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Promotional still from Calvary. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Calvary Director John Michael McDonagh, on his Unconventional Muses

He’s not your typical muse, but Irish actor Brendan Gleeson has proven to be just that for filmmaker John Michael McDonagh.

Gleeson first met McDonagh at a screening of In Bruges, which was written and directed by McDonagh’s younger brother, Martin. The two later became friends while collaborating on the 2011 comedy The Guard, in which Gleeson plays a confrontational cop who becomes caught up in the investigation of a drug-smuggling ring.

So it was natural for McDonagh to involve Gleeson in his latest project, Calvary, from its inception. The filmmaker proposed the idea over drinks near the end of production on The Guard.

“We talked about this idea of a good priest,” McDonagh said during a recent stop in Dallas. “Of course, this was a conversation in a bar. I might wake up with a hangover. Brendan goes off to do a job, and I have to write the script.”

His screenplay follows Father James (Gleeson), a small-town priest who is anonymously threatened in the confessional by a man who claims he was abused as a child, and wants to take out his frustration on a good priest rather than a bad one because it would make a greater impact.

As Father James spends the next week trying to unravel the mystery, the foundation of his beliefs is shaken by the threat. Uncertain of its legitimacy, he tries to reconcile with family members including his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly), and questioning his own motives for what prompted a late-in-life switch to the priesthood.

McDonagh estimates he wrote the script in 19 days. Gleeson found a connection to the protagonist from his own life, and offered both comedic and dramatic suggestions that the filmmaker was able to incorporate.

“I sent him the first draft, which I usually never do with an actor, because I just assume they want more lines for themselves,” McDonagh said. “Brendan doesn’t have an ego in that way. He wants what’s best for the movie.”

McDonagh decided to shoot the film in County Sligo in rural western Ireland, near his mother’s hometown. He said the location captured a sort of Western mythology.

“Most Irish movies are all set around Dublin, which I find quite boring. It’s always about the same types of characters,” McDonagh said. “I was trying to get away from the city. When you get out to those big landscapes, it gives you a kind of mythic element to the movie.”

That mythology extended to the priest as the hero, which allowed McDonagh to use the five stages of grief as a loose structure for his story of Irish Catholic guilt, spirituality, and redemption.

“When I’m writing, I don’t second-guess myself and I don’t over-analyze the structure because I write quite fast,” he said. “It’s only once I get into the editing — when I’m looking at the film — I’m thinking whether scenes need to be shuffled around.”

McDonagh plans a significant geographic switch for his next film, a dark comedy set in Texas about two corrupt cops who track down criminals before meeting their match.