How to Write Insane

“You can’t let the animals die, just the women.” Martin McDonagh smirks as he takes a sip from his orange juice.

It’s a windy day and the 40-year-old writer/director is lounging on the roof of the W Hotel in downtown San Diego. Tomorrow night, he’ll premiere his new film “Seven Psychopaths” at the San Diego Film Festival. Like much of McDonagh’s work, “Seven Psychopaths” is an air-tight bit of blood splattered fiction — entangling humor, extreme brutality and an underlying love for his characters in a deceptively vast web of jubilant chaos. At the center of this maelstrom: one troublesome shih tzu.

“That’s all you hear from the studio,” says McDonagh. “In an early version of the script, the dog didn’t necessarily make it out in the end. I got so many notes about that, but not a single note about how many women got killed. Not one [laughs]. But it’s good that we get those notes because that’s what the film is criticizing.”

McDonagh has been known, more than occasionally, to hide his transgressive and poignant undertones in the least likely of places. And whether he’s jabbing movie studios, pop culture or himself, McDonagh’s delivery is consistently as sharp as it is unpredictable.

“It’s about trickery,” says McDonagh. “I like twists, and you can always hide a twist in a joke, because people laugh at a joke and then dismiss it.”

When he retired from theater to focus on film five years ago, McDonagh was already an established playwright with seven acclaimed plays and four Tony nominations under his belt. His first stab at film, the brilliant “Six Shooter,” took home an Academy Award for best live action short. His first feature length, “In Bruges,” gained a near-immediate cult following as well as an Oscar nomination for original screenplay. “Seven Psychopaths” is McDonagh’s third cinematic outing and undoubtedly his most ambitious.

“I think it took a while to get to a place where I enjoyed writing film, because I found films a lot harder to write than plays,” says McDonagh. “I’ve always found plays quite easy, especially if you’re good with dialogue and character — it’s kind of all you need in some ways. But with films you have to think in images, and you can jump around in time and space and geography, and things are much more subtle in many ways. So it took me awhile. But right now, I think I’d be more comfortable sitting down to write a film than a play.”

And “Seven Psychopaths” is first and foremost a film about writing. It follows protagonist Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter whose latest project ‘Seven Psychopaths’ has come to a halt in the midst of severe writer’s block. Meanwhile, Marty’s friends Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken) evade the ruthless crime boss Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson) after inadvertently stealing his beloved shih tzu. The product reads as a grittier, less recursive parallel to Charlie Kaufman’s meta masterpiece “Adaptation”: the plot weaves between the fictional screenplay and the life of the man writing it (who is, essentially, a fictionalized McDonagh).

“Well I wouldn’t say that it is me, but I liked the idea of throwing just enough red herrings in there,” says McDonagh. “Obviously, naming the main character with my name and making him a writer who’s writing ‘Seven Psychopaths’ — it’s an easy conclusion to make. But I also share Colin’s character’s view of violence in films and his desire to explore a way that films can be equally about love and peace, and still be cool.”

The story-within-a-story method has marked much of McDonagh’s work, including his beloved 2003 play “The Pillowman,” which was also about a writer’s (decidedly more grisly) relationship with his stories.

“I kind of see this as a film equivalent to what I was trying to do in ‘Pillowman,’” says McDonagh. “But I’ll probably leave that style of storytelling alone for now. I’d like to just concentrate on the stories in their own right, achieving something pure. Did you see ‘The Master’ yet? I loved that. It was something so pure — not tricksy — and meaty. That’s the kind of film I’d like to work on next.”

Aside from its labyrinthian twists and darkly comic take on the crime thriller, “Seven Psychopaths” is most notable for its incredible ensemble cast for which McDonagh cherrypicked some of American indie cinema’s finest. In addition to Farrell and Rockwell, Woody Harrelson is brilliant as the film’s antagonist, Christopher Walken takes peyote and wanders a desert for the entire second half of the film, the great Tom Waits plays a serial killer-killer à la Dexter and “Precious”’ Gabourey Sidibe gets a handgun held to her head.

Most exciting for McDonagh, however, was the prolific Harry Dean Stanton.

“I couldn’t believe it — it was really just a matter of asking Harry,” says McDonagh. “I had dinner with him and he said ‘tell me what it’s about.’ So I did, and I got to the violence and he said, ‘ah I don’t really like violence,’ but when I told him what the twist was he said ‘oh well I’m really interested in all the eastern philosophies. I’ll do it.’ It was that simple [laughs]. Christ, this is just the dream for any kid who loves movies.”

While “Seven Psychopaths” will inevitably acquire McDonagh a wider mainstream fanbase, giving Tarantino a run for his money this awards season, those who’ve followed the writer’s past work will likely have one unresolved question. Last year, rumors began circulating that McDonagh and “Psychopaths” collaborator Tom Waits were working on a Broadway musical — a ginsoaked folktale lover’s dream come true.

“It kind of fell through,” admits McDonagh, “and it was pretty loose from the start. But I had so much fun working with Tom on this, and I’m in touch with him all the time. I might go ahead and write it and see if he wants to contribute. I certainly want to work with him again in some capacity anyway.”

Let’s hope the stars align for this one.

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