“I never say C-bomb, I prefer cunt, because I don’t like bombs but I like cunts… That’s terrible, don’t put that in,” laughs Martin McDonagh at this rather obvious play with words when asked about the liberal use of swearing in his work.
His latest is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a darkly comic drama from the Academy Award winning [in 2006 for his short film Six Shooter) director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. His latest film, like his previous work, has attracted an A-list cast, including Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.
The premise: seven months after her daughter’s brutal murder – with no arrests or culprit in sight – Mildred Hayes [McDormand] takes the law into her own hands and commissions three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri:
RAPED WHILE DYING
AND STILL NO ARRESTS?
HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
In Mildred’s own words, “the more you get a case in the public eye, the better your chances are of getting it solved.”
As Chief Willoughby [Woody Harrelson] tries to pacify Mildred and keep his officers from retaliating, Deputy Dixon [Sam Rockwell] is determined to have the billboards removed at any cost.
What ensues is an escalating series of battles between Mildred, the police and the town – battles that might just make any sense of justice impossible.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is being hailed for its brilliant writing, complex characters and fantastic performances. Frances McDormand, in particular, has been flagged as a likely contender for awards season. “I wrote the part especially for her,” Martin McDonagh says, “And I can’t imagine anyone else being able to do it, because she’s not only got a lot of integrity and intelligence, but she’s also great with comedy and doesn’t have to push things to make them funny. In fact, all the comedy that she’s part of in the film is almost deadpan and thrown away. Frances plays a working-class character and there aren’t many actors, definitely not many actresses, who could convey that truthfully.”
McDormansd drew inspiration for her character from John Wayne, so you’d be right to think the film has a slight 1960s Western vibe about it. “Frances sought out John Wayne as an idea for a character – the way he walked and behaved – a strong person walking through town, taking on the bad guys. Then, when we went to make the music, Carp de Burwell came up with this theme – he knows I love spaghetti westerns, and he had a very spaghetti western idea which he played over Mildred, and I thought it was perfect. The film turned out a little more western-inspired than originally intended, but it’s not a complete accident.”
Sam Rockwell is also receiving praise for his portrayal of ignorant, racist cop Deputy Dixon. “Sam’s brilliant,” Martin muses. “I’ll work with him every morning if I can. It’s a testament to his acting that you can believe his character’s racism completely, and his lack of smarts and his silliness – but then still completely believe that he’s human and that he can change. By the end of the film we see that all of the characters are broken, they all have their sadness. To do any dramatic story, you need to choose dramatic situations and dramatic people – the more broken they are, the more there is to explore.”
The location – a small town in Missouri – also plays a large role in the drama of the film. “I don’t think the story would have worked if it was set in London or Ireland,” says McDonagh, who is of Irish descent but calls London home. “We needed something more epic and grand – something with more tragedy.” McDonagh wanted Three Billboards to be as American as possible – the film is not supposed to present an outsider’s view or a caricature of American society. “I’d be happy if people thought this film was made by an American,” says the writer/director, who cites Paris, Texas as one of the great films about America made by a foreigner (Wim Wenders). “America has always struck me as beautiful, cinematic and artistic. Whenever I’m at home in London, because I’ve seen it before, I never think of it as a beautiful town or interesting cinematically. I like America – I like the people, the movies, the books. Also, small towns in England don’t have the same cop domination – they don’t have sheriffs.”
Martin McDonagh wrote this film while travelling between New York and LA via Santa Fe and Montana. “I write by hand on notepads,” he muses, “And at the top of each page I write whichever country or state I’m in. This script was like a road map of America. I hope that kind of imbues the script with details.”
Although the film feels relevant to today’s political climate (as Mildred states, “the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes”), it was written eight years ago, and any parallels are unintentional. The clever and precise script could lead one to believe that these eight years were spent carefully honing the words – but in fact, the film was written in just 5 months. “Once it was finished I didn’t really look at it again until we were starting to be in a position to make it,” McDonagh says. “I might have tarted up a few words here and there, but nothing really changed fundamentally. If I showed you the script from eight years ago it wouldn’t be terribly different to the script you saw on the screen.”
So why the long wait? This was due, in McDonagh’s own words, to laziness. “I like taking a nice long break between movies to travel and write and do other things. Be a human being. It never feels like there’s a big gap between films to me because I’m doing other things that just aren’t getting as much press or reaction. I had a play on a couple years ago and it was fun to write and to do… so it’s not like I have nothing happening between projects.”
Martin McDonagh’s work has gained a reputation for its foul language and violence as much as its brilliance, and Three Billboards is no exception. “The studios know what they’re going to get with my films. Usually, I get interference from the financial people trying to change the script, but there wasn’t any of that with this film. When I made In Bruges, there was interference every day. When we cast Brendan [Gleeson] and Colin [Farrell], they gave me a whole list of Irish films that have never made money as a reason for why the actors should be doing English accents. Imagine having two Irish people playing London cockneys for no reason. Just the thinking behind it – it wouldn’t have been the film it is. You just have to say no, and then say no again. That’s really the only power you have – that and the choice to not go back to the dickhead studios.”
Well it’s … you just say no, and then you say no again, and then you just let someone else deal with that, but it’s just that once that’s happening every two days it’s … you know it’s easy to say no but it’s when you constantly have to do it … makes you not want to work with those people again, and that’s the only power you really have is just not to go back to the dickheads, so focus features I’ll never be working with you again.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is in cinemas January 1, 2018.
Read our interview with Sam Rockwell here