The new Irish film The Guard is an “odd couple” variation on the popular buddy-cop genre of action movies. Set in Connemara on the scenic but remote western coast of Ireland, the story centers around police efforts to bust an international drug-trafficking ring that has set up shop in the area. But that crime plot – which also includes murder, the mob and local police corruption – serves primarily as scaffolding for what is essentially a character-driven black comedy. Sgt. Gerry Boyle, played by Brendan Gleeson, is a prickly, maverick of a policeman who specializes in throwing politically incorrect verbal darts designed to provoke. His main foil is fussy F.B.I. agent Wendell Everett, played by Don Cheadle, who has parachuted in from the U.S. to crack the case and finds himself teamed with Boyle who is none too happy with the assistance.
A Sony Pictures Classics release, The Guard hit theaters in late July. The film is the directing debut of John Michael McDonagh who also wrote the screenplay. He’s the older brother of Martin McDonagh, a playwright and screenwriter, whose first-time directing effort was In Bruges, another mob-themed film released in 2008, which he scripted and also starred Gleeson. Though he’s listed as one of the film’s producers, his main contribution to The Guard was to introduce inimitable Irish actor Gleeson to his sibling. “I don’t really like the theater. I’m a big film buff,” says the older McDonagh. “When he got his film set up, I was a bit jealous at that point. That spurred me on even more to direct a film”
His best-known previous credit was screenwriter for Ned Kelly, the 2003 remake about the Australian outlaw and folk hero starring Heath Ledger. Soured by his “negative experience” collaborating with director Gregor Jordan, “I thought if I wrote a script that was low-budget enough, I’d be able to direct it,” he says. The opportunity arose with The Guard, budgeted at $7 million. Assistance was provided by the Irish Film Board with a 40 percent rebate on production costs. The film went from script through the end of the shoot in just one year.
To make sure he was in good hands on his maiden voyage, McDonagh assembled an experienced team of Irish and English production keys. The director of photography, Larry Smith, had worked with director Stanley Kubrick for 25 years, moving up from chief electrician on Barry Lyndon to the cinematographer on Eyes Wide Shut, the legendary director’s final film. John Paul Kelly, the production designer, is known for his work on Venus, starring Peter O’Toole, and period drama The Other Boleyn Girl. Award-winning editor Chris Gill has collaborated with directors Danny Boyle and Paul Greengrass. And costume designer Eimer ni Mhaoldomhnaigh worked with directors Neil Jordan on Breakfast for Pluto and Jim Sheridan on In America.
DP Smith appealed to McDonagh for his range of experience. “I was impressed that Larry had worked for Kubrick but also did great work on a small film like Bronson,” he says. The latter was a well-received movie about England’s most notorious prisoner directed by up-and-coming Danish helmer Nicolas Winding Refn. “When you meet Larry, there is nothing highfalutin and pretentious. He doesn’t try to intimidate you with lots of fancy talk about lenses and other technical issues,” says the director. Smith also encouraged McDonagh to go for a richer, more vibrant look. “Larry feels that if you’ve got a good set and costumes, show it. Let’s not do close-ups all the time,” he notes.
Kelly and Mhaoldomhnaigh obliged. “I told them I didn’t want gritty realism, I wanted to do a stylized movie with bright colors,” says McDonagh who is a fan of Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger, the production team behind classic 1940’s British films like The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death. “I love the vibrancy of the old Eastman color in their movies,” he observes.
The biggest challenge for McDonagh was getting his arms around the editing process. Editing, he learned, “helps you fine tune and mold what you shot, but you can also go terribly wrong.” His impediment at the start was “falling too much in love with my material. My initial instinct was to have scenes start too early and go on too long. But you have to learn that sometimes it’s better for the scene to be shorter. Chris helped with that and also helped to find those special moments that are key to the edit.”
For the film’s music, McDonagh made an unusual choice: Calexico, an indie band specializing in mariachi /Tejano border rock. “I didn’t want some tiddly-di Irish music. I wanted something more like Enrico Morricone (the prolific Italian composer of soundtracks),” he says. He approached the band, which agreed to compose special music for The Guard along the lines the director suggested.
Shooting the film’s big-bang ending that takes place on an exploding boat tested McDonagh. “It’s quite nice to write that kind of stuff, but when it comes to shooting it’s like a great big jigsaw puzzle,” he observes. Not helping was a night of torrential rain that cut the available filming days. “You’re under lots of pressure, because if you have no ending you have no movie,” he says. “Despite everything shot in the previous six weeks, if it didn’t go right you could end up nowhere. It was quite tense but we got through it.”