The Guard’s writer-director, John Michael McDonagh, not a fan of Hollywood

22 August, 2011 by Sam Dallas

John Michael McDonagh isn’t a fan of Hollywood. In fact, when he puts pen to paper, he tries to write the exact opposite to what he’s seeing in Tinseltown.

“What I’m seeing is so bad,” says the UK writer/director. “If I write the exact opposite, maybe the exact opposite would be good.”


Speaking to IF via phone from South London after the UK riots moved north, McDonagh says when he looks for great cinema, he looks far from Hollywood: notably, South Korea, Japan and France.

His debut feature film, comedy/thriller The Guard, has been generating controversy around the globe after first opening in Ireland on July 7.

The film introduces us to unorthodox, confrontational Irish policeman Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) who joins forces with a black, straitlaced FBI agent (Don Cheadle).

The film has had a strong response in the US after first premiering at Sundance in January this year. McDonagh, brother of playwright/filmmaker Martin (who wrote and directed the critically-acclaimed film In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell), says it could’ve gone either way.

“Sundance was the first screening, so you’re a bit apprehensive there – you know, will they get it or will they just get up and walk out because they’ll be so offended?

“And it was funny because there was, some of the really extreme, let’s say confrontational racial gags – they got a laugh but they got a slightly shocked pause laugh…people rocked back and then they laughed. But then they went with it and I thought ‘we’re getting away with this’.”

The film had a strong limited run in the US late last month, taking $US76,834 from just four screens, according to Box Office Mojo. It’s now made $US1.2 million in just four weeks. Worldwide, the flick has generated more than $US6.1 million.

The film itself had its beginnings back at the start of the century, when McDonagh did a short film entitled The Second Death. The short had a supporting character, not too different to Gerry Boyle.

“It was like a ghost story – a man goes into a bar and there’s supporting characters in the bar. One of them who comes in is this country policeman who’s intelligent but he’s really obnoxious and sort of insults everyone in the bar and then leaves,” starts McDonagh.

“And I always thought – I wonder where that guy goes ‘cause he’s so annoying.”

Fast forward about seven years and there was a massive seizure of cocaine off the coast of Cork, Ireland.

“I can’t remember but there was some comical element – I think the smugglers refuelled the yacht with diesel. So they put the wrong fuel in there and it ran aground and one of the guys jumped off the yacht swimming to get help, despite the fact he was a drug smuggler and he had half a billion [dollars] on board the yacht.

“So I thought a comical drug deal that involves this character – and then once you’ve got the confrontational character it’s then…almost like a mathematical equation – who would he offend the most?

“The person he’d offend the most in my mind is an American. And then after that, it’s an American FBI agent who you want – to keep the law enforcement-aspect going.

“After that I thought, well a black FBI agent.”

He then went to work on the script which took only 13 days. With only minor additions, deletions, and the tweaking of dialogue, the finished version is pretty much just the one draft.

His inspirations ranged from Preston Sturges’ “screwball comedies” of the 1930s and ‘40s to even American film legend John Ford.

The film itself is set on the west coast of Ireland. Sergeant Gerry Boyle is a small-town cop with a confrontational personality, a subversive sense of humour, a dying mother, a fondness for prostitutes, and absolutely no interest whatsoever in the international cocaine-smuggling ring that has brought FBI agent Wendell Everett to his door.

However, despite the fact that Boyle seems more interested in mocking and undermining Everett than in actively working to solve the case, Boyle finds that circumstances keep pulling him back into the thick of it. First his tiresomely enthusiastic new partner disappears, then his favourite hooker attempts to blackmail him into turning a blind eye, and finally the drug-traffickers themselves try to buy him off as they have every other member of the local police force.

These events unwittingly offend Boyle's murky moral code. He realises that he needs to take matters into his own hands, and the only person he can trust is Everett. And so the scene is set for an explosive finale.

McDonagh believes the film will resonate with Australian audiences due to our sarcastic/deadpan sense of humour.

The director also confirmed to IF he currently has a new script, entitled Calvary, about a good priest who is tormented by his community. He is hoping cast members from The Guard will join him for another thrill-ride. He expects shooting to take place in late-Summer (UK-time) next year.

The Guard opens on August 25. To watch an exclusive featurette about the making of the film, click here

John Michael McDonagh (Photo by Jonathan Hession).