Eleven years ago, John Michael McDonagh wrote and directed his first film, a short entitled The Second Death, introducing, in a minor role, a young policeman named Gerry. Realizing that he was a strong and funny character, McDonagh always thought he’d like to do something else with him. Over a decade later, Sgt Gerry Boyle, a small town police officer, was rebirthed in McDonagh’s new movie The Guard.
The writer/director approached actor Brendan Gleeson, who had recently worked with his brother, director Martin McDonagh, in In Bruges, for the role of Gerry, a cop who doesn’t take anything or anyone seriously. But when an international drug trafficking ring appears in Ireland, Boyle is partnered with FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) and must find a way to work with him.
I spoke with John Michael McDonagh about The Guard, his first full-length movie, and the friendly competition he has with his brother Martin.
When writing the screenplay, did you ever censor yourself when it came to Gerry’s dialogue?
Looking back at it now, it seems odd but I just wrote whatever was going to come out of Gerry’s mouth. I didn’t really censor myself. I cut a joke I thought wasn’t funny, but I wouldn’t have cut a joke that I thought had gone too far. But of course, you never know if you’ve gone too far until you’re sitting in an audience and you hear people getting up and walking out.
But I had the basic conception of the character that hopefully would play out, and [the audience] would realize that in a lot of the things he was saying it was kind of a confrontational effect rather than him actually believing it.
It says in the press notes that you wrote the script out of sequence, is that normal for you?
I usually do it linearly, but for some reason, I think because Gerry was such a character who’s willing to say or do anything anytime, you start saying, ‘Oh, it would be funny if he did this,’ and then you realize that would happen later. So you’re thinking of the comedy and then you start to slot it around. I would eventually put [the scenes] in a row and then go, ‘Now I’ve got to fill in the dots between those scenes.’ But in writing I always know the last 20 minutes and I always know the first 20 minutes.
Did you write this specifically for Brendan?
No, I think there’s a problem if you write scripts for a specific actor, because then if you don’t get them you’re already on a downer before you start making the movie, because you didn’t get the actor you wanted. But once I’d reread it I thought, ‘Well Brendan is really the only one who’s going to play this.’
You could probably cast a younger actor but I think you’d lose the melancholic man that’s at the end of his tether. I also think it would make the edgy jokes that he says harsher if it was coming from a younger man. I think the fact that it’s an older man, and we’re not quite sure of his motives, makes it a little bit more playable.
Was Don Cheadle your first choice for Agent Everett?
Yeah, because I loved him in Boogie Nights and Devil in a Blue Dress. He was brilliant in that. Even when he’s playing a hardcore villain there is always something empathetic about him, he always had a sense of humor.
You know when you see some actors you think, ‘I bet they’re a real prick,’ and others you go, ‘I bet he’s a nice guy.’ He turned out to be a nice guy and I think that comes across in his movies.
Do you think both Boyle and Everett learn something about prejudice by the end of the film?
Nah, I’m not sure if Boyle learns anything, I think he’s the same person at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning. He’s just done something kind of heroic against his better nature. When he gets his uniform out, that’s probably the uniform he wore when he last had some kind of integrity, when he was proud of himself.
He’s reclaimed it at the bitter end, if it is the bitter end.
Don’s character, he judges these small town people, so he realizes in the end that he has misjudged Boyle. I don’t think Boyle misjudges Everett, it’s just that he enjoys winding him up. I think Boyle likes undermining power. He’s anti-authoritarian.
He’s trying to destabilize Everett because Everett represents an American police force who thinks they know everything.
This being your first full-length movie what was the biggest challenge for you?
The biggest challenge was the weather conditions, it was a 35 day shoot and I lost a day because of weather, which was tough because they don’t let you come back on a low budget film to shoot extra days, you either get it or you don’t.
We had the worst weather for three hundred years, apparently, but nearly every time we needed to be outside, it stopped raining.
When it was bucketing down, we were inside. Brendan was saying that we must have sold our souls to the devil! We did lose a night to the rain in Wicklow Harbor, but the local authorities managed to re-schedule it for us and we were able to bring the actors back.
Are you and your brother competitive?
We are competitive. He became quite a popular playwright but I hate the theater, so I didn’t mind how much success he had in that. When he got his movie, In Bruges, set up with Colin Ferrell and Brendan there was a kind ulcer that began in my stomach.
Eventually it went away after I got The Guard set up.
Has your brother seen this movie?
Yeah, he has. He loved it. He gave me some pretty good notes when we got down to the final cut of it.