Banshees of Inisherin, The: Interview with Director Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh on Reuniting Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson for New Black Comedy

The British-Irish writer-director returns to the Lido, where he launched his previous film, the Oscar-winning hit Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with another dark comedy, this time in rural Ireland.

McDonagh discusses not being prolific (and his fears that the success of Three Billboards might have forced him to work more), explains how he had the title for his latest film decades before the plot and firmly shuts the door on any producer hoping to pitch him a script that isn’t his own. He also admits that his partner Phoebe Waller-Bridge gives him feedback on his work.

Idea for The Banshees of Inisherin way back in 1994?

That’s actually not true and something I kind of want to clarify. I had the title and I tried to write a play with that as the title — actually it was Banshees of Inisheer back then — but never finished it, didn’t like it and sort of put it aside. But I always liked the title and thought that was something to come back to. So basically about three years ago, I came up with something that the title would work for. So this is a completely new thing, not based on anything back then. I can’t even remember what it was.

The name taps into your Aran Islands plays?

It still feels like the end of a trilogy, certainly in terms of the type of story that’s being told, and it being a dark comedy set in the West of Ireland. But aside from that, it’s brand new.

I just wanted to write a sort of simple sad breakup story between two blokes, weirdly. And I guess part of it was always wanting to get Colin and Brendan back together since In Bruges. I’ve stayed friends with them since then and was always hoping no one else would work with them as a pairing. It almost happened once and it fell through and I was so happy about that. They always wanted to get together too, so that was the germ of it, this breakup story and those guys.

It’s been 14 years since In Bruges. Did you hit it off again immediately?

He killed himself! But yeah, it’s always a joy. There was never even a cross word during the eight weeks we made it, which is weird. I love them, and we get on great. There’s no bullshit about us, there’s no fame shit about them. They know I’m still a new-ish filmmaker but know I’m good at the things I’m good at — story and character. And they know I care about what they care about.

Banshees has a different pace and feel to it?

I don’t think it’s closely aligned to the plays, but I did want to do something a little quieter and less in-your-face than the other movies. It’s definitely less Hollywood. It feels quite sort of European somehow, although that wasn’t in my head when I was doing it. But I knew there was room for the landscapes to be part of it. I wanted it to be as beautiful as any Irish film has been, if possible. So we were always aiming for that, which allowed us to leave more space and quietness I think than in some of the other movies. It’s probably less plotty and more of a character study than any of the others too. But I think it’s equally as funny as the funny bits of the others.

First film shot in Ireland since Six Shooter

First feature since Three Billboards?

Because I’m not someone who makes films back-to-back, and I mostly don’t like working, when something is successful, the fear is that it’s going to make me have to work more. So I totally avoided that. I always sort of write something every year, but that something, that’s just for me and it’s never on commission. If it’s bad, I’ll throw it away. I love everything that happened with Three Billboards, it was unexpected and a trip and crazy fun. But you do take it with a pinch of salt. I didn’t feel like I had to follow it in any other way than it being as good as, or as good as In Bruges. In terms of success, I don’t care about that at all, honestly. Three Billboards was a crazy anomaly. I think it just hit at the right moment. [The] MeToo [movement] was happening at the same time as this amazing Frances [McDormand] performance and all those speeches. So that’s never going to happen again.

Despite the success of Three Billboards, backlash against Sam Rockwell’s openly racist character

As someone who’s always been anti-racist and thinks about that stuff a lot, it was interesting! But I think the film isn’t what a minority of people felt that was. I can completely see why they would think that, but I think that just would be reading it in a simplistic way. Not to put words in their mouths, but my sense of it was that they were seeing Rockwell’s character at the end of the film as the hero of the piece. He’s attempting to be, but he fails miserably. And the two of them go off to kill the wrong guy, which isn’t heroic. So I was trying to tell a story about who we hold up as heroes and villains and ask if there was a debate to be had around that. And I felt like the racist thing was just a bit too simplified a reading of the end of the movie. But I understand it.

Never up to this point. Luckily, I’ve always had stories in the backlog to go back to. I don’t think I ever will really. Because I don’t work too often, I’ve always got time to do something in the interim. And that’s part of the joy. I think that’s the happiest time for me, the writing of the new thing.

Adapting your own plays for the screen?

No, I’m dead set against it. As much as I say I hate theatre, I do care that you should write the best play that you can without an eye on it being in a different art form. You’ve got to respect the art form in itself. And it’s usually a question of making more money. I also feel like the story of the plays have been told, so I’m not going to keep repeating them.

Your partner Phoebe Waller-Bridge as sounding board for your scripts? 

Not a sounding board, but she usually reads something at the end of the process. And she definitely liked this one, so that was quite good.

Did she have any input on Banshees?

No input, but just her saying that she really liked it was enough for me.

Friendly competition with brother, John Michael McDonagh?

Yeah, friendly, I don’t know if it’s competition, but we always hope each other’s things are going to be good.

Battling for Brendan Gleeson’s attention

He’s stolen Ralph Fiennes from me as well!

Like Brendan’s character in Banshees, have you tried to unfriend someone because they were dull? 

Not dull per se, but fucking irritating! I’ve kept all my dull friends.