Having made his name as the enfant terrible of Anglo-Irish theater with gothic melodramas such as “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” playwright Martin McDonagh has quit writing for the stage to chase his original dream — becoming an auteur.
And just as in the theater, where at the age of 27 he became the first writer since Shakespeare to have four new plays performed simultaneously in London, he has gotten off to a flying start.
Now 36, he won an Oscar for his debut short “Six Shooter,” which he also directed. He has set up his first feature, “In Bruges,” at Focus, to shoot early next year.
“In Bruges,” about two hit men spending Christmas in Belgium, is actually his second script since he decided to devote himself exclusively to films three years ago. His first, “Suicide on 6th Street,” was with director Joe Wright at Working Title, but now is back in his own hands.
His third and evidently his favorite, “Seven Psychopaths,” has yet to be sent out. All he reveals is that it’s set in the U.S.
In fact, McDonagh never gives much away. Taking a cue from his press-shy friend Terrence Malick, he prefers to let the work speak for itself — even refusing to record a director’s commentary for the “Six Shooter” DVD.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, so I couldn’t think of anything to say,” he claims.
In a rare interview, he makes clear that he has no interest in adapting books or rewriting other people’s scripts. And he insists upon directing, even though he never did so in the theater.
“As a playwright, you’re allowed so much say that your contribution is almost absolute. But with a film, the writer is the lowest form of life in the room, so you have to cut that out,” he explains.
“I always put my cards on the table. If someone wants to do the script, it’s up to them. If I never end up making any films, that’s fine.”
“Most writers are trying desperately to sell their script, but with Martin it’s more about trying to persuade him to let you make it,” notes “Six Shooter” producer Kenton Allen.
Yet Focus’ London prexy Alison Thompson praises McDonagh as “very collaborative.” “The writing is fantastic on ‘In Bruges,’ and we feel strongly that he’s worth backing as a director,” she says. “He’s a guy who’s very willing to listen and accept that he’s got a lot to learn. ”
That mixture of self-confidence and hunger to improve himself has carried him a long way. The son of working-class Irish parents, he was born and raised in south London and left school at 16, starting to write while on the dole.
“Back then the dream would have been to make films, but that was very far away from where I was brought up,” he recalls. “I tried to write films and short stories, but they weren’t any good. The last available option for me was plays.”
Problem was, he found most theater “just so prissy and posh, and quite disrespectful of its audience.” At least that gave him something to kick against.
After struggling to write “English stuff” (“It was just copies of Pinter and Mamet, cheap imitations”), he found his mojo by tapping into the voices he heard every summer on family holidays in the rural west of Ireland.
The result was two trilogies of corpse-strewn black comedies of the grotesque, written in the space of just 18 months, that owed much to Scorsese, Tarantino, TV soaps and punk rock.
“I was combining the sensibility of a cinema fan with an attempt to put onstage what hadn’t been seen before, at least not since the Jacobeans,” McDonagh says.
His exceptional storytelling talent has packed houses and won awards from Galway to Broadway. But the bigscreen always seemed his ultimate destination. With an Oscar already on his mantelpiece, he’s on his way.