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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor