For his second feature after “In Bruges,” Irish-English playwright Martin McDonagh left out his favored little people but increased the number of crazies, while adding a gangster’s missing Shih Tzu named Bonny as the Macguffin everyone’s going to race after.
His Hollywood satire-cum-buddy comedy “Seven Psychopaths” had a late-night debut at September’s Toronto Film Festival that had most of the cast—Christopher Walken, Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, the dog—on stage and the crowd in its hands. “It was 1,200 people,” McDonagh describes. “We went on just after midnight, it was great, because everyone was drunk. So whatever they saw, they really liked it!” (It also nabbed the Midnight Madness Audience Award.)
“Seven Psychopaths” sails on its banter: it seems the filmmaker likes actors. “I do. I think my job is partly, at least with the script, my job is to get out of their way. Most of it is, you cast really good actors, you naturally don’t tell Christopher Walken what to do when he’s on set, but if the script is good enough, the two of you will work something out.”
They say ninety percent of filmmaking is casting, but with Walken, maybe it’s 102 percent? “Pretty much. It’s a dream cast for me. I’ve watched Christopher since I was a kid, like most of us, and Tom Waits, too. I liked his music since I guess ‘Swordfishtrombones’ came out, which dates me. And Harry Dean Stanton I’ve adored since about age two. But you want to work with the best actors who are around today, too, like Sam [Rockwell] and Colin [Farrell]. It was kind of perfect. Day one, walking on the set with those fellas.”
And McDonagh had worked with both Walken and Rockwell on his play, “A Behanding in Spokane.” “Yep. In New York two or three years ago. It was good; it almost felt like that was a prelude to this. Because it didn’t go particularly well, it’s not a particularly good play”—he laughs—”but I got to know them inside and out so it was an easy answer to get them to do this and we had a couple of weeks of rehearsals and we just got back into it. Also, with Colin, obviously, I knew him from ‘In Bruges’ and knew Woody from a few years back, too, so it was almost a repertory company on the first day.”
Reputedly, Walken takes scripts apart, and on his lines and passages, he removes the punctuation. So then… he… memorizes it… with no… punc-tuation. “Yes. He did that for this and he did it for the play. I just figured the next time I’ll put in fake punctuation. He doesn’t just ignore it, he’ll also do the opposite of what is there, so if there’s a question mark, it won’t be a question, if there isn’t a question mark, it will be a question. So now I figure, if I want him to ask a question, just leave out the punctuation… no periods.”
Despite any other virtues, I’ll salute any film that has Walken on peyote enunciating, “Hah-loo-SIN-a-gens.” That’s an opportunity he did not waste. “After Toronto he said to me, ‘I said that word wrong.’ Seriously! He said it in exactly the way Christopher Walken should say it. ”
As the movie’s devices reveal themselves—are the psychopaths in screenwriter Martin’s script, or is he drawing from how he’s living his drunken real life—you have to wonder how a writer started charting the psychopaths. “I just had this short story, the Quaker psychopath story. And I guess the next step was to try to think who would have written a story like that when he didn’t want it to be about… Quakers. It made sense to me at the time!”
While “Seven Psychopaths” takes the piss on the unimaginative side of Hollywood, McDonagh litters his movie with references obvious and less-than-obvious. There are Joshua Tree-like desert locations reminiscent of “Zabriskie Point” and a near-ending like “Two Lane Blacktop,” and we can’t forget Walken being named “Mr. Kieslowski.” There’s a lot of meta-japery going on, and with the dog, Bonny, he has, well, he has a Bonnie Situation on your hands. “Oh!” he says wryly. “I never noticed that. Seriously!” He smiles. “I just ripped off everyone for this film. Not a single original idea in the whole thing! But yeah. I do like most of those references.” A beat. “Bar one.”
Do you start with a voice or with a character? “I’m honestly not sure. I was thinking of Sam Rockwell’s voice when I came up with this character, but it’s not so much his voice as the way he sometimes seems in films where he’s quite funny but then he can turn quite sinister on a dime. I always have fun writing dialogue. I’m not sure it’s a Irish thing or what.”
There’s a bromide students are told: dialogue is poetry, it’s carpentry, it’s not monologues. He grins. “I’m learning. Step by step. That this could be a good way to go. I think for the next one I might cut some of that out, but when you, especially when you’ve got acorns like this, it’s an act of love, intelligent dialogue. I am honestly torn. The next one, I think there are some lessons to learn in using imagery [to tell the story], but I haven’t gotten there yet.”
“Seven Psychopaths” opens Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.