Martin McDonagh: “Most men in the film business are illiterate pricks”

As leading award contender Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri takes home four awards at the 75th Golden Globes we speak to writer and director Martin McDonagh about the acclaimed drama and why older female leads are so rare

One of this year’s leading Oscar contenders and winner of four Golden Globes is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which is about three billboards posted outside the small (fictional) town of Ebbing in Missouri. While billboards don’t often get top billing in acclaimed dramas, they get able support in this from force of nature Frances McDormand, as well as Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, who star in the twisted tale of a crime that comes with lots of punishment, but not necessarily for the right people.

The film is a microcosm of the toxic relationship between law breakers and enforcers which defines the uniquely disunited United States of America, and is written and directed by British/Irish Martin McDonagh, the mind behind the blackly comic and violent In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

The Big Issue: Could Three Billboards be set in a different country or does America have a particularly peculiar relationship with violence and
the police?

MM: I think this story always had to have a small-town American backdrop, and the dimension of police violence in the story meant it needed to be set there. The conversation would’ve been a lot different if it had been set here, or in Europe.

What is the conversation the film is having?

The story is a war between two people who are both to some degree in the right, and that’s where so much of the tension and drama arises. Where do you go when
you’re in a place of loss and anger that’s dead-ended? What can you do, constructive or destructive, to shake things up and get something done? What happens when there might not be any hope in a situation, but you decide you’re going to keep making waves until hope arrives? That’s why this feels different from most crime films; there’s the lingering question of ‘what if there is no solution to this crime?’.

Your films are quite violent. Is violence funny?

I try not to use violence as something funny. It can be dramatic, and it can be cinematic, but unless there’s some kind of moral dimension involved, I think it’s pretty empty on its own terms.

Your films are quite sweary. Are swear words an underrated part of the English vocabulary?

I actually don’t really think of them as swear words. They’re more like punctuation.

Do Americans know how to swear properly?

I grew up on all those early Scorsese/De Niro films, so I think they know how to swear all right.

The film industry isn’t great at equal representation (among many other things). Why are older female lead roles such a rarity? 

I think, basically, it’s because there are so many men in power in the film business, and most of them are illiterate pricks.

Is it a problem behind the scenes as well; women not having the opportunity to write and tell their own stories?

I think that’s a large part of it. Although I do think that writing is one of the few aspects of filmmaking that anyone can do – you don’t need training, you can do it at home, you shouldn’t have to deal with arseholes, at least not at an early stage. So I think, or I hope, that there are more opportunities for film writing than one might at first think.

For years now there have been rumours of you writing a “creepy, grim fairytale” of a stage musical with Tom Waits. Please tell us this will happen.

Sadly I don’t think that’s going to happen as a musical, although the basic creepy story might find a stage very soon…

Is this a good time to have both a British and Irish passport?

It’s a great time to have an IRISH passport! I’d encourage everyone to get one! Might mean we’ll actually have a good football team in about 20 years’ time.

Stay tuned for Edward Lawrenson’s review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri