Seven Psychopaths may only be the second feature-length film from writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), but it appears that he’s already having his 8 1/2 moment. A fragmented and bizarre but explosively funny crime comedy, it is ostensibly the story of Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter attempting to write his next script, titled…Seven Psychopaths. There’s just one problem: despite the title, Marty has only thought of one psychopath. But when his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), an aspiring actor and serial dognapper, and his dognapping partner Hans (Christopher Walken), unwittingly steal Bonny, the beloved shih tzu of vicious L.A. gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), Marty begins to realize that he may actually be surrounded by psychopaths.
Marty is a winking onscreen surrogate for McDonagh, an acclaimed playwright who won an Academy Award for his 2004 short film Six Shooter (and received a screenplay nom for In Bruges). As Marty grapples with writer’s block while trying to figure out what the story is and how to tell it, the audience is aware of simultaneously witnessing McDonagh working though the same process. Marty’s interactions with the other characters frequently read as McDonagh having critical conversations with himself, which gives the entire film an amusingly meta-deconstructionist quality. Fantasies and sidebar meditations play out as part of the “story,” such as it is. It is a distinctly unconventional approach to narrative film, cerebral in a humorous way, as though taking place entirely in McDonagh’s imagination rather than any real-world setting.
Fortunately McDonagh’s imagination proves to be a fairly entertaining place to spend two hours. The film abounds with excellently written dialogue, unpredictable story developments, and a heady sense of creative freedom, all steeped in McDonagh’s exquisitely dry self-deprecation. His vision is brought to life by an expert cast of character actors, which also includes Tom Waits. Rockwell and Walken are particularly effective, and although McDonagh has written characters for them that seem almost too tailored to their actorly personae (the boyishly charming loose cannon and the eccentric dandy oddball…well, the Christopher Walken), you won’t catch either actor phoning it in. This is just the latest riveting performance from Rockwell, who worked his way up in ’90s indies like In the Soup and Box of Moonlight and has become increasingly prolific in the last decade, whether in blockbusters like Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens or indies like Moon and Choke.
Spinning Platters recently sat down with Rockwell and McDonagh to discuss McDonagh’s fatigue with psychopaths, the perils of brutalizing Gabourey Sidibe onscreen, and how actors are like schizophrenic children.
When did you first start writing Seven Psychopaths?
Martin McDonagh: It was written just after I wrote the script for In Bruges but before I made the film. I had both ready to go in the same form you see them on screen, but I knew that with Seven Psychopaths, the canvas and the scope of it all was too big for a first-time filmmaker to do as a debut. Whereas In Bruges was two or three characters walking around a town, similar to the plays I’d done before. But after making it I thought, Oh, that wasn’t so terrifying. I mean, it was terrifying, but you got through it. And because it came out okay, I thought maybe I won’t screw this one up. But the screenplay dates back about seven years.
Sam, what was your first reaction when you read the script?
Sam Rockwell: It’s just a great script and a great part. The part of Billy is an amazing part. The more I read the script, the more I realized what a golden opportunity it was to play Billy Bickle. It’s just one of those roles where you can really chew up the scenery. It’s a dream part.
McDonagh: That was the joy of writing the part. He could do anything at any minute. It’s great when a character like that is in the background of the scene. There’s nothing that’s not valid in Billy’s mind at a given moment. So as a storyteller it’s a joy, because the film can take on any aspect at any given moment. Similarly to Colin in the movie, when I started writing I only had the title and one psychopath, but I didn’t know where it was gonna go and I couldn’t come up with any more psychopaths. And that thought process is all in there. You just kind of expand from that place.
Did you have any specific actors in mind when you were writing these parts?
McDonagh: Not so much, because it was written before I ever thought it was likely I’d be making it into a movie. I may have had some vague dream ideas of who I’d like. I think I had Sam’s voice in my head a little bit, maybe because I wanted to work with him even back then. [Rockwell appreciatively pats McDonagh’s shoulder] I think now being in a position where I’ve made a couple of films and can talk to actors and call them up, I might start writing more that way. But I wonder if that’s going to be more constraining than being free to do anything and not think about those voices. We’ll see. But I wrote a script just after this one that’s ready to go and that definitely did have Sam’s voice in it. And Sam’s promised he’s going to do it. For cheap. [laughs]
Rockwell: [laughs] You have to make it first.
Seven Psychopaths has two supporting female characters [played by Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko], but also has a meta-jokey running commentary about how Colin’s character can’t write female characters. Is that something you grapple with as a writer?
McDonagh: My first two plays had very strong female characters, and I’ve not done that for a while and I feel bad about that. I think in this script that guilt comes through. Maybe the female parts aren’t as strong as the male parts, but the next film has a very strong female lead–
Rockwell: It’s probably the best part of the movie.
McDonagh: Yeah. So it’s something that I do question, but you also have fun with it too. Like Christopher’s character comments on how badly written the female parts are, so it’s almost like getting out of jail just at the last minute. But not quite enough. [laughs]
Gabourey Sidibe has just one scene in the film in which she’s terrorized by Woody Harrelson; however, you make a point of not killing her. Is that because she’s just too adorable and you knew you’d lose the audience?
McDonagh: [laughs] What happens on the page is exactly what happens in the film. But there was a process in the edit where we tried it much more dangerous and dark. We didn’t go the less violent way because, conversely, we were scared it would lose the audience by not making Woody dark enough, which we were trying to show in the edit. Conversely, for him not to kill her is a kinda creepy, sadistic thing anyway. And the way he says that line afterwards — “I’m kidding, you can go” — makes him nastier somehow than if he had killer her.
Rockwell: Yeah, I think that’s true. That is a creepy moment.
So what makes a good psychopath–
McDonagh: Sam Rockwell!
–and were there any psychopaths you wrote who didn’t make the cut?
McDonagh: I’m like Christopher’s character at the end when he says, “Psychopaths are kinda tiresome after a while, aren’t they?” I’m not interested in psychopaths or serial killers or any of that. I’m interested in why we’re interested in them. The film’s more about that than it is a love or joy of psychos. But they do free you up as a writer. And I question how many of the characters are actually psychos, because psychopaths are supposed to have no love or empathy. Sam’s character definitely does, Christopher’s character does — I wouldn’t say he’s psycho at all, even though some of his behavior is out there. Maybe only Woody is the true psycho of the piece. And the dog. The dog is definitely a psycho.
A lot of your characters are self-aware and self-conscious in how they use violence. As a writer, do you think about what you communicate by writing violence in your work?
McDonagh: Yeah. The whole setup of this is to question violence in movies and to question the Hollywood love of it. I guess there’s a fair bit of violence in a lot of my work, but even in In Bruges, that whole story is a questioning of violent men and the guilt of someone who does a horrific violent thing. There’s fun in the comedy of the film, but it’s not about funny hit men. It’s quite serious and melancholic, really. So in both pieces it’s questioning violence, as I guess I do in real life. I don’t think I could ever do The Expendables. It would be a very different version of it. [laughs]
Sam, you’ve described your relationship to Colin’s character to Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets and Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke in The Pope of Greenwich Village. Did you look to those characters for performance inspiration?
Rockwell: Absolutely. We were talking about Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in The Fisher King and Chazz Palminteri and Sean Penn in Hurlyburly, all great examples of that codependent, male bonding, alpha-beta/beta-alpha-switching relationship.
McDonagh: In Mean Streets I think it’s even present in the writing, like, “Who’s the alpha? Who’s the top dog?” One seems like the little brother who wants to help, but that shifts as the film goes on. That’s one of the things we were conscious of emulating.
Rockwell: And Johnny Boy is definitely a template for Billy, probably more than Travis Bickle; that kind of flamboyance that De Niro has in Mean Streets, and also New York, New York and Midnight Run. He has a kind of flamboyance that is particular to those films–
McDonagh: And outrageousness, too.
Rockwell: Yeah, and there’s a humor too. So there’s a bit of an homage to that. I mean, everything is derivative at the end of the day. You just have to recognize that. With that being said, this is one of the most original movies I’ve ever seen. In watching it or reading it, you just don’t know what’s coming next. Everything’s been done before, so you have to figure out how you’re gonna show up . What am I gonna add to this canon? Like if you’re playing Hamlet, it’s like, Okay, what am I gonna do differently? That’s how I see it with acting.
Do you like that process of deriving an homage, or would you rather start from scratch?
Rockwell: Well, you don’t want it to be a carbon copy. There have been cases where you do see people imitating. If you steal, you don’t want them to catch you stealing. But in this case, there are blatant homages like the “Bickle” thing, and I’m definitely channeling that in the performance. For me, these things are like a big stew, and I put all kinds of ingredients in the stew. So I’m putting in a little Kathy Bates in Misery, a little bit of the guy in Grizzly Man, a little Richard Pryor… It’s kind of a strange process. [laughs] You steal from everybody so they can’t catch you stealing from one in particular.
Billy is a wildly unpredictable character. How did you work on selling that with your performance?
Rockwell: You have to have it in the writing. That’s why it’s such a great part that Martin wrote. But certainly, I think all actors want to be spontaneous. That’s the trick of acting: being true under imaginary circumstances. You have to be truthful. It has to be fresh and spontaneous. So you have to trick yourself that it’s happening for the first time, and trust this actor’s faith, so to speak. You come in and tell me my mother has cancer, and I have to do that twelve takes in a row and have that discovery happen to me fresh every time, and I have to go like, “Oh, my god…” [pause] Not like that, that was terrible. [laughs]
But I think that’s the little-kid part of acting. You watch a little kid and it’s like hanging out with a drunk person or a schizophrenic! They’re crying and they’re sad or they’re hitting things, and that’s what actors have to do. They have to manipulate. So you really have to go back to that place of spontaneity and no boundaries. Which is why it’s gotta be difficult for a director. [laughs] You’ve really gotta love actors, and I think Martin does, because you really have to wrangle them. They’re like crazy people! And no wonder. They have to manipulate their emotions for a living.
As a director, how do you approach an iconic actor like Christopher Walken and guide him toward the performance you want?
McDonagh: [laughs] You don’t really guide Christopher…
Rockwell: You do! He likes direction.
McDonagh: But for me, I like a couple of weeks rehearsal to start, so everyone’s on the same page. Everyone knows why each of those lines are there, what I was thinking when I wrote them, and when I wrote the character. And then that’s all open for discussion. The actors come up with what they see the characters being. But on day one, character-wise at least, we’re all grounded in knowing where we’re going to start off from. It’s just trying on each take, and once you hear it true, you move on. And all the actors are trying to do it true, but there are different versions of that. A line can be true and funny or a line can be true and sad. That’s the great thing about doing so many different takes. In the edit, you can see how a line can be truthful and dark or straight or cold, and each of those can work. So it’s not just one kind of truth you’re looking for. And the great thing about Christopher is he says, “I’ll give you five takes,” and watching it back you see the straight one, the sad one… You never know which one will make it through. That’s all Christopher.
Martin, your earlier work featured traditionally Irish themes such as humor and fatalism. Seven Psychopaths is such a decidedly American film. Did you consciously pursue more American themes?
McDonagh: See, I wouldn’t say that either of those themes are exclusive to Irish culture. I love American movies, certainly more than Irish movies. I guess we’re all human and we all have the same wants and senses of humor. So I don’t really see things in such a nationalistic kind of way. But this film is exploring American cinema’s, and I suppose world cinema’s, fascination with guys with guns, and asking if this is the best way to go forward. So it was kind playing with Hollywood conventions of a story like that while subtly turning it on its head — but not in a European “We’re better than you” way. Because I love Peckinpah and Scorsese and all those guys. But putting a guys with guns film out there that has a sensibility that questions that? I thought those would be fun things to combine.
Seven Psychopaths is now playing in San Francisco.