The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
What inspired this story?
Martin McDonagh: I saw something similar to what’s on the billboards in the film when I was on a bus going through one of the Southern States about seventeen years ago. It stuck in my mind and I didn’t do anything about it for 10 years or so, yet it always kind of stayed there. For me it was the idea of discovering the kind of pain and rage of someone who puts up that message on a billboard. From there, I had been wanting to write a strong female part for a while, since my other films were very masculine. Once I decided on the person being a mother, I set out to write for Frances McDormand. After that it all fell into place. This character sort of popped up and it was all about who she is fighting, their reactions, and her reactions to them. The film becomes a bit about people changing instead of solving something. It’s all about how you move on when a crime isn’t solved. Do you stay in that place, emotionally, or do you change?
“it was basically Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and I in a room drinking tea”
Dixon starts out the film as a terrible guy and then starts to have redeeming qualities. How do you take the character from the script and create this man?
Sam Rockwell: I just played a KKK guy in a movie with Taraji Henson and I was able to get in touch with an ex-white supremacist who now pulls people out of hate groups. I talked to him about this Ku Klux Klan character and he said to me it’s not so much that you hate black or brown people. It’s more that you hate yourself. I talked to him after this film, and in retrospect I think that’s the key to Dixon. He’s got this incredible loneliness, self-loathing… and this weird relationship with his mother. Then he has his complete turnaround through the dramatic device where he becomes a different person.
What is the initial reaction when getting a script from Martin McDonagh set in the Ozarks, after working on crime thrillers?
Graham Broadbent: It’s great because Martin makes films so infrequently, so you’re desperate for the new script. With a script from Martin, the script comes in fully formed which is joyous and you just want to read and experience it. With this one, it was the same comedy and sadness as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. It’s walking that tightrope between the two, which I find ingenious and electrifying when reading a great script like this.
What was the rehearsal process like on this film?
McDonagh: I usually like to rehearse beforehand. For In Bruges, we had several weeks together and it was basically Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and I in a room drinking tea and talking about the script and backstory. The rehearsal is more about an exchange of information and ideas. We had a bit of that on this film, but not as much because Frances wanted to keep the wall from day one to keep it fresh. She didn’t want to get into being friendly during the rehearsal process.
From a producing, acting, and directing perspective, how did you tackle the intricate scene where Caleb is thrown of the window?
McDonagh: It was written into the script to be one take. We deliberately found a town that would allow us to have a possible police station across the street from an office space with stairs. In pre-production, we made sure to give ourselves a day to do it and had every department come on board to plan and figure out how to achieve it. We had a fantastic stunt coordinator, Doug Coleman, who helped bring this to life. I don’t like CGI much so I wanted it to be as real as possible.
Broadbent: There was also endless practice. They would have meetings about the one-shot on days they finished early. It was an extraordinary production experience and Fox actually put together a featurette about how it was all shot. This was a piece of clockwork and it makes the film so much better.
Rockwell: It was really thrilling! Doug Coleman, the stunt coordinator was the guy that coordinated the bear attack in The Revenant. He just made it fun. Doug was setting my arm on fire at one point and I was worried about it not being safe. He told me, “I set De Niro’s arm on fire in Cape Fear. You’re going to do great. We’ll have a cigar afterwards.” We felt his energy, much like you do when working with someone in theater, so I was ready.