Interview: Martin McDonagh on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I have yet to share my full thoughts on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in review form, but I will say that the film is one of the best films of 2017. It is smart, funny, and thought-provoking. This is one film that I guarantee you will hear about from now until the end of Award season. I strongly believe that Three Billboards will be nominated for several major awards including the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Actress for Frances McDormand. This film, is without question one of my favorites of the year, so when offered the opportunity to sit down with director/writer Martin McDonagh, I was beyond excited to sit down with the talented playwright and pick his brain a bit more about this amazing film.
Scott Menzel: You must be ecstatic about this movie, considering how well it played at every festival. I was there at the opening at TIFF.
Martin McDonagh: Oh, yeah.
Scott Menzel: And that crowd just went nuts when it was over.
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, it was crazy.
Scott Menzel: How do you feel about getting that kind of reaction everywhere you go?
Martin McDonagh: Well, great, obviously, especially with a film that, like, two months ago, I wasn’t sure how it would be received. We knew it was good, but because it’s so dark in places, we weren’t sure if you could come back and laugh after, for instance, seeing what’s on the billboards, or if it was just gonna be: this is a grim story. I think it’s partly because of Frances and people’s love of her and what she does. It just kind of carries you from the beginning to the end, you know? You love her, but then you’re kind of terrified of her and you feel she’s wrong, but I think that’s what allows the audience to just jump on, hold on for the ride, despite the darkness that’s in the story too.
But no, it was great. I was sitting behind Sam Rockwell and Frances was behind me, and we just kept leaning over like, “They laughed at that one.” And they would laugh at the looks that Sam and Fran would do. It felt like the first night of a play in the theater when everything goes right, when they kind of laugh perfectly, and then just shut up to hear the next one and then go again, or gasp at the plot twists. You really know if something worked when you feel the shock of what happens to one of the lead characters.
And then just getting the ending, because I wasn’t sure the ending would work with people because it’s not the usual Hollywood sort of ending. That’s kind of enhanced this film for most people. It’s like we’re kind of glad that it goes to a different place. But also, it’s the kind of a film that’s basically about home and humanity, I guess, and that’s been coming across a lot. People coming up to me afterward and saying it’s kind of cool to be putting a film out at this time in the country when things are about the rage, but there’s a film with a path through that that isn’t a simple, that’s a lovely story. But that’s what’s been most encouraging.
Scott Menzel: What inspired this film?
Martin McDonagh: I saw something similar to what we see on the billboards about 17 years ago on a bus trip through the States. It passed me by in a second, but it stayed in my mind, the idea of what kind of pain or rage or bravery would cause a person to put up some kind of signage like that because it was kind of similarly calling out the cops about a crime. Once I kind of … I wanted to write something for a female lead, a strong female lead for a while. I’d done that in plays, but hadn’t really done that at all in the films I’d made. So that was … Once I coupled those two ideas together, once I made that person a mother, it felt like Mildred kind of sprang fully formed onto the page.
Scott Menzel: Just kind of a brief follow-up, was Frances always your top choice for that role?
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, only choice. I don’t know who else could have done it.
Scott Menzel: She’s gonna get the gold for it. I strongly believe it.
Martin McDonagh: I hope so, because people love her, and it’s 20 years since Fargo. It’s crazy. She’s always been good, but she said herself she doesn’t get given lead roles. Most women don’t get good material. What’s kind of refreshing about both writing this and how people have reacted to it, is there’s a joy to having someone so strong, so take no prisoners and give no shits … Just writing it was like, “What’s she gonna do next? Jesus.”
I think that’s how you feel when you’re watching it, too. It’s like, “Shit, there’s a dentist. He’s not gonna come out of this well,” or the priest. I think that’s what the biggest surprise is, just people loving her so much as an actress and really getting behind the character, even though it’s not all gonna be good. But there’s a frisson when she is with everyone she encounters in the film.
Scott Menzel: The characters in this film are so incredible. Every single one, from the smallest to the biggest. How do you go about creating such well-rounded characters that grow, and then you have this knack in all your films of redeeming characters who initially seem like complete scum of the earth assholes, but you somehow manage to make them lovable and relatable to everyone in the audience.
Martin McDonagh: You just kind of have to see humanity in everyone, and it’s not simple, kind of Hollywood heroes and villians. It’s hopefully something more interesting and more surprising than that, because if you’re not endearing to … you know, the hero’s the hero and the villains are the villains, you can go to anywhere, anyplace with them. The hero can become more villainous and the villain become more heroic, I guess.
In terms of the well-rounded characters, I think the thing is always to think that every character could be the lead character in their own movie as we all are the lead characters in our own movie, and just to be honorable about that. Like Peter Dinklage’s character. He’s really interesting, and you kind of think, well, what do you do with your daily life? Are you thinking about Mildred all the time? He could have a film of his own.
Similarly, most of the characters are that way. Then you just reduce those people down to two or three scenes, but their personality and their joy for the world is big. So it’s about that, just leave no one as secondary.
Scott Menzel: Great. Thank you so very much!