Martin McDonagh Wants to Be True to Small-Town America

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film for today, but it was written seven years ago. “We had already set the ball rolling for Seven Psychopaths to be made next,” writer-director Martin McDonagh told me, “but it could equally have been this.”

“This” being McDonagh’s strongest project to date, Three Billboards tells the story of pained mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) challenging the local (see: incompetent) police force for justice in the brutal rape and murder of her daughter. Indeed, Hayes does what the title suggests, renting out billboards on the outskirts of town that chastise the police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), for not solving the crime.

There’s an emotional center to Three Billboards that fans of McDonagh may be surprised by. While it certainly retains the quick-witted profanity of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, it’s deeply invested in the people of Ebbing, Missouri. A senseless crime has rattled the previously idyllic community. Blood is on their hands, and Mildred won’t let ‘em forget it. I spoke to McDonagh about the anger at the heart of his new film, and I had him explain how the project came together. Here’s what he had to say.

VICE: At heart, you’re a writer. When do you know you have something worth filming?
Martin McDonagh: Pretty much as soon as you finish the script, honestly, you know if it’s good or a load of shit. If it’s a load of shit, you throw it away, and if it’s good, you wait another two or three years and then try to get it financed. I’ve always tried to be honest with myself as a writer. There are plays I’ve written that just didn’t work on the page, so they’ll never see the light of day. But I’ve always tried to write a few things and have them stockpiled to choose what the next one will be. So Billboards was ready the same time that Seven Psychopaths was ready as a script. We had already set the ball rolling for Seven Psychopaths to be made next, but it could equally have been this. I’m glad it wasn’t, because I think there were things I still needed to learn on Seven Psychopaths that I was able to utilize with this. I think that’s why it’s a better film, in my eyes.

What did you need to learn?
To be a bit more empathetic with the characters, because I think that’s what In Bruges had and what Seven Psychopaths didn’t. Just to jump in there and see the world through their eyes, and not be so meta or omniscient. Not be as much of a puppeteer as a director, but to fight it out with your characters, was the most important thing.

Your characters in Three Billboards are especially angry people.
I think anger was the starting point. And being true to anger and not being necessarily judgmental, because I think anger can be a good thing if it’s utilized in the right way. You just can’t dwell in that place of rage for the entire film.

Where did the anger come from for you?
Thinking about a crime of that nature, and how that seems to happen too often. What would you do, personally, if you were affected by something so close to home? That was the kind of germination of the story for Mildred: to just be truthful to that rage and that pain, especially when it’s aimed at the ineptitude of a bunch of people who aren’t, in her eyes, doing enough to help. I think the interesting thing about the story is that it’s two people going to war with each other: Frances and Woody’s characters, who are both in the right, in a lot of ways. Woody’s character is trying, and he’s not a bad man—it’s a crime that can’t be solved—and she’s in the right for demanding more. But it’s not just a film that’s about anger. It’s about change and hope, hopefully, too. Not in an easy-to-digest, sentimental, or patronizing way, but it’s about the hope that’s born out of being truthful to real people.

“Easy-to-digest, sentimental, or patronizing” are not characteristics people have used to describe your movies.
[Laughs] I try to avoid sentiment, especially when you’re dealing with working-class characters as we are in this. That’s my background, so it always irks me when characters with that background are treated in a sentimental, patronizing, or unintelligent way.

You were raised in south London. Do you have any early memories of rage that you remember from childhood?
It was later than that. Probably when I was about to leave school and feeling that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to work in a shitty job that I hated for a boss that I wanted dead. I always hoped for something a bit more artistic, but there didn’t seem like there were any avenues open for me.

You felt filmmaking was out of reach?
Completely, yeah. Even at that stage, traveling on vacation to America was out of reach. I just didn’t have the money to contemplate that, let alone going to film school. It just seemed like a completely different world, you know?

I imagine it propelled you forward, in a way.
I think so, and similarly with the theater, it was so beyond me. Mostly because it’s so boring and stupid, when I started getting into it, it was to explode what I disliked about theater—which was everything. I disliked everything about theater. I couldn’t even imagine making one film, but gradually… I mean, the first one came out pretty good, but that was born out of years of working in theater and getting to know and like actors and their process. I had a grounding in what makes a good film, and that’s good acting.

You think that’s what makes a good film?
I think unless you’ve got that, films won’t live or connect or inspire. For instance, my favorite Kubrick films would be the ones where the actors get time to do their thing, as opposed to 2001 or something. I’d always go toward Paths of Glory or The Killing rather than that. I’m not the kind of director who could (or would even want) to get a performance out of a bad actor, so I just surround myself with good actors and let them take care of that shit.

Three Billboards hones in the ineptitude of the police. Do you think being raised away from America allows you to comment on the country more easily?
I almost hope not. I almost hope the movie isn’t an outsider’s comment on America. I always try to see the connections between us all and try to ignore nationalities or the things that divide us. I wanted this to feel like an American movie—to be truthful to this town and these characters in small-town America. I didn’t want it to be an outsider’s take on it. But I’m too close to say that at the moment. I’m hoping, from the reactions to it by Americans, no one’s taken it as anything other than an American movie.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is in theaters now.

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