The Banshees of Inisherin, Martin McDonagh’s fourth film, began with an ending. As the Covid pandemic loomed, McDonagh found himself in a dark place of his own, struggling to process a failed relationship. And as the writer and director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and In Bruges is wont to do, processing it meant picking up a pen. “I think I was tapping into being in that sad sort of breakup place,” he says now. “I was getting sad on a daily basis and writing this was like a side of joy.”
The sadness found a release as he came up with the denizens of a fictional Aran Island off the west coast of Ireland, never having to travel too far from his own feelings as he imagined the trauma of two friends undergoing their own conscious uncoupling. “Every day you think, ‘Oh, this is useful, write it down.’ And at the end of it, you have something decent,” he notes. “I think that was probably one of the things that helped bring me out of it.”
He insists it’s “the first and probably only time” he’ll work through his own issues so directly with his work, but it seemed fitting that, as the global pandemic started to take hold, McDonagh found himself back on the small, remote island chain on which he’d set two plays, The Cripple of Inishmaan in 1996 and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in 2001.
In his work as a playwright, McDonagh had set two plays on the Aran Islands, three Rocky isles at the mouth of Galway Bay, in western Ireland, including The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001). McDonagh was established in theatre as an extraordinary wordsmith with extraordinary tales and extraordinary characters; a writer who brings darkness, comedy and humanity, simultaneously, to his stories.
“That feeling that Colm has, that he might be wasting his time, was a thought I had a lot during the pandemic,” McDonagh says. He’d finished his script before the lockdowns began, but in the year and a half it took to finally get the film on its feet, the notion of an island community dealing with existential issues couldn’t help but be informed by the way life was readjusting around him.
Indeed, while other films have attempted to literally incorporate the pandemic into their storytelling, The Banshees of Inisherin feels like the first to properly capture a sense that it’s while the world is grappling with big, seemingly insurmountable obstacles that our own much more petty and personal complaints appear to take on disproportionately seismic importance. So, despite the story taking place in 1923, the focus of Martin McDonagh’s new film is on two friends having a tiff, and not on the larger issues going on around them.
McDonagh borrowed the title from a play he’d written years earlier but had been too embarrassed to publish. The Banshees of Inisheer would have formed the third part of his Aran Islands trilogy, completing a cycle that would have covered the entirety of the small island chain southwest of Galway. But, he says, there is nothing of that play in his new film. He just liked the alliterative ‘sh’ sound of The Banshees of Inisherin as a title, as much as to include a reference to it in the script itself.
But the banshees of the title might not be quite so elusive. In Irish folklore, banshees are female spirits whose shriek is a portent of death, and McDonagh’s script slides in one of his own in the form of Mrs. McCormick, played with comical wickedness by Sheila Flitton. It’s not that Mrs. McCormick is a literal banshee, but she does seem to appear just when she’s not wanted. And as with the nature of that mythology around the outskirts of his screenplay, McDonagh affords himself the opportunity to stretch the extremities of his story to the heights of emotion and trauma. Blood flies, tears are shed, and death seems destined to come to Inisherin. But in the middle of it all, truths are told and deep heartbreak must be processed.
There was another desire driving McDonagh’s decision to focus his narrative on Pádraic and Colm: he wanted to reunite Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, with whom he’d collaborated on 2008’s In Bruges. Though the two actors had met and discussed other projects, it was on In Bruges, with McDonagh’s writing to hand, that they became an indelible on-screen pairing. And it had been 14 years since they had shot the film; 14 years since they last worked together.
McDonagh had wanted to reunite Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson ever since their amazing double act in his debut feature, In Bruges (2008). That film is remembered fondly and the writer-director loved the two actors as a pairing. Farrell went on to star in his second film, Seven Psychopaths, but McDonagh spent years thinking of a fit for him and Gleeson in another story. McDonagh was determined not to besmirch In Bruges, by creating something half-cocked.
“We had so much fun on the first one,” says McDonagh. “I definitely wanted to work with the boys again, but there was a trepidation there too, not to do anything lesser than Bruges. In the years since it had come out, we’ve all had people come up to us to say how much they liked it. You don’t want to disappoint those people, at the same time as you don’t want to replicate exactly what you did before. If In Bruges is a love story between their characters, this is the end of that. The end of love.”
In that way, Banshees is, suggests Farrell, “In Bruges 10 years later, 90 years before.”
Set on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, The Banshees Of Inisherin follows lifelong friends Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), who find themselves at an impasse when Colm unexpectedly puts an end to their friendship. A stunned Pádraic, aided by his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and troubled young islander Dominic (Barry Keoghan), endeavours to repair the relationship, refusing to take no for an answer. But Pádraic’s repeated efforts only strengthen his former friend’s resolve and when Colm delivers a desperate ultimatum, events swiftly escalate, with shocking consequences.
In late 2019, producer Graham Broadbent was travelling in Argentina when he received an email from Martin McDonagh, the writer-director with whom he had collaborated on three motion pictures at that point – In Bruges (2008), Seven Psychopaths (2012), and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). “Have a read of this,” McDonagh wrote in his email.
On a flight from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, Broadbent was plunged into the story of THE Banshees Of Inisherin. The world that McDonagh created – a fictional island off the west coast of Ireland where two friends become estranged, leading to disastrous, anarchic consequences. It had all of the writer-director’s trademarks: it was funny, sad, dark, and full of humanity – distinctly McDonagh.
“The Banshees of Inisherin is the story of an island, the small group of people on that island, and two friends who early on in the film are forced by the decision of one friend to go their separate ways,” says actor Colin Farrell (The Lobster, Minority Report), who plays Pádraic in the film. “The other friend finds that particularly hard to deal with.”
“Pádraic can’t understand why Colm doesn’t want to be friends with him anymore and won’t accept it. It’s similar to the feelings you feel when you’ve been dumped in a relationship. You think, ‘So did you ever like me, or was I imagining that we were in love?’” says McDonagh. “It’s interesting to see who the audience identifies with. Can they understand the tough line that Colm, the breaker-upper, has taken, or do they identify with the nice person who is broken hearted?”
But Colm has his reasons. “He doesn’t want to waste his time anymore,” says McDonagh. “He wants to devote himself to artistic enterprises: music or thought. Pádraic is the fallout from that decision. Until this point things have been easy going. But Colm is older than Pádraic by 15 or 20 years. Colm identifies that time is precious and he sees Pádraic as a waste of time.”
“Colm decides to embrace art and creativity as the most important thing in life and it leads to hellish consequences,” says Gleeson. “Pádraic chooses to be nice and he ends up with hellish consequences as well. The Irish Civil War was a tragedy – that’s the context here. Through examining it and trying to understand how things can get dragged out of shape, maybe we can face it down and not take that path. I hope the film will remind people that making nasty or harmful decisions has a lasting effect.”
“Do you devote yourself totally to life as an artist,” McDonagh continues, “and disregard friends or lovers or family? Is work the most important thing? Does it matter who gets hurt in the process? It’s a debate that isn’t answered by me or the film. I don’t think that you have to be a self-flagellating or dark or hateful person to do any kind of art, even dark art. But I definitely think the film explores that interesting conundrum.”
McDonagh had never made a period drama before and revelled in bringing historical towns and characters to life. “When you set something in the past it opens up a lot of possibilities,” he says.
A period setting also prevents the film from dating as quickly as a story set in modern times. In the film In Bruges, the writer-director tried not to include modern references – in order to create a timeless milieu. Three Billboards also felt like its own self-contained timepiece. The Banshees Of Inisherin does not adhere to the strict boundaries of history. Instead, it is its own self-contained fantasy: a mythical place, wilder than the mainland, a streak of madness permeating its bones.
The film’s title, for example, refers to a fabled ghostly figure from Irish mythology who wailed at night to foreshadow a death in the locale. “If you’ve heard her belt out her tune,” deadpans Farrell, “it’s already too late for you.”
Farrell and Gleeson on McDonagh
“One of the things I love about Martin’s writing is that it lacks malice,” continues Farrell. “Some of the characters he presents to the audience can be incredibly malicious and cruel and some of the events can be beyond the pale in regards to the macabre, but I never detect any maliciousness from the writer, the voice, the creator of it.”
“As an actor, you’re looking for someone who has a unique voice, an original way of articulating thoughts and feelings and creating characters and whole worlds. It’s lovely when you come across a writer that establishes a world that has its own kind of order and sense of aesthetic. Martin’s voice can be extraordinary.” Gleeson describes McDonagh as fearless. “He goes into these awful places finally, armed with compassion and empathy.”
Farrell and Gleeson, according to McDonagh, explore truthfulness without shying away from the darkness. They are comic actors who don’t play for laughs. The Banshees Of Inisherin is sad yet humorous in places. In Bruges permitted Farrell and Gleeson to develop a shorthand. That same shorthand is evident in Banshees, albeit within very different characters.
Farrell and Gleeson created a shorthand with McDonagh when they made In Bruges. The Banshees Of Inisherin picked up where they left off.
“Martin has clarity of purpose,” remarks Gleeson. “Having tried writing and directing simultaneously myself, you have to be careful. Writing and directing are two different parts of the process. You have to separate the process of the words and how best to enact them. Martin writes with in-built latitude, so he writes the characters with room to explore in the filming process.”
Production plans for The Banshees Of Inisherin were initially scuppered when the pandemic hit in 2020 – everything was pushed back. But this delay was an advantage for the filmmakers. McDonagh assembled three of his collaborators – production designer Mark Tildesley (No Time to Die, Phantom Thread), Director of Photography Ben Davis, BSC (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths), and first A.D. Peter Kohn (The Greatest Showman, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, La La Land) – in a house in Galway as the pre-production period turned into a year, an unusual amount of time for any film shoot.
Tildesley was the only member of the team who had not worked with McDonagh before, but he was familiar with his work.
The team spent two weeks together, sitting around a fireplace and talking about the script. McDonagh proceeded to storyboard every frame of the film – a process he employs for each project. “When I write a script it’s all about character and dialogue and situations,” he remarks. “It’s not, at that stage, about images, so the storyboarding process is a major phase of the storytelling.”
Broadbent notes that McDonagh is the only director he has worked with who storyboards every scene long before shooting starts. “As a filmmaker, he’s evolved to the point where he knows exactly how the camera’s going to work with him and how to use the actors and his script to tell the story.”
In the house in Galway, the writer-director began envisioning a Western theme for his film. The team watched classic movies such as The Night of the Hunter, a 1955 film noir, and referenced the work of John Ford and Sergio Leone. They picked up on the low angle, through-the-feet shots of Leone, and the shots through doors and windows in Ford’s work. The period setting of Banshees, 1923, leant itself to the idea of a Western.
“Inisherin is a fictional island, so I didn’t want it to be specifically one place,” says the writer-director. “I wanted it to be more mythical. So, we explored each of the Aran Islands. Inishmore ticked most of the boxes. I’d been there as a kid. My parents were living in Galway along the coast, and you can see the Aran Islands from where they were.”
McDonagh hopes he has created characters that audiences have not seen before. “You’ll identify with some and disagree with others,” he says. “It’s very funny, but there’s also a sadness that I really wanted to capture. Filmmakers don’t usually try to send an audience away sad. But that was part of it – a sad truth about this story, about Ireland at that time and maybe about life.”
Martin McDonagh is a playwright and filmmaker born in London to Irish parents in 1970. His plays include The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Pillowman, and Hangmen, all of which have played in both the West End and on Broadway and have now been performed in over 40 countries and translated into more than 30 languages. He has won several awards, including an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy (The Lieutenant of Inishmore), two Olivier Awards for Best New Play (The Pillowman, Hangmen), an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film (Six Shooter), two BAFTA Awards for Best Original Screenplay (In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), a BAFTA Award for Best Film (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and a BAFTA Award for Best British Film (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). McDonagh also won Golden Globe Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Motion Picture – Drama (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and was nominated for Best Director (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). He has received two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay (In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).