Why I am Haunted by Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh has a new film coming out soon. It’s called ‘Seven Psychopaths’. I suspect that it is going to be really really good and that I will enjoy it very much as I generally do with his work. 

That means it will start all over again, The Haunting. It starts every time he has something new and marvellous coming out. To be honest, I think it’s started already.

You know who Martin McDonagh is, right? Of course you do. He’s the writer/director of Academy Award nominated and brilliant ‘In Bruges’ as well as the Academy Award winning short film ‘Six Shooter’. He also has a highly-impressive range of theatre plays including ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ ‘The Pillowman’ ‘The Cripple of Inismaan’… I could go on, I really could. At one time he shared a distinction with William Shakespeare as being the only playwright to simultaneously have four plays running consecutively in London’s West End. That’s who he is.

And, yes, I think I am haunted by him. 

Here’s why.

Years ago, when I lived in London I used to read radio scripts for a couple of very good radio play competitions. I had won one of them myself and then dropped a hint that I liked reviewing so I got a gig reading and reviewing scripts for short listing. I wasn’t the judge or anything important like that, I just pared the list down to the best few and they were then sent on for judging. It was sometimes fun, sometimes depressing, and always beneficial to my own writing.

I used to get a big fat package in the post and that would contain thirty-or-so radio scripts and they all would have to be read and a review written about each of them. Then I got to pick the best three and send them onward to the big boys.

In one of these big fat packages, I got two scripts by the same writer. It was some guy called Martin McDonagh. They were wonderful plays, head and shoulders above everyone else so, when I got to pick my three plays, I picked his two and sent them on. Before I sent them, I noted there was a phone number for the writer on the front of the scripts. I wrote that number down. Of all the scripts I have ever read, this was the only phone number I ever bothered to write down. I just reckoned the guy was that good.

Martin won the competition with one of his two plays. It was the one I had written most glowingly about. The other play, about which I was a bit less glowing, did not feature at all.

I met Martin at the prize giving ceremony. We script-readers didn’t usually identify ourselves to the winners but I couldn’t resist introducing myself and saying how I had read, reviewed, and admired his two plays. We had a frank discussion about the plays, which I hugely enjoyed. I felt that he tended to push his dialogue exchanges several beats too far and he confidently disagreed, asserting that he actually had it just right. I felt that the right play had won the competition and he again effortlessly disagreed. In his opinion, the other play was infinitely better.

We had a grand afternoon. We positioned ourselves in the corner, watching the room, making fun of people, bantering in that ‘I’ve raised the stakes, now it’s you turn’ way that some Irish people like to do. He was a nice guy. He was hugely confident is his own ability and in his own future success. I told him if he ever fancied doing a bit of co-writing to give me a call. He laughed politely and that was pretty much that. We never met again.

And now he haunts me. 

Shortly after our little meeting, Martin exploded onto the world of theatre. Gary Hynes of The Druid Theatre Company took on his Leenane Trilogy of plays and wowed, first Ireland, then the West End and then Broadway with the work. Meanwhile Nicolas Hytner at the National Theatre in London took on another of his plays. He appeared in all the papers and famously told Sean Connery to ‘fuck off’ at an awards ceremony. His star ascended and it hasn’t stopped ascending yet. In his newest film, which he wrote, he directs Christopher Walken, Colin Farrell and my all time hero, Tom Waits, to name but a few.

Perhaps it’s because I saw his work before anybody else did, I saw the potential in him and I was right. Perhaps that’s what haunts me.

But, no, it isn’t that. Not really. 

The truth is that his is the writing career I believed I would one day have. I have always felt that I have some talent for writing and I have studied and read and watched and generally soaked up everything I can to further my ambition. And I have written, always written. I believed that my talent would, eventually, out. But I am nearly fifty now and I am coming to face the rather interesting possibility that I am not destined to succeed. Oh, I will have things put on, here and there, and I will love and treasure those, as I always have, but the big game is perhaps not for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to keep trying until I die, it’s in my blood, I have to, but I have to start facing the facts too. I’ve never been a fool. 

The fact of the matter is that Martin McDonagh has earned and deserves everything he gets. When he had nothing but the faith in his ability that I had, he was brave and bold enough to take the plunge. He lived very poor and worked extremely hard, producing radio play after radio play, being rejected hither and yon. He didn’t give up though, he kept at it, he kept his faith in himself and ultimately he won through. I respect that enormously. I envy it but I respect it too. 

I was never brave enough to do that. There was always work that had to be done, real life responsibilities that took precedence over the writing that I burned to do. My writing was always (and still is) done late at night when all my other duties are fulfilled. When my energy is low and I am perhaps not at my best. I was never really brave enough to starve myself in the attempt to find success.

But there’s more to it than just bravery. Much more. The fact it took me longest to face is this one. Martin is just a better writer than I am. It’s hard to even write that down. There was a time when, in my head, nobody was better than me but I’m older now and wiser. There are levels of talent in all things and, in fairness, I believe I am on a level which is a bit higher than quite a lot of other writers. I belong there because I’m pretty good. But I’m not the best. For a while there, I thought I was but I’m not. 

In the early days, I thought myself rather clever to have ‘spotted’ Martin McDonagh from deep in my slush pile. “I must be pretty damn good to pick him out of the pile,” I thought. Not at all. There’s no talent in seeing pure talent, it will shine out of any heap of scripts for anyone. A fool could have found McDonagh in that pile. It’s just that I happened to be the fool who did it.

But, just because I touched greatness on its way up, that’s never any reason for me to equate myself with it, to say it should have been me. It shouldn’t have been me. For two reasons. One, that I didn’t put everything I had into it and, two, that I probably wasn’t ever quite good enough. Maybe if I’d covered 'number one’ then 'number two’ might have looked after itself.

In the meantime, as soon as I get over this little bit of wallowing that my Haunting inevitably evokes, I’ll be back on track, writing, submitting, trying my best with whatever time I am able to allow myself. 

I’m looking forward to Martin McDonagh’s new film, I think it’s going to be great.

Who knows? Maybe someday mine will be too. 


Bubsy's Blog said...

Keep pushing on, never give up. Success is still success regardless of the age it's achieved.

Jim Murdoch said...

I didn't recognise the name. I've seen In Bruges and I quite enjoyed it and I've heard of his play A Skull in Connemara because of the Beckett reference but I've not seen it.

Success is an odd beast. It has little or nothing to do with talent. (Jedward anyone?) Some talented people do succeed but the fact that they're talented is only one factor and not the most important one. You say it here. McDonagh "was hugely confident is his own ability". Confidence is important and luck but confidence even more so because a confident person is far more likely to be brazen and muscle his way into the places where all the luck is being doled out. It also helps if your product is one that people are interested in. Paul Auster was on TV yesterday—I mentioned him on Facebook (I took down a few sentences word for word since they impressed me)—and he was talking about Moby Dick which was discovered by a critic in a second-hand bookshop years after Melville had died in obscurity and it was this critic—who bought the book on a whim—that brought it to the world's attention, not Melville. I'm not suggesting that what you and I need to do is shuffle off this mortal coil to be discovered but (apparently) it doesn't hurt.

One has to wonder though if Moby Dick was published today and not in 1851 would it make a big splash or sell out its (probably rather small) print run and then sink without trace? The amount of new everythings—books, films, plays, TV shows, new electronic thingies—is the real problem. The competition for people's attentions has never been as great. There are no shiny vampires in Moby Dick or sado-masochistic sex. "Who they hell would want to read about some bloke trying to kill a whale?" they'd ask. "Whaling should be banned."

Jena Isle said...

Hey Ken,

You can too, you just didn't focus like you should. I remember reading one of your plays here in your blog, and it made me laugh and enjoy it.

You're successful too in your own right, having your plays shown, and your own stories winning in competitions.

Perhaps, it's still not time. Your time will come too.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks Bubsy, I'll certainly keep working at it, I love it too much to stop. :)

Hi Jim, I don't think we have to die right now but we can console ourselves that, years after we're gone, we may be spotted in some dusty corner and live again through our words. Then again... :)

Ken Armstrong said...

Dear Jena, thanks very much. You've been supportive for a long time and I know you have good taste. :) My kindest regards to you and yours.

mataharifilms said...

Ken, I don't know Martin McD, but i have a few opinions nonetheless: IN BRUGES is a chancer's script. He has brass balls, no doubt about that. To take a riff on THE DUMB WAITER and then, when it runs out of steam, shift horses onto a pastiche of DON'T LOOK NOW is a clever way to write a screenplay, but it was the namey cast that got it made, not the quality of the script - in my judgement. McDonagh didn't even bother to let Harold Pinter know he had taken THE DUMB WAITER's characters for a round of "What Happened Next?". That makes him a thief. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not quite the same as writing talent. BEHANDING IN SPOKANE is a horrid play. You're probably not as big an opportunist as him, and quite possibly you're a better human being than Martin McD will ever be, and success will come to you in its own form and in its own time. But maybe in this blog you were compelled to exorcise the ghost in your haunting, and now you've done it maybe you'll not need to give him quite so much credit for his considerable but nevertheless god-given talent, his vaulting ambition, and his genius for getting ahead. All the best,

Ken Armstrong said...

Mataharifilms: Thanks for your comment. I think one of the beauties of film is that we are allowed to all have our own strong opinions of them and I also think one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to try and convince others to feel as we do about a film. So I won't try to do that. :)

For my part, I greatly enjoyed 'In Bruges'. I think the writer was certainly aware of 'The Dumb Waiter' as a strong reference but I think even Pinter himself might have been happy that the initial conceit was built upon sufficiently to set this film apart from his play.

There's no doubt that Martin writes material that will often challenge and even sometimes alienate audiences. I think this shows strength of purpose and also and unapologetic dark playfulness, which I like.

We will continue to think differently about these matters but I respect your views and thank you for them.

As for me, I'll just keep hacking away. :)

Anonymous said...

Dear Ken,

Your writing has humanity and always has had. That makes you a better writer. Authors with heart understand the human condition better than those without, and that means in the test of time, your writing will last. TC

Ken Armstrong said...

Thank you TC.
I will hold on to that.

Anonymous said...

"Wishful thinking makes woeful wanting" Barman from the Stables. You should remember! You've put more effort into having a great life then most and the pay off as been good it seems to me. But it's not Hollywood I hear you say..... careful what you wish for.....what you've got looks pretty great from here MC x

Ken Armstrong said...

You are wise, MC, and I hear you. It's not Hollywood I would ever wish for it's something much simpler than that... hard to define... the time and space to write what I want and an ear to listen to it... and I have all that already... tricky innit? x

dermot tynan said...

Ken, you're a better writer than him, and don't let his successes tell you otherwise. Don't care for his plays or his films. I still can't figure out how "Six Shooter" won an Oscar.

Rachel Fox said...

A good honest post... most of us who haven't had the big success go through these feelings I think!

But then think of all the stories that are about these feelings (the bitter writer in "The Player"... not that I'm saying you're bitter, not at all!) and just use them like everything else. I remember "The Player" much more than I remember "In Bruges" (I did watch it on your recommendation... and all I can remember of it now is that Bruges looked pretty and they just swore ALL the time).



Fin said...

If I was a lawyer pleading the contrary to your case, Ken, I would have no shortage of evidence. But I know you know all those arguments so I won't trot them out here. Can't help quoting Dylan though:

You do what you must do
and you do it well

Seems to me you are doing that and then some...

23 said...

Hey Ken, I read this by chance and I think you are totally right on everything. Thank you for that cause' Martin hunts me to. I'm 21 and I'm a really good fucking writer I think. I live in Chile where writing is bad and I think I could have a shot and become a legend such as Martin or John Michel. The thing is not to live that much on the real world. We write fantasy, let's live there to.