TORONTO - Colin Farrell and Martin McDonagh are like blood brothers, really. Irishmen of similar age (the actor is 36, the playwright and filmmaker, 42) and similar sensibilities (quick, jolly, sarcastic), they haven't sliced their thumbs open and let the blood pass between them, like fierce friends in an old movie. (At least, they're not telling anybody if they did.)
But they have been responsible for gushing founts of fake blood in the two projects they've made together: 2008's inspired hit-men-in-hiding dark comedy, In Bruges, and Friday's Hollywood-underbelly screwball caper, Seven Psychopaths.
Especially in Seven Psychopaths - in which Farrell stars as a screenwriter unwittingly caught up in a dog abduction scam that engenders the wrath of a shih tzu-loving local crime boss - the exploding heads, exploding limbs, and exploding Buicks are everywhere, achieving a kind of Peckinpah-esque crescendo of carnage.
Dressed in black and seated alongside his writer/director pal on the day Seven Psychopaths premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, Farrell looks over at McDonagh and says, "You're a tormented fool, aren't you?" - alluding to all these violent, blood-and-guts scenarios kicking around in his head.
"Not really," says McDonagh, who's often called Ireland's greatest living playwright, though he was born and raised in London (by Irish parents). "It's just the opposite."
Allow the playwright (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore) and Oscar-winner (for "Six Shooter," his 2005 live-action short) to explain:
"I'm just using that kind of violence as a dramatic tool," McDonagh says. "It pops up in my stage plays a lot, too, but I guess mostly because the plays I was seeing were quite staid and dull, and nothing ever actually really happened. . . . So I wanted to bring a cinematic sensibility to [my] stage plays. And I guess that's just stayed with me . . . using those old, conventional Hollywood tropes and then just turning them upside down, or inside out."
And, in so doing, leaving Woody Harrelson (the crime boss with the dog), Christopher Walken (the con artist with the canine kidnapping scheme), Tom Waits (a weirdo with a bunny rabbit), Sam Rockwell (an underemployed actor), and Abbie Cornish (Farrell's character's girlfriend) awash in blood and bad business.
"Martin is really one of the sweetest, nicest men I know, and yet there are these streams of violence in his work. It is so vivid and insane," says Farrell. "But Seven Psychopaths, as violent as it is, and as profane as it is, and as irreverent - like In Bruges, it's really about friendship. And it's about putting old ghosts to rest. And it's about peace. It really is about the strivance for peace, and how violence begets violence. That's the biggest trick of it."
Farrell and McDonagh didn't really know each other before the latter cast the former in In Bruges, which went on to land an Academy Award nomination (for best original screenplay) and is widely perceived as the film that turned Farrell's career around - in a good way, that is.
"I think we met once in a bathroom," Farrell jokes. "The bathroom swingers club - and you said we should do something together some time."
And then McDonagh sought out Farrell, to talk In Bruges.
"We met about a year before Martin was going to shoot it, and we sat and talked and I tried to convince him why it would be really wise to not put me in it," Farrell remembers. "Silly me. And thank God - as he's continued to do since - he didn't listen to me."
What was Farrell's argument against casting himself as one of the two hapless hit men? (The other is his fellow Dubliner, Brendan Gleeson.)
"My argument against myself was that I loved the character so much that I felt that the audience would bring in these preconceived notions of who he is if they saw me as Ray," he explains. "I had had some films that really didn't work, and there had been a little bit of attention that had changed how people perceived me, what they expected of me as an actor and as a celebrity and all that stuff."
That is, drug rehab, a sex tape (with Playboy model Nicole Narain), tabloid snaps of Farrell with Britney Spears, Demi Moore, this model, that starlet.
"I read too much about me in magazines and stuff, and I told Martin people should come [to In Bruges] without any opinions, or with as few as possible," he says. "They should be as blank as they possibly can be, because I didn't want this writing to be in any way affected or destroyed by someone's behavior and their public perception - that was my argument."
Luckily, McDonagh paid no heed. And now he and Farrell are talking about working again - though not for a few years. McDonagh, as he has in the past, recently announced his semiretirement from play writing and movie directing.
"I like to travel," McDonagh explains. "When I say 'not working,' I will write, because I can do that anywhere. But you know, it took me two solid years of getting this film up and running, and in production, and then editing, so I'd like to explore the world and think and write. That's what I'm going to do for a bit."
As for Farrell, he was camped out in Philadelphia this year shooting the thriller Dead Man Down. He has started on Saving Mr. Banks, appearing with Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in the true story of Walt Disney's epic quest to nab the screen rights to Mary Poppins (Hanks plays Disney, Farrell plays the father of the book's author, P.L. Travers). And Farrell has the key role of the thief in screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's directing debut, an adaptation of the Mark Helprin novel Winter's Tale. The cast also boasts Russell Crowe, Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay, William Hurt, and Will Smith.
When he isn't working, Farrell lives in Los Angeles. Which was another plus about Seven Psychopaths - he got to make a film "at home," and a film that explores a different (seedier) side of L.A.
And Farrell gets to play a writer, like McDonagh, although in Psychopaths, you hardly see him writing.
"I'm not locked in a room going through 40 cigarettes and banging stuff out on the typewriter, John Fante-esquely," he says, dropping the name of the revered Ask the Dust novelist. But throwing his protagonist into this crazy, violent hit-men-and-mobsters-and-dognappers scenario conveys the creative palpitations of a writer, he suggests.
"It seems like a much more real and practical approach to the idea of ideas coming and going, the pursuing of a thought."