Monday, August 4, 2014

Interview: "Calvary" Writer-Director John Michael McDonagh on Good Priests, Integrity, and H.P. Lovecraft

I had the opportunity for a round-table interview which, as it turns out, only consisted of me and Methodist pastor Kenny Dickson speaking with John Michael McDonagh about his new film Calvary (my review here).

McDonagh is engaging and thoughtful in conversation and punctuated our questions intently with "Yes." "Yes." "Yes." as we proceeded. This had the dual effect of ratcheting up the energy level and turning it from a staid interview into a lively conversation.

I had no idea an interview could be so much fun.

Please note, this interview contains spoilers.


Julie D.: When I left your movie there was a quote that kept rolling around in my head. I'd like to read a little of it.
The Church is always God hung between two thieves. Thus, no one should be surprised or shocked at how badly the church has betrayed the gospel and how much it continues to do so today. It had never done very well. Conversely, however, nobody should deny the good the church has done either. It has carried grace, produced saints, morally challenged the planet, and made, however imperfectly, a house for God to dwell in on this earth. (Ronald Rolheiser)
McDonagh: Yes, well that's just it, isn't it. We're left with that fallout and I kept wondering how it affected the good men who are still carrying on. What is it that the priest has to deal with, where people won't trust him even when he's trying to do the best for them.

Where he can be judged just by the uniform he wears. Like when he [Brendan Gleeson] has the scene with the girl in the country lane. Although you could say, you know, it's reached a place now in the world that a man talking to a girl on a country lane would be seen as just bad. But, you know, you can see the priest coming from a long way off now, so it's a courageous thing to do now in the priesthood.

Maybe that's why it's declining in numbers because people who have that kind of impetus to help their community are looking at other forms of social work or social areas to get into, because they don't want to be judged in that way, you know.

Dickson: Because of the baggage.

McDonagh: Yes, exactly.

Dickson: I was going to tell you that I'm a Methodist minister. That's my day job and my passion as a film student is connecting issues of life and faith as portrayed or reflected in film to people of faith. And I usually prefer secular films or not-faith-films because I think there's a better resonance with true life and again with these issues of faith. 

But what I just wanted to compliment you on is this is probably one of the top one or two accurate portrayals of being clergy. In terms of not only bearing the burden of walking people through difficult times in life but, as Father James was, carrying the baggage of, in his case the Catholic Church, in my case ministering to people who want the Word preached and who proclaim faith but who then profane that faith because they don't want to live up to the Word. And so when we preach a prophetic sermon we get pushed back, we get slammed, and that is just burdensome.

McDonagh: Brendan summed up the attitude of those villagers is that they just want to destroy the priest but they actually don't want him to be destroyed because if he is destroyed, if he does cave in, they have kind of destroyed the last little hopeful spark in themselves. So what other kind of iconic figure will they have if he's gone.

Which is kind of the reason for - spoilers - but, you know the montage sequence at the end is all these people are going to have to deal with the aftermath of what's happened at the conclusion. We don't know, they may be better people after it or they may be worse; you know, we're not sure.

Dylan Moran's character, the rich guy, for all of his bluster and all of his talk about how much money he's got and everything and how confrontational he is, he is one of the few characters at the end of the movie who is sincerely asking for help. So he has actually gone through a spiritual journey in a way. He's not fully there because we're not quite sure is he sincere or not. I think he is because he's at such a low ebb. So he's there at the end in the montage, he's got his pen, he's got his watch, you know, but behind him is the shotgun. So which way is he gonna go?

I guess people ultimately have to save themselves in a way. So the aftermath is will these characters save themselves or won't they? But then that would lead to twelve sequels and you'd have twelve more movies. (laughing)

Julie D.: But you also have those two core things to me, one of which was integrity. I loved the way you put those two priests together. The one guy, he wasn't a bad priest, he just didn't get it. And then the other thing ...

McDonagh: Yeah exactly. Sorry, just a second, but the whole line of "I don't hate you. You just have no integrity and that's one of the worst things I could say about anyone." I had that as a dialogue note before I even started ... that the priest was gonna say that at some point and that led to, ok, say it now. Sorry to interrupt.

Julie D.: No, no, that's fine because that was key and that went with Father James' conversation with his daughter where she says, "I belong to myself and not to anyone else." And he says, "True. False." Because that goes back to integrity from other people can help change us but we have to be willing to change and everything we do has ripples. 

McDonagh: Well it's also interesting that you picked that up because initially his response was just, "True." And Brendan says, "I don't think he would say that. He'd give the other option as well that it's false. Yeah, some of it's true but a lot of it's false. There's no easy answer."

I thought, "Yeah, that's a good line of dialogue." (laughs) Don't tell anyone Brendan wrote that. You know when actors come up with lines of dialogue, improvisations, then they go off and tell other actors they cowrote the movie.

Julie D.: If you'd have just left it at "True." I'd have gone no, no.

Dickson: Can I ask you a couple of things. At the end when he decides to go back and he's walking up the stair and he looks and he sees the casket, what in your mind led him back? Why did he go back?

McDonagh: I think there's two things going on in that scene. Just before it, when he meets Marie-Josée Croze who's the French widow she is the one other person in the movie whose faith is as strong as his.  And yes her husband dies but she talks about how she had a good life with her husband, she feels sad for the people who have no love in their lives at all. That's the tragedy.

So obviously, he's fleeing at that point. I guess everyone however brave they think they are, now he knows they'll go through with their threat after burning the church down, that you have a moment of physical cowardice. So it's physical cowardice is why he's there. Then it's her line about "Sometimes you think you can't go on. But I will go on." And then he goes up the steps and they're waiting.

Now there's two ways you can look at this. I mean they're baggage handlers. They're dealing with baggage every day I guess and they often probably have to deal with coffins. You know, are they really bad people, those two guys leaning on the coffin? It's a job to them. They're probably not thinking about the guy. I guess the guy leaning on it doesn't mean to be disrespectful. He's just not thinking enough. And this is the argument the priest has with the naive priest, "You're not thinking about anything. You haven't thought through anything. It's all superficial."

And I guess when he's on there and he's looking down, he must assume if Marie-Josée has such great faith that her husband probably did too. And now he's dead. He's in a coffin. But does that mean he has to be treated in a disrespectful way or ignored? It doesn't. His life, the husband's life goes on in his wife. And there's a lot of complicated things going on but to me that's what makes him go, "Ok, these people's faith is so strong. Mine should be as strong as theirs. And I've had a moment of weakness but now I'll go back. "

And then to me the ending of the movie is - again spoilers - but what's happened to him on the beach leads on to the moment of grace with Kelly Reilly where all of his faith is now in her so he still goes on in her. Whatever arguments they had going on in the movie were kind of resolved and so she has taken on the mantle of all his teachings.

Dickson: He's living in her just like the husband was living in his widow.

McDonagh: Yes. So however somber the movie obviously appears to be, it does end with what I think is a moment of grace. That final shot of her face.

Julie D.: Also, if I might add, I think if he hadn't gone back we don't know what that other character might have done. The fact that once he's shot, he's not detached anymore as you said last night at the Q&A, Father James never takes his eyes off him.

McDonagh: No.

Julie D.: Of course he doesn't want to get shot, but Father James cares about him. He is present to him and that's his moment of grace living on in this other character too, I think. He [the murderer] really felt touched by Father James so much that he would even listen to the daughter. And that's the other path of grace that God gives through this guy, going on.

McDonagh: Yes. And he can see the suffering in that man's face but he's still saying, "It's not too late."

Julie D.: Right. He's not saying, "Don't shoot me." He's saying, "Save yourself."

McDonagh: Yes. Which goes right back to the thief on the cross, you know. He's on the cross but he still redeems himself because it's never too late.

He also earlier goes to see Veronica on the beach, where he says to her ... and what we have to remember is that's soon after the church is burned, so he's gone to see the wife of the man he thinks has done it. That's kind of the hidden subtext in the film. And he says to her, "No one is a lost cause." Because in my mind it was always, "Does she know? How much does she know?"

So saying, "No one is a lost cause" means "Will you help me? Will you speak to him? Is there some way we can resolve this?"

So "no one is a lost cause" and "It's not too late" ... that's Father James's message I guess, right up to the end.

Dickson: And also one other question on the very end, where he sees the writer for the last time and the writer uses his name and says, "Goodbye James." 

McDonagh: It's funny because it's only used twice. I think the bishop who's kind of a facile character calls him James as well. That kind of came out of ... in an original draft, M. Emmet Walsh was also a confrontational character and Brendan said, "Can there not just be one person in town who gets along with me?" And I thought, "Yes, that's true. And so let's give them a final moment." Because that character's been cantankerous but we know how they kind of respect one another. So let's give them that dialogue, that moment of connection where he calls him by his name.

So you're always trying to find those little moments in movies where the audience can watch the film again and see another nuance that they missed. That's what I'm always trying to put in. It's not that there's lots of hidden moments but just nuances that once you've seen the film and realize how it's played out you can then watch it again and see other subtext going on.

Julie D.: I just want to ask one question before they make me leave. Who picked H.P. Lovecraft?

McDonagh: Me! (laughs)

Julie D.: That was brilliant! I have to say at that point in the movie I was sitting there going, "These characters are all so quirky and pointed that they're not real people." I felt as if I was in a morality play or a passion play at that point and I was thinking, "Hieronymus Bosch? No, it's not weird enough for him." And then I saw the cover of that book and I read a lot of weird fiction and I went, "I know that!" And so I missed most of the conversation in that scene because I was trying to see the author.

McDonagh: The book is Dreams in the Witch House and the cover has a woman lying down with a homunculus on her chest. I think they used to do it to represent nightmares in those old books.

Julie D.: Those demons in dreams.

McDonagh: Yeah, that demon on her chest which to me there's a demon in her emotional outlook in a way. That's a signifier for that.

It was also that I wanted to suggest that she's her father's daughter. They're both very literate, erudite people. They have very literate, philosophical conversations all the time. There were little bits and pieces in it which I cut because I thought it was a bit too much, an early scene in the bar where they both quote the Dorothy Parker poem about suicide, "Nooses give, you might as well live." I thought that was going a little bit too far.

But there is a very literary, erudite relationship. Because he's reading a book, she's reading a book. I like those little bits of character building.

Julie D: Well, and also the way that Lovecraft looked at the world was there is no God here and those eldritch gods in space who we only exist for them to consume.

McDonagh: Yes, the darkness controls the world.

Julie D: And I went, "Wow. This is like you took this Lovecraftian world and then you dropped a good priest into it." And I went, "Oh holy moly. What a parallel for this world with people who don't believe in anything." You blew my mind.

McDonagh: Yes and I guess if you talk about aliens it's almost as if Brendan's like Sigorney Weaver in Aliens battling all the creatures coming to try to kill him. Yeah, yeah, the cosmos of darkness that surrounds this lone, good man.

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