TORONTO — Martin McDonagh and Colin Farrell are together again in a hotel room. That’s less gossip-rag-ready than it sounds, but it’s big news if you’re a fan of “In Bruges.” It’s been four years since McDonagh directed Farrell in that charmingly warped little cult classic of a crime thriller. Now the two have reteamed for a bigger, splashier (and splatterier) comic thriller — “Seven Psychopaths,” opening Friday — and they’ve come to the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about their creative reunion.
“Seven Psychopaths” is a progression of sorts. Where “Bruges” was an intensely intimate drama that upended the genre in sly, unexpected ways, “Psychopaths” enlists a large, star-studded cast to wrestle with all the big questions and conventions of violent movies and body slam them to their knees. Farrell stars as Marty, a would-be Hollywood screenwriter whose fictional musings on psychopaths bleed into his insane personal life, and vice versa. Sam Rockwell plays Billy, the screw-loose sidekick; Christopher Walken is a dog-napper named Hans; Woody Harrelson is a gangster named Charlie (aided by the underrated Zeljko Ivanek as his henchman, Paulo); and Tom Waits is a psycho-killer named Zachariah.
For McDonagh, who was a successful playwright (“The Pillowman,” the Leenane Trilogy) and short-film director (Oscar-winner “Six Shooter”) before he waded into the feature filmmaking pool, there’s a certain expectation that now comes with the territory. And there’s a certain amount of backlash, too. Mickey Rourke, who was supposed to play the role now occupied by Harrelson, left “Seven Psychopaths” and had some choice words for McDonagh on the way out. Apparently, not everyone’s a fan.
Q. Great to see you guys back together. What took you so long?
McDonagh: Laziness. And heroin.
Farrell: But not in that order.
McDonagh: I like traveling and I like not working. But travel means I’m writing. I like going off and being a writer. In the last four years I wrote a play [“A Behanding in Spokane”] and had it on Broadway, with Chris [Walken] and Sam [Rockwell]. So it seems like I haven’t been doing anything, but I have. After this I’m “not going to do anything” for another four years.
Q. Does that kind of gap between releases add any pressure?
McDonagh: Well, I think if I went into another film now, all of those fears wouldn’t be there. But even in the first stages of rehearsal for this, we felt like no time had passed.
Farrell: Yeah, absolutely. We just picked up the same conversation that we’d lightly punctuated four years before.
McDonagh: The first day of shooting was still kind of scary, but I think it’s always going to be that way.
Farrell: Oh yeah. It is.
McDonagh: After like an hour it’s just about finding the best route to the scene, and the pressure is kind of off.
Q. Why do you think “In Bruges” became such a cult favorite?
McDonagh: I guess it was a new way of looking at genre conventions in a very honest, sad, funny, smart way, maybe. And I think the performances are so genuine and deep and troubled and touching and melancholy. . . . And the reviews were somewhat mixed, so not an awful lot of people in North America went to see it when it came out. It’s something that people were then able to discover and it wasn’t forced down their throats. That’s kind of the definition of cult cinema.
Q. In “Bruges,” Colin’s character shoots another character in the eye. In “Psychopaths,” the opening dialogue includes two hit men discussing shooting someone in the eye. Were you conscious of those kinds of connections?
Farrell: I didn’t even make that connection. Good for you.
McDonagh: There’s a moral sense to “Bruges” that I think we all have, and this film is also trying to explore. It’s the questioning of violence in films and, in an epic kind of way, explores the morality of filmmaking . . .
Farrell: And the purported logic that sometimes inspires violence and propels human beings to commit violence against each other. Like “I’d never hit a woman”; “I’d hit her if she knew karate.” Literally trying to figure out logic and violence: Is there a place where violence is OK? And really what it says, in a meta way, about us as human beings.
Q. How timely is that, given what happened with the release of “The Dark Knight Rises”?
McDonagh: I think when that happened the film company got worried about [“Seven Psychopaths”] — even the title of it — and the way they were thinking of advertising it had to change somewhat. But I always felt like, because there’s such a moral center to this, and it’s so anti-gun and anti-violence, it wasn’t really a concern.
Q. But when you use violence in this way you have to trust that the viewers understand that you’re turning it on its head . . .
McDonagh: I think you do have to trust your audience.
Farrell: And not everyone will get it. There’s nothing you can do. This film is made for a very adult audience, and I think the greatest trick it performs is that being as violent and explosive and chaotic and anarchic as it is, I think it’s a really sweet film. I think at its core it’s a film about friendship and love and it’s a film about how violence doesn’t work in any way, shape, or form. Particularly the scene at the end [note: spoiler content removed]. That’s the final exclamation on how violence begets violence, that once the die is cast it just continues and continues.
Q. And here I thought that ending was just setting up the next film.
McDonagh: [laughs] No sequels!
Q. In general, do you think there’s too much violence in movies?
McDonagh: Not necessarily. I mean, if I know something is going to be gratuitous then I just won’t go to see it.
Farrell: I know people do get inspired by film, but people get inspired by anything. “Catcher in the Rye” has inspired things. Should that not have been written? It’s allowed many people who felt very alone in their lives to feel less alone and less ostracized. . . . I read such a callous quote from Sarah Palin once where she said something like, “These people who want to commit acts against society and their fellow human beings” — she didn’t even put it as nice as that — “they don’t play within the law. They’ll get guns.” So does that mean you stop making it as hard as you possibly can for them? I tell you, when I was doing drugs, you drop me in any city in the world and within half an hour I could get myself a bag of whatever I wanted. And that [expletive] was illegal. Of course these people will find whatever they want. But make it as hard as possible.
Q. There were lots of homages and influences in “In Bruges,” including Harold Pinter and Orson Welles. Any obvious influences in this new movie?
McDonagh: I guess the cemetery shootout is kind of Tarantino. (He laughs, then says playfully, in a movie promo voice) Billy is Quentin.
Farrell: Quote him on that. It’s the one quote you should use.
Q. Colin, in this movie your character is kind of the straight man and everybody else is a wild man. How was that for a change?
Farrell: It was good. It was kind of turning on its head what I’m used to doing with Martin’s work. I kind of saw myself as a centrifugal force of sanity. Which is not to say I’m the center of the film, ’cause I’m not. I kind of feel like the audience is the center of the film, whatever they bring to it. I did have to get myself ready to not be champing at the bit to do some of the stuff that other characters got to do. Before filming I had to say to myself, “OK. Going to be working with some really [expletive] interesting actors, some of the most inventive actors that I’ve ever worked with. Just know who Martin is, and know what Martin’s pace is and what his core is.” So by the time we got to filming I was completely cool with it.
Q. What’s next for each of you?
McDonagh: I’ve got a film script sort of ready to go, with a very strong female lead.
Farrell: I’m so excited. I’ve never played a woman before!
McDonagh: Hah! But, again, I’m going to leave the same sort of gap. As a writer you just want to see the world and take some time off so you can bring a lot more to the next project.
Farrell: I actually realized recently that where I once needed to do two or three films a year, I don’t need to do that anymore. I don’t identify as much as I used to — back when I used to think that I didn’t identify at all — with being an actor or doing films. I prefer to do two films every three years. I do love it, but working back to back to back, you know, the well does run dry. And to be at a place where you’re not champing at the bit to get to work is really horrible. It feels like a betrayal of something.
Q. But when Martin calls . . .
Farrell: Ah, well, then it’s whatever. I’m around. I was washing my hair but just give me five minutes to blow dry it and I’ll be right there . . . with my gun.Interview was condensed and edited. Janice Page can be reached at email@example.com