Working with Martin McDonagh, Cutting Great Performances, and Managing the Audience's Sympathy for Damaged Characters

Justice is elusive in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced mother seeking some kind of closure after the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter in a rural American small town. The billboards of the title carry a three-part message that the local Sheriff Willoughby finds hard to ignore, especially since they call him by name and suggest he hasn’t done all he could to find the killer. Violent, profane, and utterly combustible, the rest of the film springs forth from that confrontational gesture. And yet by the time it’s over, writer-director Martin McDonagh has teased out notes of unlikely grace and empathy from a bleak and timely black comedy. The film’s plaudits to date include BAFTA and ACE Eddie Award nominations for film editor Jon Gregory, who spoke to us this week about working with McDonagh for the second time, cutting career-highlight performances by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, and generating sympathy for what could seem like irredeemable characters.

Frances McDormand in <i>Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri</i>

Frances McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Photo by Merrick Morton. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

StudioDaily: How were you working while the film was shooting? Was your Avid on set or close to the production? 

Well, we were in North Carolina. That’s where Ebbing was shot, even though it wasn’t Missouri. We had talked, obviously, beforehand — in fact, we had talked about a year previously when he had written it and he sent me the script to make sure I was available. But I’m sure you know how we worked. I would be assembling, and he would be shooting. I was probably just picking the last take [of each shot] just to get the thing thrown together, and to see if we needed pick-ups or anything like that before we moved on to a different location. What was good about this one was it was all set in one little town, so up to a point they could pick stuff up whenever they needed to.

What was working with Martin McDonagh like?

Martin didn’t work the weekend shooting — I’m sure he was rehearsing — but he’d come into the cutting room and look at the assembly as we were building it up, and just talk about it. We knew each other pretty well, even though we had only done one film before. We really got on, but it’s hard to explain. It’s like any relationship — you either click or you don’t. When we got back to London, we ran through the assembly two or three times just as it was, to get the feel of things. I don’t know any other director who works this way, but Martin would take all the dailies home and go through all the takes for about eight, nine or 10 weeks, regardless of whether they were selected takes or NG takes, for performance. And he would make note of every line. Incredibly thorough. And then he would pass all that material on to me on a daily basis, and I would try to assemble it into a film. It wasn’t always possible. Some of his choices you couldn’t actually put together because visually they’d be all over the place. But I had to work through it. It was quite painstaking.

As his choices were coming in, it was amazing how the performances just built as we went along. By the time we got to the end of it, the film was pretty much as-is. We never really looked for other performances or other takes unless they weren’t working visually, and then we’d have to try and paste dialogue from one scene into the other. You do that often in the editing. But where it’s so good with Martin, even if some of the takes had the wrong inflection, the timing was pretty much set. So putting one take’s dialogue onto another visual take was relatively easy. At the end of the day, the thing we really had to work on, as with all films, was getting the structure right. It wasn’t about trying to do that sort of thing you do often, where you try to build up someone who’s a weak character in the film to make it more realistic or plausible. In the two I’ve done with Martin, you don’t have to do that. He’s so into the performance and delivery that all that was set.

It’s great fun. I can’t be academic about it. It’s great fun — you see these things happening, and you move the scenes around. And Martin is incredibly relaxed about the whole thing. Sometimes directors are really insecure. I don’t just mean new directors. Obviously everything can be put back again, but if you remove a scene it will really throw them.  But because Martin was so secure in his own self as a director, and in the performance of the characters, he’d let me do anything! I just had a whale of a time on it. Some producers have said to me that the only way you can really do your best work on a film is if you’re really wound up like a watch spring, and you’re working all the hours, and that’s where you get the best performances. That’s all such rubbish. Our working together was so relaxed. Obviously intense, but relaxed. You couldn’t get him some nights because he was playing five-a-side football in Regent’s Park. And with Graham Broadbent, his producer — I’m not being sycophantic here, but he made everything possible for us. I’m really pleased that it’s really working for Martin, because it’s only his third film and he’s really getting all these nominations for it. And that was our general working relationship.

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in <i>Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri</i>

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Photo by Merrick Morton. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

You’re describing a surprisingly straightforward process for such a tonally complex film.

It wasn’t dead easy, because there were some things we had to fiddle around with a lot. One of the main things we had to really work on was Dixon. At the beginning of the film, he’s not a likable character. He’s a racist cop and all the rest of it. We had to make sure that by the time you got to the end of it you had some kind of sympathy for him. That was the most interesting bit — to try to get the audience to like him, knowing the sort of guy he was. Other than Dixon’s arc, what’s most interesting to me is with Mildred, to not make her a true nutcase when, because her billboards have burned down, she goes and burns the police station down. That’s quite an extreme event. What I did was — Martin had originally written the flashback with Mildred’s daughter so that it came at the very end of the film. In fact, it came at the point when Dixon says to her on the slope, “I think I know who this guy is, and we’re going to get him.” When he leaves and she’s left there alone, looking down at the billboards, that’s where we had the flashback. And I felt that was miles too late. You really needed to know that. That’s such a terrible thing for a parent, or anybody who loves someone else. You have a terrible argument, and that’s the last time you see them? You can’t change it. That’s something you can’t change, and that was the crux of it. She was really beating herself up about it, and she could not do anything to change that, and it was her fault. I think that all made her very sympathetic throughout the film. So when she does the burning of the police station, even though it’s still a pretty extreme act, you kind of go with her. Maybe some people didn’t. But I think you sort of go with her because there’s nothing she can ever do for her daughter, even if they find the killer. Nothing will ever compensate for that last argument they had. That’s the main thing we adjusted as far as she was concerned.

I think it’s really interesting to hear what you guys tried to do with both of those characters. As you said, that moment when Mildred firebombs the police station is not really defensible. But the important thing is that you understand it. It’s the same with the police officer. There is a little bit of a backlash against the film here in the U.S. — Dixon’s character is a racist policeman who has tortured a black man, and there’s a feeling that the film never confronts that or deals with it explicitly. I think it plays into what you were just talking about with Mildred’s character. She’s not Saint Mildred, and he’s not exactly a hero. It’s more about the complexity of these people.

Generally speaking, when you think to yourself, “Christ, I care about this guy who was such a shit, throwing people out of windows and all that,” it throws your emotions around. It’s not clean-cut. Life’s not clean-cut. When you see films where everything kind of ties itself up at the end, well, that’s fine. There’s a place for all kinds of films. But you can’t keep doing that all the time. Life’s not like that at all. But I know what you mean. People I’ve shown the film to can’t believe that after this guy is introduced, along with throwing that guy out the window and beating his girlfriend and all the rest of it, when you get to the end [he’s sympathetic]. That has a lot to do with Sam Rockwell. He plays the thing in such a vulnerable way at times. I suppose it’s manipulative in that respect, but I think it’s so refreshing. You can’t have it all be straightforward. A lot of films will deal with race. but that wasn’t our intention. Martin’s world is not realistic in terms of some of the things that happen, or the consequences of them, but nevertheless it’s very real in its own way.

Sometimes I’m sure you’re surprised by how a film is received when it goes out to the public.

We always hope that a film will be successful. Most producers and directors, unless they’re masochists, do expect that. But to be honest, when we came to the states and did the previews in Los Angeles — which is not the best place to go, because everyone there thinks they’re a film critic — it got enormous marks, into the late 80s. And we did another preview in the midwest where we got similar reactions. But even if the film had bombed, it was great working with Martin. I’d jump to make his next project any day, even if it was watching paint dry. He’d have a really interesting viewpoint on it.

I think we have time for one more question — can you say something about cutting Frances McDormand’s performance? 

Oh, she’s great. She said she modeled it on John Wayne. Of course, I grew up loving John Wayne’s films. I love John Ford and my favorite genre is Westerns. They don’t make them anymore, which is very sad to me, but I grew up in the 50s and the 60s, which is the era of the high points of the Western before science fiction took over in the 1960s. But I thought of her performance as very deadpan, though you did see the tenderness at times. That was a great way to do it. She made it her own. She obviously wasn’t just doing John Wayne. I loved her performance in it, and she’s a lovely woman. When she’s in a scene, or any person is in a scene, it’s about how you use them in that scene — how you bring them out and make the audience empathize with them. I’ve never been to film school or anything like that, so I can’t talk much academically about tonal range and timing shifts and all that sort of stuff. But I’ve seen god knows how many movies through the years, and that’s where I learned everything. It’s all instinctive. That sounds a bit over the top — and often your instincts aren’t right — but I really can’t explain these things. There must be a lot of influences from other movies, and I suppose I was able to present her [as if she were] in a Western. But it was great working on her performance.

I love working on English films, but I also love when I get the chance, which is not that often, to work on an American film — especially an American independent film. I’m not overly into the big blockbuster, but a film set in a small town in middle America? I love all those. They’re fantastic films. I try to see as many as I can that come over here. So this had everything I wanted to do in a film, and I was presented it by Martin. That was just great. I don’t know what I’ll move onto next, after that.

I’ve read that you’re working on the new Mike Leigh film, Peterloo.

That’s right. We’ve finished the actual cut, so now we’re going to do all the dubbing and all the rest of it. It’s such a good picture, about the Peterloo massacre. Mike is also somebody who’s very much like Martin. Performances are the main thing and he rehearses a lot, so when you’re working with him you don’t have to worry about the performances too much. It’s everything else you have to worry about — you have to work out structure and all that. I’m really very lucky at the moment. Very lucky.