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Dripping Blood in the Snow
Playwright McDonagh Brings His Dark Themes to Sundance

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

PARK CITY, Utah -- They really rolled out the red carpet for Martin McDonagh, the Anglo-Irish playwright with the punk sensibilities, the former bad boy of the London theater who once got in a drunken spat with Sean Connery because McDonagh, blotto on vodka, decided not to stand when they drank to the queen.

McDonagh is here in snow country because his first film, "In Bruges," starring Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on opening night. The movie, about two Mutt-and-Jeff hit men stranded in the medieval Flemish tourist town of Bruges, is very McDonagh, meaning it is bloody violent and bloody funny. McDonagh wrote and directed. Festival founder Robert Redford introduced him.

"I saw him afterward and he gave me a big hug," says McDonagh, impressed. We warn him that Redford is a monster. "Realllly?" McDonagh's face brightens in pleasure. He seems almost disappointed when we say no, just kidding, they say Redford is a prince.

"Ah, well," McDonagh says. "Too bad."

McDonagh is lean, handsome, with gaps in his whitened teeth, his hair prematurely gray at age 37. He is best known as the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four plays running simultaneously in London's West End theater district. He was 27 then. He has won numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic.

His plays, beginning with "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and continuing through "The Pillowman," have all been hits, known for their combative style -- about losers and miscreants, speaking a poetry of slang and expletives, experiencing crazy acts of depravity. A son murders his father for making fun of his hair. A daughter holds her mother's hand over a hot stove. A boy's toes are cut off.

McDonagh's mother and father were Irish expatriates living in Irish prole London. Dad was a construction worker, Mum a house cleaner. They would take their boys, Martin and his older brother John, who became a screenwriter, back to Connemara and the rural west of Ireland during their holidays from Catholic school. For his muse, McDonagh says he looked not so much to Harold Pinter or David Mamet, but to the Pogues and the Clash, and the films of Quentin Tarantino and the young Martin Scorsese.

One remarkable fact about McDonagh is that all six of his plays were written in a fevered burst (he heard the voices of his characters) in 1994, when he was 24 years old and living on the dole. "I had worked part-time in the civil service," he recalls. "Kafkaesque and rather bleak. Nice people, though."

And what happened?

"Unemployment, having the house to myself and being bored sparked the furious playwriting over the 10 months or so," he says. "It was also fear of poverty, fear of having a boss, fear of doing nothing with your life, that sparked the speed of it." He was trying to find, too, a new way forward. "I was angry about the way theater was in England. It seemed a very upper-class, dull art form. I always had a bad time in going to plays. Wanted to subvert that, come at it with a punk rock attitude." He recalls seeing, as a teen, Al Pacino in Mamet's play "American Buffalo."

"I didn't know anything about Mamet at that point," he says. " I just wanted to see a film star onstage. Pacino was brilliant. The play was astonishingly good, too. Before that, I didn't realize you could have working-class, dirty, rough, expletive plays. That spurred me on. You could say exactly what you want. You don't have to have people drinking tea."

And characters named Roger.

"Right. 'Roger, where is the cat?' "

For the next 10 years, he didn't really write much more. Instead, he accompanied his plays into the world, working with directors and actors in rehearsals. It was during this time that he became known in the British press as an enfant terrible. But that reputation feels dated, as McDonagh sits now bright-eyed and eager, drinking a bottle of spring water.

You seem like a nice man.

"Yeah, it's crazy, just that one drunken night."

What did you do to Sean Connery?

"Not standing up for the queen, that was it."

She wasn't even there?

"They were toasting the queen." It was at the Savoy Hotel the night he won the Most Promising Playwright prize at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Connery came over and told McDonagh and his brother to behave, and McDonagh told Connery to blast off. "Good old Irish boys that we are, we don't like to stand for the queen. Not our kind of thing."

Righto. "But it goes back to that upper-class posh play thing," McDonagh says. "I didn't want to be a posh playwright. I didn't want to be a snobbie."

And now you're a filmmaker. "I always wanted to make one film and then walk away, and that was the idea with 'In Bruges,' " which opens in limited release, including Washington, in February. Early reviews from Sundance have been mixed. Variety thought McDonagh "benches the bolder, brasher side of his dramatic writing skills and tries his hand at genre and plot in his highly erratic filmmaking debut." Hollywood Reporter applauds "an audacious combination of Old World grace and modern ultraviolence . . . chock full of wonderful lines delivered by a splendid cast."

Now you're stuck? You have to make another film.

"I don't know," McDonagh says. "I did think it would be more of a pain than it was. I didn't think it would be enjoyable. I don't know if it was working with such nice people as Brendan and Colin and Ralph, but I think that had an awful lot to do with it. Every day was fun, and I didn't think it would be. I thought it would be a hundred questions I couldn't answer and just . . . fear. There wasn't any of that."

Gleeson and Farrell are sitting on a couch together in a back room, looking not unlike their characters in the film, the hit men Ken and Ray, Gleeson in black head to toe, and Farrell with two earrings, a thick leather bracelet, tattoos and his long hair up in a watch cap. They're both Dublin-born and -raised.

"We had three weeks of rehearsal, like a play, actually," says Gleeson. "But his plays have always been quite cinematic in their approach anyway. . . . I think he was aware of the limitations of dialogue in film, but he also resisted the temptation to limit the dialogue just because that's what you're supposed to do."

Farrell steps in. "Martin was great. He maintained his level of curiosity. Though he was the writer of the piece and it was born of his imagination, he seemed to be open to varying new aspects of it. Not to suggest that we were telling him anything about his piece. It was all in there. We were getting it from him."

Gleeson says, "At the same time, there was a discipline on the lines. There was very little improvisation on the lines themselves. They all have a balance. They all have quality. There is a poetry or whatever you want to call it. Poetry might be too grandiose a term."

Farrell: "We would discuss single words at times."

He adds, "Ray had an mm, which was two M's. And he had an mmm, which is three M's." He is making the sounds of his character, the suicidal hit man Ray.

Gleeson says, "Martin was very specific. He wrote them that way."

"There is a certain music to it," Farrell says, "to his M's."

McDonagh says he plans to spend the next few years traveling. South America, he thinks, first. Maybe then write another play, another film. No rush, no worries. He says, "I think I want to find that older person's voice."

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