Filmmaking: <I>Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri</I>
Issue: December 1, 2017

Filmmaking: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh ( In Bruges), is a dark comedic drama from Fox Searchlight Pictures that takes place in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, just months after the murder of Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand) teenage daughter. In response to what she feels has been a less-than-enthusiastic effort from police to catch the killer, Hayes makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town's revered chief of police. When his second-in-command officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing's law enforcement is only exacerbated. 

The film, which was shot on-location in North Carolina on Arri Alexa cameras, is dependent on an outstanding screenplay and strong performances. In fact, McDonagh has been nominated for two Golden Globe awards, for Best Director — Motion Picture and Best Screenplay — Motion Picture, while McDormand for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Drama, Rockwell for Best Performance By an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture and the film itself for Best Picture — Drama.

To bring his story to screen, McDonagh (left, with Frances McDormand and Peter Dinklage) relied on a talented team that included DP Ben Davis and editor Jon Gregory, both of whom he has worked with previously on earlier projects.

“Ben has a beautiful visual style and he knows how, when and why to move the camera,” says McDonagh. “He worked on the last one with me and we had a great time. He’s also a very supportive DP. Even though I’m coming up with visual ideas, I always need to fall back on him or ask him how to achieve those things. He’s a great collaborator and a great friend — he’s always there as a right-hand man. 

“Jon Gregory, we have a great shorthand. And we like the same old movies. When we make references to movies, nothing is after 1980. We’re kind of classical in that sense. He’s great at grounding the story in terms of old cinema. He’s not one to try and please the studios or the modern audience. He’s looking, as I am, 20 years down the line for something a little bit more classic.” 

As a big fan of American movies from the 1970s, McDonagh says he set out to make a film that was “a little downbeat but with great acting and something memorable cinematically, too, with images you remember.” He references Badlands and Taxi Driver as some personal favorites. 

As the film’s screenwriter, too, he says he’s been looking to create a “very strong female lead for a film for a while.” With a background as a playwright, McDonagh admits that he’s created such characters in his plays, but perhaps not so much for the screen. 

“I wanted to readdress that a little bit,” he adds. He also points to a trip he took about 17 years ago, in one of the US southern states, where he saw a similar billboard to the ones in his film. “Something equally as painful,” he puts it. “It was accusing the police of not doing their jobs properly. So, I sort of put those two ideas together and decided that the person who put that up was a mother, in my head. It stuck in my mind for a long time. I never put pen to paper, but I thought about it for about 10 years or so. Once I decided that the person who put up the billboards might be a mother, Mildred’s part just sort of popped out.”

According to McDonagh, one of the biggest challenges for him during production were, “the two set pieces involving fire — the police station and the billboards burning — they were the trickiest and took the most preparation. Also, there was the one-shot take we did when Sam goes into the building across from him and beats up on the guy. That was always intended to be a one, unbroken-take, which is what we achieved, but that took a fair amount of preparation and meetings.”

A self-described “perfectionist,” McDonagh explains that, “after the shoot, I’ll go through every single take and make notes on pretty much every single line of dialogue, which takes about a week or two. During that time, I let Jon get on with a rough cut. Then we just go right back in and dismantle the whole thing and try all these seemingly perfect lines to see if they work as a coherent whole. I find the editing very much fun and detailed and reassuring somehow. It’s beautiful when something just comes together. Sometimes that can happen when you add a song or a piece of music — because I always have a list of songs that I want to try and then Jon comes up with songs and then I’ll let Jon go away and completely dismantle a scene and show me something brand new and I enjoy that side of it, too.”

Gregory, who cut the film on an Avid, was on-location for two months during the shoot and then finished the cut back in the Soho section of London. He adds that during the time, McDonagh is making his notes on the lines of dialogue. 

“I don’t really say a great deal at that point because I want to know the director’s take on the film and on all the performances and not mine. When we get to the end of that part of the film, it’s really quite amazing the way it all comes to life. He’s got the performance in his mind, almost, and that’s quite brilliant to be quite honest. Then, once we’ve got that, then it’s a matter of pacing it and losing scenes which we don’t think we need and then moving other scenes. 

“The main scene in the film where we have the flashback, in the script, it came right at the end of the film. Then we felt that the audience needed to know why [Mildred] was so tormented to actually go and burn the police station down. If you don’t know the way she left her daughter, the conversation, it makes the burning of the police station seem quite extreme. But knowing how she left her daughter, it all makes sense. So, that was the major adjustment to the script that we made. To be honest, it’s just a matter of going through it, finessing it, making sure every single shot counts. It’s not a very glamorous process — it’s almost like watching paint dry (laughs). It’s very nerdy. You’re sort of having this angst over frames, then you go through it until the end of the process, until you make a film out of it.”

According to Gregory (pictured above), one of the biggest editing challenges for him was how the film turns quickly from quite dramatic to humorous in a matter of moments. “I think the biggest thing that we had to think about really was the timing of the jokes — so the laughter didn’t step on other jokes.”

For McDonagh, his biggest challenge in post was trying to figure out how one of the key sequences would play out. “I think the scenes where Woody’s character reads the letters — there were so many different options for how those scenes would play out. For instance, when Sam reads the letter in the building toward the end, how to time that, how to make sure the images didn’t get in the way of the words and vice versa, because you really needed to hear what Woody was saying to Sam and also have time to see Sam’s reaction. At the same time, there was this whole crazy dynamic from Frances’ side (laughs), so that was a lot of work. There was a version of that that was twice as long, but it didn’t work. Then there was a shorter version, but it didn’t capture the sadness of what was going on. So that was purely something we had to find in the edit. Something you don’t ever really know at the script stage or at the filming stage. That’s something you find in the edit room.”

As for how well the film’s been received by both critics and moviegoers alike, Gregory says, “We knew when we were doing it that it was a good film, or a really interesting take on a situation, but you can never really tell just how it’s going to go. But it’s amazing the way people really love it and how it’s doing really well. I’m not surprised, but delighted.”

“I think [the film] turned out better than I expected,” adds McDonagh. “The performances just knock the whole thing out of the park — Woody, Sam and Frances — they just take it to a whole other level. “I think it’s a beautiful film that’s not just performance based — the humor comes across. And the balance of the humor with tragedy, we weren’t sure was going to work or the audience would accept it. We were happy with it and we knew it was a good movie — but you never know how an audience is going to take it. But people seem to love Frances and the characters and want to go on her journey.”