As someone pursuing a career in screenwriting it was inevitable that my most significant director would be a writer-director. The obvious choice of writer-directors is obviously Tarantino, the writer-director who makes films that every writer wants to see. However, Martin Mcdonagh in my opinion, makes films every writers want to write.
McDonagh has 2 features that he has written & directed: ‘In Bruges’ (2008) and ‘Seven psychopaths’. Both of these films fall under the ‘dark comedy’ umbrella but are vastly different, one of the similarities they have however is how well the script is translated to screen. One of the benefits of directing your own writing is knowing exactly how you want to visualise your story. McDonagh transfers his scripts perfectly to screen.
For example, in his first feature ‘In Bruges’ one of his goals was to make Bruges; the location of the film to feel like a character. Not only does McDonagh use Bruges as a gorgeous backdrop for the film, but he perfectly incorporates the quiet European tourist town feel into the film. In the above shot he uses the clock tower which becomes a central part of the films climax in the shot to: A) Place a barrier between the characters on screen to help further display their conflict & B) establish it’s location (as it becomes important in the ensuing scenes).
McDonagh, is first and foremost a playwright which becomes very evident in one of the films greatest strengths: Dialogue. The conversations are realistic, but never boring, sometimes sad but never depressing, humorous but never straying too far from the plot which so many American comedies fall victim to. The same goes for the way the film is shot. In ‘In Bruges’ there’s an almost 7 minute long shot that followed Brendon Gleeson’s character as he paces around a hotel room during a phone call. A very simple method to put the audience in his shoes, to show how he feels trapped in the conversation, his anxiety at where it’s leading.
It’s decisions like this that occur throughout his films that really emphasise his writing, and it’s these details that can sell even the most ridiculous bombastic scenes and characters to audiences, as it’s still grounded in realism. It delicately tackles the final sombre thoughts of a character before his death, re-telling a story about a character choosing the light, not the darkness, only for the melancholic moment to end on a slight up as he whimsically quips about ‘fags can dream too, and I think they prefer the term homos’.
The above example from ‘Seven psychopaths’ shows how McDonagh expertly walks the line, having the soundtrack fade out, giving the audience a few moments to digest the characters final words, the implications it has on the plot and the protagonist before giving the scene a slight upswing.
As mentioned above McDonagh puts an emphasis on the films location and stylises the entire film around the locations; Bruges and LA respectively. This gives his films a cinematic beauty that comes almost effortless, while feeling authentic and genuine. This, again, grounds the reality of the location, freeing McDonagh up to have more bombast and over the top action whilst it not feeling silly or out of place.
McDonaghs films rely heavily upon the performances of his actors, a symptom his background in theatre. His scenes are usually very simply constructed, only alternating between close ups, mid shots and wide shots with sporadic cut-aways. Unless there is a direct purpose, he keeps the scene structure simple and lets the performances carry the scene. This gives him the power to go back in the edit and emphasise performances by pulling in closer to a character or likewise distancing a character with a wide. His expert knowledge of how the dialogue plays out drives the editing with the snappy dialogue giving clear edit points the none-flashy way of setting up the scene sells it in a way most directors would over-complicate.
It would be difficult to write about McDonaghs work without mentioning his mastery at selecting a soundtrack. Whether it’s the PP Arnold’s upbeat love song ‘The first cut is the deepest’ being used after the brutal murder of 2 hitmen in the opening scene of Seven psychopaths or The Dubliners ‘On Ragland road being used in ‘In Bruges’ so set a more sombre tone, McDonagh always picks the perfect song tonally to fit the scene. A master of both juxtaposing upbeat songs with cold brutality, or alternatively using a slower melancholic piece to illustrate a sadder similar scene but with vastly different connotations.