Brendan Gleeson is one of those guys that you just have to meet if you’re a hardcore fan of cinema. He’s played in some great films, put on some great performances and has built a credible name within the global industry of film. Not only are those qualities of his positive, but I also found out that he’s a very friendly person when I got the chance to interview him and Director John Michael McDonagh for their film Calvary.
The team came to Boston in July, and I was able to get some great stuff out of our time together. Whether it was about Calvary, their great working relationship, the Irish filmmaking scene or even the small piece of crucial filmmaking advice that Gleeson shared with me afterward, they were ready and willing to talk about everything that was put out there. I found these guys were honest, fun and delightfully uncensored. Below is much of what was said during our interview.
The role that Brendan Gleeson has in Calvary is a character that he’s never really done before. As he explains here, he knew about the story, but it took him a decent amount of time to realize what he was getting himself into.
Brendan Gleeson: We talked about it before The Guard was finished, that’s where the general idea was. So I kind of knew the area it was going to explore. I knew it wasn’t going to be rambunctious or any of that. I saw an early draft of it (the script) and I was knocked out by the tenderness of it, and also, I kind of knew this was going to go quite deep. Even until I put on the vestments, I was aware of where it was going in my head, but I didn’t quite know emotionally how taxing it would be or how metaphysical the whole thing was going to be in terms of the notion of good and evil and the quest for optimism and the quest for hope and faith. I was totally prepared for what I thought in my head, but as I said, until I went into wardrobe and started putting that gear on, I realized then that I was in that battle.
You may be expecting a comedy of sorts going into Calvary, but you’d be kind of wrong. There are indeed comedic elements inside the film, but it’s far more dramatic than what some may be anticipating if they expect to see another movie like The Guard.
John Michael McDonagh: In my mind, it was a black comedy. When the actors all came in and they all bring their own weight to it, it becomes a heavier dramatic piece. Like the people from the British film industry and the Irish film world who put money in, they were at the read through with all the actors around the table and you could see them going ‘I thought it was kind of going to be like The Guard? Obviously it’s heavier, but surely there was more gags than this.’
Seeing as it’s an extremely dark movie with comedic elements, it’s understandable that some people watching it may become a bit perplexed when watching it. They may also find themselves laughing at scenes and lines that they normally wouldn’t find funny.
McDonagh: At Sundance (Film Festival), during the first showing of the movie, a good selection of the audience laughed at the opening line and went ‘Oh God, what did we just laugh at?’ And there’s kind of that uncomfortable humor all the way through the movie, but that’s kind of the tone that both myself and my brother (Martin McDonagh), is that sort of uncomfortable comic tone.
Gleeson: It’s interesting in that opening scene is that retort that comes from the other side of it is irony. So, in a way it’s something that’s built-in there. You can deflect with humor and learn to live with things a little bit by laughing at them. Sometimes it’s a very useful tool as an emotional escape valve, but nobody’s laughing at this. It was an interesting relationship with humor. I think this priest had a sense of humor. He knew when he was putting somebody down with all those put downs, he knew that he was slicing them up a little bit. You’re laughing, but there was an edge of cruelty all the time that’s lingering about.
For McDonagh, there’s a scene directly in the middle of the film that represents a legit shift in the tone from being a dark comedy to a drama. It’s a scene between Brendan and his real life son Domhnall Gleeson.
McDonagh: The midpoint of the movie is a scene between Brendan and Domhnall Gleeson. And that is kind of the dark heart of the film, right in the middle. I thought after this point, there’s going to be no laughs after this. But what I had realized in screenings is that some of those scenes are so heavy, that people want any excuse to lighten up in some way, so soon after that he goes to the pub and I notice we get a few more laughs than I was expecting just because people are like ‘Thank God we can relax for just a little bit before the next heavy scene arrives.’ So that was an interesting process.
You don’t really get to see too many films about priests being done. I don’t know why that is, but McDonagh’s reasoning for making a film centered around one was interesting.
McDonagh: The first idea was just to tell a story about someone who was genuinely good, because most films don’t always follow someone who’s genuinely good. It’s always the anti-hero, he’s conflicted in some way or in big blockbusters, often the villain drives the story and the hero reacts to what the villain is doing. Well this will be interesting, we follow a good man and that lead on to a good priest. I assumed there might be more films being made about all the scandals that have happened over the last fifteen years, but here haven’t been really. So then you say ‘Once you’ve got the good priest, who do we surround him with?’ We surround him with completely appalling people. So, he has to deal with them and I thought ‘Well, that will be the narrative drive, those interactions.’
Irish film has a look that appears to be distinct from just about every other country. This is something that’s acknowledged by McDonagh and he has his opinions on why that is.
McDonagh: Probably a reflection of lack of budget. It’s a claustrophobic film in a way, but I was trying to make it feel mythic at the same time with all the landscape shots, the slow camera over the surface and the crashing waves. Trying to make it feel less like a small parochial small Irish movie. I was joking, but I think relying on budget. People are obviously going “I’m not going to be able to get the money to be able to make the film that I want to make, so I’ll write a story where they’ll possibly give me five hundred grand to make or something like that.” But that leads to the same type of movie all the time. There’s no sort of ambition in it. But it’s difficult, because if you think no one is going to give you the money you’ll probably write stories that you think will absorb it.
Gleeson: You can’t compete with Michael Bay for explosions, so you need an explosive punchline.
This portion of the interview provides a bit of a spoiler. I took most of that stuff out, but some may want to skip over this part right now if they don’t want to know any of the film at all beforehand. For the rest of you, you’ll read about a shift in Calvary’s story involving Gleeson’s character finding out who wants to kill him and why it took place.
McDonagh: That’s the hook try to bring people in, but as a filmmaker, I kind of lose interest until it comes back in the last twenty-five minutes. Also, it makes that character more heroic, because if he doesn’t know who it is, what can he tell the police? But if he does know and still doesn’t tell anyone, that makes him into a mythic figure in a way since he’s prepared to take the burden of everything.
Gleeson: That was one of the challenges in trying to realize the film, how much self-knowledge can you lay. It was a bit of a balance not to be tricky with it.
Calvary features some recognizable names who are known as being comedic actors. Seeing them in roles where they had to tone that down a bit may be odd for some, but it sounds like it was a challenge that they gladly embrace. McDonagh and Gleeson spoke about why that is and more.
McDonagh: A lot of those comedic actors want to do really dramatic material, but they’re not given the opportunity to do it. I always fine that they’re really on it all the time and they feel that they’re underappreciated and that they’re comic performances aren’t acting. We all know that it is, but it’s not respected in the same way. Chris (O’Dowd) would know his lines and would play around with them a little bit Aidan Gillen is very precise.
Gleeson: I wouldn’t call him (Aidan Gillen) a comedic actor.
McDonagh: No, if you know him, you know he’s not. He does smirk a lot. Dylon Moran, he’s known in Britain as a stand up comedian, he would be somebody where you go ‘Dylon, can you just remember one of your lines?’ His face would light up sometimes and he’d go ‘I got that one!’ I’m like ‘Yeah, you got that one, but you didn’t get the others. Have another go it.’
McDonagh also had what he calls his “Michael Bay moment” in Calvary.
McDonagh: Talk about Michael Bay, that was my big CGI moment when he’s (Dylon Moran) on the horse he was attacked by all these mosquitoes. Then we had to digitally remove them. That was my ‘Michael Bay moment.’
I read that McDonagh actually wrote Calvary while making The Guard, his 2011 release which also starred Brenda Gleeson. I figured that it must have been a difficult, so I wanted to know how he handled it.
McDonagh: I never went to film school so my post production on The Guard was my film school. Learning about editing, learning about pacing. We went on for ages. There were a lot of different cuts of the movie and it went on so long. So you send a cut of it to Sundance and you’re waiting for a reply. It took so long that in the interim I had written the script. I guess you could say that if it hadn’t gone on for so long that maybe the project wouldn’t have kicked in as quickly as it did. It’s just that I was getting so bored that I just started writing again. Usually, cause I’m a very lazy person, I like to take two or three years off and lie on a beach in Australia.
McDonagh’s brother Martin is also a writer and director. He made Seven Psychopaths, one of my favorite films of 2012 and In Bruges, a cult favorite of many critics. His name came up in the interview as John spoke about one of the major differences between the two of them.
McDonagh: He loves travelling. I like flying into let’s say Australia, getting to the beach and staying on the beach for three weeks. Martin likes to travel and do lots of cultural sh*t.
Gleeson: You’ve seen In Bruges.
McDonagh: I’m (Colin) Farrell (from In Bruges). Why do we have to go into that church?
Over the past few years, there have been more and more films coming out of Ireland that have received critical acclaim. The duo also spoke about that and the Irish filmmaking scene in general.
McDonagh: Well, there’s a lot of stuff going on there.
Gleeson: Britain has decided to get the Irish tax laws with regards to film and all those concessions. I just finished a Ron Howard movie and was talking about it and was talking about meeting more people there from Hollywood than he would in Hollywood. One of the things is the tax concession, but also, they have a film tradition there, so you’re going to a place where there’s already a cultural film tradition that’s also adding to your movie. In Ireland it’s a time for small productions. Most big productions are in Britain now.
McDonagh: Have you had a show over here called Love/Hate? It’s a really great crime drama set in Dublin. It follows one criminal gang, but it goes off into their personal lives. I guess it’s like The Wire, but distilled in a smaller timeframe, so lookout for that. There’s a great generation of Irish actors coming through.
Gleeson: Yeah, the actors that are coming through are first time film actors as against theater actors. It’s an interesting time, because I think there’s a definite switch. My generation would have gone through theater to film. Where these guys are coming in from the very beginning. Directors and writers are scarcer on the ground.