IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Seven Psychopaths'

Tuesday, 09 October 2012 10:35 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Seven Psychopaths'

Your average movie gets by with one, maybe two, psychopathic characters.  As the title makes abundantly clear, this Friday's Seven Psychopaths goes further.  That title isn't just a pleasing combination of syllables, since the film follows a whole cadre of dangerous, atypical personalities in a strange, darkly comedic adventure.

Seven Psychopaths is the sophomore feature from playwright-turned-writer-director Martin McDonagh, whose 2008 directorial debut, In Bruges, has spent the last four years amassing the passionate fans it so richly deserves. 

The new film reunites McDonagh with In Bruges star Colin Farrell (Fright Night, Ondine), as one of the titular psychopaths, Marty, a Los Angeles screenwriter struggling through his latest script and his incipient alcoholism.  Marty's best friends, played by Sam Rockwell (Moon, Iron Man 2) and Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter), make their living stealing dogs then returning them for the reward money.  When they inadvertently dognap the beloved shih tzu of a deranged gangster played by Woody Harrelson (Rampart, Zombieland), however, Marty is drawn into a violent tale that will either kill him or break through his creative block.

With a supporting cast that includes the likes of Abbie Cornish (Limitless, Sucker Punch), Tom Waits (The Book of Eli, musical genius), Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, Centurion), Zeljko Ivanek (Argo, television's Damages), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious, Tower Heist), and Kevin Corrigan (Unstoppable, Pineapple Express), Seven Psychopaths is an increasingly rare commodity: an original film with a wicked, self-aware sense of humor.

At the Los Angeles press day for the film, IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick had the opportunity to join journalists from all over the world in roundtable interviews with Martin McDonagh, Sam Rockwell, and Christopher Walken.  All three were happy to discuss the challenges of Seven Psychopaths, well-written dialogue, driving to Joshua Tree National Park, working with props, big monologues, and whether not Walken's dentist will enjoy the movie.

Though McDonagh earned acclaim for plays like The Pillowman and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, he has been hugely influenced by film, and intended for Seven Psychopaths to take advantage of the medium's narrative possibilities, saying, "Just in writing the scripts, I’m always trying to be as cinematic as I can. To do on film what you couldn’t so on stage. I think more and more I’m trying to go in that direction. I mean, I’m going to go back to writing plays too. I think that the difference between the two are becoming more and more polarized. If it’s a story and it’s going to be set in a room, it’s going to be a play. If there’s going to be rabbits and dogs, it’s going to be a film."

Asked whether he could conceive of this story being translated to the stage, McDonagh replied, "Well, I saw In Bruges more that way. That’s basically three characters walking around a stage, the stage being Bruges. But this I felt like I had gotten away from that a little bit. There’s only a few scenes set in a room, you’d have to jump through the desert. I’m not sure if it would work. It’s dialogue heavy like the plays and like Bruges and I like that. But I think it’s more cinematic than the last one."

It may be more distinctly cinematic than its predecessor, but Seven Psychopaths stills boasts the writer's nimble, playfully vulgar dialogue.  That dialogue was part of what appealed to screen legend Walken about playing his character, Hans.  "The whole thing is surprising," Walken said. "Whenever you read a script that has big chunks of intelligent and juicy dialogue, you know, that's pretty unusual. I have a lot of trouble with scripts, I have a lot of trouble imagining things while I'm reading them. Sometimes if you're lucky before you start shooting the actors will sit around a table and they read the script out loud. For me, that's a big moment because no matter how many times I read a script before I get there, I can't see it. But the moment that I get there, that's when I finally can see it. Obviously, this was a terrific script but I couldn't imagine it."

"You always look for good stuff," he continued. "What I meant when I said that was that very few scripts have that kind of focus on what people are saying. Movies can be a lot of things but they're usually not about dialogue; you know, the kind of dialogue that tells you where you are and where you're going. But you don't get really smart, fun stuff to say all that often."

The film doesn't simply feature a bigger canvas than his last effort, its production presented a whole laundry list of challenges for McDonagh.  An old adage cautions directors from ever working with animals, but in this case, it seems that the Shih Tzu was never a problem, as McDonagh explained, "The animals, honestly, they were a dream. Bonnie, the dog, was lovely. She was quiet as a mouse; it was like she was on marijuana or something, which made two cast members. Kidding! And the rabbits were great. But out in the desert, yeah, it was freezing cold for all the night shots, like minus-sixteen. And there were a lot of nights out in the desert. But we shot one day in the Joshua Tree national park itself, but as you said there are so many restrictions on what you can do there that we had to find places that look very similar, where you could explode a car or have a car chase or have a gun fight. But [cinematographer] Ben Davis was fantastic. I think the film looks beautiful and that’s all down to him really. We storyboarded an awful lot before we started. Well, I did for like six months before we started prep even. That kind of got my head around the whole desert shoot."

While the ensemble cast is populated by eccentric, colorful characters with parts to play, the film's story is very much driven by the friendship between Farrell and Rockwell's characters, Marty and Billy.  McDonagh recalled how an early attempt to flesh out their relationship resulted in one of the movie's signature props, saying, "Sam and Colin and I drove out to Joshua Tree to just spend the weekend, to just get to know each other and read the script and bond a little bit. Colin was driving and he popped into a gas station and got bunch of crappy food and bought the hat the Sam wears, and he said he was kicking himself afterwards when he saw it in the film. Even the hat is a scene stealer."

Rockwell confessed, "I kind of usually 'over prop' myself because I'm kind of a prop whore. Eventually, the director usually starts to take things away slowly and de-prop me because I'm kind of like Rambo with my arsenal of props. I overdo it usually."

Creating a rapport with Farrell was not an issue for Rockwell, who related the story of Billy's distinctive headgear in the context of their characters' co-dependent friendship. "Colin and I had met each other ten years previous but we didn’t really know each other all that well," he said. "Chris and I already knew each other from a play that we did together so [McDonagh] wanted Colin and I to bond so the three of us all went to Joshua Tree and rented a house there. At one point, we stopped at a rest stop and Colin picked out the bear hat, the one I wear in the movie, he found it and put it on my head so he told me to eat Cheetos and chocolate milk. That might even be in the movie [laughs]. But yeah, I had always thought that while working on it, we were just talking about how Chris was part of the original Hurlyburly, the part that Sean Penn plays in the movie. It was the relationship between that character and Chazz Palminteri's is very similar to the relationship between Billy and Marty in this movie; the out-of-work actor and the struggling writer who are sort of co-dependent on each other."

Despite an elegiac, occasionally tortured tone, In Bruges was marked by McDonagh's somewhat twisted sense of humor, and with this film's more buoyant atmosphere, the comedy is even more apparent.  "This was always a black comedy on the page, but I think it’s come out as more outrageously funny because of the actors," he explained. "It’s the way I kind of think about the world and the way I like to tell stories. I don’t think you should get too heavy, but there’s enough out there in the world, with violence, et cetera, that you should question. So I think that comedy leavens the heaviness of talking about those topics. It doesn’t feel like you’re preaching if you can say something in a joke, which is where this film is coming from."

No actor represents that unexpectedly humorous quality better than Christopher Walken, a man famed the world over this singular style of speaking.  Walken's pauses may arrive at unexpected times that don't necessarily correspond to the written word, but McDonagh said that the actor makes every line of dialogue his own.  "It’s the periods and the commas that you forget about. But, conversely, he memorizes the script word for word like six months before hand. And the words never change, the intonations change, and you can never imagine that a line or a word even could be pounced in that way, but it’s still the words you wrote. So there’s a joy and a surprise to all that kind of stuff. And now after this and after the play I can’t imagine any other way to say those lines. He’s really the only one in the world that can do that I think."

Perhaps the meatiest bit of writing in Seven Psychopaths goes to Rockwell, though, as Billy breathlessly narrates his idea for the climax of Marty's script: an over-the-top Hollywood shootout in a cemetery.  "It’s about a ten-minute monologue and Sam had it off by heart," the director said. "We had about two weeks of rehearsal before we started, and he acted out the whole thing from start to finish and he was getting down on the floor to get shot and coming back up, and just watching it I was just in hysterics. It had kind of been written that most of that was going to be voiceover. So we were going to film all of the actual cemetery shoot out and you’d head bits of it and see a couple images of Sam doing that, but it was so good that you didn’t want to…you could almost have just had the camera on him and Colin and Chris’s reactions, and that would have been equally valid. So yeah, because he was so good it was kind of half and half now, were back with Sam just as much as in the cemetery."

In a time where marketing drives movies and established brands are seen as a safer bet, this film could be considered a risk, the sort of unique gem that takes years to find an appreciative, enthusiastic audience.  For Rockwell, the process itself was a reward and the film's future is less important than that it's simply a good film. He said, "The experience that we had with Colin, Woody, and everybody on the film it was such a great experience. We took our jobs very seriously but we also had a lot of fun; that memory, that's what is really memorable for me. But you know, who knows? Of course we want the movie to be a smash hit but who knows what's going to happen? I have memories of films that nobody ever saw that I was very proud of and those are still great memories. It would be great if people saw this movie; it's a cool movie."

Similarly, for Walken, the source of his excitement right now is in awaiting reactions for ordinary moviegoers.  He's been praised for his memorable turn in this film, but he said, "I know what you're saying but I always get told that by a lot of people who have seen it but we're all kind of in the business in this movie so I'll be interested to see how regular audiences react. You know, I had to go to the dentist two mornings ago and when I walked in, the
dentist says to me, 'Looking forward to October 12th.' I said, 'What? What's happening then?' [laughs] I knew the movie was opening in October but then he says to me 'You know, you're movie is opening,' and I said, 'Oh yeah, right.' So when him and his family go and see the movie, that's when I can get an impression about this movie. When I'm on the road making a movie in another city, on my day off I always go to the movies. Always."

Seven Psychopaths hits theaters nationwide this Friday, October 12th.

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