Event Review: Q&A with Calvary director John Michael McDonagh and star Brendan Gleeson

8 April 2014
BFI Southbank


Director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendan Gleeson were at the BFI recently to discuss their latest film Calvary, which sees Gleeson's character - Father James - facing assassination at the hands of  someone in his small Ireland parish. The following is an edited version of the conversation with the director, star, and interviewer Danny Leigh. Read the review of the actual film on this site here.


The ending could well be seen as very negative. Was it always going to be that way?

JMMD: At the end of the movie there is about 60 second of silence, which is not done that often. When I first wrote the script actually I thought it was a lot funnier, but then it became clear as we rehearsed it and made the film that it is in fact quite sombre and brutal. So I figured, ‘lets do a really sombre and brutal ending, but then cut back in after 60 seconds of silence with a song’.  As for the landscape shots in the end credits, if you look at it, you can see it is a landscape that doesn’t care, there are no human beings in it. So it is a negative ending if you look at it that way.
I didn't want to do The Guard 2.  I was trying to do the opposite of that, being funny up to a point. I guess that when you bring a group of talented actors in, they go deeper into the roles, so it can become a more melancholy piece. 
I was surprised at festival screenings though how the laughs continue past the halfway mark where I thought they would end. I guess it is because there are so many dark scenes, people need relief, they need to laugh, to have some sense of hope. Personally I think the film does end with some sense of hope. 

Father James is a flawed man, but it occurred to me whilst watching Calvary that we don't see an awful lot of good men like him on screen. We see a lot of movie heroes, but not quite the same thing.

JMMD: Well that was the original impetus. Brendan and I had finished shooting The Guard in Galway, and we were in a pub after lock in; a lot of booze seems to be about on these shoots. We were there with Don Cheadle, he was drinking too, Guinness. I remember saying how I thought that there were likely to be a lot of films made about bad priests, but I would like to make a film about a good one. And Brendan said that he’d always wanted to make a film about a ‘good man’. I was interested as ‘good people’ aren't always the driving force in a movie, you expect an antihero to drive the film forwards. Or, as in the movie blockbusters coming out in summer; a movie villain who makes the hero react. My solution was to have the good man here respond to all the dark things in the town. 
What I also found interesting about the character of Father James is that he did not enter the seminary at age sixteen. He had a wife and he has a daughter, though the wife died. When he goes to see the younger killer character played by Domhall Gleeson later in the film, the subtext is that he was once his teacher. He only became a priest midway through life after a crisis. So it results in him not being a patronising person. He is genuinely sincere, he has integrity. The characters in the town respond in a particular way, they are trying to crush him, they almost don't want him to be good.

How much of Father James is you and Brendan?

JMMD: Im quite nihilistic and confrontational, but Brendan wanted me to push the more emotional and tender scenes, the scenes between James and his daughter. They thus became more prominent. When I look back on those scenes now with Kelly Reilly, I think they are some of the richest and serve to make the film different from The Guard. 
The other bits with the great character actor M. Emmett Walsh: well initially he was meant to be another suspect in the plot, but Brendan suggested we have someone in the village who Father James got along with, so I softened him. Brendan pushed the emotional scenes more in the film, and I think that made the experience richer.

How has the film gone down in Ireland, how are you expecting it to go down?

JMMD: Thats a tricky thing. The Guard was a massive hit in Ireland. There are some critics, Dublin based, who feel that a director who makes an Irish film is representing Ireland to the world. But to me this isn't a parochial story. Its not about Ireland, it is a universal story. A story you could shoot anywhere. But there are critics who see that as an attack. I’d be interested to see how they respond to the film.

You could see the movie as a ‘state of the nation’ movie though couldn't you? 

JMMD: No, the starting point is: an interesting character and plot. Whatever the subtext is: great, but thats not my remit. I didn't sit down wanting specifically to deal with the Irish crash, the scandals in the church. I also wanted to flip some cliches on their head: like for example the character played by Dylan Moran: he’s a high finance scumbag, but he is the only character who asks James for help; he wants to be saved.

It just seems in the film that you are presenting an Ireland that has had enough of the church.

JMMD: Well I think it is almost finished. I mean my father now is in his 70s: he has stopped going to church. Even going back to shooting The Guard, I remember asking the crew a technical question about Mass. And they had no response. The crew didn't seem to like being asked, as if it was embarrassing that they'd been asked a religious question.
I used to go to church, my Mum and Dad made me!

Is it true that this film and The Guard are part of a planned trilogy. If so where are you at with it?

JMMD: The third part I am thinking about. I’ve been flippant in the past about how I write films in just a few days, but thats because I spend a year or more thinking about the plots. Writers block I just cant understand. I write so quickly as usually by the time I sit down I’ve got most of it in my head. It is going to be called The Lame Shall Enter First, and it is going to be about a very abusive paraplegic.

You said that the film conveyed hope at the end?

JMMD: Right at the end credits you see all the places where Brendan and Kelly’s character  scenes happened. And Father James’s daughter Fiona is prepared, I guess, to get over the fact that her father was murdered, and try to engage with his killer. And this is because of what her father had taught her. I take that as being a minimal bit of hope at the end of the movie.

BG:  I do think it is optimistic. I think it is a very beautiful scene at the end, as Kelly’s character looks towards the first beginnings of resolution or something. I think Father James has been combating despair more than anything else throughout the film, he has his own little temptations in that regard. And everyone is in a way trying to bring him in with them, to join them in their disillusionment. And he refuses to do it. Generally I think, most people want him to succeed. So even when the most horrible thing happens, the fact that his daughter can find the strength to forgive, following a discussion with her father where they agreed to forgive each other: I think there is huge hope in that. I think it is quite moving, in that way.

JMMD: I think there is a state of grace with Kelly’s character towards the end.

Are you a believer, Brendan?

BG: Regarding my own beliefs, I’m not telling anybody, as I think it might make people go and see the film trying to spot a particular agenda. And that would do a disservice to it. I don’t want people thinking I’m coming at it from a particular angle, in that regard.
JMMD: I wanted to make a film that an atheist and a true believer could enjoy, a film where everyone can get something out of the philosophical ideas. That was my remit.


Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.