By Travis Johnson

What was the impetus behind War on Everyone? It’s got a very different feel to your previous films.

I knew I wanted to do something completely different to Calvary, tonally and visually. The script started out being set in Britain, then it was set in Ireland, but it didn’t really work in those places, and it was only once I got the idea – people are always saying to me, ‘Oh, The Guard and Calvary, they’re Westerns,’ so I thought for the next one, why not go to the South West and do a contemporary Western – that was sort of the initial idea. And I kinda wanted to get back to The Guard-type confrontational comedy aspect – instead of having one sort of bad cop, I’ll have two instead.

It seems that you’re riffing on the classic mismatched buddy cop duo on this one.

People have mentioned a lot of the ‘80s buddy cop movies, but I’ve never watched them. I’ve seen Lethal Weapon, but I’ve never watched it twice. I’ve never watched any of ‘em. I like the ‘70s stuff – The French Connection, and there’s more obscure ones like Freebie and the Bean. There’s a sequence in Freebie and the Bean where they kill a guy – they kill him in cold blood and it’s never mentioned again. They shoot him in a toilet stall. You could get away with a lot of really dark elements, even in a ‘70s cop buddy comedy movie. Of course, it did have Alan Arkin playing a Mexican, which you couldn’t get away with now. But it was those kind of counter-cultural, Elliott Gould type movies that I was trying to hark back to, rather than the ‘80s, which kind of passed me by in a way.

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Tell us about the casting. I understand that Alexander Skarsgard came on the project quite late in the day.

Yeah, it was originally Garrett Hedlund. Have you seen On the Road? He pulled out three weeks into pre-production. Actors do that a lot. They’re cossetted by their managers, their agents, their lawyers. I guess they have no conception of what that means to a film. What it literally meant was it cost us half a million dollars – when you’re on a low budget film, and we’re under ten million, there’s a price to be paid for that. Actors don’t seem to either care or don’t know – I don’t know which it is. Is it willful ignorance? But it seems to be happening more and more often. I don’t know why, but you hear a lot about actors pulling out before they shoot a movie. And often those movies don’t get made.

But we ploughed on – we kept going. And luckily someone as great as Alex was available. He’d seen The Guard, he’d seen Calvary, and he didn’t take much convincing. I think it was only one or two telephone calls to talk through the character and he was on board, and we were lucky.

He’s not an actor really known for his comedy.

He was in Eastbound and Down – did you ever see that show? He’s in a dream sequence in the future where he’s Danny McBride’s son or something like that, and he was – although I’d have to watch it again – in Zoolander, apparently. But he’s not known for it, no. The main thing for me was, though, the physicality of the character -somebody who looks like they could kick in a door with little or no trouble, and that’s what he looks like. It’s just lucky that he had the chemistry with Michael Pena.

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How do you like to work with your actors?

We go through about three or four days of rehearsals – rehearsals might be too big a word, it’s kind of just reading the script. We’re not getting up and imagining there’s a door there, there’s a chair there, it’s just talking through every scene, talking through the motivation. Generally speaking, I find American actors don’t like to go through it too often – Don Cheadle was like that on The Guard  – while I find more European actors are happy to keep going and going.

Michael Pena constantly rereads the script so when he gets on set he knows the lines so perfectly, but then he can riff. You know when they talk about improvisation? Improvisation’s fine when they know who the character is and how they react. Improvisation when you don’t know who your character is, which seems to be a lot of improvisation, generally speaking it ends up with actors getting really, really angry and banging their fist on the table, or banging their fist on the steering wheel, or banging their fist on the fridge. That seems to be where improvisation ends up in these low budget movies – it ends up with people shouting at each other, because they don’t know where else to go except rage, and to me that’s bad improvisation.

Were there any ad-libs that stood out for you?

The one I liked is when they kick in the door and they find the woman who stabbed her husband – he [Pena] points to her wall and says,  ‘Ma’am, did you do those paintings?’ That was so off the wall. And when he says ‘Can we play a little game called Shut the Fuck Up?’ – that was one of his. When he gets into that zone, when we’ve got the scene, I’m happy for him to do whatever. Alex will stick to the script more, throw in a line here or there, but not going that far with it.

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How did these two characters ever come together? The film never really touches on their backstory.

Terry says he joined the police force because he can shoot people for no reason and nobody can do a damn thing about it. I always assumed that Terry, in his childhood, probably went in and out of homes, we hear his mother is dead, there’s no mention of the father. So he was an institutionalised kid who basically became totally corrupt, and the only way he feels he can exert any power is by being more corrupt than the people around him. I assume that he was always that way, and I assume that Bob was relatively  straight laced until he met Terry, and that he’s experienced racism against Mexicans in the police force. So I think he was getting tired of what he had to endure in the police force and then this guy comes along, it’s just a meeting of two forces that leads to bad behaviour. They always say that killer couples, if they’d never met each other they’d probably never have killed anybody, but there’s something about the alchemy of the two of them that results in murder.

How did filming in the States compare to working in Ireland?

I have to say this politically. I found them quite blasé, actually. I mean, we’d be halfway into the film, let’s say we’d been shooting three or four weeks, and someone would say, ‘I watched your movie The Guard, it was really good.’ And I’d be thinking, ‘Shouldn’t you have watched the films I’d made before you start working on the new one?’ I mean, that’s what I would do if I was on the crew. I found that there wasn’t that much interest. They’re probably thinking, ‘I could be doing the Independence Day sequel,’ which was shooting around the same time. ‘I could be doing Better Call Saul.’ So I was a little bit disappointed, to put it politely. I mean, I fired three people – I never fired anyone on the two films I made in Ireland, if that tells you something. But it’s like any walk of life – you’re always gonna meet people who are good at their jobs and people who are bad at their jobs, and you have to weed out the people who are bad at their jobs. It felt like I had to do more weeding out, let’s put it that way. But I am planning on going back to do another film in New Mexico.

War on Everyone is in cinemas now. You can read our review here.

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