Eyes Open, Ears Open, Travel Everywhere: Learn From Martin McDonagh’s Screenwriting Philosophy

Martin McDonagh, the playwright-turned-director of new feature Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (as well as 2008’s In Bruges and 2012’s Seven Psychopaths) knows how to write a bloody good turn of phrase.

Here, the Irish moviemaker shares the core tenets that make his scripts so explosively entertaining.

Dive Right In

You face the blank page, and you face it the next day and the next day and the next day. It never gets easier. It’s always hard—even in my old age—and it never goes away, though over time you can find a happiness for it. You get to a place where you enjoy the process, and it’s not as tough.

Writing as quickly and often as you can is the only worthwhile exercise. Other people don’t do this but I always jump right into writing. I never plot it out before, I never write a treatment. I always let the characters speak to each other. In the first few days I always try to imagine the characteristics of the people, or some kind of a voice; idiosyncrasies, that kind of thing. I let them just talk to each other and begin to behave. The characters create themselves, almost, and I let the story happen around them. I don’t try to impose a story on the characters but to do it the other way around.

An idea for a feature-length screenplay needs to be something that can go places—unexpected places, perhaps. An idea that has a lot of room to maneuver, so you’re not backing yourself into a corner at any time. For Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the idea of a very strong woman holding up these sad, tragic, angry billboards—I thought it was a good idea in that it was going to cause a reaction. I didn’t know what was going to happen at the beginning of the story, but I knew that if she was that strong, the reaction would be interesting and diverse.

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

No Structure Rules, No Camera Movements

Don’t think as a director when you’re writing your script. I usually write the script without visualizing it very much in the beginning. I don’t write camera moves into the script at all. Scripts that have too many camera moves or that kind of stuff are a little hard to read and a little irrelevant, because once the director comes in, he or she will take care of that stuff anyway. If it’s an important thing, like a secret to a scene, sure. But the first stage is just telling a story through character and dialogue and plot, so the directorial aspects are less important. Once a script is finished and I know it’s going to be produced, I go back to it and start storyboarding every single scene.

I was self-taught, so I’m wary of people teaching structure, the rules, because I don’t believe there are any rules. I still don’t know a thing about the structure of a movie, though I know I’m an oddity there. Part of learning screenwriting is to watch a bunch of movies and talk about them, and that’s really helpful. I don’t think you need an awful lot more than that. I have a sense that something needs to happen at certain times, otherwise it’s not going to be an entertaining story, but there are no rules to be followed. It doesn’t have to be as strict as a three-act structure.

Travel and Listen

If there’s anything that can teach you to write dialogue, it’s listening to people. That’s one of the most important things. In some ways, you’ve either got dialogue or you haven’t. I don’t know if there’s any way to test it, really. As long as you’re honest with yourself, and keep writing and being honest as to whether it’s good or bad, there’s no secret. Listen to people, observe people, as opposed to going to the movies and listening to characters. You can sit in a diner or a bus, or walk down the street and listen, properly, and if possible write down exactly—to a word—how people speak, that can help. I learn by traveling to small-town America and speaking to people. I like to take trains a lot and now and then a bus or two, and I like to go into local restaurants and listen to people.

In my daily life, I hardly ever swear, though my characters do quite a lot. But I don’t judge them. A lot of my characters are working-class people, and that’s the language that these particular types of working people choose to use. It’s never to deliberately shock; in fact I hardly even notice that there are so many swear words in there until people point them out to me.

While traveling, I keep my eyes open for an interesting town or landscape. That’s what happened with In Bruges. I like a town to be a character and a backdrop to a story. It took us a long time to find the town for Three Billboards. By that time I had a very strong picture in my mind for what the small town would look like, and a rougher picture for what the road with the billboards would look like. The town was the most important and once we found it, we started looking in a radius of 10 or 20 miles around it to find that road.

McDonagh on the set of Three Billboards, the third feature he has written and directed

It’s Your Heart and Head on the Page

A script is something coming from your heart or your head. You don’t want someone else’s heart or head in the process! A script might have difficult segments, or difficult characters, or a certain strangeness, but all those things might be there for a reason. To hear an opinion that’s counter to that is not useful. When something is finished and you’re happy with it, you can then open it up to a couple of people whose opinions you respect. But I would advise against it.

I’m pretty single-minded in that I’ll sit down and keep going until a screenplay is finished, but until it’s finished I don’t give it to anyone else. I’ve got to be the happiest with it than anyone. But I never workshop things or give the script to people to seek out their opinion. By the time I’ve given it to someone, I’m already completely happy with it.

I’m a stickler for sticking to script during production. I like actors and I’m very open to their ideas, but I’m not open to changing a script. Because by the time one of my scripts goes into production, I’ve been sitting with the script for seven years. And every one of those lines is carefully chosen. There’s no way I would arbitrarily hand that over or change that on the morning of a scene because an actor has arbitrarily decided to do some other words. If you’ve signed on to do my script, you’re doing my script and that’s the end of it. There isn’t a word, a swear word or otherwise, in my writing that I haven’t thought about extensively—both in the music of the dialogue and the speed and the ultimate power it might have on an audience, or on another character. MM

 As told to Carlos Aguilar

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in theaters November 10, 2017, courtesy of Fox Searchlight. Photographs by Merrick Morton

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2018 Complete Guide to Making Movies.

 

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