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.

The Stars of ‘Repo Man’ Drop By New Beverly Cinema

Repo Man poster

More than 30 years after its release, Alex Cox’s cult classic “Repo Man” still holds up with its truly authentic punk attitude and black humor. This was proven to be the case when a special screening of the movie was held at the New Beverly Cinema which brought out many fans eager to see some of the actors who starred in it. Among them was the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton who plays Bud, the Mr. Miyagi or Yoda to Emilio Estevez’s Otto. Also there was Tracey Walter who played the philosopher of mechanics, Miller, Olivia Barash who played Otto’s would-be girlfriend, Leila, and Del Zamora as Lagarto, one of the Rodriguez brothers.

“Repo Man” is so defiantly punk and proudly refuses to fit into the realm of regular mainstream entertainment. Never politically correct, it delves into a highly exaggerated, not to mention intense, depiction of the life of a repossession agent. Watching it makes you realize there are not enough movies like this these playing at the local multiplex. We need something to balance out all these watered-down blockbusters which comes to us like McDonald’s Happy Meals from the world of corporate cinema. This movie was actually intended to be a UCLA student film, but somehow it managed to become something much bigger.

The actors came out immediately after the end credits concluded, and they looked really happy to be at the New Beverly. Stanton, however, looked like he was three sheets to the wind and occasionally spoke about things not really related to “Repo Man.” At one point he even asked, “Can I smoke in here?” The other actors sympathetically told him they weren’t sure the theater would allow him to smoke. “We can’t smoke in here?” Stanton said, “That’s fucking nonsense!” The crowd couldn’t help but laugh as Stanton looked like he was perfectly prepared to keep smoking for the rest of his days.

Stanton said he couldn’t remember exactly how he got involved in “Repo Man,” and added this lack of memory up to being one of his “senile” moments. Walter, however, said he got his role after having previously worked with producer Michael Nesmith on “Timerider.” Barash said she was originally encouraged not to do the movie on the advice of her agents as they didn’t know the people involved in it very well, and they thought it might be dangerous for her to even go to the audition. But Barash was and still is a huge punk rock fan, and she got immediately sold on “Repo Man” upon seeing that bands like Black Flag were going to be involved. She even told us Iggy Pop, who composed the movie’s theme song, was her neighbor in the apartment building she lived in back then.

Zamora didn’t say exactly how he got cast, but he did remember how Cox got Nesmith involved as a producer. Simply put, Nesmith’s car had gotten repossessed, so he could relate to those car owners who were not paying up on what they bought. Zamora also talked about how Cox got both Stanton and Estevez involved in “Repo Man.” Basically, Cox caught up with Estevez and told him Stanton was already connected to the movie even though he wasn’t at that point, and then he went to Stanton and told him Estevez was connected to the film even though he wasn’t. Suffice to say, both actors did become involved.

Stanton then went on to say he and Cox didn’t always get along. During the shooting of “Repo Man,” Cox got so sick and tired of Stanton telling the actors what to do and threatened to fire him on the spot. To this Stanton replied, “Kiss my ass! Fire me so I can get paid!” Later on, Stanton asked Zamora to let Cox, whom Zamora is still in touch with, know he’s not mad at him anymore and that he would welcome him as an honored guest the next time he saw him.

“Repo Man” also had an abundance of generic food and drink items on display, and the audience couldn’t help but laugh at just how openly generic they all were. Product placements are usually reserved for big budget movies which are more likely to be bland and inoffensive. Zamora said they really had no money so they did talk with companies who were willing to do product placements in the movie. And then they read the script… What they ended up using was a generic brand from Ralphs Supermarket, one of the most dominant of supermarket chains in Southern California today. Of course, had “Repo Man” been made today, Ralphs might not have been as inclined to be involved.

In the end, Zamora and Walter said the art directors did the majority of the work and succeeded in creating the world of the movie which was very convincing despite the low budget. Then Stanton spoke up again and asked who Zamora played in “Repo Man,” and Zamora told him he played Lagarto, one of the Rodriguez brothers, to which Stanton replied, “How many brothers were there?”

 Speaking of the Rodriguez brothers, Stanton’s character of Bud has this intense confrontation where he wields a baseball bat which he threatens to bash the brothers with. Stanton said Cox gave him a rubber bat to use, but he wanted to work with a real one instead, and this led to a fight between the two of them. Zamora remembered this moment on set and said Stanton was under control, but Stanton, who was starting to remember more of the filming, made it bluntly clear he was really crazy and didn’t have any idea of what he was doing.

Walter was asked about his famous “shrimp monologue” scene, and he said it was originally meant to be just an audition piece. It was never intended to be in the film, but Walter fought for it. Indeed, it makes for one of the most memorable moments in “Repo Man” as his character of Miller describes the way he sees things:

“A lot o’ people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ‘n things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice o’ coincidence that lays on top o’ everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o’ shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.”

To this day, Walter says that every once in a while he runs into someone who utters one of his signature lines from “Repo Man” like, “John Wayne was a fag!” But of course, the real signature line of “Repo Man” belongs to Stanton’s character of Bud who says, “The life of a repo man is always intense.”

One audience member asked the actors if they still talk to Estevez after all these years. Zamora and Walter said Estevez still works, but more as a producer and director these days because that’s where his passion lies. Estevez still acts occasionally, but it apparently doesn’t interest him as much as it used to.

Wrapping up the evening, the actors were asked if they knew they were making something special during the filming of “Repo Man.” Some of them believed they were, but Stanton bluntly said, “I didn’t give a shit if it was special while making it.” Despite his apparent demeanor and not being able to remember his entire experience on this particular movie, Stanton still had us laughing hysterically. Not once did he try to ruin the fans’ appreciation of “Repo Man.” Whether he realizes it or not, no one could have played Bud better than him.

Many were in agreement when Stanton said both “Repo Man” and “Sid & Nancy” were truly the peak of Cox’s directing career. We haven’t heard as much from him since then, but Barash said he just finished making a quasi-sequel called “Repo Chick” which she has a cameo in it. However, this has not stopped Universal Pictures from sending Cox cease and desist letters as they insist only they have sequel rights to “Repo Man.” Still, Cox has been showing it at festivals, so it looks like nothing is going to stop him.

Before everyone got up and applauded, another audience member asked a question which brought to mind one of Bud’s great lines from “Repo Man,” “Is there any good place around here to get sushi and not pay?” Stanton left us with his best answer of the evening, “That’s where we’re going right now.”

 

 

 

Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ Remains an Exceptionally Intense Experience

Alien movie poster

In regards to horror movies, “John Carpenter’s The Thing” ranks highest on the list of my all-time favorite movies in general. However, if you were to ask me what I consider to be the scariest movie ever, the first that quickly comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Now considered a classic haunted house kind of movie, it freaked me out far more than I had expected it to. These days, if I come across someone who hasn’t seen “Alien,” I would be desperate to take the time and watch it with them just to see the look on their face. What may seem like a harmless old science fiction movie still has the power to unnerve and creep up on its audience when they least expect it.

Now when I say that this movie freaked me out more than I expected it to, there are a number of reasons why: I ended up seeing James Cameron’s sequel “Aliens” beforehand, so I already knew Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) was the sole survivor from the original. When I watched “Alien” for the very first time, it was back in the days of VCR’s and VHS tapes, and the one I obtained from my favorite video store was a fairly old copy which showed a bit of wear and tear. When it came to watching it, I got consigned to my parents’ bedroom as they had already called dibs on the big television in the family room which was connected to a “super cool” stereo system. The TV set in their bedroom was tiny by today’s standards. As I remember, it was a 13-inch set which was already on its last legs after years of use. This one didn’t have any surround sound system to enhance the experience, so I just tried to be happy I had a TV to view it on at all.

Having said all this, “Alien” still had my hairs standing on end throughout. Even though I knew who would live and die, the suspense and tension were extreme throughout, and you never ever felt safe on board the spaceship Nostromo. I can still remember hiding my eyes and would be turning the volume down at certain points because my heart threatened to stop beating a few times. Imagine if I had watched it for the first time on a big screen TV with surround system, or better yet, in a movie theater when it originally came out! I wouldn’t have slept for days! Some movies play better on the silver screen than on your television, but “Alien” appears to work on either format with the same degree of success.

There are many different reasons why Scott’s film remains such an effective sci-fi horror classic to this day. For me, it starts with the characters and how down to earth they are. While other outer space movies have characters who revel in the wonder of what’s out there, all the workers on the Nostromo treat their dark habitat as just another office job they take to get by. When we meet up with them, they are on their way back to Earth and just want to be home already. The writers also gave the actors dialogue which was never too heavy on the technobabble and hearing the characters talk about how they deserve full shares for the work they did defines them as blue collar workers. These are not brilliant scientists looking to discover new planets; they’re just people working for the man. The time Scott takes in introducing all these individuals pays off by the time we are given a visceral introduction to the alien of the movie’s title.

Now let’s talk about this alien which was designed by H.R. Geiger, a Swiss surrealist artist. I can’t really compare it to other movie creatures I’ve seen in the slightest because it looks so frighteningly unique in its construction. Its mouth hides an additional set of jaws that lunges out at unsuspecting victims as if they are “faster than a speeding bullet.” Furthermore, there is something quite phallic about that jaw in how it juts out at you without warning or of any thought of the damage it is about to inflict. Its lethal penetration is highly unnerving in how it reminds the viewer of what we all agree constitutes a serious and unconscionable violation to the human body.

But one of Ridley’s most brilliant moves with “Alien” was in not showing the creature fully. We only got glimpses of it throughout the film until the end, and even then we weren’t entirely sure of all that we saw. It was all up to our imaginations to figure out what kind of a threat this creature is. This added immeasurably to the film’s infinite suspense and unending tension. Plus, with the spaceship Nostromo designed to look all dark and shabby with not much light to be found in certain sections, this made it easier for the creature to hide. When it leaped up at the cast member about to meet his maker, it was completely unexpected and defined the jump out of your seat moment for me.

As the movie goes on, we get to an even more frightening aspect; of how corporations can put profits above their workers so coldly. When Ripley discovers the Nostromo crew was made to pick up an alien organism to bring back for further study and that they were expendable, it only further demonstrates just how much alone everyone is on the ship. To realize the company which has employed you couldn’t care less about your existence makes you fully aware of your immediate surroundings, and the instinct to survive becomes stronger than ever. Of course, are cynicism today has us expecting this from any corporation we work with, so we’re more prepared for this than the Nostromo crew was.

A lot of credit also goes to the late Jerry Goldsmith for creating a music score which adds subtly to the action, or at least until the film’s last half hour when the realm of outer space feels even smaller than before. His music touches on the tension inherent in each character without becoming melodramatic, and at times it sounds like invisible ghosts hovering over the unprepared crew waiting to strike. Also, the use of silence in certain scenes makes it even more frightening as we are reminded of how unsettling things can be when our surroundings become far too quiet for comfort.

All of this leads to one of the most intense climaxes in cinema history as we are fully aware of time running out. Just when you think the movie’s over, there’s still another horrendous challenge to overcome. It’s in the movie’s last minute where you can finally breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even if you know how of this movie will end, it is still an intensely riveting experience that never lets up for a second. The look in Ripley’s eyes as she makes her way to the escape shuttle perfectly mirrors our own emotions as she is forced into a situation which leaves her with no other options to consider.

I still have very vivid memories of seeing this movie on that unspectacular little television set in my parents’ bedroom while they enjoyed something on Masterpiece Theater with more advanced technology. As the beginning credits began to roll, I was convinced that sitting through this would be a piece of cake. Coincidentally, I also felt the same way about the original version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when I rented it through Netflix. “Alien” remains one of the most truly terrifying experiences I have ever had watching a movie either on the big screen or the small one. To this day, it remains an effectively scary movie which has lost none of its power. Now if 20th Century Fox had fully realized how all these elements had added to make such a great movie, those hopelessly pathetic “Alien vs. Predator” films might have actually been worth watching.

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