Martin McDonagh knows the importance of kindness on a film set. His fourth feature film, The Banshees of Inisherin, stars In Bruges alums Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, two actors he says are among the kindest in the industry. It’s kind of ironic, considering the pair play two former best friends who suddenly become mortal enemies when one of them abruptly decides he never wants to speak to the other, ever again.
“Just be kind. I think kindness on a film set goes a long way,” McDonagh says. “I don’t think you need to be a stressed, angry director to get the job done. I think listening to all of the heads of departments, having a vision, being open to what they think, and being respectful of their art is one of the things I’ve grown to learn and love.”
McDonagh was already a well-established playwright — known for works including The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Pillowman — by the time he won the Oscar for best live-action short film in 2006 for Six Shooter. He followed that up with his first feature, In Bruges, a favorite among young film students, which was nominated for the Oscar for best original screenplay. He keeps coming back to his favorite actors: His second feature, Seven Psychopaths, also starred Farrell alongside Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, and the latter two returned for McDonagh’s third feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which earned Frances McDormand her second best actress Oscar and was also nominated for both best picture and best original screenplay.
Filmed on Ireland’s gorgeous island of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway, The Banshees of Inisherin gave McDonagh a chance to put to work the lessons he learned from making his first three features: listen to the voices around you, trust your collaborators, and above all, be kind. Here are some more tips McDonagh has picked up along the way. — M.M.
1. Do everything you can to prepare. Be truthful about that preparation. Make sure the script is honestly perfect.
2. Try not to listen to producers when they have notes. Do listen to actors once they’ve committed to the project, if they’re good actors. If they’re not good actors, you shouldn’t be working with them in the first place.
3. Watch every possible movie there is to watch. All the greats and all the cult classics, all of the cult crap, is never going to hurt. Just reading books isn’t going to hurt. Just observing life outside of school. Travel is great, if you can do it, however cheaply you can do it. Anything that you can do to observe people. This is more as a writer than as a filmmaker, but it’s all the same thing to me — just seeing people, listening to people, hearing different points of view, trying not to judge. That’s all very useful.
4. I don’t think I’d have been able to make the films I have if I’d made them straight out of the gate; if I made them when I was, like, 23 or 24. Just living in the world, going through stuff — heartbreak or joy or just growing up — all that stuff helps. But for me, I was doing plays before, so just getting to work on a practical level, getting to work and love actors, I think that was probably the biggest thing that I took, the first day of the first movie. Just liking actors, liking their process, and feeling like being a writer and being an actor are very close together. I think being a director is a little different to those two jobs, or those two paths.
5. Every day, or every week, you feel like you’ve failed completely. As your career goes on, there’s hopefully less of that, or there’s the knowledge that what you thought was a failure doesn’t have to be in the end. You can work around things in the edit. Things you thought you really, really needed for a scene might not be what you turned out to need… Every week there are fears and worries that it’s not going to be any good. So that’s probably the darkest thing.
6. By the fourth movie, you kind of get used to what to do and you’ve learned what to do a little bit. It’s always scary, but you’ve kind of gathered a team that you keep going back to, so it all makes it a lot less stressful, I suppose. With The Banshees of Inisherin, Similar to In Bruges, I wanted to capture a location as much as the story that’s unfolding. In Three Billboards, we sort of did that too. We had to find the perfect billboard road and small town to make the geography memorable. One of the things I didn’t want to do was disappoint anyone who loves In Bruges, obviously — but at the same time, you can’t go into an artistic project thinking that. I knew this would be different. I think it gives the In Bruges crowd what they want, but I hope it sort of takes it to a weirder, stranger place.
7. Talent first, but if someone’s a jerk, they’re not going to last long. I know I couldn’t work with an actor who was a diva or a narcissist or a jerk. So hopefully, you can spot that in the first meeting. I think you usually can. I’ve always had great experiences with actors, but part of that is making sure at the initial meeting that they’re okay. I couldn’t cast an actor without meeting them first.
8. Christopher Walken, when I was trying to direct him in a different way in a scene, he said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll give you like four different versions of this thing, anyway. In the edit, that’s all you’ll need.” And I was kind of like, Jesus Christ. I’d rather you do it exactly the way I wanted it. But in the edit, I had four different options, and the option I thought I wanted, like an angry one, which he kind of did a version of, didn’t turn out to be the one that we really needed, which was the quieter one or the sadder one. So trusting great actors is what I learned. There was a lot of Francis McDormand stuff as well that I thought I definitely needed it my way — and that’s not a bad place to be coming from as a writer-director — but trusting actors more, I think, is a good thing to have learned.
9. As a director, the myth of the overbearing, tough, angry, speaking-through-a-loud-hailer-type a–hole — I think that’s bulls—. Also the tortured artist side of things I think is bulls—. Preparation and care and a love of the art is more important than any of those things.
10. The idea that you can have a movie, for instance, that’s not just one thing, not just dramatic and sad, but to have both things in tandem without diminishing either — just looking back on my four films, I think that’s probably the thing I like most about the good ones. I’ve sometimes had reviews where people say the film doesn’t seem to know if it’s a dark story or a comedy, but that’s exactly what I was going for: people to be in one minute laughing and one minute crying.
The Banshees of Inisherin, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, is now is now available on demand and streaming on HBO Max.
Main image: Martin McDonagh and Colin Farrell on the island set of The Banshees of Inisherin. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.