Acclaimed Irish Playwright's Film Debut: 'In Bruges' Playwright Martin McDonagh makes audiences laugh — and makes them uncomfortable about what they're laughing at. He's had hits on London's West End and Broadway. Now, the Irish writer is set to make a new audience squirm — and chuckle — as his screenwriter-director debut, In Bruges, opens in U.S. theaters.

Acclaimed Irish Playwright's Film Debut: 'In Bruges'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, when Aretha sang Pacini. But first, playwright Martin McDonagh can make audiences laugh, and he can make them uncomfortable with what they're laughing about. He's had a string of hit plays on London's West End, most recently with "The Pillowman." He's also won four Tony Awards for his Broadway productions. Now the Irish writer is set to make a new audience squirm and chuckle. This weekend he hits U.S. movie theaters with his debut as screenwriter and director. His first feature film is called "In Bruges." Minnesota Public Radio's Euan Kerr reports.

EUAN KERR: Martin McDonagh says when he starts writing a script, he doesn't plan things out much. He takes ideas and just plays with them. "In Bruges" started with him thinking about the hundreds of bullets that fly about in action films.

Mr. MARTIN MCDONAGH (Writer-Director): I always wonder where the stray bullets go and what happens when a stray bullet hits a target that it wasn't intended for, and what happens when a fairly decent person kills a fairly decent person.

KERR: McDonagh combined those reveries with a real experience he had on vacation four years ago. He visited the Belgium town of Bruges and was initially stunned by its medieval beauty.

Mr. MCDONAGH: By the end of the second day, I think, I was kind of getting bored and in dire need of a drink. And just having those two sides of my personality talking to each other, the culture-loving geek and the drunk, I started thinking, well, what if there were two guys like that wandering around this picturesque town.

KERR: He ended up creating two Irish hit men hiding out in Belgium after a botched job.

(Soundbite of movie, "In Bruges")

Mr. BRENDAN GLEESON (As Ken): (Unintelligible) we're keeping a low profile. And this morning and this afternoon, we are doing what I want to do.

Mr. COLIN FARRELL (As Ray): (Unintelligible) culture.

MR. GLEESON: Oh, we shall strike a balance between culture and fun.

Mr. FARRELL: Somehow I believe, Ken, that the balance will tip in the favor of culture.

KERR: When asked if he'd considered writing "In Bruges" as a play, McDonagh says no. While the dialogue could easily work on the stage, the playwright says he wanted to use what he calls the beautifully odd backdrop of the city of Bruges itself to address deeper and sadder things. McDonagh is best known for a series of seven plays telling bleak stories of anguish and violence mostly set in the rural Ireland of his parents. (Unintelligible) writing and his macabre sense of humor have made the 37-year-old McDonagh one of the most sought after playwrights on the West End and on Broadway.

Remarkably, he wrote all seven plays during a nine month period in 1994 when he was unemployed in London. He spent much of the time since getting them produced. While McDonagh wrote his plays quickly, he resists any changes to his scripts.

Mr. MCDONAGH: I'm not really one who's into work shopping, getting into a room and having us all vote on what the lines should be. If I'm coming to something, I've lived with the script probably for two years or more and there's a reason why every single line has every single syllable and comma.

KERR: The most recently produced of the plays was "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," which begins with the death of a cat called Wee Thomas. Everyone is sad, not so much that the cat is dead, but more because it's the only thing ever loved by a man too violent for the IRA, and they know he'll be upset. McDonagh's play "The Pillowman" is about the interrogation of a writer whose horrific tale seemed to be inspiring a serial killer preying on children. Wendy Knox recently directed a production of "The Pillowman" at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Knox, who also runs the city's Frank Theatre Company, shakes her head and smiles when asks what attracted her to McDonagh's work.

Ms. WENDY KNOX (Director): Well, how wrong it is. I mean, it is. It's not everybody's cup of tea. It's black, black comedy. You know, there's stuff that is just so offensive or wrong or upsetting or disturbing, and then the next minute there's something hysterically funny.

KERR: Knox says at one point a brutal interrogator roars he's tired of how some people claim they are violent alcoholics because of a lousy childhood. When it's pointed out that he's a violent alcoholic, he counters that in his case it was a personal choice. St. Paul Pioneer Press critic Chris Hewitt saw "Pillowman" and McDonagh's first drama, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," on Broadway. He says the playwright uses humor differently on stage than on screen.

Mr. CHRIS HEWITT (Critic): In the plays the humor is even more subversive because it's used almost to bring us up short and say, okay, you're watching this story that involves the exploitation and murder of children and mental illness and potentially sort of a police state and a family that's a complete trap for everybody who involved in it - and you're laughing.

KERR: Hewitt describes "In Bruges" as much sunny than the plays.

Mr. HEWITT: It's completely about the potential for redemption. There's a lot of talk about if you can't essentially save yourself, is it possible for you to at least help provide for the safety of another.

KERR: For his part, Martin McDonagh wants "In Bruges" to explore how despicable characters can have senses of honor, compassion and duty.

Mr. MCDONAGH: These people can't possibly think in the same way of - about certain things and crimes as we do. But I think if you're true to each of those personalities, then you can get to an interesting place by the end, you know, and it could be a place of despair or sadness or hope. You know, I come away from the film feeling there's a sense of hope to it.

KERR: Martin McDonagh has been writing since his creative frenzy of 1994. He's written several plays and a couple of film scripts. But he says the energy he's expended getting his plays produced has left him wanting to spend more time at his desk.

Mr. MCDONAGH: Just to go back to the place I was about 10 years, where I was just writing in my room when I was unemployed and was telling stories for the sake of telling stories.

KERR: McDonagh says he knows he must have changed as a result of his success. He just wants to find out what kind of writer he has become.

For NPR News, I'm Euan Kerr.

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