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.

Underseen Movie: Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’

Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is, in a word, hypnotic. Shot in a clinical fashion which would have made Stanley Kubrick proud, it puts us in the shoes of a nameless and mysterious young woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who spends her days driving around Scotland and seducing lonely men for what seems like a night of much needed sex. But we eventually discover she is not of this world as she lures these oblivious men to a dark void where their bodies are sucked into a deep dark abyss of liquid. From there, their bodies are consumed and sent off to a bright red light which I can assume represents the alien world she originates from. But while she may seem like an evil parasite, her travels on Earth result in her going through a process of self-discovery she was never meant to experience, and it leads to an endlessly fascinating motion picture which has stayed with me ever since I first watched it in 2014.

I was amazed at how Glazer almost fashioned this as a silent film. There is dialogue here, but not much of it. Johansson doesn’t speak until she finds a lonely male walking the streets all by his lonesome, and it is then that she shows us just how good her Scottish accent really is. It is also surprising to learn that most of the characters we see here are portrayed by non-actors who more or less improvised their dialogue. This gives “Under the Skin” a down to earth feel which helps to make Johansson’s character (we never do learn her name) seem all the more out of her element.

Visually, the movie has a strange beauty in its depiction of darkness and light, and there’s a scene in particular where we see what happens to the bodies of the men Johansson seduces which proves to be both eerily beautiful and simultaneously shocking. While many people might look at Glazer as if he is just totally ripping off Kubrick, he really has given this whole movie a unique feel as I still find it hard to compare it to others of its genre.

“Under the Skin” may end up frustrating a lot of viewers as it does not provide much in the way of answers. Glazer has opted to leave a lot of what we see to our imaginations, and I am always excited when a filmmaker challenges his audience to think about what they are seeing. Not every image we see necessarily deserves a straightforward explanation, and we live in a time when people are desperate for others to give them a definitive answer without thinking critically about what just took place.

Johansson is mesmerizing to watch from start to finish. Her character is a very tricky one to play as she has to come off as emotionally cold, but she eventually finds herself in a state of self-discovery where she experiences a number of things for the very first time. This is where she really could have gone overboard with moments which could have screamed out, “nominate me for an Oscar!” But her performance here ranks among her finest to date, and her reactions to experiences her character is put through are enthralling to witness.

Another thing which really stands out is the amazingly original music score composed by Mica Levi, better known by her stage name of Micachu. She composes mostly experimental music, and her soundscapes and bizarre musical design perfectly meshes with Glazer’s haunting visuals. I haven’t heard a film score quite this unique since Jonny Greenwood worked his musical magic on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” I did not even hesitate to buy the soundtrack once I left the theater.

Glazer burst onto the scene with his feature film debut “Sexy Beast” in which Ben Kingsley gave us one of the most frightening, and unhappy, gangsters on the planet, but he was absent from cinema since his follow-up film “Birth.” It turns out he started working on his adaptation of “Under the Skin” back in 2004, and it took him a decade to get his vision onto the silver screen. It was great to have him back behind the camera as he has an amazing visual style which just sucked me right in.

“Under the Skin” is filled with so many haunting images which have stayed with me for a long, long time. The black void where Johansson’s character lures her male victims to, the white void where she dresses in another person’s clothes, a man racing his motorcycle through a lot of hazardous weather at an alarming speed, Johansson’s character reacting to the piece of cake she has just eaten, etc. This film absorbed me in a way few other movies did back in 2014, and it was great to see something so cinematically daring as. The fact it got made feels like a miracle.

Yes, it did prove to be divisive among moviegoers who were easily bored by its languid pace, and perhaps they were instead yearning for the latest bombastic action spectacle from Michael Bay. Regardless, I’m really glad that “Under the Skin” has provoked such passionate responses because it takes chances and doesn’t conform to the Hollywood norm which filmmakers cannot always escape from. It provides one of the more unique experiences I have had at the movies, and it was great to see Jonathan Glazer back behind the camera after a surprisingly long hiatus.

Besides, Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow herself, stars in this, and she is currently the highest paid actor working in movies. Shouldn’t that be enough of a reason to watch this striking piece of cinema?

* * * * out of * * * *

‘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.

‘Cold War’ Beautifully Contemplates The Things We Do for Love

Cold War 2018 movie poster

It has now been over a week since I watched Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” and it is rightly described in the production notes as being “an impossible love story in impossible times.” Indeed, there is something about love which forms a bond which cannot always be described in words. The two star-crossed lovers we see here share a love for music, but their differences come to the surface more often than not to where you wonder why they keep reuniting time and time again. Pawlikowski never tries to provide an absolute answer as to why these two individuals cannot end their deep affections for one another, but he doesn’t need to as some things cannot be put into words.

Thinking about “Cold War” somehow brought to mind one of my favorite songs by Howard Jones entitled “What is Love?”. This song was released back in the 1980’s which marked the start of America being seduced by infinite greed, but I was just a kid who had yet to have his innocence ripped away from him. The music really took me in as the synthesizer melodies were a big favorite of mine back then, but the lyrics have since taken on a deeper meaning for me:

“I love you whether or not you love me

I love you even if you think that I don’t

Sometimes I find you doubt my love for you, but I don’t mind

Why should I mind, why should I mind?

What is love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?”

“Cold War” seeks to ask those same questions as it transports us back to post-war Poland in the 1950’s where we meet Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot), a musical director at Mazurek, a nascent folk arts ensemble which, as one of its instructors makes very clear, deals with the music of “pain and humiliation.” In the process of auditioning new singers, he comes across the young Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) who is fearless in continuing her performance even after she is told to stop. It’s a thrilling scene as these two individuals from different parts of life are quick to lock eyes and create a connection not easily formed in the average Nicholas Sparks cinematic adaptation.

Wiktor comes from a more refined and educated world while Zula comes from, as some may say, the wrong side of town. Their attraction to one another is instant. Is it a fascination with a person’s past history? Wiktor is told Zula stabbed her father with a knife, and this of course makes him wonder why someone would do such a thing. When he asks her why, her answer is blunt and to the point, “He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference.” We never even learn which part of the body the knife pierced.

Their differences are strong, but there is an unmistakable bond between them which will not break. As “Cold War” moves on, their relationship stretches over a decade and several different locations including Poland, Warsaw, East Berlin and Paris. They become involved with others, but the love they have for one another will not die an easy death. You keep waiting for one of them to tell the other “I wish I knew how to quit you” because they cannot get themselves to leave the other be. Wiktor tells Zula to find “another normal guy” who can support you to which she replies, “Such man is not born yet.” This happens around the movie’s midpoint, and by then it is unlikely such a man will ever be born.

Is this real love, or is it just obsession? Such answers do not matter because all you need to know is how strong Wiktor’s and Zula’s bond is. You can question it all you want, but the love is there even if it exists in a state of emotional torture. John Lennon once sang of how love is real, but Nazareth made it clear that love hurts, and the love these two mismatched souls have for one another seems to exist in a space between those two thoughts.

Just like Mike Leigh did with “Mr. Turner,” Pawlikowski does a brilliant job of taking us back to a time and place to where I felt truly transported to another era. I never questioned the authenticity of what was being presented because it all felt so real to me, and Łukasz Żal’s black and white cinematography is simply gorgeous to take in. It makes me wonder why we don’t get more black and white movies these days. While the lack of colors may seem limiting to filmmakers in general, there is something about the monochrome look which gets everything just right.

What’s especially commendable about “Cold War” is how epic this love story is, and yet Pawlikowski fits everything into a running time which is just below 90 minutes. The movie felt so much longer than that, and yet I came out of it feeling like I saw something immense and wide-ranging.

Tomasz Kot is one those actors who has this smoldering intensity about him. I remember William Petersen having this same kind of intensity in “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Manhunter,” and it’s as if he doesn’t have to do much to generate any kind of charisma. I am envious and, I have to admit, a bit resentful of actors who can pull this off, but he also lets you see what is going on in his mind as his character of Wiktor suffers through a maddening heartbreak and career setbacks which have him trading the music he loves out for something more politically friendly. You have to admire the subtle acting he does here as it is never easy for anyone to pull off.

Joanna Kulig is every bit Kot’s equal as Zula, and it is fascinating to watch her take this character from being a young student to an adult in an equally subtle way. Kulig also excels at spelling out what is going through Zula’s head to where she needs no dialogue to spell out her feelings, and she is fearless in portraying the character’s constant struggle to escape the confines of a life which keeps putting her into a corner.

“Cold War” is one of the most immersive cinematic experiences I got to witness in 2018, and I hope any phobias you have about movies with subtitles do not keep you from seeing it. The love story is harrowing, but the visuals are beautiful. It’s hard to find movies these days which suck you into their settings the way this one has, and it serves as a reminder of how powerful cinema can be.

Pawlikowski has said this movie is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by his parents who kept splitting up and getting back together time and time again. Why do couples do this to themselves? It seems unhealthy, and yet some cannot tear themselves away from a mad love story. But once again, he is not out to answer what he believes love really is. I guess he just wanted to know their love was real in some unspoken way. With “Cold War,” I believe he has accomplished just that.

* * * * out of * * * *