“I can’t wait to get canceled so I don’t have to do another movie”

By spending an afternoon with writer-director John Michael McDonagh and his editor-producer partner Lizzie Eves, you learn a few things. First of all, they’re great company, their no-bullshit Australian down-to-earth vibe is a perfect foil for their London swagger. Second, they’re big daytime fans.

I met the couple in the lobby of Sydney’s Verona Cinema, the day before they returned to London from their annual trip to Australia (they spend three months here each year, mostly on the Sunshine Coast, where Eves has family) . Having a beer, McDonagh tells me that while they were editing his new film The Forgiven at home during confinement, “we started drinking at noon and then we argued”.

“The cat would come in about three,” Eves said, sipping a glass of white wine. “We would yell at each other and the cat would yell at us and we would yell at the cat…”

John Michael McDonagh and Elizabeth Eves at Paddington Aqueduct in Sydney.Credit:Wolter-Peeters

“Usually 3:30 to 4 p.m. was the window where the booze would come in,” McDonagh says.

“We argue a lot about everything,” says Eves, who produced and edited The Forgiven. “The key to our marital success is resolution through conflict. ‘Do we disagree? Oh, well, let’s go. And then we sort it out in a short amount of time and come to an agreement.

And how long have you been doing this exactly? “We’ve been together for 20 years,” Eves says.

“Twenty long years,” McDonagh said wryly, before ordering another drink.

The British-Irish writer-director of Calvary and The guard and her partner raised in Geraldton, WA, met when she wandered into a party at his house, “like a drunken bottom extra from At home and away. He was like Michael Caine in Get Carter, all hard and hello baby. It was John and Lizzie’s peak and it’s only been a slippery slope ever since.

“Just kidding,” she adds. “Obviously, he’s my favorite person in the whole world.”

The Forgiven is, at its core, a story about the disintegration of a marriage fueled by alcohol. Ralph Fiennes plays David Henninger, a wealthy, successful but booze-drunk surgeon in London, married to Jo (Jessica Chastain), a woman whose ambitions seem to have largely been suspended in service to her selfish, arrogant and tyrannical husband. .

Jessica Chastain as Jo Henninger.

Jessica Chastain as Jo Henninger.Credit:Nick Wall

You already feel in the first moments that something has to give. But when David hits and kills a young Arab boy on a desert road in Morocco en route to a weekend of debauchery, everything changes. David is taken on a road trip with the boy’s father (Ismael Kanater), to do some sort of reckoning, while Jo stays behind and indulges in the hedonism of the expat gathering organized by Richard (Matt Smith) and his American partner, Dally (Caleb Landry Jones).

McDonagh adapted the story from a 2012 novel by Lawrence Osborne. “The setup is excellent. Lawrence said it was an anecdote he heard, it was a true story that happened.

As in his other films – and, no doubt, also as in those of his brother Martin (Seven Psychopaths, In Brugge, Three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri) – guilt and atonement are major themes of The Forgiven. Not that John McDonagh necessarily sees it that way.

“I don’t tend to self-analyze as much,” he says. “I’m going to read what a reviewer wrote and be like, ‘Oh, that’s probably true,’ when I hadn’t thought of that myself.”

He is drawn to “literary crime novels”, he concedes, and stories “that have no contemporary attributes, where people are on their phones or on their computers – they could be timeless”. And he remarked “all my films end in a kind of suicidal situation, as if I myself wanted to die. They end with the main characters finding themselves in a situation where they don’t know if they’ll survive, and they don’t seem to care if they’ll survive.

Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones) host a debauched weekend in the Moroccan desert.

Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones) host a debauched weekend in the Moroccan desert.Credit:Nick Wall

“Well,” Flea into Eves, “aren’t they all him at the end of the day?”

It sounds intensely nihilistic, and McDonagh happily describes himself as a misanthrope — “I don’t like human beings, they frustrate me” — but it’s also terribly funny. Additionally, he cares deeply about the moral dimension of the stories he tells, even if it’s not always obvious what the moral is.

He worries, he tells me, that some viewers might see The Forgiven as just another story of a white man’s search for redemption, with the Arab setting and characters no more than enablers of that quest. Although his non-white characters enjoy real screen time and real agency, he concedes “the character of Ralph Fiennes, the film privileges his experience”.

He has tried throughout to “subvert” the colonialist reading – just as, he says, Osborne does in his novel – but unless he tells the story entirely from the point of view of the Arab characters, the tension is insoluble.

“And let’s be honest, if we turn the narrative around and follow Abdellah [the father], am I going to get 9 million dollars to do this story? No I’m not. Why won’t I have it? Because nobody wants to distribute it. We don’t know if audiences will see it, because they’re not given those movies. But financiers and distributors do not want to manufacture them.

David Henningham (Ralph Fiennes) heads into the desert with Abdellah (Ismael Kanater, center) and his driver Anouar (Said Taghmaoui) after killing the former's son with his car.

David Henningham (Ralph Fiennes) heads into the desert with Abdellah (Ismael Kanater, center) and his driver Anouar (Said Taghmaoui) after killing the former’s son with his car.Credit:Nick Wall

During our conversation, McDonagh sprays verbal bullets with reckless abandon. It’s fun and eye-opening (and largely unprintable), but surely it must pose a risk in a business that’s relationship-oriented and plays kisses even when you don’t really feel like it.

“Actually, I don’t like making movies,” he says. “I look forward to being canceled at some point so I don’t have to do another movie.”

“That’s not quite true,” says Eves. “He doesn’t like to work and he’s very anti-authority, and making a movie comes with a binary decision – compromise and move on, or stop and win. So that drives him crazy.

They were almost done shooting The Forgiven in March 2020 when COVID shut it down. Morocco had no cases at the time so the government allowed them to try and finish but in the end they were only given 24 hours notice to pack up and leave or risk being stranded there for what turned out to be a very long time. . Eves had to charter a 100-seat Boeing plane to ferry the 30 cast and crew members and a large amount of equipment to the “petri dish” that was England. The delays blew the budget by around 10%, but working from home with just Eves for months suited McDonagh.

“John has reduced the number of people he interacts with during development and pre-production; I fill that space,” she says. “He doesn’t Zoom or Skype, he doesn’t even know what the Wi-Fi password is until I wake up in the morning. So I’m the Wi-Fi password and the human shield, two great jobs.

“For me, everything is at the service of the vision,” she continues. “What’s the best version of this movie we can do, given the budget we can raise and all the logistical issues.”

The next vision is Australian. The couple plan to return next March to shoot fear is the rideran adaptation of a story by Wake up in fear author Kenneth Cook. Cook originally wrote it with his son Paul and daughter Kerry in 1981 as a screenplay for a TV movie (it was never produced), then turned it into a novel the following year. But it remained unpublished until 2016, 29 years after his death, when it was unearthed and published by Text.

The book is pure adrenaline, an outright hunting thriller that would have inevitably drawn comparisons to Duel had it been filmed at the time. In the Hands of McDonagh, set in 1971 and with a cast led by Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) and the American Christopher Abbott (Girls) – which both appear in The Forgiven – it promises to take on a larger dimension.

“We gave it a counter-cultural twist, a confrontational twist related to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War,” he says. “It should work on two levels: one, people can watch a chase thriller; second, they can watch everything about colonialism, Australia’s involvement in foreign colonialist wars, racism. It takes place on Australia Day, which isn’t in the book, but it’s a busy day, and we manage that deliberately.

They were expecting a small setback on their approach but, so far, McDonagh says it has been less than expected. One thing you can guarantee, however, is that whether the others like it or not, McDonagh will continue with his take or not at all. Even though this is an outback thriller set on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, it’ll be its way or the highway.

“That’s John’s key,” Eves said. “If he’s pushed to a point where he either has to go ahead and eat a plate of shit or stop here and be happy with his own decisions, he’ll do the latter.”

The Forgiven is in theaters from July 28.

Email the author at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin

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