Director John Michael McDonagh on the Dark Humor of the Irish

By Kristina Skorbach, Epoch Times

NEW YORK—Veiled by the mesh of the confessional, a man describes his troubled past as an altar boy to Father James Lavelle. The man then says that he wants revenge and that the church has to pay, but since the priest who molested him is already dead, he is willing to murder a good priest. The man tells Father Lavelle that he’ll die within seven days.

This is the opening scene of John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary,” which stars Brendan Gleeson as the priest who must root out the would-be killer from his small coastal Irish community that lacks principles.

Despite the heaviness of the content, McDonagh manages to give “Calvary” moments of lightness, for example, in Father Lavelle’s reaction to a junior priest’s dismal sense of geography.

McDonagh says that his being able to balance comedy with tragedy is a trait of the Irish.

“At home it’s a big thing; there’s great hilarity at funerals,” Gleeson said at a press conference on July 25.

Though his character has a dark past and a former drinking problem, he is nearly the only one in the community with a moral compass. As Lavelle, Gleeson still delivers wit, sarcasm, and unexpected remarks. 

“A lot of people say very hurtful things through humor in this piece … I certainly don’t split them up; it’s part of the way you manage,” Gleeson said.

McDonagh explained at the press conference that he walks the thin line between comedy and tragedy by casting comedians or actors who are versatile and can easily switch between the two. In “Calvary,” for example, McDonagh cast Hollywood’s funny man Chris O’Dowd and comedian Dylan Moran. 

During filming, however, McDonagh sometimes runs into the problem of having too many dark scenes that follow each other. He says the trick is to write the script as a series of episodes that can be split up and rearranged later. 

“I don’t think about [the sequence of scenes] when I’m writing … I only start thinking of ‘tonal balance’ in the editing suite,” McDonagh said.

The genesis of “Calvary” came while Gleeson and McDonagh were working on the comedy thriller “The Guard.” The story, starring Gleeson as a policeman, revolves around an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) who gets schooled in local procedures for tracking down a drug-smuggling ring. 

Thus “Calvary” became the second in a trilogy of comedy dramas by McDonagh.

McDonagh is already working on the third film, “The Lame Shall Enter First,” in which Gleeson will play a troubled paraplegic who sets out to solve the case of a deceased friend, also a cripple, whose death is overlooked by careless investigators. 

As an older bearded man in a wheelchair, Gleeson’s character will rain snarky hatred on every able-bodied human being. 

Unique Writing Process

For every film that McDonagh works on, he uses the same approach. 

Even if he doesn’t know the middle or climax of the story, the first and last 20 minutes of every film is vivid in his mind, before he even sits down to write. 

“I always knew that the opening line was the opening line,” McDonagh said, referring to the shocking statements made by the killer who tells Father James to prepare for his death.

“That’s my version of a Michael Bay pre-credit sequence,” McDonagh said jokingly.

Since writing can quickly become a chore for him, McDonagh says that he likes to get it over and done with. 

“I write very quickly … I like to just sit down and churn it out in a space of three weeks, if I can,” McDonagh said.

To help get the ideas churning, he visits the local pub, where he can continue working without getting bored. 

“I never usually suffer writer’s block,” he said.

For aspiring writers, McDonagh suggests reading a lot of novels. He himself watches a lot of films, and sometimes he gets inspiration from others’ mistakes. 

“Sometimes you can watch a bad film and it might have one really good scene that wasn’t explored properly, and you can get something out of that,” he said.