“Writing has always been a bit mysterious to me,” notes Christopher Walken. “I’ve tried it. And I think you really have to love doing it, otherwise it’s too hard. It’s just laborious.”
This is the nub of Seven Psychopaths, a verbose new comedy-thriller from the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh in which a Hollywood screenwriter collides with a motley collection of Californian criminals. Walken plays one such low-life, a dognapper named Hans, who manages to snatch the wrong pooch – belonging to Woody Harrelson’s psychotic mobster – and thus sets in motion a chain of blood-soaked, bullet-torn events.
For all its gangster posturing, Seven Psychopaths is really about the difficulties of writing. Colin Farrell plays the scribe Marty – an alter ego for McDonagh, presumably – who is struggling with the nightmare of the blank page, with just a promising title, “Seven Psychopaths”, to show for his efforts. “I’ve spoken to Martin about how he does what he does,” marvels Walken. “And he says: ‘Oh, well, I just go wherever I am and I take my pad and pencil and I just write. I’ll just go outside somewhere.’ And I said: ‘You can write outside?!’ It’s a gift!”
Marty’s inspiration comes in the form of his wild card friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who – amid his ill-advised dognapping scam with Hans – places a classified ad on Marty’s behalf requesting encounters with real-life psychos. With the film flush with wise-cracking criminals, understandably, when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, Seven Psychopaths immediately drew comparisons to the mid-1990s era of American indie filmmaking, when Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction inspired dozens of copycat films filled with pop culture-spouting hit men.
“I think this is another reinvention of that genre,” says Rockwell. “I think that Martin’s pulling it off very well in this movie, too. That’s not easy to do: to be funny and poignant and also have violence!” Walken, who starred in Pulp Fiction and the Tarantino-scripted True Romance, is less convinced of the similarities. “I suppose what they might have in common is big chunks of very intelligent dialogue. It doesn’t happen that much in the movies, where actors have plenty to say and it’s all interesting. But otherwise I’m not sure there’s a comparison.”
What is certain is that Seven Psychopaths not only reunites McDonagh with Farrell (who starred in his 2008 debut In Bruges), it also reconnected the director with Rockwell and Walken, who both starred together in a Broadway production of McDonagh’s play A Behanding in Spokane. Rockwell, 44, calls the prospect of getting back with Walken and McDonagh a “no-brainer”, noting that stars such as Abbie Cornish were also drawn into this violent world, despite playing just a small role (as Marty’s long-suffering girlfriend). “You wouldn’t get somebody like Abbie Cornish in a part like that normally. People show up for Martin.”
Walken, a 69-year-old Oscar-winner for 1978’s The Deer Hunter, was certainly impressed by McDonagh, who had written the script before he made In Bruges, but put it aside until he was ready to handle a bigger project. “He certainly knows a lot about movies and he knows how to make them. He made this on a rather limited budget. And he had a limited amount of time,” says Walken. “He was very prepared, very practical. He cast the characters well. He obviously had the movie in his mind’s eye. And that was apparent. I wasn’t always sure of what I was doing, but I knew that he did, and that’s very important.”
For Rockwell, he drew his inspiration from the golden age of modern Hollywood – the 1970s. “I, Sam, am a bit of a cinephile of those American films of the 1970s,” he says. “And I do reference them.” With his character Billy an out-of-work actor who goes by the surname Bickle, you can’t help but think of Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver played by Robert De Niro.
“There’s definitely a little bit of Johnny Boy in Mean Streets in there, too,” he adds, referring to Scorsese’s earlier De Niro collaboration. And it’s here where Seven Psychopaths rests: at that crossroads where actors and screenwriters try to create, weighed down by the burdens of what’s gone before them.
• Seven Psychopaths is out now in UAE cinemas