The writer-director tells 'The National' how a flash of inspiration led to creation of ‘flawed, interesting’ heroes in 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'
Martin McDonagh on how a 20-year journey ends in Ebbing, Missouri
Some ideas come to fruition at just the right time. One example is Martin McDonagh’s feted new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It was around 20 years ago that the South London-born playwright/filmmaker son of Irish immigrants fleetingly clapped eyes on a billboard filled with anguished text, as he passed through the Southern states of America on a bus, soaking up the culture and listening to the way people speak. The sign passed by in a flash, “so it’s almost like a dream”, he says when we meet at the Venice Film Festival. “I don’t know where it was or what it was about, but it stayed in my mind, the picture of that pain almost.”
Years later, he came up with the idea of a vengeful, grieving mother who rents three dilapidated billboards to try and shame her local police force and its chief over their failure to find leads to the identity of the person who raped and murdered her daughter. Now, two decades after McDonagh first saw those signs, his fiery and implacable protagonist, Mildred Hayes, arrives on screen, in the shape of Frances McDormand, like a symbol of female rage for the post-Weinstein #MeToo age.
In McDonagh’s words “flawed, interesting and wrong at times”, she is not perfect and defies the descriptors hero and anti-hero. (“I don’t know what the definition of an anti-hero is anyway,” says the writer-director.) So what is this woman who veers between compassion and white-hot violent fury? “She’s just human . . . Maybe the point is there aren’t Marvel heroes, but there are people who can be heroic for a day, or can hope to be heroic.”
This, McDonagh claims, taking aim at one of the big superhero franchises, is “more exciting than The Avengers because you know exactly what that’s going to be. There’s going to be a computerised monster, and no-one’s going to die because they’ve got to be in the sequel, and it’s all computer-generated muck.”
That Three Billboards is a film of degrees of grey rather than blacks and whites is emphasised by Sam Rockwell’s controversial character, Jason Dixon. A violent and racist cop, he initially appears beyond redemption. McDonagh, though, makes him more sympathetic and understandable as the story unfolds, and even gives him his own heroic moment.
To say the movie bucks convention is to understate just how different it is from most of its ilk. Indeed, it’s not even really a pure revenge drama, but rather a tale of forgiveness. “Revenge stories are too obvious,” he says. “I like going for the surprising. We’ve seen revenge films over and over.”
Among the surprises is the humour that pulses through his dazzling screenplay, adding light and shade to the darkness and deep sadness at its core. “If this was a film without any comedy or any humour, it would be very, very heavy,” he suggests. “The subject matter is extraordinarily heavy to begin with, but I didn’t want to shove people’s faces in complete tragedy. You’ve still got to see it has some kind of hope or humour to get through it. And we do.”
He pulls off a brilliant balancing act which makes the film closer in tone to his acclaimed comedy thriller In Bruges (2008) than to his last film, Seven Psychopaths (2012), which, to me, felt cynical and relatively heartless.
“I think In Bruges is a little funnier [than Three Billboards],” McDonagh muses, “but these are the two films I have made that I could say is my type of film. Less so with Seven Psychopaths because I think there is more heart in these two. That one, and it was all my fault, is too smug, almost, and too kind of standing above the characters.”
One of the strengths of Three Billboards is its empathy for its working class heroine, who was created for McDormand. “It was written for her because there’s no-one else with that sort of integrity and access to anger,” McDonagh explains. The actress also has working class roots like the character, and like McDonagh himself, in fact, and he felt that she would be able to play Mildred without “patronising” her.
Sticking close to his class is where McDonagh feels most comfortable – and least likely to pass judgment – as an artist.
“If I wrote an upper class character it might be more judgmental,” he says. “But I hope not because my job is to see the humanity in everybody. But it’s more natural for me, from my background, to write about working class people honourably, without making them stupid or silly or even a political idea or ideal. It’s just a person who has got the same intelligence or worries or angers as anyone.”
Mildred embodies, to some extent, the punk spirit that rocked McDonagh’s world when he was younger, and which changed and informed his attitude towards violence in ways that play out in Three Billboards. Brought up Catholic and Republican, in England, his views on the violence that was happening in Ireland during The Troubles were changed when the music revolution happened.
“I got these anarchist notions and belief in hatred of nationalisms and belief in humanity. So that made me question the war [in Ireland] and what was going on between the two sides,” he recalls. “So I don’t know if I would be called a pacifist; it was something a bit angrier than that, but it was a non-violent, angry type of person. So I guess I now look at the world’s violence from that perspective of raging, peaceful, hopeful jerk.
“And I think that’s what seeps through in the film. It doesn’t look at violence as anything useful, really. And the violence is shown as ugly and awful and tragic. And the consequences of it are shown. I hope.”
Anger is an energy, as former Sex Pistols John Lydon famously sang, and it was partly what animated McDonagh and helped kick-start his writing career. He became a playwright – although film had always been his first love, he insists – because he hated the kinds of plays he used to go and see. “Back then, they were either political to the point of having no story, or posh, dull exercises in nothing happening on stage for three hours.” He reacted by borrowing plays from the library and deciding what was “worth stealing” or saying “that’s cr*p and I’ll do the opposite.” He wrote seven plays in 10 months and by the time he was 27, had four running simultaneously in London.
Twenty years later, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is his third and most acclaimed feature film to date. It was the big winner at the British Bafta film awards last week, taking home five awards. Since its world premiere in Venice, it has also won Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and British Independent Film Awards, to name a few. Now it is headed to the Oscars with seven nominations, including Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Leading Actress, and two Best Supporting actor nominations, for Rockwell and Woody Harrelson.
While McDonagh’s preferred home may be the cinema, he isn’t neglecting the stage, and has a new play, A Very Very Very Dark Matter, opening in London later this year. He has completed another screenplay and is working on ideas for two more. Writing is his passion, and he still finds the journey of discovery that creating a script takes him on thrilling. I wonder, though, what he would have done if he hadn’t had the breakthrough that his early plays gave him.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think I’d have probably just kept getting short-term jobs and quitting and kept writing and quitting. You know, I can’t imagine anything else.”
Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri opens in the UAE on February 22