NEW YORK—John Michael McDonagh wrote and directed the most financially successful independent film in Ireland, 2011’s The Guard–only his first major film. His second film, Calvary, hits limited U.S. theaters on Aug. 1, and we reviewed it warmly. Both McDonagh's films have starred Ireland’s beloved Brendan Gleeson, who in Calvary plays the good priest Father James.
At the beginning of the film, an unknown parishioner tells Father James that he will murder the priest in seven days as retribution for the abuse he experienced from another priest. The film follows the seven days after the death threat, as Father James talks with his parishioners and considers questions of sin and forgiveness. Fox Searchlight Pictures, the arm of 20th Century Fox that picks up independent films, saw potential and is distributing the Irish film to U.S. theaters. The film’s heaviness is leavened with humor so dry American audiences might miss it; but Fox Searchlight is betting they’ll come.
McDonagh and Gleeson sat down with me in New York to talk about the film—its treatment of death, forgiveness, and the church. McDonagh grew up in a Catholic family but says he tends toward “detachment and nihilism.” Still, he gives the church and the Christian faith fair treatment in the film, and I asked him why.
“I’m trying to get away from making a film that’s ironic, where people are continually smirking at anyone who has any faith in anything,” he said. “So we wanted to make a film about a man who does have a genuine sincere faith and we’re not smirking at him. The other characters might be … but we as filmmakers aren’t treating him in that way.”
Sitting in a room at a hip Soho hotel, promoting an indie film, McDonagh launched into a critique of a certain brand of coolness familiar to New York.
“The film is not made for ironic hipsters who are slouching through life, never coming up with any emotional or intellectual response for anything,” he continued. “As if that’s too—‘Oh, I don’t want to get into all that, let’s just watch some TV show.’ To me, it’s a film made for those people, who I assume is all of us, who are striving for some kind of philosophical decision about why we’re here. Fox Searchlight probably won’t like me saying this, but it’s a film about death. There’s lots of references to death all the way through, and it’s coming to terms with what’s going to face us at the end of our lives.”
The film depicts sin within the church, but doesn’t use that sin to treat the church as irrelevant.
“To judge one priest by the actions of another priest is appalling, so that was our initial starting point,” McDonagh said. “Yes there have been a lot of scandals, and the church was complicit in covering up, and leaving priests on and never bringing priests to book. But at the same time there are lots of very good men and women within that organization trying to help their fellow man so we have to take the two sides on board. I’m sort of opposed to those kind of filmmakers that have a political position and then they start writing stories based on that political position. I would create a character and then create a story, and obviously my own beliefs will be there subtextually, but that’s not the main intention. The main intention is to tell a story about a good man and his interactions with his community, and have that story be entertaining. It can be bleak. To me, I don’t mind watching a bleak movie if I’m absorbed in it. So that was the intention, not to get across a propagandistic idea about taking down the church or anything like that.”
Earlier this year at the Irish Film & Television Awards, Calvary won best picture, Gleeson won best actor, and McDonagh won best script. The film has topped Irish box offices. I asked how Irish audiences received the film, where religion might be a touchier subject than in the United States.
“It’s not a literal representation of small town Ireland,” McDonagh said. “It’s more metaphoric and symbolic. But I think a lot of critics in Ireland especially underestimate their own audiences. Lots of people did go to see this film, however they felt about it when they were walking out, at least they were getting into those discussions. … It seems to have percolated into the cultural discussion. It’s not a film that can be dismissed easily.”
More than acting accolades, Gleeson is interested in a story that reaches audiences.
“I’ve done a couple films, some better than others, that addressed cultural issues in Ireland, and I’ve had one particular film where there was a very, very definite rejection of it,” he recalled. “It was a John Boorman film, and tonally we possibly got things wrong or other things that we could reprimand ourselves about. But I was very upset about the reaction of people who refused to engage with the issues. Part of it was definitely our fault in that we didn’t seduce [audiences]—and possibly there was too much of that ironic content that alienated people. So we have to take some of the blame. But my big hope for this film was that it would be taken—the honesty of the endeavor and John’s approach to it gave every aspect a fair crack of the whip. And I think people were relieved that it could be aired. … It was really refreshing in Ireland. And it was a good beginning to clear the air on a lot of issues.”
Gleeson makes this film excellent but he does not overwhelm the story to the point that the viewer is thinking about his fine acting. McDonagh at one point in the interview asked about Gleeson’s favorite actor and Gleeson named Gene Hackman. “He can be completely himself but utterly serve the story,” Gleeson said. “There was a lack of fuss about it, there was huge intensity when it needed to be there, but there was no showboating.”
McDonagh is planning to write a third film, with Gleeson as the lead, drawing the title from a Flannery O’Connor short story, The Lame Shall Enter First. McDonagh counts O’Connor as one of his favorite writers.
“What I loved about Flannery O’Connor was, she was obviously a deeply committed Catholic but as she said, you could read her stories and her books and you could think she was an atheist,” he said. “She wrote for the other characters, not for her—that’s what I was talking about, not putting your own beliefs and have it override the story. She was such a great writer that you would come out reading the books thinking, ‘Oh she must believe in nothing.’” But the “subtextual readings” of the stories revealed her beliefs, he said.
In this film, McDonagh said he is preaching to himself.
“The whole idea of ‘forgiveness is highly underrated,’” he said, quoting the movie, “I probably retain the most grudges of anyone I know.” Gleeson started laughing. “And I don’t forgive people that easily,” McDonagh continued. “But funny, since I’ve made the film, I’ve tried to think, ‘Listen, you’ve made a film [where] that was its message so maybe you should try to be like that.’”
"You’re self-medicating!” Gleeson said, and the two filled the room with laughter.
"I can’t go around continually having rows with people when I’ve just made a spiritual movie,” McDonagh said. “I actually did forgive somebody who punched me a couple of times.”
“Yes, you did!” Gleeson confirmed.
“One of the actors on the film, he’d been drinking a lot of sake, and he was enraged by something I’d said to him and he punched me,” McDonagh recounted. “He was only a little fella so it didn’t hurt. And he was really contrite about it the next day. And I said, ‘Yeah, alright, I’ll forgive him. I’ve made a movie about forgiveness so I should forgive him.’”