If you're the lead star of a film titled In Bruges, it's only natural that press time leads to loads of questions about, well, Bruges. Inquiring minds want to know what it's like to wander around Belgium's most well-preserved medieval city, a locale so arresting that, no matter where you set the camera, the cobblestone and phantasmagoric architecture outperform you every single time. "It was beautiful," Colin Farrell admitted, "but ... we were right in the middle of winter, so it was cold and it was dark at past three or four o'clock in the afternoon, and I found it suitably depressing."
Farrell then backpedals, perhaps thinking he sounds too much like his character in the film: a hit man held up in Bruges after a particularly gruesome job in London. Referring to the melancholy he felt on location, Farrell saied, "It was probably a lot to do with where I was work-wise as well, you know, 'cause I know Brendan Gleeson"—who plays Ken, Ray's wiser, more buoyant partner—"went completely the other direction. He nearly was walking around with a camera in his hands all the time, marveling at the architecture. But, it's a beautiful city ... and uh, I will never be going back now, I hope." Farrell laughed, but it's clear he meant what he said. And after watching In Bruges, one understands why.
Written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh, In Bruges follows two paid killers assigned to the Flemish tourist trap by their boss. The Irishmen banter about fifteenth-century art, women, life, and death in their lilting brogue, their words spewing forth with sting. The dialogue is Nietzsche by way of Tarantino—roundabout and fatalistic. But anxiety lurks beneath the charming bravado.
As Farrell noted, the film's dizzy narrative cannot be described as "oh, here are two hit men who are on the lam," nor is it a traditional buddy flick. In fact, for the first hour of In Bruges, nothing much seems to happen at all. Ken, who's more than willing to forget the bloodshed of London and immerse himself in books and culture, coaxes the peevish Ray to accompany him on sightseeing tours through the city's canals and bridges, all adorned with twinkling holiday lights. Ray rebuffed him, preferring instead to wallow in his existential crisis, the roots of which slowly reveal themselves throughout the course of the film.
McDonagh has explored similar dichotomies of absurdity and anguish before, most notably in plays such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore and the Olivier Award-winning The Pillowman. Of his tragicomic outlook, McDonagh said, "I think it's just kind of the way I see the world in lots of ways, just kind of naturally bleak but naturally funny." In Bruges, his first feature film, allows McDonagh to explore these themes without the constraints of time and space imposed by the stage. "All my plays are kind of cinematic in some ways," McDonagh said, "but it's one or two images per scene, where this was ... just a whole different head space, to try and break things down into images rather than lines of dialogue or character."
Each character, no matter how bumbling, smoothly blends into the otherworldliness of Bruges. Farrell credited the intense three-week rehearsal period he, Gleeson, and McDonagh underwent before the two-month shoot. "I came away with an appreciation for rehearsal that I only ever found once before, and that was on Phone Booth ," the actor said. "By the end of the three weeks, we were just chomping at the bit and really ready to go."
Despite being naturally suited to the part of the rambunctious Ray, Farrell confessed the film a comeback project of sorts after box office disappointments (Miami Vice) and overlooked gems (The New World). "When I met Martin in New York, I tried to talk him out of casting me. I said, 'You should cast unknowns.'" Farrell chuckled, then quickly added, "Thank God he lost his marbles for a second and gave me the part."
In Bruges was a tiring film to shoot, and Farrell said abstaining from alcohol didn't help ("I was so pissed off that I ended up working in a country that I believe has over 400 beers," he joked). When asked what he feels he has gained from working on the film, he replied, "Well, gray hairs, in a way, is the obvious answer." McDonagh chirped, "Herpes is another." Farrell laughed, and with trademark Ray deadpan, muttered, "Herpes and a few gray hairs."