By Iain Blair
Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for Six Shooter, his first foray into film, and followed that project with his feature film debut In Bruges. Starring Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson, that gangster action/comedy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and won McDonagh a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nom for Best Original Screenplay.
He followed that up with Seven Psychopaths, another twisted tale about some incompetent dognappers and vengeful mobsters that reunited him with Farrell, along with a stellar cast that included Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits.
Now McDonagh is back with his latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This darkly comedic drama stars Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a grieving, no-holds-barred vengeful mother. After months have passed without any progress in her daughter’s murder case, she takes matters into her own hands and commissions three signs leading into town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s respected chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.
The Fox Searchlight Pictures release also features an impressive team of collaborators behind the camera: director of photography Ben Davis, BSC, production designer Inbal Weinberg, film editor Jon Gregory and composer Carter Burwell.
I recently spoke with McDonagh about making the film, which was just nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture and is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz. McDormand, McDonagh and Rockwell were also nominated for Golden Globes. Ok, let’s find out more…
This film starts off like a simple tale of revenge, but it then becomes apparent that there’s a lot more going on.
Exactly. I never wrote it as a simple revenge piece. It was always going to be a dark comedy, and the main thing I wanted was to have a very strong woman in the lead — and a shockingly outrageous one at that. I wanted to write the character as real and human in her grief as possible.
Is it true you wrote the role with Frances in mind?
It is. I immediately thought of her as Mildred as I felt she had all the elements that Mildred needed. She had to have a kind of working class sensibility and also not sentimentalize the character. And I knew she had the range and could play the anguish and darkness of Mildred but also deal with the humor, while staying true to who Mildred is as a character.
So what would have happened if she’d turned down the role?
I probably wouldn’t have done the film. I’m so glad she wanted to do it and I didn’t have to worry about it. It definitely wouldn’t have been the film it is without her.
What did she bring to the role?
First, she’s the best actor of her generation, I think, and she brought a lot of integrity and honesty, and I knew she’d play it truthfully and not just go for laughs, and not patronize Mildred and try and make her more lovable — because she isn’t very lovable. She was completely fearless about taking it on.
What about Woody?
He has less time to play with his character, but again he brought a lot of integrity, and he is very lovable — a guy you instantly like, a decent good guy.
You also reunited with Sam Rockwell, whose character ultimately takes the biggest journey.
Like with Frances, I specifically wrote the part for him, as I always have his voice in my mind when I write these dark but slightly comedic characters. And again, there’s something inherently lovable about Sam, so while Dixon seems to be everything you would despise in a man — he’s a racist, he’s violent, he’s obnoxious — Sam also makes him redeemable, and gives him this slightly child-like quality. By the end, he doesn’t do a 180-degree turn, but Sam gives him enough of an inner change that should come as a surprise.
Ebbing is a fictional place. Where did you shoot?
In a little town called Sylva, near Asheville, North Carolina, in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a nice place that doesn’t hint at anything dark, and it had all the locations we needed, all close by. It was a really joyful shoot, just under two months, and it had a great family feel as I’d worked with several of the actors before — and the DP, 1st AD and some others. All of the locals were very helpful.
How do you feel about the post process?
I really enjoy it, especially the editing and looking through every single take and making notes and then going through all the performances and crafting and sculpting a scene with editor Jon Gregory. I love all that, and watching actors do what they do. That’s the biggest joy for me, and what’s so interesting about post is that scenes I felt could never be cut out when I wrote them or shot them may turn out to be unnecessary in the edit, and I was happy to lose them. I find editing very relaxing and you have time to explore all the material as you piece it together. The parts of post that I find a bit tedious are dealing with CGI and VFX, and all the waiting around for them.
Where did you edit and post this?
We did it all in Soho, London, at Goldcrest and various places.
Tell us about working with the editor. Was he on the set?
Jon came out to North Carolina a week before the shoot so he could see the place and we could talk about stuff. And as it’s a small, walkable place, I could wander over and see what he was up to while we were shooting. Jon’s great in that if he felt we’d missed a shot or moment, he’d let me know and we could do a pick-up, which is no problem when you have all the actors there. That happened a couple of times.
The main challenge was keeping the right balance between all the dark stuff and the comedy so that it flowed and wasn’t jarring. Tone and pacing are always key for me in the edit, and finding the moments of tenderness — that look in someone’s eyes as the rage and anger take care of themselves. I think the film’s more about loss and pain and hope than dark anger.
Who did the visual effects work, and how many visual effects shots were there?
There are a few, mainly taking stuff out and clean up. All of the fire sequences were done with real fire, but then we added VFX flames to enhance the look. And the whole Molotov cocktail scene was done with VFX. The scene where Sam goes across the street, up the stairs and then throws the guy out the window was all real — and done in one unbroken shot.
How important are sound and music to you?
Hugely important. It’s half the film, at least, and I’ve loved Carter Burwell’s work ever since I saw Blood Simple. He’ll always do the opposite of what you’d expect and play against convention, which is partly why he’s so good. But he also comes up with beautiful melodies. I went over to see him in New York in the middle of the edit, and he played me a few ideas, which I loved as it had this great mix of Americana and Spaghetti Western. The score he wrote works perfectly for the characters and the themes. I love doing the sound mix and hearing how it elevates all the visuals so much. (Burwell received one of the film’s six Golden Globe nominations.)
Who did the DI?
Colorist Adam Glasman (at Goldcrest Post), who did my other films. I’m very involved, and pop in and give notes, but I really trust Adam and the DP to get the look I want.
The film’s getting a lot of Oscar and awards season buzz. How important is that to you?
It’s a small film with a small budget — obviously not one of the huge blockbusters like Star Wars and so on, so it’s great to be included in the conversation. It’s helped give it a lot of momentum, and I kind of like all the attention!
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.