Martin McDonagh took two trips to the stage at last night’s Golden Globe Awards, collecting the Best Screenplay and Best Motion Picture trophies as part of a 4-awards-strong haul for the movie that puts it in prime position as awards season trundles on. His dark horse contender, which previously won the coveted Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, tells the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, who also won the Globe), a grieving mother whose frustrations towards the local police department spurs her into taking out billboards to criticize their inaction in the brutal rape and murder of her daughter.
Whether it’s the Los Angeles of Seven Psychopaths or the Bruges of In Bruges, British-Irish filmmaker McDonagh has always had a fascination with place. That’s true of his work as a playwright, too, where his plays are so much about where they’re set that they frequently reference location in the title; The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, A Behanding in Spokane. In Three Billboards, he magics the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri out of thin air, falling back on his memory of traveling across America to create an eerily accurate picture of small-town life. Ahead of the Globes, McDonagh sat down to discuss the film that seems ever more likely for a Best Picture nod.
Where did this crazy idea originate?
20 years ago I was on a bus going through the southern states of America, and somewhere along the line, I saw a couple of billboards in a field that were very similar to the billboards that we see in the start of our story. They were raging and painful and tragic, and calling out the cops.
I had wanted to write a strong female part for a while, because my plays used to have that quite a lot, but my first two films didn’t have that at all. I thought that’d be a good thing to do, but it was also kind of freeing to put those things together, to decide the person who put those things up was a mother. And a raging one at that. A smart one, and someone who wasn’t going to take any shit.
As a filmmaker, it was really kind of energizing to have that be the starting point of a script because I didn’t plot anything out before starting. I just had that idea of this woman putting this thing up there to chastise the cops. Everything that happens after that fact is a reaction to that, and then she reacts to that reaction, and the film is kind of organic that way. There isn’t too much imposed from without.
Was it less plotted out than Seven Psychopaths or In Bruges?
No, I tend to jump in and see where things go. It was the same with the plays, but the plays probably had more plot than the movies. In Bruges has a bit of plot. This probably has the least amount of that kind of structure, because of the peculiarity of the characters, but also the tragedy of the backstory. It’s such that you don’t want to impose something that’s too plot-heavy and strict about solutions. Or even theme, because I wanted to see where the characters took it.
Even now, you couldn’t really say what the structure of the film was. Maybe it’s got a first act, but then you go and make stuff up. I think there are still character arcs and changes that make it satisfying anyway, even though there isn’t a strict structure or an easy solution.
I suppose you don’t subscribe to the Robert McKee school of storytelling, then?
Bulls–t. There’s no fun in that. It might be fine if you… No, it’s not fine even if you’re starting out because it’s all about formula, and formulas are f–king boring. That’s why you end up with Marvel and DC films every week, where you know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s just like, “What kind of computer effect is going to take us there this time?”
Do you ever encounter problems getting things set up, though, in an industry predicated on precedent?
This wasn’t too tough. But I think, with all the films I’ve made, if we hadn’t found that one company that said yes, there wouldn’t be a bunch of others.
Part of it is me and Graham Broadbent because we have strict guidelines when we start. I’m going to choose the actors and there isn’t going to be a single script note. That calls time on 90% of the studios from the start. Film4 have always been happy with that because they are creative people first. It’s always about finding the balance of money on the other side of the Atlantic, and sometimes we try and set that up with smaller financiers. But it was great this time because Fox Searchlight came in and was happy with those guidelines. They weren’t going to give a note and they weren’t going to impose casting thoughts.
In Bruges was more of a war. It was easily financed, but things were a bit different in those pre-crash days. It was a war with Focus Features.
That would have been when James Schamus was at the helm?
He always struck me as very creative-friendly.
Yeah, he likes to present the image of himself as being very creative-friendly. How true that is, I would leave it for others to discuss.
The film choices there were always great. But on a personal level—and maybe it was because I was a first-time filmmaker—they could have had a bit more trust that the film they wanted to see was the film I was making, because that’s what it was the whole time. You don’t have to go to war to make a film like that, you know?
So In Bruges was a bore, even though it was exactly the film I wanted to make. This is exactly the film I wanted to make and it was…
Easy, yeah. I mean, not in terms of… It was comfortable in terms of pressure from the outside, because there was none. It was joyful, I’d say, more than easy.
So the challenges were creative challenges rather than business challenges?
Yeah, which is how it should always be, I think. But to get there you kind of have to stick to a budget that’s not like low-low, but also not so high that the future of the company is riding on it.
Did it help, you think, that you had a cast of seasoned pros in Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson? Presumably, they put the needs of the movie first.
Yeah, there wasn’t a lot of fighting with them. None at all, I’d say, from Woody and Sam, but that’s partly because we’ve worked together before. We’re mates. It was Frances’s first time with me, and her first time being a lead for a while too, so all of her choices about her integrity as an actress, and about the character, created a teeny, tiny little bit of—in the early days—discussions, shall we say. But it was because we were new to each other and there wasn’t as much of the trust that was second nature with me and Woody and Sam. Now, I think, the next one we do would be much easier.
It was the same with Christopher Walken on the last one, but we’re family now, and that’s the same for Frances. But that’s kind of why I’m trying to build up a repertory company like this too. Because with each one, it’s mates and it’s a new part with a new character. You don’t have that “first day of school” thing.
Frances strikes me as someone who takes her work very, very seriously, and you can feel it in this character.
Yeah, and I think that was probably a large part of that initial abrasion between the two of us. Both Frances and Mildred were going to war with everyone. She didn’t want to rehearse. I like a bit of rehearsal but she didn’t want to rehearse, really, with any of the cops, because she was going to war with the cops and she didn’t want to be friendly with them. That makes sense now, after I’ve thought about it. It was all fine. But our spats were born out of that, I think; born out of Mildred, rather than born out of Frances.
Ebbing, Missouri feels so specifically American. How much travel was required to get that right?
When I was writing this I was traveling around America. I got in during winter in Chicago, then got a train to Colorado, and was traveling around there. Then up to Montana. Then later, when I was thinking about Missouri, I thought I’d better go there [laughs]. My usual trick with the Irish plays is to set things on islands I’ve never been to.
Hasn’t that ever gotten you in trouble?
No, no—I’ve never told anyone that. [laughs]
With this, for me, it was about loving American literature. Flannery O’Connor and J.D. Salinger and all the greats. Traveling and listening. As a kid, as a poor-ish, working-class kid, even visiting America seemed like an impossible dream. Every time I ever went anywhere in America, it always felt cinematic and dreamlike and like a movie from the ’70s or something.
That hasn’t really gone away. It’s not like you go to small towns and you’re sitting there with your screenplay, taking notes. It’s just this beautiful dream that you’re taking in. Not in a David Lynch kind of way, but there’s something cinematic about what they might see as a mundane, small town. Which, technically, Ebbing is. I wanted to show it was beautiful. And while it’s not as much of a character as Bruges is to In Bruges, having it be a character in the film. I like films where it feels like you’ve been to the place after the fact.
You have yet to set a film in anything that you would consider a hometown.
No, nothing in England. The first play I wrote that was set in England was only a couple of years ago—Hangmen. I think it might just be too close to home somehow, or I’m not seeing the cinema of it because I’m in England all the time. I’d probably do something in Ireland because that still has a cinema to it for me. But I think if I went back and watched a bunch of Nic Roeg films, or even Powell & Pressburger, I might change my mind. I’d love to do something like A Canterbury Tale, because I love the English language. But it’s about not doing something in a place that feels too modern.
Is there something to the notion of taking an outsider’s look at something, that perhaps you can see the roots that are oblivious to people on the inside?
Maybe, I’m not sure. I know what you’re getting at, but I certainly didn’t want to be patronizing. I didn’t even want it to be an outsider’s comment on small-town America. Even though I’d say Paris, Texas was a go-to American movie for me and Ben Davis, the DP, in terms of color and tone and visual beauty. And that film does feel like it’s a genius German’s look at America. An homage to that. I don’t think this film is anything like that, but that’s not for me to decide. I was hoping to be more jumping in and being with the reality. I know what you mean, but I think it would take a distance for me to see that.
I guess the good thing would be for it to be both. For it to be truthful to all these people and truthful for anyone living in a town like that. But still be beautiful enough for it to be cinematic, on top of it.