Martin McDonagh and his new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, are the talk of the awards circuit.
His dark yet humorous tale of Mildred Hayes, a desperate mother erecting billboards to force the local police to find her 16-year-old daughter’s killer, has already attracted awards attention.
McDonagh won the best screenwriter award at Venice, then the film took Toronto’s audience award, a common precursor to the best film Oscar, and now it’s been nominated for six Golden Globe awards in advance of Sunday’s ceremony.
After In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, it might seem that the 47-year-old former theatre prodigy is upping the ante in the film world by collaborating with a Hollywood studio, Fox Searchlight, as well as Film4.
He says Three Billboards is “technically an independent production” where he had total control.
“I’m always happy not to make films if they don’t want to make the films I want to make,” insists McDonagh. “Luckily they said yes so it was great. The budget was the same as my previous films” — reportedly around $15m (€12.5m).
Amassing a star-studded cast is not unusual for McDonagh.
While Colin Farrell, the star of his first two movies, is nowhere in sight, he says he was essentially working with a group of his American theatre-loving buddies, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson as the cops (both from Seven Psychopaths) and Peter Dinklage, as well a new ally, the magnificent Frances McDormand.
The 60-year-old is a hot tip for the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of the determined Mildred, as she did for Marge Gunderson in Fargo, the co-creation of her husband Joel Coen and his brother Ethan.
“I will go to my grave being known as Marge Gunderson,” said McDormand. “I don’t mind that, but Mildred is Marge grown up.”
McDonagh’s story of a woman seeking justice indeed can be compared to the exploits of her Fargo cop — though embellished with foul language — and the actress has more in common with McDonagh than one might imagine.
Donning a Marge Gunderson-type accent, she explains: “I spent my entire childhood growing up in small rural towns in America. My mother’s from West Lorne, Ontario, and my father’s from Nova Scotia, so there!”
Of course, Marge came from Minnesota, the equally hick birthplace of the Coen Brothers.
McDonagh may have been born in south London to Irish parents but he was raised with an affinity for Ireland from an early age as, together with his film-making elder brother, John Michael, he spent summers with his grandparents in Sligo and regularly visited his parents after they moved back to Galway.
“Frances and I both come from working class backgrounds and we wanted Mildred to be from that world and we were determined not to patronise or caricature her,” notes McDonagh, whose father was a construction worker while his mother worked odd jobs.
“I specifically wrote the role for Frances with her past performances in my head both from the theatre and movies like Blood Simple.”
Even so, McDormand balked initially. She says, like McDonagh, that she can get all the work she needs from the theatre and only takes on the occasional screen project. Most importantly she’s a stickler for playing her age, as she did in the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge.
“When I first read Martin’s screenplay, I thought Mildred was amazing and I was very flattered,” she recalls. “But then I said, ‘No I’m too old’.
“At the time I was 58, I’m 60 now, and I’m really interested in being my age and I kind of have a political thing about it.
"I was worried that women who were from this socioeconomic strata didn’t wait till 38 to have their first child. So I went back and forth and my husband finally said, ‘Just shut up and do it!’”
For all involved, it was a labour of love. “It was the best experience I’ve had on a film,” says McDonagh. “We’d all see each other in restaurants in the evening and there was such a sense of community.”
In writing his screenplay, he was determined to learn from his mistakes and worked hard to balance his off-kilter humour with raw emotion.
“I watched my previous movies back to back and I realised with In Bruges, I was in there with Colin’s character and I was happy to sustain the sadness of the story and to give room to that side. It wasn’t just funny and two guys bickering, there was room in the silences or in the eyes to see the pain that was Colin’s story.
“There was none of that in Seven Psychopaths because it was meta and above the characters. With Frances, I was determined to leave room for the silence and the sadness.
We’ve got all the toughness, but there are two moments when she’s on her own where you see the heartbreak and what all this crazy anger is hiding. The scene is about sadness instead of three jokes.”
McDormand was impressed with the literary weight of the script they were given. “Martin writes a screenplay that stands on its own like a play, novel, or a short story.
"When a company can go back and look at that as the platform for the story, then three-quarters of the work is done. We knew it was a fundamental story about grief and trauma and lots of things come out of that experience and sometimes it’s funny.”
The germ of the idea came more than 20 years ago when McDonagh, who has long held a fascination for Americana and considers Paris, Texas one of his favourite films, was travelling through the US and noticed three billboards not dissimilar to the ones in the film.
“It was pretty dark and tragic and I wondered who would put something there that was so painful and raging,” he says. “I didn’t think about it for 20 years, but once I decided it was a woman and a mother, the film almost wrote itself.
“I’ve spent a lot of time travelling around America and have always wanted to see the states you don’t see in movies, like Missouri.
“I don’t drive so if I’m not with a girl who can drive, I’ll get a train or bus. I just want to experience small towns and to sit in diners and hear the voices and opinions.”
He avoided painting any character as a hero or a villain.
“You have to find the empathy, to see the humanity even in Sam’s character, that he’s not simply a racist or a hick or a violent man, and maybe to explore why those characteristics appeared in the first place, and whether or not they can change.”
As with Harrelson, who wanted to work with McDonagh even before Seven Psychopaths — he regrets turning down a role in his play The Pillowman — Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage had been keen to act for McDonagh, who wrote a role for him here as James, a used-car salesman with a persistent and unrequited crush on Mildred.
“We almost worked together on Bruges but I’d met Peter years before when I saw him in a play in New York and loved him,” recalls McDonagh. “He’s just a great actor and it’s
almost a shame he’s not in the movie more, though I do hope he’ll be one of the people I’ll work with again.”
How many films has McDonagh got left in him?
“I’ve got one written and I want to write maybe two more next year, to have a choice of which movie to do next.
"I want the rest to be as good as this, to have a bit of depth and human connection. I’ve probably only got four or five left in me,” he chuckles, “but because I had such a good
experience on this one I think the gaps between will get a bit smaller.”
Since completing Three Billboards, McDonagh has written a play which he plans to premiere in London next year.
He has also said he will not make another film for four years. We live in hope that he changes his mind.
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens Friday, January 12