By Anthony Breznican
February 09, 2012 at 01:30 PM EST
Photo: Chuck Zlotnick

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Do all raging tyrants have an adorable, cuddly, little thing they treasure?

“I know I do!” says writer-director Martin McDonagh, the twisted mind behind the 2009 Colin Farrell-Brendan Gleeson killers-in-hiding thriller In Bruges.

Maybe for him, it’s Farrell.

McDonagh’s latest movie, Seven Psychopaths, reunites him with the actor for another crime story that walks the line between comedy and brutality.

In it, a savage gangster (Woody Harrelson) goes on a rampage after his beloved shih tzu Bonny goes missing, snatched by an out-of-work actor (Sam Rockwell) who pays the bills by helping a professional dognapper (Christopher Walken) pick up pooches and return them for the reward money.

“It’s kind of a cruel thing to do,” McDonagh says. “But these guys are good guys about it. They take care of the dogs, and give them back promptly, and they don’t charge a lot.”

Farrell stars as a struggling screenwriter, working on a script titled Seven Psychopaths, who gets caught up in his pal Rockwell’s troubles… but also finds a lot of great material in the life-and-death conflict playing out over the kidnapped dog.

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Harrelson’s character is one of those deranged figures, who somehow connects to his humanity only through his pet dog. Maybe not so coincidentally, the part was originally going to be played by Mickey Rourke, who dropped out of the production hurling insults.

McDonagh shrugs off that behind-the-scenes drama. “I was fine with it. Mickey’s a great actor,” he says. “I’ve known Woody for years and years, and he was a perfect choice for this, too. He’s got those great dramatic elements, which he’s shown in Rampart recently, and he’s always been a fantastic comedian. You need that in this — someone who can be out-and-out funny, but also turn sinister on a dime.”

McDonagh, a celebrated playwright who never makes his stage shows into films, and vice versa, explored similar fluffy-and-the-beast territory with The Lieutenant of Inishmore, his 2001 play about an IRA torturer with a beloved cat.

“The comedy elements in this one are probably stronger or more to the forefront than In Bruges,” says McDonagh, who got an Academy Award nomination for that script. (He won an Oscar for the 2005 short Six Shooter.)

Harrelson’s character, Charlie, “adores his shih tzu,” McDonagh says. “Really, we all adore Bonny!” (That’s the real name of the dog, which was adopted from a shelter in real life, and now lives with its trainer.) “He loves that dog more than anything in the world and would do anything to protect it.”

That’s where Rockwell, Walken, and Farrell step into the picture. “Obviously, things don’t go according to plan, and the people who cause Bonny not to be with him get their comeuppance,” McDonagh adds.

So who exactly is Charlie? “He’s kind of the gangster boss of an organized crime syndicate,” McDonagh says. “He’s into very dark stuff.”

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Farrell’s character, in contrast to Harrelson’s heavy, is a lightweight, a Hollywood fluff writer who has had success financially, if not artistically.

“Life is good, then it all gets turned on its head,” Farrell says.

When EW visited the set of Seven Psychopaths, things were still good for the character. Farrell was costumed in comfortable, clean clothes and looked rested – but that’s only because the scene he was shooting takes place at the beginning of the story, when he’s not in trouble.

“No, not yet,” says the actor, who’s seated in an empty movie theater, where he and Rockwell’s character will be watching a cheesy Hong Kong action flick. “I’m really enjoying this because my first seven weeks on the film were s—t. Not my experience on the film — don’t get me wrong. But what my character was going through. It was uncomfortable, and frustrating, and he was not having a good time.”

The moment pictured above — with a bedraggled Farrell staggering away from a gun-wielding Harrelson — captures some of that.

As for the rest of the cast, Precious star Gabourey Sidibe turns up as an unlucky dog-walker who faces Harrelson’s wrath, and Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) turns up as the mobster’s girlfriend.

Abbie Cornish (Bright Star) co-stars as Kaya, the screenwriters patient and supportive girlfriend, nursing him through his writer’s block, and Tom Waits turns up as Zachariah, a rabbit-petting weirdo who offers up strange stories from his past for the Seven Psychopaths screenplay.

McDonagh tends to stick with the same actors through multiple projects. Not only is Farrell back after In Bruges, but Rockwell and Walken both worked with McDonagh previously on his Broadway show A Behanding in Spokane, about a man searching for the severed hand he lost years ago.

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Only a sinister mind like McDonagh’s could describe the eerily intimidating Christopher Walken this way: “When he smiles … ! You almost want to tickle him to get him to smile more. He’s so boyish and good-looking and lively.”

Obviously, from this picture, that’s not exactly what’s happening in that waiting room.

McDonagh’s storytelling tends to veer into the absurd or starkly violent while still maintaining a kind of heartfelt melancholy. “He brings out a lot of humanity, even though it’s so dark,” says Rockwell.

As Farrell puts it: “It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are very real and very deep feelings at play in all of his work. They’re just masked by this hugely exorbitant language and very extreme, and at times potentially violent situations. Beneath all that stuff, the truth that lies beneath his writing is compassion — more than he would stake a claim for.”

“No one does it his way,” adds producer Graham Broadbent (Welcome to Sarajevo, Millions) who worked with McDonagh on In Bruges. “No one walks the tightrope of drama, pathos, comedy, and dark comedy the way he does.”

The film mirrors McDonagh’s own life as a writer, though we can only presume (hopefully) it does so in symbolic ways. Farrell points out the obvious parallel in the name of his character: “I mean, I’m playing a character writing a script called Seven Psychopaths, and his name is Martin, so …” the actors says, trailing off but squinting one eye in a knowing look.

Beyond the dognapping plot, the film is about a storyteller who collects bizarre personalities for his work. “As they go on their journey, and Marty is trying to find the seven psychopaths for his screenplay, he starts to encounter them in real life,” says Broadbent.

Farrell acknowledged that part of this movie may be doing that too, gathering up McDonagh’s own experiences and frustrations in a violent, fictional throw-down. “Martin does get as bored as any of us do,” Farrell says, “at some of the s–t that comes out of Hollywood.”

CBS Films will release Seven Psychopaths in theaters this fall.

For more movie news, follow @Breznican on Twitter.

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