They made The Guard together in 2011, and now Brendan Gleeson and John Michael McDonagh are back with Calvary (out August 1), a dark comedy (their description) or drama with moments of levity (mine) about a priest in County Sligo, Ireland, struggling to support the confused, angry, and drifting parishioners as he also deals with a death threat, revealed in the first minutes of the movie, that is the result of fallout from the Catholic church sex abuse scandal—although Gleeson is an innocent priest. McDonagh wrote the script, and Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle. It’s a beautiful movie, slow at times, full of poignant questions about why we believe in a world that gives us plenty of reason not to. Be warned: there aren’t spoilers, exactly, but there is discussion of major plot points here.
Father James isn’t played the way priests are often played—he’s got a sense of humor, he’s deeply caring but also often confused about what to do. What were some of the challenges in writing/playing him?
Gleeson: We had a fairly tight schedule and a lot of things to tackle. It pretty was intense; that’s the only way I know how to describe it. The challenges were in trying to realize the script—the script was an immense piece of work and an immense challenge. It became a little more engaging on an emotional level than I had expected. It took a long time to leave me, believe it or not. It was one of those where I got quite deeply into it, and it was quite affecting…I think what [James] was trying to do was absorb…In the end, he had responsibility to confront what had been done in his name, and he had the optimism to think that he could turn it away. He offered that hope, and I think he took the risk.
James bears the brunt of many peoples’ anger towards God. What did it feel like to bear that burden, even just for the duration of the film?
Gleeson: I found it really trying. I found myself getting really fed up, the longer it went on. I wasn’t striking back…You had to keep putting the good face on it. I began to understand his character a bit more and the fortitude that it took and that it takes, presumably, for people to take on other people’s pain. That’s what the notion of Jesus in there is about, and it’s not as easy as it looks. You can listen, but if you care about what you’re listening to, it takes a toll. People don’t have a bottomless well of optimism or hope or faith—at some point, your well runs dry a little bit.
This is a movie where we know in the very beginning what’s coming at the end, or at least we have an idea of what’s coming.
McDonagh: Yeah, we know there’s going to be a confrontation.
So what does that do to the rest of the story, when you’re talking about the life of a small town, to know throughout the film that there’s a dramatic confrontation coming?
McDonagh: It is loosely based on the five stages of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and then acceptance. I had that as the loose structure. I also knew there were going to be very eccentric characters in this town that would be confronted with grief all the way through the movie. So that would be the structure; he would move through these stages until we reached the conclusion.
Gleeson: [I always] held out the possibility that this [death threat] could be seen through and overcome. I believed it would be seen through. You always maintain the belief that something will happen to alter the discourse. [James] was actively engaged in a fight, and he was going to remove himself—his presence might cause a murder, his own—and he had various reasons; maybe he had a crisis of whether he should be asked to do that or not. He always believed there was a chance it wouldn’t be.
Father Lavelle had really interesting relationships with his parishioners and the residents of this small town. At times, there is a sense of defeatism and at other times, a sense of hope that people can change. Where do you come down on that issue?
McDonagh: Well let’s look at one character to answer that question. Specifically, when we look at Dylan Moran’s character who plays Michael Fitzgerald, the rich man, he doesn’t value anything in life, really. On the face of it that’s quite a negative character, but he turns out to be the only person who actually does ask for help at the completion of the movie. Will it arrive? We’re not quite sure. Somebody’s decision will cause people to react in different ways, and it’s up to us, the audience, to examine what we feel ourselves about where the film goes on beyond it’s ending, I suppose.
There are so many layers of meaning in the film, even in the names. Father Timothy Leary, whose namesake was famous for being as colorful as anyone, is a bland and boring priest.
McDonagh: Exactly. And Aiden Gillen’s character is called Dr. Frank Hart, and he has no heart at all. He’s stubbing a cigarette on a heart at the end, in the montage. I like to have that; it’s a dynamic way of presenting characters. In restoration comedy, someone called Goodfellow would not be a good fellow. Father James Lavelle is named for my aunt’s maiden name. The west of Ireland, I think in the 1790s, was invaded by the French—they were trying to take over—and they kind of intermingled so there are now lots of French-sounding names in that part of the country, like Lavelle. That name is a way of separating him as a character from the normal Murphys or McDonalds of the area. I always find names are quite important when I’m writing a script.
You’ve done The Guard with Brendan Gleeson, and now Calvary. I’ve heard rumors about something called The Lame Shall Enter First. Can you talk more about that?
McDonagh: I stole that title from a Flannery O’Connor short story. I’d always admired her and thought that was a great title—I thought it was a Biblical reference, but it’s not; I think she came up with it herself. We had a policeman and then we had a priest, and in the final [film] it will be a paraplegic. I’ll have Brendan…rattling around London in a wheelchair as a very aggressional, confrontational character. It will be kind of a dark comedy, but it will have crime, murder-mystery elements because he’s at a very low ebb in his life and he tries to get his life back on track by solving the murder of one of his friends. That’s kind of the framework and hopefully, once we finish this one, it will make a very nice box set.
Will you miss wearing the vestments?
Gleeson: [Laughs] No. Not at all. It was a pretty cool kind of number—black is always cool, you know. It is a very handy garb; you don’t have to think too hard when you wake up in the morning.