John Michael McDonagh: Stand aside, junior – big brother coming through

'The Guard' sounds like indie hit 'In Bruges' and the directors share the same surname. But this time it's McDonagh major in charge.

Dressed in a sharp pinstriped suit, his head closely shaven, John Michael McDonagh cuts a striking figure. But it's when he opens his mouth that I'm taken aback, not least because I've just watched his directorial debut, The Guard. Like his younger brother Martin, who wrote and directed the 2008 hit-men tale In Bruges, he's delivered an acid-sharp comedy starring Brendan Gleeson. With the humour as black as a pint of Guinness and just as Irish, it's something of a shock to discover that McDonagh sounds as south London as Arthur Daley.

He grew up in Camberwell, and calls himself London Irish. "I don't feel particularly British. I don't feel particularly Irish," he shrugs. "So I guess London Irish is the best way to describe it." Still, that's not to say McDonagh is an interloper. Growing up, he spent his summers in his mother's home, County Sligo. And 18 years ago, when his parents moved back to Galway, where The Guard is set, it afforded McDonagh the chance to regularly fly back and soak up the ambience.

All perfect research for The Guard, which casts Gleeson as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a "small-town cop" who couldn't give a fig about the job. "I feel like I know the rhythms of speech," says McDonagh, 43. "I know the way they speak, the way they say things. I find that south-London people have a similar abrasive, sarcastic view of life. They don't like people who are too egotistical. They cut them down. Cutting people down gets a lot of bad press, but I think it's quite a good leveller. Some people deserve to be cut down."

In the case of The Guard, Boyle is like the unruly pupil at the back of the class who is far smarter than he's given credit for. "Jaded and bored by everything", he'll drop acid, hire call-girls and deliver a torrent of politically incorrect one-liners, making casually racist remarks to the hard-ass FBI agent (Don Cheadle) who arrives from the United States on a drug-smuggling case. "He's essentially not corrupt or racist," argues McDonagh. "He just knows everyone around him is. He's an agent provocateur – he's trying to provoke reactions so people reveal their true personalities."

When we meet, it's just before the Irish release, and McDonagh is understandably nervous about how audiences will react. "They're very insecure about the way they're perceived by the rest of the world. By America especially and the Brits," he says. "And if you're basically suggesting there is a racism at the heart of Irish culture, then I don't know how that will go down. We'll see." In the end, he needn't have worried. Knocking Bridesmaids off the top spot when it opened, the film has since taken over ¤2m (£1.75m) and was awarded special mention in the first feature category at the Berlin Film Festival.

Doubtless this will secretly delight him. With a hint of sibling rivalry, he points out that while his brother's film In Bruges played well in Ireland, it "didn't do as well in the States". Indeed, the film only took $7.8m in the US – McDonagh blames the marketing – though its worldwide tally was $33m, healthy enough for a low-budget effort. "It's one of those films that's got its reputation since," he concedes. "When it came out, the reviews were a bit mixed. There was a slight resentment towards it."

You have to wonder if it was a sentiment McDonagh was feeling; after all, he'd been trying for years to get a screenplay off the ground while his brother made his debut off the back of a series of highly acclaimed Tony-nominated plays (including The Pillowman and The Lonesome West). To his credit, McDonagh doesn't bat away the question. "Well, he was a very successful playwright, and I hate the theatre. So I never cared about his success with plays. But when he got his film out first, I was resentful and jealous. But then I got over it" – he flashes a quick smile, obviously revelling in the fact that he now has the upper hand – "and I got this one out."

Could they ever work together? He gives it some thought, even citing a potential project he's written called "The Bono Gang", a 1910 "Brian De Palma-type period epic" about French criminals. "But he probably wouldn't co-direct a script of mine. And we'd probably have too many arguments anyway, so it's probably not a good idea." He says they could never sit together writing. "He came round to watch football a few weeks ago, and he finished off the last of my cheese in the fridge. And I had a massive row with him. So if we're arguing about that, we're probably not going to work together on a film!"

He grudgingly admits that he and his brother share a certain outlook on life. "We lived together for a long time, watched the same movies, read the same books, listened to the same music. So you're going to end up with quite similar sensibility." With his father a construction worker and his mother a part-time housekeeper, McDonagh left school when he was 16. "I was on the dole and I'd just sit in all day watching Barbara Stanwyck movies on Channel 4," he recalls, and we lament for a moment the days gone by when television broadcasters used to run seasons of films.

He started out by writing five "really bad novels". None of them got published. "I was up in bed, and I could hear the plop of the manuscript, as it was returned. It gets to that dispiriting level where you think, 'I'm going to have to get a proper job.'" The thought of getting up at 7.30am for an office job he hated propelled him to keep going. Turning his hand to screenplays, he "got an immediate response" to his work. "I felt I had a facility for it." So much so, that when he wrote The Guard, he finished it after only one draft, almost unheard of in screenwriting.

Even so, it took until 2003 to see his first script produced, with the release of Gregor Jordan's Ned Kelly, which starred the late Heath Ledger as the infamous Australian outlaw. It was McDonagh who recommended the source book, Robert Drewe's Our Sunshine, to the producers to option. Asked to adapt it, he was less than happy with the resulting film, though. "It didn't go the way I'd hoped. I didn't get along with the director. He's a pretty humourless man."

Now he has no need to write scripts for others. Aside from "The Bono Gang", he has a big-budget screenplay called "Chaos Inc", about a Buddhist private eye in Las Vegas, in the works. First, he wants to do another film with Gleeson, about a priest whose community turns on him. "If you write about a priest in Ireland, you're into Father Ted territory," he says, "especially if it's got elements of humour in it. I want to get away from that." Like his brother, he seems determined to leave his mark on Irish culture.

'The Guard' opens on 19 August

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste