Matthew Lickona is author of Swimming with Scapulars (true confessions of a young Catholic) and Surfing with Mel (about a failed Mel Gibson film on the Book of Maccabees) and a film reviewer for the San Diego Reader.
Lickona’s interview of writer-director John Michael McDonagh of the current movie Calvary appeared in yesterday’s issue of the Reader.
….ML: A few times while watching this, I thought to myself, How on earth does he know the life of the priest as well as he does? How did you get in there as far as you did?
JMM: Well, I was an altar boy until I was 11 or 12. I was told that you were given money if you served at weddings, which I got the first couple of times: some money off the best man. But after I did three weddings in a row and I got paid no money, that’s when I stopped being an altar boy. So, it was completely mercenary on my part. I guess you could say I’ve been backstage, though. The scene early on where Father is with the little boy and he’s taking off his vestments and putting away the wine and all that kind of stuff, I’d seen all that. And it is like being backstage at a play, because they’re getting ready for a performance when they put on all those vestments, you could say. And my brother, he was a choirboy, and actually sang before the Pope. But apart from that, I think what you find is this: if you write a scene that is artistically true, then, generally speaking, all the details are true as well. So, that’s why I’m never very keen on research. I always find that the research will take care of itself. Or maybe I’m just completely lazy.
ML: You’re writing about subject matter that can easily go to the lurid, and I was impressed with how you managed to keep it from going there. Could you talk about how you controlled the tone?
JMM: Yeah, I think I get into [the grisly details] verbally, but there are never any kind of visual representations of any kind of abuse. To me, to tell the story straightforwardly, head on, properly, you’re basically telling a horror story. You’re making a horror movie, and I didn’t want to make a horror movie. If other people do, that’s fine. I always try to approach things obliquely, and I feel like there’s always going to be humor in whatever I write, however dark the subject matter, because I think that’s what life is. It’s both the comic and the tragic.
When I sit down to write, I don’t censor myself in any way. I write very quickly and I go straight through, and I don’t analyze what I’ve written too much. And so, whatever tone I have just comes out of my own personality. It’s not something that I’ve learned, unless you can say you learn something from every great writer you’ve ever read.
It’ll be later on, in the editing process, where I’m looking at the film and saying, “There’s been three really somber scenes in a row, let’s shift them around and put a lighter scene in between.” And I knew that the script was episodic in nature, and wasn’t completely relying on plot mechanics, so I could shift scenes around. I knew that in the writing. So, I knew I had a certain amount of leeway to do that in the editing….
ML: I never forgot this quote I once read from James Joyce: “O Ireland, my first and only love/ Where Christ and Caesar are ever hand in glove.” Watching this film, it looks like the hand is out of the glove. The priest has lost the status that he had, the control that he had just in virtue of his office. Would you say that’s the case in Ireland now?
JMM: Yeah, I guess. The film is about a small town in Ireland, but it was trying to be kind of universal about human beings and any place that has dealt with all those scandals, whether clerical scandals, or financial scandals, or whatever. But I think that particularly in Ireland, the Church had a very big hand in the actions of the State. So I think when the Church comes down, as it kind of has, it kind of in a way brings the State down with it. And also, if you look at the collusion of the police force in a lot of those scandals as well. So, it feels like, certainly in Ireland — and you could say other places, like Spain or Greece or whatever — the whole system of authority has come down. I don’t think it’s just the Church. I think people are very angry about what’s happened over the last 20 years.
As regards Ireland specifically, just to give an anecdotal thing, my father is 76. He used to go to Mass every week of his life. But when those scandals first started coming out, he stopped going. He hasn’t been to Mass in about ten years. And I think that’s endemic throughout the country.
ML: And those are people who have been going their whole lives.
JMM: Exactly. Which is quite terrible, when you think about it….
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