John Michael McDonagh’s biography that accompanies his new film Calvary forgoes the usual rave about the writer-director’s previous work in favour of a potted history of the 46-year-old’s previous form, which includes jail time for killing a swan, a disastrous marriage to a “psychologically unstable Australian” and a ballooning weight problem from eating too many pies.
This is typical McDonagh: the serious work hides behind seriously macabre laughs. A second-generation Irish director, McDonagh broke through internationally with 2011’s The Guard, a cracking yarn about a feckless policeman who begrudgingly takes on drug smugglers in the wild west of Ireland. A Sundance rave, the film received a Golden Globe nomination for its star Brendan Gleeson and became the biggest home-grown movie at the Irish box office, out-gunning McDonagh’s elder brother Martin’s film, In Bruges.
The younger McDonagh’s new film Calvary – part two of his “Glorified Suicide Trilogy” – is a High Noon tale of an Irish priest (again played by Gleeson) who is told anonymously in confession that he will be killed in seven days to atone for the sins of the Church. Less whodunit than who is going to do it, the philanderers, abusers, fraudsters and drunks that make up Father James’ parishioners line up to take aim. We caught up with the director to find out more.
Calvary is a much darker comedy than The Guard given the backdrop of Catholic Church abuse. How did you get the comi-tragic tone?
“My mother saw Calvary and I asked her what she thought of it. She said ‘harrowing’ [laughs]. I think she preferred The Guard. You go back and forth between laugh-out loud funny and appalling. It makes the film weird tonally. I was always a big fan of the Coen Brothers – they do stuff like that. In Hollywood, it either has to be a straight-ahead drama or comedy. You can’t mix the two. In life, comedy and tragedy are mixed up.”
How did the story come about?
“The idea for the film came about during The Guard when Brendan [Gleeson] and I talked about how terrible it must be for someone to walk down the street and because of what you’re wearing you’re immediately judged in a sinister way. Most priests become priests because they want to do good but they’re not perceived that way anymore. The moral universe has been turned upside down. When we initially discussed it, I assumed there would be more clichéd films coming out dealing with bad priests. I thought, let’s get our film out first about a good priest and all those other films about bad priests can come after.”
The townsfolk are a cynical, nasty bunch: ready to blame this good guy for the world’s ills. One will go as far as to kill him. What’s your motivation here?
“We decided to surround the good priest with awful, terrible characters. The priest is a straightforward good person. Usually, people have to be conflicted in films. So to drive the story forward, I have everyone else be evil and appalling towards him. He’s a good person reacting to the evil men do.”
Is the film a comment on contemporary society?
“You’d hope you’d never get all those characters in one town, otherwise you’d leave it! It’s a film about human beings. All those abuse and financial scandals [in the narrative] are secondary. They’re just the themes percolating in the plot. For me it’s about these characters and how they’re navigating their lives, how they’re responding to the priest, how they’re trying to crush him. That’s the driving force of the story.”
There’s a strong Irish cast with Chris O’Dowd [The IT Crowd] and Aidan Gillen [Game of Thrones] but Dylan Moran [Black Books] steals it as a morose banker. How was it working with him?
“It’s always exciting working with Dylan because you always wonder if he’ll remember any of the lines. Every now and again there’ll be a glint in his eye when he’s remembered one.”
The film is part two in your “Glorified Suicide Trilogy”. Can you tell us more?
“There’s a martyrdom to both The Guard and Calvary. They’re westerns: about a good man about to meet his fate. The third one [called The Lame Shall Enter First] will be about a very troubled, abusive, confrontational paraplegic. So I’ve done a policeman, a priest and the next one will be a paraplegic. It will have that same structure of a man going to a final confrontation with opposed forces that are greater than he is. The Guard was set in Galway where my father is from, Calvary is in Sligo where my mother is from and the last one is set in south London where I’m from. So that’s the kind of personal, auteurish overview of the trilogy [laughs].”
You laugh about it. Do you not really mean that?
“I’m not really joking about it. To me, I see a box set and it’ll say the ‘Glorified Suicide Trilogy’ on the spine [laughs]. I often laugh when I’m being quite serious. I make a serious comment and then I laugh about it as if I’m not being serious.”
The Guard was a breakthrough elsewhere but didn’t impact in the UK. Do you worry that your films are seen as specifically Irish?
“I was worried about that with The Guard but the audience didn’t take it like that. I hope it’s the same with Calvary. This is a big movie and I hope it’s perceived as a big movie, and not as just ‘another small Irish gem’. I hate little gems.”
Calvary is out today.
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