Sam Rockwell on Playing Billy Bickle in ‘Seven Psychopaths’

It is so much fun watching Sam Rockwell in Martin McDonagh’sSeven Psychopaths.” In the movie he plays Billy Bickle, an unemployed actor and friend to alcoholic screenwriter Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell). In addition, Billy is also a part-time dog thief who, along with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken), kidnaps dogs and then returns them to their owners who offer them a generous reward for their return. But Billy’s criminal deeds come back to haunt him when he steals a Shih Tzu which belongs to the vicious gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), and Charlie will stop at nothing to get his beloved dog back.

Rockwell described the screenplay for “Seven Psychopaths” as great and said the part of Billy was “amazing.” You couldn’t agree with him more as this role gave him the opportunity to really chew up the scenery. Throughout, Billy fools around with his friend, unveils parts of his psyche which we do not see coming, and he eventually comes up with what he believes to be the mother of all action movie climaxes.

It’s also no mistake how Billy Bickle shares the same last name with Robert De Niro’s famous character of Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” However, it was another De Niro character which came to inform Billy more for Rockwell.

“Johnny Boy (from ‘Mean Streets’) is definitely a template for Billy, probably more than Travis Bickle I think,” said Rockwell. That kind of flamboyance that De Niro has in that and also in ‘New York, New York’ and ‘Midnight Run.’ He has a kind of flamboyance that is particular to those films.”

Other characters which inspired Rockwell’s performance in “Seven Psychopaths” were Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates) in “Misery,” and Timothy Treadwell who was the subject of Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary “Grizzly Man.”

In regards to the friendship between Billy and Marty, Rockwell remarked he found inspiration through the performances of Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in “The Fisher King” as well as the work of Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn in “Hurlyburly.”

“There are many examples of that kind of codependent, male-bonding relationship. Alpha-beta and beta-alpha switching,” Rockwell said of the above movies.

When it came to fleshing out the relationships of the characters played by Rockwell, Farrell and Walken, Rockwell said they all took the time to form a bond before shooting began. To that effect, they rented a house near Joshua Tree Park which is where the last half of “Seven Psychopaths” takes place. As for the bear hat Rockwell wears, Farrell ended up picking it out after finding it at a rest stop.

Many will come out of “Seven Psychopaths” saying Rockwell’s best scene comes when he discusses his idea for an action movie climax in a cemetery. In his best roles, Rockwell has such an unpredictable energy which continually makes him so fascinating to watch. It makes one wonder how much of this scene was scripted and what parts of it were improvised. Hearing Rockwell explain it is very interesting.

“It has to be in the writing or you can’t do it,” Rockwell said. “But certainly, all actors want to be spontaneous that’s the trick of acting, to be truthful under imaginary circumstances. You want it to be truthful, meaning it has to be fresh, it has to be spontaneous, so you have to trick yourself that it’s happening for the first time and trust this actor’s faith, so to speak.”

“I think that’s the little kid part of acting. Being with a kid is like hanging out with a drunken person or schizophrenic,” Rockwell continued. “One moment they’re crying and they’re sad, then they’re like hitting things, and that’s what actors have to do. They have to manipulate their emotions. You just got to really go back to that place of spontaneity and no boundaries.”

Watching “Seven Psychopaths” makes you realize just how much fun these actors had playing their roles. This is especially the case when you watch Sam Rockwell here, and his performance as Billy Bickle is another reminder of just how endlessly creative he is. To hear him talk about it, this was clearly one of his best experiences he has had so far in his career.

“What’s memorable for me is the experience that we had on the film. It was such a great experience,” Rockwell said. “We took our jobs very seriously, but we also had a lot of fun, and that’s what is really memorable for me. Of course, we want the movie to be a smash hit, but who knows what’s going to happen. I have memories of films that nobody ever saw, that I was very proud of, and those are still great memories. It would be great, if people saw this movie. It’s a cool movie.”

SOURCES:

Steven M. Paquin, “Exclusive Interview: Martin McDonagh and Sam Rockwell talk ‘Seven Psychopaths’ and Writing for Women, Psychos, and More,” Just Press Play, October 12, 2012.

Christina Radish, “Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken Talk ‘Seven Psychopaths,’ What Inspired Their Performances, Memorable Moments, and More,” Collider, October 11, 2012.

‘Seven Psychopaths’ Lays Waste To Many Action Movie Cliches

Seven Psychopaths movie poster

Leave it to playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh to find ways to skewer those endless clichés we keep seeing in action movies. Seriously, it feels like so many directors outside of Quentin Tarantino have tackled them to where we are completely burned out on films which try to show how clever they are in taking apart clichés which have long since been torn apart time and time again.

McDonagh’s film “Seven Psychopaths” appears to be another one of those satirical and incredibly violent action movies on the surface, but underneath it all is a surprisingly moving story about friendship. Now I can already hear a lot of people telling me how using violence to tell a story like this is utterly hypocritical, but they are clearly not aware of McDonagh’s plays like “The Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” or “A Behanding in Spokane,” and they clearly have not seen his previous movie, the brilliant “In Bruges.” All those works do have a high level of blood and violence in them, but they are not simply designed to shock people. Instead, McDonagh uses those elements to get at a deeper truth about life and the people closest to us, and this is not always apparent to those who view his work from a distance.

The movie stars Colin Farrell as Marty Faranan, a struggling writer who is eager to finish his screenplay which is also titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem is he spends far more time getting drunk on wine and beer than he does in writing anything. So far, the only idea Marty has come up with is a Quaker psychopath who finds an interesting way to follow someone to the afterlife (I won’t dare give it away here). His actor friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help him, but he is caught up in his part time business of dog kidnapping with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken). With this business, they cleverly managed to abduct dogs, and then they return them to their owners for a reward.

One of the dogs Billy kidnaps, however, turns out to be a Shih Tzu named Bonnie which belongs to Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a vicious gangster who has far more love for animals than he does for humanity. This forces Marty, Billy and Hans to go on the run as Charlie and his henchmen will stop at nothing to get little Bonnie back. While making their getaway, they come to look at what has become of their lives and of how they need one another’s friendship to survive in such a competitive world.

Now combining comedy with violence (and we are talking very bloody violence here) is never an easy mix as it often feels uneven in most movies which attempt it. Bobcat Goldthwait tried it earlier this year with “God Bless America” which had its two main characters going on a crime spree in which they killed off various spoiled rotten celebrities with extreme prejudice. While Goldthwait mostly succeeded with that film, he was walking a thin line between success and failure as his subject matter proved to be very controversial.

McDonagh has it a little easier than Goldthwait though as, while the struggles of these Hollywood wannabe characters does feel a bit realistic, the story has him dealing with a number of seriously deranged characters, all of whom seem comfortably removed from reality. And as he did with “In Bruges,” McDonagh does a wonderful job of combining some laugh out loud moments with scenes of strong emotion. As a result, you never are sure what exactly will happen from one scene to the next.

In movies like these, Colin Farrell appears to be having the most fun as an actor. After appearing in the needless remake of “Total Recall,” he fares much better as a writer who is afflicted with self-doubt and is not always the nicest person to be around. But the joy of watching Farrell here is seeing his character grow as a person right up to the film’s conclusion, and he is much better at accomplishing this than many typically give him credit for.

Watching Sam Rockwell as Billy Bickle once again reminds us how he is a powder keg of creativity and is as unpredictable as most actors get these days. Rockwell is endlessly entertaining as his character takes some interesting twists and turns throughout the movie, and he almost steals the show as he performs for Farrell’s and Walken’s characters what he thinks is the best climax of an action flick ever. The audience I saw this with at Arclight Hollywood ended up applauding him when he was finished, and you do not always see this happening in a movie theater.

Then there is Christopher Walken who still appears to be going back and forth from being a brilliant actor to one who engages in self-parody a bit too much (“I gotta have more cowbell!”). But as Hans, Walken gives one of his very best performances in a long time as he perfectly captures the character’s giddiness at how he makes a living to unveiling a deep pain which he can no longer hide when tragedy overtakes his life. All the way up to his last moment onscreen, Walken is a marvel and a thrill to watch.

Woody Harrelson himself has been on a roll in movies for the past few years, and his performance as Charlie Costello is absolutely inspired. You come out of “Seven Psychopaths” feeling like Harrelson was born to play this role, and this is saying something when you consider Mickey Rourke was originally cast as Charlie before he had some sort of falling out with McDonagh. But this character brings out that wonderful comic touch Harrelson consistently gave off in “Cheers” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and it also showcases the uninhibited darkness which he unforgettably portrayed in “Rampart” and “Natural Born Killers.” Harrelson can go from being funny to frightening in zero seconds flat, and you do not even have to be a pesky paparazzi photographer to see this.

There are also some terrific turns from Kevin Corrigan and Željko Ivanek as two of Costello’s hoods, and Tom Waits is wonderful in a supporting role as a remorseful psychopath. The movie is also aided by a great film score by Carter Burwell, an excellent production design from David Wasco, and some beautiful cinematography from Ben Davis.

The only place “Seven Psychopaths” falters is in its use of female characters. Abbie Cornish portrays Kaya, Marty’s girlfriend, and she gets very little to do here other than get insulted by Marty and Billy and look pretty pissed off about it. While Cornish does look beautiful when she is pissed, we all know she is capable of much more.

Olga Kurylenko also shows up as Costello’s girlfriend, Angela, and she is a wonderful presence as well but has also been given a role which is smaller than she deserves. Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame fares a little better as Sharice, the girl who accidently loses Costello’s beloved Shih Tzu, but this role is meant as nothing more than a cameo. But considering Cornish and Kurylenko get top billing, you cannot help but expect them to have better characters to play here.

Still, “Seven Psychopaths” is a very entertaining movie and a must for any fan of McDonagh. Yes, it is violent and plays around with all those things which keep getting repeated ad nausea in action movies, but it also is about wanting something more in a story than just guys with guns. I will leave it up to you the viewer to see how McDonagh accomplishes this here.

Also, it will also leave you wondering about the following question: does a human head explode if you shoot it in the right spot? This same question was asked in Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz,” and inquiring minds are still looking for an answer.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Martin McDonagh on the Making of ‘Seven Psychopaths’

Martin McDonagh on the set of Seven Psychopaths

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012 when this screening took place.

Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh dropped by Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood for a Q&A about his movie “Seven Psychopaths.” It features a terrific ensemble cast which includes Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits and Olga Kurylenko, and it follows the exploits of a writer who is desperate to finish his screenplay even as his friends inadvertently get him involved in the kidnapping of a gangster’s beloved dog.

“Seven Psychopaths” is McDonagh’s follow up to his brilliant movie “In Bruges,” but it turns out he wrote the script for it after he finished writing “In Bruges.” He explained he made “In Bruges” first because the script for “Seven Psychopaths” had a “canvas that was way too big for a first-time filmmaker.” This movie certainly has a lot of layers as it deals with multiple characters and storylines, and many of the characters have more to reveal about themselves than we realize at first glance.

The evening’s moderator said she once heard how McDonagh had admired Christopher Walken as a child, and McDonagh said he felt we all did as much as we respected Harry Dean Stanton (who has a cameo in the movie) or Tom Waits. It also turns out this was not the first time McDonagh had worked with Walken on a project.

Martin McDonagh: I did a play in New York with Christopher and Sam Rockwell about three years ago (“A Behanding in Spokane”), so I had that in. It was a dream come true to have Chris on set and doing his stuff.

McDonagh recalled the atmosphere on the set of “Seven Psychopaths” as being “strangely a lot of fun,” and the audience at Arclight Hollywood could certainly sense all the fun this cast of actors had. When asked if there was any improvisation, he said everyone pretty much stuck to the screenplay despite some exceptions.

MD: There were some little bits at the end of the shootout sequence in the graveyard, but everything else was on the page. The actors were so good that they made every line seem like they had come up with it on the spot. I think that’s the secret of truthful acting; to make it seem like it’s all improvised.

The dog playing Bonny was a Shih Tzu who is also named Bonny in real life, and McDonagh was great in describing how this one got cast.

MD: There were four or five Shih Tzus that came in to the casting couch. Bonny seemed more kind of edgy and the others were all ribbons and shampooed. Bonny felt like early De Niro.

McDonagh also made it clear if he knew the possibility of all those puns which made it into the movie’s advertisements like “they won’t take any Shih Tzu,” he would have gone with a German Shepherd instead. But it came down to deciding what would be the most incongruous dog for Harrelson’s gangster character to have, and Shih Tzus are so irresistibly cute. Bonny was apparently very sweet to work with, and the cast, especially Walken, spoiled the dog like crazy.

The main character played by Farrell is a writer named Marty Faranan, and Faranan is McDonagh’s middle name. However, aside from the middle name and the alcoholism, McDonagh claimed there are no connections between him and this character. McDonagh did however say what Marty wanted to accomplish with his script is the same thing he wanted to accomplish with this movie.

MD: The speech that Marty has at the start about wanting to make a film called “Seven Psychopaths” but still wanting it to be about love and peace is kind of where I was coming from. It’s really about friendship and for searching for something beyond movies about guys with guns. At the same time, it was a crazy guys with guns violent movie.

One of the best things about “Seven Psychopaths” is how it satirizes action movies and the clichés which continue to overrun them. The moderator talked of how there are certain conventions in them which seem to imply how you cannot kill a dog but that you can kill a woman, and McDonagh freely admitted he is constantly rankled by them as much he is from the notes he gets from studio executives.

MD: When you have a character putting a gun to a dog’s head you get a thousand notes about that, but not one about shooting someone in the stomach. Not one.

In terms of his cinematic influences, McDonagh cited the films of Sam Peckinpah and Terence Malick as being major ones on his cinematic work. When it comes to “Seven Psychopaths” however, he admitted Peckinpah was definitely the bigger influence. Other filmmakers whom he looks up to include Akira Kurosawa who made the classic “Seven Samurai,” Martin Scorsese whose film “Mean Streets” was a big influence on this film, Preston Sturges who made screwball comedies like “The Lady Eve,” and Billy Wilder whose darkly comic and satirical films he admires. Clearly, McDonagh is more influenced by old school filmmaking than he is by current mainstream entertainment

Martin McDonagh has more than earned his place among the greatest and most inspired playwrights working today, and his work as a filmmaker keeps getting better and better. “Seven Psychopaths” is a very clever movie which deserves a big audience, and it was great to see him take the time to come down to Arclight Hollywood to talk about its making.

Jeremiah S. Chechik Looks Back at Making ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’

christmas-vacation-movie-poster

Jeremiah S. Chechik was the special guest at Arclight Studios in Hollywood a few years ago when they hosted a screening of his directorial debut, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The third and most beloved in the “Vacation” franchise has long since become a holiday classic, and it is the Christmas film many families watch during the holiday season instead of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After the movie was over and the end credits were all done, Chechik quickly came up to the front of the audience before anyone could introduce him and said, ”I haven’t seen it since the day it opened!”

The screenplay was written by the late John Hughes and was inspired by an article he wrote for the National Lampoon Magazine called “Christmas ’59.” Chechik tipped his hand to Hughes’ wonderful writing and went on to say it was originally written as a stand-alone movie. Warner Brothers, however, read it and immediately wanted to integrate it into the “Vacation” franchise.

When asked how he got the job to direct, Chechik explained he was directing what he described as “high profile” commercials back in a time when it was unusual to go from doing commercials to directing feature films. His work eventually got him discovered by Steven Spielberg who ended up giving him an office at Amblin Entertainment. This brought a lot of awareness to his visual style, and both Chase and Hughes soon became adamant he would be the one to direct the next “Vacation” movie.

With this being his first film, Chechik said he was determined not to back down on actors who wanted to exert their power over him. While it’s tempting to think he and Chase didn’t get along as Chase’s reputation for being hard to work will never disappear, Chechik said they actually had a great working relationship on set. This came after he admitted to not being a big fan of Chase’s comedy as he described it as being “very broad.” Chechik described Chase as having a very strong point of view, a very clear intention of what the movie is about, and they worked together to find things which worked.

Chechik did say, however, that he and Beverly D’Angelo had many arguments, some of which he described as being “very heated,” on set. Still, he said all the bad blood between them is now water under the bridge.

“Christmas Vacation’s” budget was $27 million, and its shooting schedule lasted for 60 days. Much of the movie was shot in Breckinridge, Colorado while other scenes were shot the following summer at Warner Brothers in Burbank, California. Chechik was happy to say Hughes had his back throughout the whole production. When the movie went through previews, the studio heads pressured him to cut the scene where the cat got electrocuted. Chechik claimed he resisted the pressure and kept it in because he thought it was funny (and it was) and that he was more of a dog person anyway. The test audiences also loved the scene, and the studio heads didn’t bother keeping this moment out of the movie’s trailer.

Chechik said “Christmas Vacation” worked so well because we truly cared about Clark Griswold and what he went through. The mood of certain scenes was very important to him, especially the one with Chase in the attic where he watched home movies of past Christmases with tears filling his eyes. Looking at this made Chechik point out the way comedy should be done in movies:

“Funny beats funny,” he said. “If everyone thought the set pieces were funny but they didn’t care about the main character, then the movie won’t work.”

With the squirrel scene, he said a trained squirrel was brought onto the set and there was also a trainer there for the dog featured in it as well. Chechik said the filmmakers “storyboarded the hell out of it” and were eager to start filming it, but when he arrived on set that day he was confronted with the grim faces of the trainers and line producers. After shuffling around for a bit, they informed him the squirrel had died. The squirrel trainer went on to say they don’t live for very long anyway as if that could have possibly softened the blow.

So, they went out and got another squirrel for the scene which they ended up drawing out onto the set with food. From this, Chechik said he learned how to roll with things and use improvisation. About every scene in “Christmas Vacation” had a certain amount of improvisation in it, he pointed out.

As for the most difficult scene to shoot, Chechik said it was the dinner table scene where the whole family begins their Christmas Eve celebration. He did not hesitate in telling everyone that having 9 to 11 actors in a scene is a really bad idea. The blocking proved to be very complicated, and it became such a nightmare as it took days and days for him to get the scene right.

Here are some other “Christmas Vacation” trivia Chechik let us know about:

  • In the scene with the two granddads snoring in front of the television, the actors playing those roles really were fast asleep.
  • Mae Questal, who played Aunt Bethany, was the voice of Betty Boop.
  • Chevy’s angry rant on his boss was done exactly as it was written in the screenplay.

It was really nice of Chechik to come out and talk with us about “Christmas Vacation,” a movie he succeeded in making a timeless classic and, as he put it, “very postcardy.” When asked why he hasn’t seen the film since it first came out, he said he just wanted to let it go and let it live. It certainly has had a long life since 1989, and the series continued on with “Vegas Vacation” and “Vacation” which starred Ed Helms and Christina Applegate. In response to one audience member who said his family watches it every year, Chechik replied, “I like your family!”

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