Five years after he landed in Venice with his third feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which would go on to box office glory, sweep the 2018 BAFTAs and win Oscars for Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand (prompting her “inclusion rider” speech), Martin McDonagh returns to the Lido with his follow-up. Another black comedy from the noted British-Irish playwrite and filmmaker, The Banshees of Inisherin dials the drama down a little from his previous feature, shifting the setting to 1923 and rural Ireland, telling the story of two men whose friendship abruptly ends when one decides the other is simply too dull.
The film, shot in County Galway, the setting for many of McDonagh’s early plays (and near his parents’ house), also reunites Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell on screen for the first time since the director’s 2008 film breakout In Bruges (Gleeson last seen plummeting to his death from the top of a tower).
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, McDonagh discusses not being prolific (and his fears that the success of Three Billboards might have forced him to work more), explains how he had the title for his latest film decades before the plot and firmly shuts the door on any producer hoping to pitch him a script that isn’t his own. He also admits that his partner Phoebe Waller-Bridge gives him feedback on his work. Thankfully, she liked The Banshees of Inisherin.
I read somewhere that you originally came up with the idea for The Banshees of Inisherin way back in 1994. Is that the case, and have you been sitting on it since then?
That’s actually not true and something I kind of want to clarify. I had the title and I tried to write a play with that as the title — actually it was Banshees of Inisheer back then — but never finished it, didn’t like it and sort of put it aside. But I always liked the title and thought that was something to come back to. So basically about three years ago, I came up with something that the title would work for. So this is a completely new thing, not based on anything back then. I can’t even remember what it was.
The name obviously taps into your Aran Islands plays, which you wanted to turn into a trilogy
It still feels like the end of a trilogy, certainly in terms of the type of story that’s being told, and it being a dark comedy set in the West of Ireland. But aside from that, it’s brand new.
So where did the story come from?
I just wanted to write a sort of simple sad breakup story between two blokes, weirdly. And I guess part of it was always wanting to get Colin and Brendan back together since In Bruges. I’ve stayed friends with them since then and was always hoping no one else would work with them as a pairing. It almost happened once and it fell through and I was so happy about that. They always wanted to get together too, so that was the germ of it, this breakup story and those guys.
It’s been 14 years since In Bruges. Did you hit it off again immediately. You obviously brutally killed Brendan at the end of that film.
He killed himself! But yeah, it’s always a joy. There was never even a cross word during the eight weeks we made it, which is weird. I love them, and we get on great. There’s no bullshit about us, there’s no fame shit about them. They know I’m still a new-ish filmmaker but know I’m good at the things I’m good at — story and character. And they know I care about what they care about.
Banshees has a different pace and feel to it than your other films. Is it more closely aligned with your stage plays?
I don’t think it’s closely aligned to the plays, but I did want to do something a little quieter and less in-your-face than the other movies. It’s definitely less Hollywood. It feels quite sort of European somehow, although that wasn’t in my head when I was doing it. But I knew there was room for the landscapes to be part of it. I wanted it to be as beautiful as any Irish film has been, if possible. So we were always aiming for that, which allowed us to leave more space and quietness I think than in some of the other movies. It’s probably less plotty and more of a character study than any of the others too. But I think it’s equally as funny as the funny bits of the others.
It’s your first film shot in Ireland since Six Shooter. Is that something you’d been wanting to do for a while?
Yeah, and it was filmed quite close to where my parents live. They’re just outside Galway, and we filmed on one of the Aran Islands, Inishmore, and you literally have to pass their house to get to the boat. So at weekends I could go back and see them, which was cool. And Galway is a gorgeous town to hang out in. And it was funny, because usually on a film set the crew know your past films, but on this one, they knew a lot of the plays as well. So that was kind of cool.
This is your first feature since Three Billboards. When you’ve had a hit on that scale, is it easy to remain focused on what you want to do next and not get caught up in the noise and, I’m sure, a lot of offers?
Because I’m not someone who makes films back-to-back, and I mostly don’t like working, when something is successful, the fear is that it’s going to make me have to work more. So I totally avoided that. I always sort of write something every year, but that something, that’s just for me and it’s never on commission. If it’s bad, I’ll throw it away. I love everything that happened with Three Billboards, it was unexpected and a trip and crazy fun. But you do take it with a pinch of salt. I didn’t feel like I had to follow it in any other way than it being as good as, or as good as In Bruges. In terms of success, I don’t care about that at all, honestly. Three Billboards was a crazy anomaly. I think it just hit at the right moment. [The] MeToo [movement] was happening at the same time as this amazing Frances [McDormand] performance and all those speeches. So that’s never going to happen again.
And for all the success of Three Billboards and perhaps because of the success, there was some backlash against Sam Rockwell’s openly racist character, with some feeling you gave him a redemptive end. Did you feel stung by that experience?
As someone who’s always been anti-racist and thinks about that stuff a lot, it was interesting! But I think the film isn’t what a minority of people felt that was. I can completely see why they would think that, but I think that just would be reading it in a simplistic way. Not to put words in their mouths, but my sense of it was that they were seeing Rockwell’s character at the end of the film as the hero of the piece. He’s attempting to be, but he fails miserably. And the two of them go off to kill the wrong guy, which isn’t heroic. So I was trying to tell a story about who we hold up as heroes and villains and ask if there was a debate to be had around that. And I felt like the racist thing was just a bit too simplified a reading of the end of the movie. But I understand it.
You’ve only ever directed films you’ve written. Can you ever see yourself directing someone else’s work?
Never up to this point. Luckily, I’ve always always had stories in the backlog to go back to. I don’t think I ever will really. Because I don’t work too often, I’ve always got time to do something in the interim. And that’s part of the joy. I think that’s the happiest time for me, the writing of the new thing.
Have you ever considered adapting one of your own plays for the screen?
No, I’m dead set against it. As much as I say I hate theatre, I do care that you should write the best play that you can without an eye on it being in a different art form. You’ve got to respect the art form in itself. And it’s usually a question of making more money. I also feel like the story of the plays have been told, so I’m not going to keep repeating them.
Your partner Phoebe Waller-Bridge is obviously a phenomenally talented writer. Do you use her as a sounding board for your scripts?
Not a sounding board, but she usually reads something at the end of the process. And she definitely liked this one, so that was quite good.
Did she have any input on Banshees?
No input, but just her saying that she really liked it was enough for me.
Do you have a friendly competition with your brother, John Michael McDonagh?
Yeah, friendly, I don’t know if it’s competition, but we always hope each other’s things are going to be good.
But you both often seem to be battling for Brendan Gleeson’s attention…
He’s stolen Ralph Fiennes from me as well!
Like Brendan’s character in Banshees, have you ever tried to unfriend someone because you thought they were dull?
Not dull per se, but fucking irritating! I’ve kept all my dull friends.