Interview with Calvary writer-director John Michael McDonagh

John Michael McDonagh
  • John Michael McDonagh

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Calvary 4.0

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Matthew Lickona: The man calls Father James a good priest. What makes him a good priest, to you?

John Michael McDonagh: I think he’s completely sincere. He makes suggestions, let’s say, that are based on him as a human being rather than being an organized member of the Church. You know when he suggests to the man who hasn’t had relations with women that maybe he should read pornography. Most priests aren’t going to suggest that, but Father is acting as a human being who is trying to come up with solutions that are based on real life, not on tenets that have been handed down and that you’re supposed to go along with. So, I think it’s that. He’s responding as a human being, rather than as a cog in a machine.

ML: I once had an Irish priest come to my house for dinner when I was a kid. My mother asked him why he became a priest — I think she was hoping I would follow in his footsteps. He said, “Well, I wanted to keep going to school, didn’t I?” which I don’t think was quite the answer she was after.

JMM: Well, I think that, specifically in Ireland, a lot of those young men did enter the priesthood because of the learning opportunities. I mean, it’s hard to believe that now, but I guess that’s what they did,

ML: But that wasn’t the case for Father James.

JMM: Well, I think Father James is different from a lot of priests, in that he had a whole other life before he became a priest. In my secondary school in London, I was puzzled to find out that the headmaster was someone who was formerly married; his wife had died. It just stuck in my mind; I always thought that was quite interesting and original.

But it also means I think that the priest is more able to comment with authority on moral issues. He’s somebody who has lived a full life. If he’s, say, mediating between a warring couple, he can actually speak about marriage and sex and everything else. I mean, most priests obviously can’t, and yet they do. Why have they got that authority to talk about something they don’t know anything about? Father James has it. But also, he struggled with alcoholism. So, he’s suffered, and he’s battled, and he’s not an entirely saintlike person. But he’s trying to be. Those were the elements I was trying to get across to make him a different representation of a priest than we’ve seen in cinema before.

ML: When you were coming up with the character, did you come up with his reason for why he decided to become a priest?

JMM: I just had in the back of my mind that it was something to do with watching the suffering of his wife for a long, long time. The daughter refers to it. She says, “It was certainly a long goodbye if ever there was one.” And it’s something to do with watching that kind of suffering, and I think probably wanting to help other people who are suffering. I guess that was what was going on in my subconscious. I mean, a lot of the time, I write lines of dialogue, and I write scenes, and it’s only later on when I look back and start to analyze them that I start to realize what I was intending. Sometimes, I watch the movie, and I only get what I was intending months later.

ML: A few times while watching this, I thought to myself, How on earth does he know the life of the priest as well as he does? How did you get in there as far as you did?

JMM: Well, I was an altar boy until I was 11 or 12. I was told that you were given money if you served at weddings, which I got the first couple of times: some money off the best man. But after I did three weddings in a row and I got paid no money, that’s when I stopped being an altar boy. So, it was completely mercenary on my part. I guess you could say I’ve been backstage, though. The scene early on where Father is with the little boy and he’s taking off his vestments and putting away the wine and all that kind of stuff, I’d seen all that. And it is like being backstage at a play, because they’re getting ready for a performance when they put on all those vestments, you could say. And my brother, he was a choirboy, and actually sang before the Pope. But apart from that, I think what you find is this: if you write a scene that is artistically true, then, generally speaking, all the details are true as well. So, that’s why I’m never very keen on research. I always find that the research will take care of itself. Or maybe I’m just completely lazy.

ML: You’re writing about subject matter that can easily go to the lurid, and I was impressed with how you managed to keep it from going there. Could you talk about how you controlled the tone?

JMM: Yeah, I think I get into [the grisly details] verbally, but there are never any kind of visual representations of any kind of abuse. To me, to tell the story straightforwardly, head on, properly, you’re basically telling a horror story. You’re making a horror movie, and I didn’t want to make a horror movie. If other people do, that’s fine. I always try to approach things obliquely, and I feel like there’s always going to be humor in whatever I write, however dark the subject matter, because I think that’s what life is. It’s both the comic and the tragic.

When I sit down to write, I don’t censor myself in any way. I write very quickly and I go straight through, and I don’t analyze what I’ve written too much. And so, whatever tone I have just comes out of my own personality. It’s not something that I’ve learned, unless you can say you learn something from every great writer you’ve ever read.

It’ll be later on, in the editing process, where I’m looking at the film and saying, “There’s been three really somber scenes in a row, let’s shift them around and put a lighter scene in between.” And I knew that the script was episodic in nature, and wasn’t completely relying on plot mechanics, so I could shift scenes around. I knew that in the writing. So, I knew I had a certain amount of leeway to do that in the editing.

ML: I was really taken with that episodic structure.

JMM: I kind of see myself as a failed novelist. I used to write novels, and they were never published. And I think both The Guard and Calvary have a kind of novelistic quality. There’s always lots of characters...possibly too many. And they’re always quite dense and quite rich. I’m trying to write characters where you feel you could follow them into their own movie. They’re not just a supporting cast. They have their own stories. And I think that leads to an episodic feeling, rather than a smoothly flowing narrative. But that’s something I like.

ML: I never forgot this quote I once read from James Joyce: “O Ireland, my first and only love/ Where Christ and Caesar are ever hand in glove.” Watching this film, it looks like the hand is out of the glove. The priest has lost the status that he had, the control that he had just in virtue of his office. Would you say that’s the case in Ireland now?

JMM: Yeah, I guess. The film is about a small town in Ireland, but it was trying to be kind of universal about human beings and any place that has dealt with all those scandals, whether clerical scandals, or financial scandals, or whatever. But I think that particularly in Ireland, the Church had a very big hand in the actions of the State. So I think when the Church comes down, as it kind of has, it kind of in a way brings the State down with it. And also, if you look at the collusion of the police force in a lot of those scandals as well. So, it feels like, certainly in Ireland — and you could say other places, like Spain or Greece or whatever — the whole system of authority has come down. I don’t think it’s just the Church. I think people are very angry about what’s happened over the last 20 years.

As regards Ireland specifically, just to give an anecdotal thing, my father is 76. He used to go to Mass every week of his life. But when those scandals first started coming out, he stopped going. He hasn’t been to Mass in about ten years. And I think that’s endemic throughout the country.

ML: And those are people who have been going their whole lives.

JMM: Exactly. Which is quite terrible, when you think about it.

[NOTE: The following exchange contains a mild spoiler.]

ML: For me, the central mystery of the film is why Father doesn’t say anything to the man who promises to kill him. The bishop tells Father the threat is free from the seal of the confessional...

JMM: ...and the priest still doesn’t say anything. To me, he wants to save the man’s soul. So, if he just informs the police, how is that helping the guy?

ML: But he also decides to confront him.

JMM: To me, even though the bishop has explained that the seal doesn’t apply, I think, if he did that, the killer would say, “See? You don’t go along with any of the tenets of the Church, just like all the other priests.” So, he doesn’t want to behave in that way.

It’s also — there’s also those references to suicidal actions as well. That Christ was a suicide and all that. You could go into that: does he want to pay for the sins of the Church? Does he want to sacrifice himself? Does he think somebody has to die? So, there’s all that roiling around in Father’s mind.

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