Seven years ago when he was writing – or trying to write – the script for Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh – an Oscar® winner for his Live Action Short Six Shooter and Original Screenplay nominee 2008’s In Bruges – had one character and the title, but was essentially stuck. He had always had the bigger picture in mind, though. “I wanted it to be about love and peace.”
Cut to October 2012 and his film, opening today, is about that and so much more, packed with a range of wildly layered characters who bring McDonagh’s dark comedy to life in unexpected way.
At the heart of the story – and yes, a movie with the word “psychopaths” in the title does have a lot of heart and humanity to it – are Colin Farrell as the aptly name Marty, a struggling screenwriter, and Sam Rockwell as Billy, an equally struggling actor. Marty is working on a new screenplay for which he has a title – also called Seven Psychopaths – but his inspiration basically stops there.
“Let’s just say I throw a good deal of my truth into the mix along with things that are 100 percent false,” McDonagh says.
“He’s fallen in love with this title but he hasn’t come up with any psychopaths,” Farrell explains. “Marty is renowned for writing good dialogue and violent scenarios.” But for his next story, he wants to go in the opposite direction and can’t figure out his characters or how to do it.
Part of the problem is that Billy really wants to help Marty write the script, and he is not a fan of the idea. “The means by which he goes about trying to help him is just a little bit extreme,” Farrell explains.
“He gets a little carried away in the process,” Rockwell says of Billy’s unhealthy loyalty to Marty. “It’s an odd co-dependence balanced with a lot of love and forgiveness, and don’t forget anger, too.”
“I guess I share Colin Farrell’s character’s feelings towards psychopaths and violent people in film,” McDonagh says. “I know how cinematic they are and how interesting films can be with them, but [I] question the morality of only having films about guys with guns.”
So to lighten it up a bit, the writer and director inserted a comedic flair by incorporating dognapping into the story. Billy abducts dogs, passing them off to Hans – a scene-stealing, brilliantly funny performance by Oscar® winner Christopher Walken – who then “finds” the dog, returning it to the owner who unsuspectingly hands over reward money.
“I don’t think of Hans as a psychopath,” Walken observes. But his backstory, which the movie explores, might make audiences think otherwise. In the present, he’s a loyal husband to an ill wife, the reward money helping pay medical costs.
“This was always a black comedy on the page, but I think it’s almost come out, probably because of the actors, as even more outrageously funny than originally planned,” McDonagh says. And where Walken is involved, that’s certainly true, if nothing else because of his unique delivery and cadence.
“The words never change,,” McDonagh explains of Walken’s approach. “You can never dream that a line or a word, even, could be pounced in that way – like ‘hallucinogens’ – 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 the play and after this, I can’t imagine any other way to say those lines; ‘hallucinogens’ is not funny on the page, but [the way he says it] is funny. It’s crazy, and he’s the only one in the world, really, who can do that.”
“Hal-oo-sin-o-gins … is the correct pronunciation,” Walken clarifies. “You just have to have been an adult in the ‘70s.”
And then there’s the scene that is classic Walken when he’s approached by some guys with guns.
“I’ve learned the trick,” McDonagh claims. “Next time, if I want him to ask a question, I won’t put a question mark there, because he’s going to do the opposite of everything. And if I don’t want it to be a question, I will put a question mark.”
Nevermind the punctuation, it was the words on the page that really got the 69-year-old’s attention.
“Whenever you read a script that has big chunks of intelligent and juicy dialogue, that’s pretty unusual.
I have a lot of trouble with scripts…imagining what it is by reading it,” he admits, adding he was surprised by McDonagh’s story. “Obviously, it was a terrific script.”
“He’s amazing,” Rockwell agrees. “He’s a fucking great writer; he’s really up there.” It’s something Rockwell and Walken experienced a few years ago when they starred in a play written by McDonagh, A Behanding in Spokane and Farrell knew from his time starring in McDonagh’s first feature, In Bruges, which landed Farrell a Golden Globe® for Best Actor – Comedy of Musical.
And while McDonagh admits he’s long been a fan of all the actors in his movie, he says he’s especially partial to Rockwell. “Sometimes I write with Sam’s voice in my head because I love him as an actor, and I love the way he can go from comedy to darkness on a dime.”
“I am going to be honest…I have psychopathic moments every day,“ Rockwell says. “We all have the potential to be psychos. We just make choices not to act on it.”
Not the case with Billy, though, whose judgment is always the slightest bit off, adding a certain amount of unpredictability to the dog-napping that really gets them in trouble.
Snagging a Shih Tzu from a park, little do the guys know little Bonny belongs Los Angeles gangster Charlie Castillo, played by Woody Harrelson. Brandishing a blue, skull-adorned gun that constantly malfunctions, Charlie is a man of little patience. “[There] is a sense of violence that is always rumbling underneath and is easily exposed,” Harrelson explains. “Charlie feels like he’s the smartest person in the room.”
For all the tension of the script, Harrelson was all smiles getting to work with actor in particular. ”I was telling my friends before I stared working with [Christopher Walken], ‘I am so giddy and excited to do a scene with him,’” Harrelson excitedly declared. ”I just was in Heaven. He’s a fucking legend.”
What Charlie and his henchmen don’t realize is that, for all of their criminal wit and volatile behavior, Marty, Billy and Hans match them in erratic and clever “psycho babble,” setting up for one ridiculously funny and exciting climax following one psychotic journey.
Farrell sums it up well. “It slaps you in the face, gives you a kick in the arse and takes you on a wonderful ride.”
A ride complete with one adorable Shih Tzu (“Bonny, the dog, was lovely,” McDonagh says. “She was quiet as a mouse, there was never a peep out of her; it was like she was on marijuana or something, which made two cast members. Kidding!”) and 52 rabbits.
“I never saw a movie with a lot of rabbits in it, and I thought, ‘What a great idea to put rabbits into a scene.’ You wouldn’t have to explain anything…if this room was filled with rabbits right now and nobody ever mentioned it, it would be very interesting.”
Seven Psychopaths is rated R, running 109 minutes, and also stars Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and a few great cameos.