The Forgiven: John Michael McDonagh on his “black in the desert”
“War on everyone I expected to be divisive – and it was. This one I didn’t expect to be so controversial and it turned out to be. I guess a lot has happened in the past six years.On the phone ahead of the Edinburgh International Film Festival premiere of his new film The Forgiven, John Michael McDonagh is bewildered by its recent reception in the US More Specifically, he reflects on the effect the increasingly politicized cinematic landscape might have on more transgressive movies — the kind he’s done in the past, like 2016’s aforementioned War Against Everyone, his crime comedy corrupted without prisoners or his debut The Guard, which launched his career, became a real box office and critical success, and finally allowed him to emerge from the shadow of his younger brother, the director of In Bruges Martin McDonagh .
The Forgiven, however, isn’t really that type of movie. Not on the surface. “The thing I’m running into is that people don’t accept unsympathetic characters anymore,” McDonagh sighs. “At least in America.”
Based on Lawrence Osborne’s 2014 novel of the same name, The Forgiven certainly has a few. Set in Morocco, it stars Ralph Fiennes and new Oscar winner Jessica Chastain as David and Jo Henninger, a privileged couple who run over and kill a local Berber teenager who plans to hijack them as they head for a decadent party. in the desert to see an obnoxious group of friends they don’t seem to like very much.
Fiennes’ character, David, is especially overt in his disdain for everything. His years of booze, boredom and privilege have hardened into a boring strain of withered libertarianism, but he’s also the kind of person who will point out the hypocrisy of feigning offense to something rather than saying it is not true – what McDonagh thinks throws people off. “In America, there seems to be a resistance to the idea that someone can be an appalling person and say something that is philosophically true.”
There is also, he notes, resistance to the idea that the film is not a satire. “To me, satire is when you create exaggerated characters to make a political point, but I’m not trying to make a political point. I just thought of it as a black guy in the desert.
As a black protagonist, the character of Fiennes conforms to this existentialist idea of someone unable to rise above their true nature. However, The Forgiven also acts as a prestige image that is dismantled from within. It’s got the Oscar-winning stars, the gorgeous visuals (it was filmed in Tangier and Erfoud, an oasis town in the Sahara Desert), and a story that sincerely grapples with the consequences of the actions of its favored characters. It’s also full of caustic asides that belittle the moralizing tone these films often take and, to his credit, McDonagh refuses to fall into the trap of sentimentalizing Moroccan characters, preferring instead to give them agency in their interactions with white Western protagonists. of the movie. .
“I kind of joked about it when we were making the movie that it was almost like you were attacking the actual audience that you wanted to come and see and that’s probably not a good idea. But it’s supposed to be shot as an epic movie.
I ask if he’s watched any epic desert movies for inspiration, but he says he tries to keep any conversation about influences on the low these days after he once mentioned Robert Bresson while promoting of his second film Calvary. “We had a great showing at Sundance and immediately after, a reviewer went on Twitter and said, ‘This ain’t Bresson’. And I thought, ‘Wow. You c***!'”
He bursts out laughing, then tells me that the big influence on The Forgiven was Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, one of his favorite films. “Not that I got any closer, but that would be the big deal.
“But the other thing,” he continues, “I’m sick of directors referencing other films. It bothers me now. I’m not saying I didn’t. But as you make more films, shouldn’t all the images you create be images you create? You know, for better or for worse? I don’t understand the point of referring to Hitchcock or De Palma, or anyone else. All you say is “I watched that movie”.
“I’m not going to mention Edgar Wright,” he adds with a laugh.
He also seems annoyed with people comparing him to his brother. “We have similar tastes, but it’s not like we’ve collaborated before.”
Indeed, McDonagh first made inroads into the film industry in the early 2000s when he was hired to write the screenplay for Australian outlaw film Ned Kelly, one of the first star vehicles of the late Heath Ledger. “It didn’t go the way I wanted it to, which was a good thing and a bad thing,” he says now. “working title [the film’s production company] paid me a lot of money, so I spent a lot of years lazing about, which I was happy to do. But once you’ve had a script made and you didn’t like the movie that was made, it forces you to control your work.”
He plans to return to Australia for his next film, an Outback thriller titled Fear is the Rider starring Mad Max: Fury Road’s Abbey Lee and one of The Forgiven co-stars Christopher Abbot. The film itself is an adaptation of the book by Kenneth Cook, most famous for writing the source novel for Wake in Fright. “It’s probably the best Australian film of all time. Well that or a picnic at Hanging Rock. He flies away for location scouting in September. “But we’re doing an independent film and you never know what’s going to happen. The Forgiven nearly collapsed four weeks before filming. With independent cinema, you never know when the money is going to drop. It’s just fingers crossed all the time.
The Forgiven will screen at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on August 17 and hit theaters on September 2. For tickets, visit www.edfilmfest.org.uk