Writer-director John Michael McDonagh revisits his Celtic roots with the tale of a persecuted priest.

By Susan Chenery.

John Michael McDonagh on his new film ’Calvary’

Credit: Photos supplied
John Michael McDonagh was drunk in a pub when he decided to kill Brendan Gleeson. He doesn’t now recall what it was that Gleeson said or did to bring this on, but he was going to be martyred anyway.

They were in the final days of filming The Guard and the director was busy disposing of Gleeson in an incendiary gunfight on a drug-smuggling boat.

His younger brother, Martin McDonagh, had already riddled the portly actor with bullets and had him thrown him off a carillon tower in In Bruges. But now the older McDonagh wanted to kill Gleeson.

In the pub in Connemara in the west of Ireland, long after closing time, the talk turned predictably to religion. Whether Gleeson was looking particularly beatific is not recorded but McDonagh suddenly saw him “wandering around the town” in a cassock. “I just thought it would be a striking image.”

As the whiskey flowed, McDonagh had another radical idea. What about creating a priest who was – gasp – good and decent?

“I assumed,” he says now, “that there would be a lot of movies about the [church] scandals, dealing with them obliquely or in some other way. There would be films about bad priests. So I said, ‘Oh, you know, we should do something more original and get ahead of the game and do a film about a good priest.’ ”

And so we find Gleeson in the darkness of the confession box as the film Calvary opens, being issued with a death threat. “I am going to kill you, Father,” an unseen assassin says through the grille. “Well,” says Gleeson, playing Father James Lavelle, “that’s certainly a startling opening line.”

The incipient killer helpfully outlines his motive: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” It is not personal. Like the child whose innocence was stolen by a priest, Father James has been selected “because you are innocent”.

Retribution is towards the church, not the man. He will suffer for the sins of the Fathers.

His parishioner gives the priest a week to get his house in order and makes an appointment to meet on the beach the following Sunday. Having established that a murder might be in the offing, the scene is set not so much for a whodunit but a who-is-going-to-do-it.

1 . The Glorious Suicide Trilogy 

Even writer-director McDonagh seems to have been kept in suspense on this question. “I hadn’t decided who was going to do the dirty deed until about two-thirds through.”

For suspects he has assembled a cast of Irish comedians – Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Pat Shortt – who are arrayed in varying degrees of malice, sordidness, suffering and sardonic grotesqueness as the doomed Father performs his pastoral duties in episodic exchanges with his fallen flock. The perfect frame for an intrinsically Irish cocktail of the sacred and profane, the profound and the absurd. Says McDonagh: “I realised that you could drive the narrative by having a really good man be tormented by everyone who is bad in the town.”

Sitting in the Surry Hills offices of Transmission Films, on a cold and rainy afternoon, you can see why Gleeson has described McDonagh as “irascible, dogged and persistent”. There is something definite about him. Given that The Guard and Calvary are deeply, thematically Irish films, however, it is something of a surprise to discover the 46-year-old McDonagh speaks in a loud South London accent. “The Guard is set in Galway where my father is from,” he says. “Calvary is set in Sligo, where my mother is from.”

In his bio he states that as a troubled youth he was once incarcerated for killing a swan. “His time inside was a happy one, however,” the biography says, “as he brutally subjected the other boys to a tyrannical reign of terror.” He also writes that he is “married, disastrously, to a psychologically unstable Australian” – a union which has produced two children who are “currently suing him for emotional neglect”.

He wrote the sarcastic biography and production notes – “Q. What was involved in recceing the locations for the film? A. Going to the locations and looking at them” – at a film festival. “All those directors have those long-winded ego-driven bios and you go, ‘If I answer this seriously that is a chore, so I will make something funny up.’ ”

There was no foul play with a swan. There are no children, disgruntled or otherwise. “No. But I am married to a psychologically unstable Australian,” he says of his wife, Elizabeth Eves from Geraldton in Western Australia. “She is one of the co-producers.”

Calvary is the second of what McDonagh calls the Glorious Suicide Trilogy. “It always helps to sell your third movie as part of a trilogy. That was my pragmatic starting point. The Guard is kind of a broad black comedy. Calvary is obviously a lot darker. The third one I want to be kind of a ‘mergence’ of both things, so again it should have much more broadly comedic scenes.”

The third film will be about a paraplegic, a novel way to make an audience feel uncomfortable. “My intention is to push politically incorrect humour in another way by getting disabled actors to do all this kind of stuff.” 

In fact, Calvary has a far softer palette than the stylistic bravura of The Guard, with its balls-out humour and lime-green interiors. Mordantly droll, The Guard is based on the premise of a western and became a huge hit. But the Wild West is the west of Ireland, where wit is the most powerful weapon and guns are illegal. Green, small, raining and covered in cheap bungalows, it is the antithesis of the blasted desert landscape of the American Old West. Yet McDonagh provides a soundtrack of Mexican trumpets and twanging guitars that mimics Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable soundtracks for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. This is hilarious in itself, even without the constant crackling of one-liners. Take drug dealer Clive Cornell (Mark Strong), asked to move the body of a policeman they have just shot: “I don’t do manual labour. No. When I signed up for the post of international drug trafficker it said nothing about, ‘Must have experience of heavy lifting.’ ”

Then there is Gleeson as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a lazy, belligerent, oafish cop who hovers obliquely between ignorance and guile, intelligence and offence, who drinks on the job, has threesomes with hookers and pockets drugs found on car crash victims. All this, of course, is seriously inconvenienced by an impending million pound drug deal that is arriving by boat and an FBI agent played by Don Cheadle, who is similarly incoming. “Now I know what you were tinkin’,” says Boyle. “Yer tinkin’ those men are armed and dangerous, an’ you bein’ an FBI agent are more used to shooting unarmed women and children.” The agent being African American allows Boyle to mischievously exercise the racism that is “part of my culture”.

“I guess both films are technically westerns,” muses McDonagh. “They have that sort of structure. Facing down impossible odds or whatever. Meeting his doom. I thought Brendan with his beard in Calvary would kind of hark back to Sergio Leone movies. He would always have a whiskey priest in his westerns.”

In McDonagh films, the drug dealers discuss quasi-philosophical issues, the tragicomedy has references to Samuel Beckett, the films are littered with postmodern appropriation. “I would say there are a lot of literary references,” McDonagh agrees, “possibly more than visual illusions. I get more excited about a new novel from a novelist I respect than I would about a film these days. Both The Guard and Calvary – some people might say it is a flaw – but they are both literary movies. Talking about the writing process, I want to amuse and entertain an audience, but when I am sitting alone I want to amuse and entertain myself, so I throw in this slightly hidden literary stuff. Will anyone spot this one? There is a dark strain of humour throughout Irish literature.” Says the actor Killian Scott: “John finds a way of merging intellectual ideas and conflicts in a manner that is also very, very funny.”

Calvary is in an altogether different register, a quieter key. It is elegiac in tone and mood. The palette is pastel and muted: the pale blue of a wintry Atlantic ocean, the dull muddy green of the fields that rise up the flanks of the megalithic rock mass that is Benbulbin. Washing froths and snaps on the line in the cold wind. Aerial views sweeping along the coast and across the flat top of the mountain give the film a God’s-eye view, as if to emphasise the paucity of the small and sordid lives being lived out in Father James’s parish.

“I wanted to use the landscape in that way,” says McDonagh. “I wanted to get away from the Dublin-centric Irish filmmaking where everything is shot in the city and it is about quite boring characters, to be honest.”

McDonagh uses sly satire to address pressing issues such as domestic violence, adultery, alcoholism, drug-taking, paedophilia, death and divinity. His characters are gleeful proof of the loss of authority of the Catholic Church. The boisterous butcher (Chris O’Dowd), whose feline wife (Orla O’Rourke) is flagrantly sexually involved with the Ivorian mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé), explains her humiliating behaviour thus: “I think she’s bipolar or lactose intolerant, one of the two.”

“I never second-guess myself when I am writing,” says McDonagh. “I never think, ‘Have I gone too far with the humour here or the darkness there?’ I just write it straight out. I write very fast. I wrote this in 19 days. The Guard I did in 13. I will have thought about it for six months, watching movies, hearing music and working it out. I actually won’t sit down to write until it is almost in my mind. It would only be when I come to the editing process that I start to try to balance things a bit more evenly, you know, so you are not doing three really dark intense brooding scenes in a row.”

Calvary was shot in 29 days. “We rattled through it,” McDonagh says. “Everyone was very focused. There wasn’t a lot of mucking about. I have got a low boredom threshold: I like to get things over and done with as quickly as possible.” But he had already visualised it in its completeness. “I storyboard everything.”

2 . Maintaining integrity 

After the success of The Guard, McDonagh would appear to be a potentially hot property for Hollywood. He says he doesn’t get offered many films in Britain – “they probably think I am too arrogant” – and scripts that come from LA are “mostly crap”.

While you suspect he might be secretly delighted to be attached to a film with a ridiculous Hollywood budget, he is for now clinging to his integrity. “I find I would rather be lying on a beach somewhere not working [than selling out]. To actually work, it has to be something good.”

Integrity is what Father James carries to his High Noon assignation on the beach.

In an unseen sleight of hand, the film has shifted to a biblical passion play. In the end it is about faith and humanity. And we know that the death of love begins at home. 

“I believe there is something more than this life but, as is referred to in the movie, that may just be the fear of death. So that is kind of my standpoint,” McDonagh says.

“You still have good priests who are being vilified just by the clothes they wear. That paranoia is there and it will always be there. But that doesn’t take away the fact that there are individuals trying to do good work. The reason they go into the priesthood is because they want to help other human beings.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 28, 2014 as "Irish eye".

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Susan Chenery is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.