Interview with John Michael McDonagh, writer-director of The Forgiven

Writer-director John Michael McDonagh was on hand at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss his latest film The Forgiven.

After making his name with smart, violent and darkly funny films like The Guard in 2011 and weighty, Calvary and War on Everyone, writer-director John Michael McDonagh is back with another thriller laced with interesting ideas and deliciously dark humour.

Unlike his previous efforts, The Forgiven doesn’t come from one of McDonagh’s original scripts. Instead it is based on the novel of the same name by British writer Lawrence Osborne, and centres on a wealthy, unhappily married couple’s trip to Morocco to attend a lavish party thrown by their louche friend. En route to the party, the couple are involved in a tragic accident that sets them on a collision course with the local community.

With a cast led by Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain, as well as Matt Smith, Caleb Landry Jones, Christopher Abbott and Said Taghmaoui, The Forgiven is a weighty globetrotting thriller with a dark sense of humour and excellent performances. McDonagh was on hand at the Edinburgh International Film Festival last month to discuss the genesis of the film, shooting in exotic locations and the breakdown of his relationship with regular collaborator Brendan Gleeson.

The film is based on Lawrence Osborne’s novel. How did you come across that novel and at what point did it become something you wanted to adapt?

Well I read quite voraciously and I’m always looking for a literary thriller, and Lawrence writes in that genre. There’s a lot of crappy thrillers and a lot of high falutin, Booker Prize type books, and there’s not a lot in between that fills that remit, but Lawrence does. And I’m always looking to shoot in warm locations. I made the last two in Ireland, in October, which isn’t the best time to shoot in Ireland, so the location appealed to me.

In the book, the accident happens very quickly so I was immediately gripped and I didn’t know where it was going to go. I also just liked the way he creates unsympathetic characters, I find that quite interesting. It’s not the run of the mill heroic parts. The balance between the male and female characters is good, so I thought if I do this right I can probably get two big A-list actors. The only difference in the book was this subplot where you see the boy that gets killed, Dris, there’s a whole flashback to him living in Spain as a refugee so I just immediately dispensed with that. It’s the kind of thing that if we’d shot it, we’d have cut it anyway.

What is it about this film that made you want to adapt something, rather than write your own original story?

I’ve written all the original scripts I’m gong to write now. I’ve got a big budget thing called The Bono Gang that’s still in play. I’m going to do the third part of The Guard, Calvary trilogy, that’s already written. If you’ve got the book in front of you, you get up in the morning and it’s there. Obviously you need to structure it and what have you, but you’re not facing a blank page. Audiences and critics don’t care anymore, they only care if they like the film or not, if they enjoy the plot and enjoy the actors. So if nobody cares, I thought, why go to all that extra effort?

The next film, we’re going to be doing in Australia, that’s based on a book as well, so anything that comes from me in the future that’s from an original screenplay is already in the bank.

You mentioned cutting out Dris’s backstory when you were adapting. How was that process? Was it difficult trying to cut down the book?

That was such a compartmentalized part of the book so when I was reading it, I thought immediately we could cut it and it would have no ramifications throughout the plot. That’s the kind of thing, once you’ve made a few films, you read the material and start to visualize it and see what you need and don’t need. Then of course once you’ve shot the film, you’re in that process again with the editing. Do we need this or not? Sometimes you don’t realise until you’re looking at it. Though in the end there wasn’t a lot that was cut, only two or three scenes in the end. Lizzy [Elizabeth Eves, the film’s editor and producer, and McDonagh’s wife] edited it, we edited it together. We were in Australia and the film got shut down with five days left to shoot so we started editing the film, so when I went back for the last five days, I knew what I had already got and knew the stuff I would need.

So the project was almost finished when the pandemic hit? What was that like?

It was when they cancelled the Premier League, that’s when we realized this was in trouble! That was the Friday and we were gone by the Monday, we were told to leave by the government. There were a couple guys on a different shoot, for a Netflix film, and they took it for granted that they could fly out when they wanted, but the Moroccans shut everything down and they were stuck there. That’s almost a film in itself, this fish out of water story.

I’m surprised there’s not more films like that to come out of the covid era.

Yeah, I was wondering at the time what people were going to do, are they going to continue to film but people are wearing masks? Are they going to refer to covid or are they just going to ignore it? It seems we’re at a stage where people are just pretending it was all a bad dream and no-one’s going to refer to it, which is probably the best way.

The tone of this film is quite specific and is laced with a lot of dark humour, which is something that runs through all of your films. Was that something you added or was it already present in the novel?

It’s already there in Lawrence’s stuff but I extended a lot of it within the scenes. There’s the stuff where Ralph Fiennes’s character starts raging about all the gay writers who have come to North Africa, all that sort of stuff. That’s me extending references that were already there and making it worse, really. I did tap into that black comedy, especially with that character. Then a lot of the dialogue set pieces between Jessica (Chastain) and Christopher Abbott, that would be a lot of my back and forth dialogue, repartee or what have you. A lot of the stuff with Ismael Kanater and Said Taghmaoui was more or less close to the book, but with the western characters, there was more room to play around.

I loved the scene when the fireworks went off as the body is being taken away.

See, that’s in the book but it’s  only referenced in passing. It’s not that the fireworks go off as they’re carrying the body to the car. What I love about that – I don’t know if people think it’s CGI or what – but it’s all for real. That’s why I had the actors around the pool filming with their camera, so people can know it’s happening for real. But that’s a good example of something that Lawrence mentions in passing that I open out into a whole visual sequence.

It’s just the most absurd amount of fireworks for that particular moment.

Right? And the fact that Matt Smith’s character has completely forgotten.

Matt Smith is fantastic in the film, as is the whole cast. How did that cast come together, were people chosen specifically for their roles?

Ralph was picked. I imagined Ralph immediately, so we sent it to him and he said yes within three weeks, but then he had Bond and The Kingsman. So it was a strange situation where he was attached immediately but then we had to wait 18 months. Jessica was somebody that he had always wanted to work with again – I think he gave her her first film role on Coriolanus – and there’s a line in the script where Christopher Abbott says, “we should get you out the sun before you start to bleed”, which made me think it should be a red head, someone who was really oppressed by the sun. Ralph got in touch with her and said there’s a script coming, and she attached herself, it wasn’t a very long, drawn out process.

Matt’s role was quite difficult to cast, there were a lot of people dropping in and dropping out for a good while, lots of people not available. Matt might’ve been not available early on, then he became available and we got him in with three weeks left before shooting. It’s a bit late. There’s an Irish comedian in it, David McSavage, who I knew, I’d cast him in Calvary. Caleb I’d worked with before on War With Everyone, so he came in straight away. Apart from Matt’s role, it wasn’t that difficult. Then we had a great Morroccan casting person. We got all of those Morroccan actors very fast. I’d already met Said in Paris because I wanted him for the role but then all the others are complete unknowns, but they were great, really good casting.

The actor who played Dris’s father was incredible.

Ismael Kanater. Apparently he’s the Al Pacino of Morocco! Very calm man, not like the character he plays at all. And a great face, for that head to head with Ralph later on.

He doesn’t have much dialogue either so it’s all in the face.

It’s all these tiny facial movements. When the fireworks go off, he has this tiny little twitch in his mouth which says it all.

You mentioned in the Q&A at the film’s premiere that you had to stop Caleb Landry Jones from adlibbing his dialogue.

He’s one of these American actors who seems to think that even though I’ve lived with the script for two years, he can just step onto set and start playing around with the dialogue. Sometimes I’ll let him do it and sometimes I’ll make him stick to the dialogue. There was one point, during the dinner sequence, I was down by the monitor and I said to the first AD to tell Caleb no more adlibs. So I’m watching on the monitor and I see the AD go up to him and tell him, “John said no more adlibs”. So Caleb looked right down the camera and winked! (laughing)

So there’s lots of different acting styles on the film. Jessica and Ralph are classically trained. Matt Smith was going to be a footballer before he got injured. Caleb was a child actor. I think the Moroccans, I don’t know about Said, but they were classically trained. Ismael came out of the theatre. So it was all pretty smooth really. Even telling Caleb to stop adlibbing was just a bit of fun. Have you seen Nitram? It’s great, it’s probably one of his best performances. He’s really great in The Outpost as well, if you’ve seen that.

You mentioned Netflix earlier. How do you feel about the current state of distribution and streaming?  

We’re independent filmmakers, so we take the financing wherever we can get it, especially for difficult projects. If the only finance you can get is from a streaming, then you’re going to take it. Fortunately, it looks like the next one we’ve got set up is going theatrical but then you never know what the landscape’s going to be. It feels already that this type of film is something that won’t play in multiplexes anymore, you know?

It seems like the kind of film that would go straight to streaming or just be a TV show, so it is good to see something like that make it to cinemas. How does the festival roll out work for you? This film screened at TIFF previously.

It’s good for press, I guess. I used to go to LFF quite a lot, you just don’t get a lot of time to see the films that are on, you’re just coming in, doing interviews and getting out again. I don’t like doing red carpets and all that stuff, getting your picture taken and all that bullshit. Especially the last time, for War on Everyone, I lost two and a half stone for the red carpet. This time I thought fuck it, I’m not doing that again! No-one’s going to be looking at my picture anyway.

You mentioned The Guard and Calvary as being part of a trilogy. What is the next film about?

The third one is called The Lame Shall Enter First, it’s about an ex intelligence officer, terrorism officer. In a big set piece opening, he tries to stop a terrorist attack and he gets shot in the back and ends up in a wheelchair for the rest of the film. He becomes a sort of disgruntled guy, drinking and drugging, and he only associates with other disabled people. It’s a very dark comedy. One of his friends gets murdered so he takes it upon himself to solve the murder and it all goes tits up. There are some good set pieces in it, and we’re going to be looking for a disabled actor for the lead. There’s a lot of discussion around diversity but it doesn’t often include disabled actors. So whether I’ll find the finance or not, we’ll see how deep the commitment to diversity actually goes.

Is it the case where you may have to pack the rest of the cast out with big names?

Yeah, we’ll try to get some A-list names in the supporting roles to try to help, yeah.

Will Brendan Gleeson be in there somewhere?

No, no he won’t be. (laughs) I think me and Brendan have parted ways. He’s in my brother’s film though so he’s got one McDonagh he can work with.

It feels like there’s a story there.

There is, but not for today! (laughs)

I was going to ask how that experience was working with him on those films…

It was a good experience filming. It was personal stuff that came up afterwards that was the disappointing aspect of the relationship but as an actor he was fine, very professional.

Ok, no more on that subject! So as well as that film, what else do you have on the slate?

The one that’s based on a book is called Fear is the Rider, from the same author who wrote Wake in Fright (Kenneth Cook). It’s a chase thriller in the outback, but there are other levels going on. It’ll be a similar budget, $7-8 million, and it’s Abbey Lee and Christopher Abbott, who are both in The Forgiven. And it’s another nice location.

Christopher Abbot is a brilliant actor.

He was great in the film. We had a kind of a hidden agenda within the film, we talked about it, where we thought what if everything Tom (Abbott’s character) says is a lie? So he’s not a financial analyst. There’s a bit right at the end where him and Caleb have a little goodbye thing – there’s a part of the film where Ralph refers to Caleb as a rent boy – so there’s the implication that the two of them may have known each other as rent boys together. That Christopher Abbott just travels the world sleeping with both sexes in glamorous locations. What makes me laugh is that Jessica receives his card in the film and is impressed by it, but you can get those cards anywhere, a hundred of them for a fiver! That’s why when she makes a remark about being a financial analyst, he laughs.

But he’s a brilliant actor. He’s finally caved in and is doing a Marvel movie, he’s in Kraven the Hunter. It’s JC Chandor, who he worked with on the film with Jessica and Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year).

He’s kind of been blazing a trail in indie film in recent years so it’s good to see him breaking out.

He did a great one, James White. That was really good. It Comes At Night. Black Bear. He was sort of the kind of the indies. I haven’t seen it yet, hasn’t been released yet but On the Count of Three, the Jerrod Carmichael film. So his profile is rising.