Considering he’s only four features into his filmmaking career, it would be fair to consider playwright Martin McDonagh a newcomer rather than a seasoned veteran; but his critical and awards acclaim says otherwise. The writer-director earned original screenplay nods at the Oscars for “In Bruges” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”; and his latest film, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” has scored nine nominations from the Academy, including McDonagh’s first for directing. Though it won the 2023 Golden Globe for best motion picture—musical or comedy, “Banshees” is a heartbreaking story, tracing the sudden end of a lifelong friendship in 1923 Ireland.
Where did “Banshees” begin for you?
[I was] just trying to capture the sadness of a breakup. I don’t usually write directly from personal pain—I was going through something not dissimilar in a romantic way—but I knew it would be about a platonic relationship between two guys. So the very first thing was to capture sadness, which isn’t what a film company would want you to be doing. [Laughs] But it turned out OK!
You wrote the roles of Pádraic and Colm for your “In Bruges” stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, who are also your friends. How does having established relationships with actors help the collaborative process?
You know people’s strengths and weaknesses; you know who likes to overanalyze a character or who wants to leave it alone a bit. But there’s just an ease, a complete trust. We all have egos, but I don’t have the kind of ego that needs to be the top dog. So [Colin and Brendan] trust that my ego isn’t going to get in the way, and I trust them in the exact same way. It’s all about finding solutions together to make us all better.
I was fascinated to learn that you never plan out your scripts before you start writing. How much of “Banshees” did you have in your head when you first sat down?
The vague idea of the characters, and the opening statement, “I just don’t like you anymore.” Aside from that, I didn’t have too much more. But I find it more exciting to not know what the hell’s going to come. So even the threat about [Colm cutting off his own] fingers—that wasn’t there until that day of writing. But when something like that comes up, it gives you so much information and so many dramatic potentialities. When he made that threat, I knew that these [fingers] weren’t going to survive. It was just like: How many are we going to lose?
Was there anything that surprised you when you made the transition from theater to film?
It took me a while to get my head around film scripts. Just the fact that you can jump around in time and space, and [that] scenes can be very, very short and there can be dozens of characters or locations… The jigsaw puzzle of that was a little harder to figure out. But I now find it harder to go back to write a play, because I love the freedom of a movie.
Do you feel that you’re still early in your filmmaking career, or like an old hand?
I definitely feel like I’m only starting out. I always feel nervous on the first day of shooting, and I think that’s part of the reason why I use the same actors over and over again; I’m not scared of that aspect. I still feel very new to it, very fresh, and wanting to learn and discover what making a movie is. This was the first one that I almost felt comfortable [with]. But I like the idea that I don’t feel like an old hack yet!
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far?
Not to stress about the things that I don’t care about as much—like, to a degree, costumes or special effects. I’m sort of a control freak, but when a film is done, I look back on the things that I got stressed about, and it becomes irrelevant to the movie in the end. The more you go on, the more you spend your time or energy concentrating on what really matters, and that’s mostly the detail of the acting and the characters.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and directors?
Always be truthful. Your truth is more important than the people who are giving you money. Also, love acting. Respecting actors and listening to them is massive. As much as it’s a director’s medium, most great films are about good acting. If that’s all you’ve got, you’ve got a lot.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of Backstage Magazine.