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6 Filmmaking Tips from Martin McDonagh

The filmmaker behind ‘In Bruges,’ ‘Seven Psychopaths,’ and ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ shares his thoughts on writing, loving your characters, and how to not be fucking boring.
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on April 6th, 2019

After establishing himself as one of the most accoladed playwrights of the 21st century, the Anglo-Irish writer Martin McDonagh turned to film. His first short, Six Shooter (2004), took home the Academy Award. He returned to the screen four years later with the beloved black comedy In Bruges, his feature film debut as a writer-director. Seven Psychopaths followed in 2012. His third film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)is his most critically acclaimed to date and took home Oscars for Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell).

Still an active playwright, McDonagh consistently returns to theater between films. His most recent, A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, starring Jim Broadbent, premiered at the Bridge Theatre in London in 2018. A master of character and dialogue, McDonagh has shared plenty of great advice in interviews over the years. Here are six of his best tips:

Formulas are Fucking Boring

There are certain writers out there who have made entire careers out of teaching particular methods for developing stories for the big screen — three-act structures and turning points and make sure you have X happen by page Y, etc. McDonagh has some thoughts on these various schools of storytelling, as he told Deadline in a January 2018 interview, namely that you shouldn’t listen to any of them:

“Bullshit. There’s no fun in that. It might be fine if you… No, it’s not fine even if you’re starting out because it’s all about formula, and formulas are fucking boring. That’s why you end up with Marvel and DC films every week, where you know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s just like, ‘What kind of computer effect is going to take us there this time?'”

Write Your First Draft By Hand

There are plenty of writing applications out there. Microsoft Word. Google Docs. Final Draft, the industry standard for screenwriting. Hipsters, of course, have their typewriters. The list goes on. But for first drafts, McDonagh favors the most old-fashioned method of all: pen and paper. The thing that makes this a piece of advice instead of just a lifestyle choice is that, as he brings up in a DP/30 video interview posted in November 2017, taking the old-school approach presents a compelling benefit: a built-in second draft. In his words:

“I don’t do too many drafts. I kind of plow through and each day re-read the last like four or five pages, slightly redraft those, and then continue on with the next day’s pages, and just have that be the process. So by the end of it, it’s the final—it’s the first draft, and then I type it up. Because that’s all pen and paper, y’know, spiral notepads, and then I’ll type all that up into Final Draft or whatever, and that’s the second draft. Then I’ll do notes on that, but that’s pretty much it.”

You can watch the full interview below; the featured quote starts around 2:55:

Write Sober

Maybe you’ve heard the advice “write drunk, edit sober.” Perhaps attributed to the legendary Ernest Hemingway? Turns out, the internet is full of lies and there does not appear to be any evidence Hemingway gave this advice — or followed it himself, for that matter. Nonetheless, I’ve encountered this quote multiple times floating around the interwebs, suggesting it’s a motto that’s been embraced by at least a few people out there, regardless of origins. However, as far as McDonagh’s concerned, writing is not an endeavor that should be pursued under the influence, as he told Amy Schumer in an interview published in the October 2017 issue of Interview magazine:

“I never, ever drink while writing. Never have from the start, and I’m happy that I never have to. A lot of my stuff is plot-driven and mathematical, and I think you need a clean and sober mind to pin down the logistics of that. I also think when you’re drunk and you’re writing, everything seems good until the next day. You’re a bit more honest when sober.”

Love All Your Characters

While McDonagh remains openly fond of his first feature, In Bruges, he has admitted to having had some second thoughts about his sophomore film, Seven Psychopaths. In retrospect, he noticed a key difference regarding empathy towards characters between the two — namely, that the former had it in spades and the latter didn’t so much — and decided that the former approach was far more compelling, as he explained when he and several cast members did a BUILD interview to promote Three Billboards in November 2017:

“You kind of have to love all your characters. You have to see all of their faults truthfully, but all of their hopes truthfully, too. So, to a large degree, Frances’s character is the hero of the piece, but a lot of what she does is not really defensible, and especially as the film goes on. From a place of righteousness and rage, but it’s still destructive. Conversely, Woody Harrelson’s one of the characters who’s against her. He’s kind of, to a degree, the heart of the film, because there’s a lot of decency about him. But he’s still employing an underling who’s pretty much a jerk, and a racist, and a brute.”

You can watch the full interview below; the featured quote starts at 12:10:

Write Quickly and Often

In October 2017, McDonagh wrote a piece for Moviemaker magazine in which he broke down his overall creative philosophy when it comes to filmmaking. The whole thing is full of great tips (another we highlighted here) and definitely worth a read, covering everything from what sort of ideas make for a good screenplay to how to juggle the different hats of writer and director. One piece of advice that really sticks out, though, is what he had to say about getting started on that first blank page:

“You face the blank page, and you face it the next day and the next day and the next day. It never gets easier. It’s always hard—even in my old age—and it never goes away, though over time you can find a happiness [with] it. You get to a place where you enjoy the process, and it’s not as tough.

“Writing as quickly and often as you can is the only worthwhile exercise. Other people don’t do this but I always jump right into writing. I never plot it out before, I never write a treatment. I always let the characters speak to each other. In the first few days I always try to imagine the characteristics of the people, or some kind of a voice; idiosyncrasies, that kind of thing. I let them just talk to each other and begin to behave. The characters create themselves, almost, and I let the story happen around them. I don’t try to impose a story on the characters but to do it the other way around.”

Compromise Can Be Key

To rehearse or not to rehearse? That is the question, and plenty of filmmakers featured in this series over the years have answered this question with everything from a resounding “yes” to a hard “no.” With his theater background, McDonagh is very much a fan of rehearsals, though when making Three Billboards, he learned that there are exceptions to every rule after compromising with McDormand, who was adamant about not rehearsing with Harrelson and Rockwell before filming started, in an anecdote that also functions as a valuable piece of filmmaking advice. He shared the story as part of the annual DGA Best Director Nominees roundtable in February 2018, which also featured fellow nominees Guillermo del Toro, Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, and Christopher Nolan:

“I like trying to do as much [rehearsing] as possible. On this, we probably didn’t get quite as much, because Francis was quite determined that she wouldn’t rehearse with any of the cops in the film, even though she loves Woody and Sam, she didn’t want to become friendly with them before the shooting started. And as an idiot, I was thinking, couldn’t we just do a little bit, just to make me relieved, being in the room with three movie stars… but she was right, and it shows in the film.”

You can watch the full discussion below; the featured quote starts at 1:39:20:

What We Learned

As a storyteller, McDonagh has never played it safe. His characters are often about as far from “politically correct” as can be. And not everybody likes that. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri might have been one of the most acclaimed films of 2017, but it was also one of the most controversial. And yet, for my money, the thing that keeps McDonagh’s films on the right side of the border between daring and distasteful is their honesty. His characters say and do things that they shouldn’t because real people do that sometimes.

Watching and reading interviews McDonagh has done over the years shows just how much attention he pays to how people really talk — speech patterns, how conversations tend to flow, so on and so forth — and that sort of attention to real-world detail truly shows in his work and keeps his characters feeling genuine and compelling. There’s a reason both McDonagh’s films and plays remain so perennially popular. Yes, they push boundaries and buttons, but in the end, the best storytelling is daring.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.