‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ writer and director Martin McDonagh reveals his writing habits
Oscar winner also unveils his five favorite films and reveals himself to be a Powell and Pressburger die-hard, too
Martin McDonagh almost reveals a SPOILER for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri below. So if you don’t want the film to potentially be ruined for you, go away and watch it, before having a read.
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s” six nominations at both the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Movie Awards prove what many critics and moviegoers had known for a long time, the black comedy crime film will almost certainly be an Oscar contender.
But while Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell’s performances have drawn particular praise, it is Martin McDonagh’s direction and especially his writing that has been lauded. Earlier this year I had the chance to sit down and talk with McDonagh about “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and during our chat I asked the British and Irish scribe about his writing approach and habits.
The conversation started after I asked McDonagh whether he outlined his scripts, or had an idea of the subtext and subject matter he wanted to discuss, before writing. But McDonagh insisted his approach is much different.
“I don’t outline the plot at all. With Woody’s character I didn’t know that thing was going to happen in the middle, and that changes everything. Hopefully because it was shocking for me it was shocking for an audience. Especially because it happens to a movie star. It’s like, ‘Where do we go now? No! What?’ And that’s exciting.”
“It is always organic. It is always about following characters and seeing where they go. The dialogue and all that stuff comes out organically. I just sit there and think, ‘What would a person in that situation say?’ When the writing goes good you are literally just copying down what actual people are saying. “
“Your beliefs and the sort of things that you do want to talk about will bubble through. If you sit down to talk about this aspect or this issue it becomes very narrow, and it becomes about your opinions instead of trying to take a wider look at things or being truthful to characters.”
McDonagh also admitted that even though he is closer to Frances McDormand’s character Mildred Hayes, who rents the titular advertisements to instigate more police interest into the rape and murder of her teenage daughter Angela seven months earlier, he sees the humanity in every single one of his characters.
“I am closer to Frances’ character obviously, but I can’t say that I am fully on page with everything. She does some pretty reprehensible things. I obviously wouldn’t be on the side of Sam’s character, too. But you have to see the humanity in people.”
“Not to see where they are coming from exactly but to paint an honest picture of them, and to see where they might have gone wrong and where they might go right. There is something kind of exciting about that. To not know where Frances’ character might go, and not know where Sam’s character is going to end up.”
During our chat, I also asked McDonagh what his favorite films ever are. Rather than being put out by such a request, he insisted, “Film nerds always like to be asked their favorite films,” before then declaring, “‘Badlands,’ ‘Night Of The Hunter,’ ‘Seven Samurai,’ ‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly’.”
McDonagh also revealed some of his favorite filmmakers, too. “Preston Sturges was a little later, but Sam Peckinpah definitely, I was a huge Peckinpah fan. And Sergio Leone. And all of the Powell and Pressburgers.”
The writer and director’s devotion to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who oversaw some of the greatest British films of all time between 1939 and 1959, was particularly intriguing, as I am a huge fan of the duo myself. So much so that I asked McDonagh why the duo aren’t lauded in the same manner as Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, and other luminaries from the Golden Age Of Hollywood.
“I always talk about them as being the best, and you wonder if it is because there were two of them. It is starting to come around a little, because Scorsese seemed to help with their rehabilitation. ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’ is always my favorite, though. Everything about that movie. The opening, everything.”
Because of its success, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is still in cinemas across the US, while Martin McDonagh’s play “Hangmen,” which premiered at the Royal Court in London in 2015, will transfer to New York in January, 2018.