25 March 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
05 Mar 2014 : Paul Byrne
What with his hit TV shows, big-screen faves, West End adoration and that Oscar nomination, it’s amazing that PETER MCDONALD found the time to co-write, produce and star in ‘The Stag’. “The trick is to keep moving forward,” the 42-year old Dubliner tells Paul Byrne.

It would take a lot of effort not to like Peter McDonald. Not only is he damn good as his job - as anyone who has sat through ‘I Went Down’, ‘Paths To Freedom’, ‘When Brendan Met Trudy’, ‘The Damned United’, ‘Moone Boy’ or any number of acclaimed theatre productions will testify - he’s also one of the most amiable and amicable people you could hope to meet.

It’s the last day of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, and McDonald’s latest movie, ‘The Stag’, will be playing later tonight to a sell-out audience at Dublin’s Savoy cinema. It’s the biggest screen in the country, and McDonald couldn’t be happier. He and his lifelong buddy, John Butler, had set out to make an Irish comedy for Irish people. And they succeeded.

In ‘The Stag’, the metrosexual and highly pedantic Fionnan (a well-cast Hugh O’Conor) has been forced by his bride-to-be, Ruth (Amy Huberman), to have a stag night. Organising the big event is Fionnan’s best friend, Davin (Andrew Scott), and their wild weekend camping in the Wicklow wilds looks like it might actually be healthy and fun until Ruth insists that her brother be invited along too. Her brother who’s only known as The Machine, and is feared and hated in equal measure by everyone else going on this now unhealthy and scary weekend.

Written by McDonald and Butler, and directed by the latter, ‘The Stag’ debuted at Toronto last September, where its raucous humour and soft male bonding centre helped the film sell to seven territories, including the US. For McDonald and Butler though, the real test for the film’s success is Ireland.

PAUL BYRNE: Spoke with your good buddy John last week, and you guys had long been looking for a movie idea. Is this the movie that you first dreamt up? Or is that never the case?
PETER MCDONALD: It’s an interesting question, because on one hand I’d answer, yes, it is the film we were hoping to make, but then, at the same time, obviously that’s total bullshit, because you never know what you’re going to get. It is the film that I hoped it would become, in that it was fun to make, and it’s fun to watch.
Myself and John had been looking for something to write together for a while, because we have very similar sensibilities in terms of story and development - where a film should be going, and how you should approach it. We had gotten through those early stages a few times before, right up to developing the script, but each time we got to that point where we would look each other in the eye and say, ‘This isn’t working’. You can see the strength of the idea, but we just keep going down the wrong road, and we had to be honest with each other about that. And once the initial spark for ‘The Stag’ happened, we both kind of knew it was going to go all the way. It was the kind of film that we both wanted to make - a comedy with heart. Or, better still, a comedy where you’re allowed to invest in the characters. A comedy where you are not allowed to disinvest in the characters for the sake of the comedy. And once we started with ‘The Stag’, the goose kept laying eggs. So, we never looked at each other and felt that anxiety on this one. It came really quickly, and the narrative just kept suggesting itself quite easily. And while we would be laughing at the characters and the scenario, we kept an eye on the outline of the story, the inner characters here, so that we felt there was a reason to stay with these guys right to the end. And that just got better and better for us.
Most importantly, on a practical level, we felt that we could make it, in regard to locations, who needed to be in it, the production side of it. It all just felt as though it could work, and work well.

That Trojan Horse trick of hiding some real drama inside broad comedy has been around for some time, with the likes of Woody Allen and now Judd Apatow being two of the most obvious tricksters. It’s not an easy trick to pull off though, getting a bunch of chucklers to stop and listen to a heartfelt acappella take on Raglan Road.
I think you have to feel it yourself, and you don’t know. And that is the beauty of it - you just don’t know if people will feel it the way you hope they will, or if they’ll laugh the way you hope you will. And when you show the script to someone for the very first time, your heart is in your mouth, because, if it’s a friend, a true friend, they’ll tell you what they really think of it. At that stage, that’s what you need to hear.
When you have your first screenings during the editing process, and you pull together eight runners to sit through it, that’s nerve-wracking too. But, through all this, we could feel it, we could feel that it was working.
We knew the script worked when, having sent it to an actor that you hoped would be in it, whilst letting them know that you had a very, very small budget, they nonetheless jumped on it. That was a good feeling. To get the kind of actors we got here, that was a major slap of on the back.
I say all this as though it was inevitable that we’d end up with a film that we loved, but, truth is, nobody knows, ever. I do a lot of stage work, and when people ask me, regularly, if I’m nervous before I go on, I always think, no, not really. I try not to analyse it, because of course I am in some way, but, on the other hand, isn’t this what you’re here for? The unknown of making that connection with an audience is incredible. And if anyone tells you they know beforehand that it’s going to work, they’re lying.

The test screenings obviously helped in finding out if all this work, or maybe it was the Toronto debut that told you. What was the point where you and John realised, ah, they see what we see...?
When we picture-locked it, that felt good. We had done it the way we had wanted to do it. I brought my voice into John’s editing process, and we bounced ideas off each other. At the end, as they say, you don’t so much finish it as just walk away. Rob and Rebecca from Treasure were very involved in that end process, and the four of us felt we had made the film that we had set out to make. All these actors had brought their A-game, and then we had Steve Rennick bringing in his music at that stage. I knew he was good, but he pulled off some amazing stuff for us in the film. I thought, ‘Okay, wow, you’re the fucking real thing here’.

There’s a sense that this has strong international potential, being truly parochial makes a film truly universal. You must be optimistic for ‘The Stag’s’ chances abroad.
For us, it was in the creative, smouldering pot of making the film that we made sure we stayed true to the characters and to their world. We wanted to make sure that if this film played in Savoy 1 in front of an Irish audience, they wouldn’t feel that we cheated the Irishness of these characters. There’s a base authenticity that was important to us, and if the comedy is slightly heightened at times, we were determined to keep the film’s feet firmly on Irish soil. Firstly, because it was important to us that the film had that certain Irish feel, but secondly, we felt that if it was going to speak to anyone else, that’s what audiences smell. They know when something’s real, and when it’s faked.
So, it’s really exciting to us that the film has been picked up in so many international territories, but the most important thing, on a selfish level, is that ‘The Stag’ is getting a big release here in Ireland. It’s an Irish film for Irish people, in many ways, and hopefully people will come out of the cinema feeling good. Without feeling they’d been manipulated or cheated. If it made twenty million abroad and flopped in Ireland, a part of me would be really disappointed. You want your own family to love your work more than anyone else.

With a character such as The Machine - it’s easy to go too far. He’s the orc heading out on a camping trip with five hobbits, but we also realise early on that his sensitive side will have to surface. Playing such a loud character who is going to have to go to a whisper later on, that must have been a challenge...
It is, and it’s great having John there all the time with me, just to figure out how loud he should be at certain points. Other times, we didn’t have to say anything; we just knew. It’s a dial. And then, you can also play options and then decide in the edit suite. What made it so much easier was that, narratively, we had developed his character development so closely - why he does what he does, and when he does it - that the trick was really just to think like The Machine thinks - which is, as I always said right through the production, all instinct. These five modern Irish males are with this unreconstructed, in many ways dinosaur, male, and he becomes the dominant male so quickly, he’s in his metier, in terms of sniffing out what’s going on with everyone. It’s all male instinct throughout. So, for me as an actor, I just had to go with that. No second guesses; you just hit everything running.

This is the first film that you’ve produced, which surprised me. You’ve been in this game for quite some time, and you’ve also been Oscar-nominated, for your 2011 short ‘Pentecost’, so, I’m guessing work behind the camera is going to rise swiftly now. And directing a feature can’t be far behind now...
Very much so, yeah. I hope to achieve it in the near future, so, we’ll just have to see. Can’t really go into details, but, I would like to do that. The trick is to keep moving forward in this business. Or, at the very least, make your sideways moves pretty interesting.

You’ve got quite the CV, acting in all three mediums – ‘The Stag’ hits the big screen as the second season of ‘Moone Boy’ plays out on TV, and onstage, you’re doing Conor McPherson’s ‘The Weir’ on the West End - is it all about flexing different muscles, or just following the good work?
Well, I’d like to think I’m in control of all those things, but I’m not. I think I will always want to do stage work, but to be in all three mediums is just a major bonus. Always had a desire too to write and direct, and that just happened naturally too. I was ready, and the work just came together at the right time. As you know there’s a big difference between saying that you’re writing something and actually having written something. It’s very easy to be writing something forever and ever, so, it’s really a matter of finishing a script and getting it out there. That’s part of the fun too, getting it out there.
I think, in terms of the theatre, the television and the film, it’s just because I’m an actor that if you get asked to do ‘The Weir’ at the Donmar Warehouse with a really great cast, you have to do it. You know what I mean? That’s something I should be doing. The theatre is, in many ways, the actor’s medium. It’s the one place where you’re right there with the audience. It’s more for them that you have them in a place where no editor can shape this. It’s down to the writing and the actor. Obviously the director is extremely important in that situation, but in that moment, it’s your stamina, and your ability to embody the material, in a live setting, so that you drag the audience into a place where they forget that they’re at the theatre, and they totally get involved in what is going to happen next to the characters.
One of my favourite things to do - and my wife will tell you this - is going to see a movie. I just love the whole experience of the cinema. The lights go down and I get the tingle every time. It requires slightly less investment than going to a play though, because if a play doesn’t work, it’s really hard work. And it’s a kind of an uncomfortable experience. But if it works, it’s magical. And to be involved in that, if you’ve had that audience connection, it’s like Gollum and his ring. You might have to choose between a big TV series or a small play, and the small play always has the strongest emotional pull. It’s an immediate kick.
In regard to the writing, directing and producing, it takes up a lot of your time, so, you have to be careful about what you throw yourself into.

You’ve always struck me as a man who’s always happy with where you are, or have there been any moments of regret, and doubt, and frustration?
I think every actor has their frustrations, and there are times when you push and pull with what you’re doing, but I’ve never felt like I shouldn’t be doing it. I’ve always tried to retain the perspective that, to be able to do this, I don’t question. I don’t self-analyse. I just know I can act, and to be able to do it is a great privilege, and one that’s enormously fulfilling. To get paid for it too, that’s an amazing thing. To be constantly in work is an even more amazing thing. And the truth is, nine times out of ten, I’m doing exactly the gig that I really, really want to do.
When I think of all the actors I know - really good actors - who struggle to get good roles, it makes me sorely aware of how lucky I’ve been. There are so many actors who struggle with the work they get too, where the material isn’t strong, or their character isn’t well written, or they’re working with people who just don’t really care about the work.
Luckily for me, I’ve been able to plot my career without the major burden of stardom, and all the expectations that come with that [laughs]....

’The Stag’ hits Irish cinemas Mar 7th, and is released in Ireland by Eclipse Pictures on behalf of Arrow Films.

The trailer can be viewed below:

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