I’d rather make the jokes. Often I’ll see them with people I trust, and they’ll go ‘That is a little bit too far. It feels like you’re offending someone and being entitled.’ It depends on what the tone of the voice is. In this film, Bob [Michael Peña] and Terry [Alexander Skarsgård] are not nice people.

If the audience knows it is two scumbags saying it, you can get away with it

John Michael McDonagh

Apart from the two villains, they’re the worst people in the film. Even the dealers and informants are nicer people than they are. If the audience knows it is two scumbags saying it, you can get away with it. If you’re pretending they’re two really heroic, nice guys, then it becomes problematic. How do you know you’ve gone too far until you’ve gone to far? If you start reining it in, it becomes self-censorship. It becomes a bland, vanilla type movie, and there are too many of them coming out of America and everywhere else. European cinema, arthouse cinema, has it’s own middle-of-the-road, bland morality as well. Let’s not pretend it’s cutting edge when it’s not. 

How do you feel about ‘PC Culture’? 

PC Culture has been around a long time, but now social media is around, it has become so strong. If you do say or do something these Twitterati do think is offensive it lasts for days. Before it would maybe be on page three and then go away. Now it lasts and lasts and lasts, so now people feel a big pressure not to do or say the wrong thing. I always try to be honest when creating characters who would say that stuff. If you look at racism. In real life racism is a monomania where people have this one fixation where they’re completely obnoxious and repellent, but they’re nice to their kids. And they’re nice to their wives. It feels like when BBC or Channel 4 make a movie the racist is always a skinhead with a Millwall shirt who beats his wife and kicks his dog. That’s not what racism is. That’s the way I approach it.

Have you met those people in your life? 

No, it’s just people are rounded human beings. When you present someone in a film, you should try to present a proper human being. Not just this terrible 20 per cent. The problem is, I try and tell a good story first. If it has a political or statical subtext, that’s great. If people pick up on that, that’s great. But, my first priority is to tell the story. There is a certain tendency for British and Irish filmmakers to make a political point first and hope the story is engaging. That’s not going to work. Generally speaking, if you put a political point first the story won’t be engaging.

War On Everyone Clip - Birdwell Chase

The film’s you have done are independent, without a studio behind them. Would you ever want to work in a studio setting with executives behind you? 

I kind of would, just to see how it would play out. I think, if those people did hire me, they would have seen the three films I have made and know better than to try and browbeat me. In all honesty, they know the films I try to make and wouldn’t hire me. I just assume all the films I make will be independently financed. And the people who did finance this film, I never got any pressure to change anything. Would I get a few notes here and there? Sure, but most of them were fine. They wouldn’t try to censor me at all. 

With War on Everyone, Michael and Alex share such great on-screen chemistry, was it the same off-screen? 

We did about three days rehearsal and you could tell immediately they were getting on with each other. That’s something you can never plan for. Chemistry is a funny thing; you can know two lead actors were having an affair and they have absolutely no chemistry, then you can see a film where two people have great chemistry but you discover they absolutely despised each other. You just hope you get it. Essentially, it’s just two people liking each other and bouncing off each other, and thankfully - this time - it translated on screen. 

War On Everyone - Trailer 2

Their friendship is unique, completely engaging. 

Someone called it a love story between Bob and Terry. Which it is in some respects, but was never intended to be. There’s a bit near the end where Terry thinks something has happened to Bob and he’s welling up. It’s a close-up love shot. In the film, Terry is trying to replicate Bob’s family because that’s what he wants. He defers to Bob. Often, A-List actors want to be in a similar level of power on-screen, so they don’t want to play someone who is deferring to another character. That’s what makes it interesting. And obviously, he’s not as intelligent as Bob and he knows this. Most of the time, stupid people don’t know they’re stupid. He knows he is not intelligent but Bob is.

The comparison I’ve seen the most, with this film, has been with The Nice Guys.

I liked that film. I didn’t think it was as funny, I was expecting it to be funnier. I enjoyed the plot of it and the vision, and the two leads were great.

Why do you think these films happened at the same time? 

Kiss Kiss, Ban Bang by Shane Black, I really like that film. Maybe it’s just people with similar sensibilities that the two came out at the same time. When I read interviews with Shane Black and he references noir novelists, I like many of the same. Me and my brother have similar tones in our films. We lived with each other for a long time, listened to the same music, read the same books, watch the same films. Your sensibilities are going to be similar and the films you make are going to have a resonance as each other. the whole 70s thing, I’m not so sure about. At least his is set in the 70s, so he has a good reason for a 70s aesthetic, but I haven’t got a reason.