CALVARY – Behind the scenes with director John Michael McDonagh

We caught up with the director to find out more about his hotly anticipated new film

John Michael McDonagh’s debut movie THE GUARD was arguably the finest Irish film for years, so expectations are very high for his follow up CALVARY, which tells the story of a priest who, after being threatened in the confessional, has a week to find out who wants to kill him, and why. We caught up with the director to talk weather, priests and his plans for the final part of his Irish trilogy.

Welcome back to Ireland, sorry about the weather! Did the temperamental Irish weather impact on ‘Calvary’ at all?
John Michael McDonagh: Well I have just got back from a month in Australia, so I am not too worried about a bit of rain now! [laughs] On both THE GUARD and CALVARY, we got away with the conditions. It’s always tricky shooting in Ireland, you never know what you’re going to get. The only tricky thing was… At the end of the film there is a confrontation on a beach and you write these sorts of scenes and you don’t take into account that there are tides, so the tide is going to come in. There were moments where we were actually racing up the beach, trying to get final shots and trying not to show that the sea is coming in; you are just moving further and further up the beach.

Where did the inspiration for CALVARY come from?
JMMcD: Going back to THE GUARD; it was our last day of shooting in Galway, we were heading off to Dublin to do a week’s shooting on the pier for the conclusion of the movie, so it was our last night in Galway and basically we had a lock in in the pub. We were all there; I remember Don Cheadle was eating a take away Chinese! He just went out and rocked up with this Chinese and I thought ‘Where did you get that from!?’ [laughs] We were all drinking and I was drunkenly going ‘I bet there are all these Irish filmmakers planning movies about bad priests, we should plan the opposite; make one about a good priest’. Brendan [Gleeson] said ‘Oh, one of my mentors when I was young was a good priest; he really helped me’ and I said ‘Well, let’s do that’, but then you have to go away and write the bloody thing [laughs] and all you have is a character; you don’t really have a plot. The strange thing is though that there has been no films – maybe PHILOMENA  – but no-one has really dealt with it. I saw in Berlin, there has been a couple of movies starting to do it there, but it’s not really happened. I just assumed that people latch on… Maybe the subject is too close to the bone and people don’t want to deal with it. What’s interesting about PHILOMENA is that they deal with the same subject matter, but it’s comic and tragic and I think that’s the approach you have to take.

Father Lavelle is not a usual priest, in that he came to the priesthood rather late in life. Where did that idea come from?
JMMcD: There was a headmaster at my school – it was a Catholic school – who was a priest; his wife had died and then he became a priest, and I always thought it was unusual, I didn’t know you could do that, and I just thought that was interesting.

One of the major surprises is Dylan Moran playing a dramatic role, when he is best known for his comedic work. How did you cast him?
JMMcD: In a way, that’s what appealed to me; somebody who hasn’t really done a lot of dramatic work in a while. There are a lot of comedic actors in the movie; it’s probably one of the darkest parts Pat Shortt has ever played. I think those actors who do a lot of comedy like David Wilmot and Chris O’Dowd, possibly they feel that they are not respected enough, so when you offer them a juicy dramatic part they leap at it, and you never have any problems. I don’t find comics sad; they are good fun to be around. The cliché that they all want to play Hamlet and they are all miserable isn’t true!

You’re what the Irish would all a ‘blow in’ but you spent a lot of time in Ireland; do you think having that grounding in another country gives you a different perspective when looking at Ireland and Irish stories?
JMMcD: Well yeah, both myself and my brother (IN BRUGES director Martin McDonagh) are not Irish, and we’re not English either; we are South London Irish, which is more specific. Where we grew up was an Irish community, an Irish enclave in the Elephant and Castle but we went for holidays, six weeks a year, back to Sligo so we are not like the English kids, but then when you go to Ireland you are not really perceived as being Irish either. Going back to the writing aspect… They say ‘write about what you know’, which I think is bulls**t in a lot of ways because you could have spent your entire life as an accountant, but it doesn’t mean you have to write about being an accountant [laughs] but what you know is that emotional state; something that makes you different to everybody else’s writing and obviously what the difference is that Irish backdrop or the Irish locutions of speech and what you have experienced so that’s what I use. Martin has used it in his plays, not so much in his movies; his movies have Irish characters but they are not set in Ireland and are not specifically Irish.

The themes – such as Church sexual abuse, the economy – brought up in the film feel like hot button topics to Irish people, was that something you wanted to explore?
JMMCD: I don’t perceive CALVARY as specifically Irish, I try to see it as it could be a small town in Spain, it could be a small town in Italy. To me, you write about human beings first and obviously with my background people think I am having a dig at Irish people, it’s not really; that’s just the people I know. I hope it’s more universal than that. If you make a film about human beings first, all the subtext and plot comes in later. Basically you either like the characters or you dislike them, but you are interested in them, and you are prepared to follow them through the movie. The themes of the movie are what you think about later on; when you are watching it, you should be engrossed in the movie, the plot and the characters.

When do you think you will finish your Irish Trilogy, which started with THE GUARD?
JMMcD: We did a policeman, and we did a priest, so the next one is going to be about a paraplegic. THE GUARD was in Galway where my Dad’s from, CALVARY is in Sligo where my Mum’s from, so the last one is going to be set where I’m from. It’s going to be about a paraplegic who hates society; he hates anyone who’s able bodied. He only associates with disabled people and his best friend gets murdered. He uses the murder to give himself self-respect, so he tries to solve the murder. It’s going to be a very black comedy and it has the same Western elements as the others.

CALVARY is at Irish cinemas from April 11th

Words: Brogen Hayes