This is not going to be your typical review. But then again, Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not your typical movie, let alone a typical Oscar-contender. I actually had the unbelievable opportunity to work on the film's crew as a production assistant, working with the assistant directors. I know I can't judge the movie from a completely unbiased point of view because a lot of blood, sweat, and tears were shed not just by me but from (nearly) everyone on the cast and crew. So this is going to be part-review, part-memoir, and hopefully it'll enlighten some people on how exactly a movie set works and what this particular film was like.
I'll try to avoid being too gossipy for a few reasons: 1) as the sexual harassment allegations against virtually every penis-bearer in Hollywood has proven, even saying the most vaguely negative thing about someone in showbiz can blackball you so even I have to avoid it (I wasn't sexually harassed and as far as I know, no one else was either) 2) it's really not that important when trying to understand how a film set works 3) it's unprofessional and 4) on this film, there were, sadly, very few things that were particularly juicy. Maybe when I'm an old fart who's about to croak, I'll publish some of the more gruesome details, but in any case for this film, it'd be a slim tome. It was overall one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Now, I was actually working on another film when Three Billboards was hiring personnel. Shockingly, my little town in North Carolina had simultaneous $12 million films shooting next to each other. Considering that movie jobs tend to be 12-14 hour days with no breaks, it was hard for me to get in an interview. And for that reason, I actually got turned down twice for work. But the movie gods were happy with me, and I landed an interview with the first and second ADs and despite the fact I had no actual on-set experience, they offered me the gig a week later. I somehow finagled it! I was going to work with some of the greatest cinematic geniuses currently working: Martin McDonagh (the writer/director of two of my favorite films, IN BRUGES and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS), Sam Rockwell (my acting god), Frances McDormand (my mom's favorite actress and probably mine too), and John Fucking Hawkes (he's the guy who's in every movie ever)! If I wasn't going to become the greatest director of all time after watching both Nicolas Winding Refn and Martin McDonagh work, I didn't know what would. I quit the lesser film and went to work on THREE BILLBOARDS.
According to the old call sheets, shoot was 33 days in total (which is even shorter than I remember), and for about the first 10 I was terrified of losing my job. I wasn't terribly accustomed to the grotesque profanities on film sets. Not just in terms of f-bombs but in terms of behavior: with a lot of night shoots and the inhumanities of people working 14 hours every day, people get hardened and mean. They're not bad people; but Christ, can they get rough. Also, I was an idiot. I had to learn on the job what a lock-up was (it's when a PA makes sure no one walks into a shot by accident), how to organize walkies (I was a walkie PA, of whom almost no respect is ordained), and who is on Second Team (stand-ins for actors).I was later told by a superior that they were considering firing me by the end of the first week. Only by mercy did they gave me another week to prove myself. But I didn't fuck up (too much) the second week, and by the end the ADs said, at various points in time to various people, that I was "a hard worker," someone who "cares enough to cry," and "the real MVP." I had gone through, over the period of the shoot, from the idiot PA who couldn't keep a van from ruining a shot to a kickass PA. I wish I had known that in the middle of the shoot when I cried over a lost walkie (I later found it and a crewmember still owes me money when I bet him that I wouldn't lose any of the walkies)
I've often heard from more-experienced crewmembers that the glamour of being on a film set wears off after the first one. Well, THREE BILLBOARDS was my fourth show, and every day I couldn't believe my senses that I got to watch Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell act with each other. And 10 feet in front of me. And not only was it free but I was getting paid to stand near them. And a lot, at that (for someone from Asheville, anyway). I was also particularly relieved as to how nice these people I admired were. Martin McDonagh is not only the nicest director I've ever worked with, but he's one of the nicest people I've ever met, period.
I wouldn't have guessed it from his plays and movies focused on suicidal serial killers or his cold, piercing gaze, but the dude is polite as hell. Midway through the shoot, he overheard Jeanette, the script supervisor, say my name and from then on, at the beginning and end of every shooting day, he would say "Good morning, André" and "Thank you, André." I know this sounds like a grovelling and starstruck fanboy who essentially was a glorified and overpaid coffeeboy, but hell, PAs get treated like shit and movies have been the only thing preventing me from jumping off a bridge since I was 11. That one of the Greats thanked me for my hard work and remembered the name of the otherwise-nameless servant-boy meant a hell of a lot. And he freaking hugged me four times over the course of the shoot. A total class act.
Peter Dinklage is super cool. He told me I had an excellent Bill Clinton impression, which is generous even by my estimation. John Hawkes is almost-unreasonably sweet and weirdly great at playing pricks. Frances McDormand was also awesome as hell. She flipped out on the last day when she saw me wearing a FARGO shirt and offered (read: insisted) to sign it for me. I turned her down and asked her to take a photo with me... thank God, because I lost that shirt a few months later in a laundromat in Madrid.
I could keep going on, but it's going to sound disingenuous. After all, I wasn't there to chat with famous people, and I was especially careful not to interfere with anyone's work, perhaps even to a paranoid level... after all, I later found out pretty much everyone on the crew had at least one picture with one of the actors (It's why I, regrettably, never got a picture with Sam Rockwell. He's a perfectly nice guy and all, but I've never seen such a focused and concentrated actor in my life. Always either reading the script or listening to a Missouri native read his lines for him on his iPhone between takes. I mean, if you worked with De Niro in TAXI DRIVER, would you ask him for a selfie?) With very few exceptions, everyone got along on set. Despite the fact I thought it was going to end up like IN BRUGES — maybe an Oscar nominee for best screenplay but otherwise a cult film for film geeks — the crew realized this wasn't an Adam Sandler movie. We worked hard and efficiently because we wanted, really wanted, it to be good. But how did it turn out?
As you may have guessed from all the hype, it's hard to argue it's anything less than "good." Fortunately, it's great. But the first time I watched it, I couldn't quite wrap my head around it. I saw it with 10 of my friends, most of whom are also taking my master's in editing in Escuela TAI in Madrid. I got the sense everyone liked it, but everyone was nitpicking certain moments to the point that they were just being polite about the film's quality. After all, I was the only one laughing at the funny bits. I was asked what criticisms I had of the film... and I really didn't have any. By that same token, I couldn't really say what I liked about it. What I had seen was simply a series of images and sounds. I was too connected, like trying to determine the good and bad qualities of an ex-lover completely neutrally. Too wrapped up in remembering what was left in, left out, what the weather was like, how the scenes were constructed, how the pacing was different than I had imagined, how they captured western North Carolina (dubbing for southern Missouri), I was distracted. I knew I had to see it a second time.
I saw it a second time with two of my closest friends here in Madrid. They laughed throughout, loved it, and told me they were moved; luckily, I felt the same way. I was able to step outside of myself and just watch the movie for what it was. And it is great. It's funny, poignant, and a sweet homage to American cinema of the 1970s. Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered some months before the events of the film. One day she gets the bright idea to rent out three billboards to call out the police department and, specifically, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrleson), much to the dismay of the townspeople and the police department, particularly numb-nut cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). What happens from there would spoil the film, but let's just say McDonagh takes you down twists and turns and thrashes you between tragedy and comedy until the film's final moments. The magic is that it's done nearly-perfectly.
In fact, the only moment that really bothered me was a flashback toward the beginning of the film wherein Mildred's daughter foreshadows her rape following an argument with her mother. Even during shooting, I thought the lines were too on-the-nose. And there are few too many c-words for the American cast (I chalk this up to McDonagh's status as a Brit) but otherwise, I found he captured the American dialect perfectly in the screenplay. My editing friends also had problems with a scene involving a deer (yes, it looks fake, but I argue that it's necessary to the story and deer never look real in movies, so who cares?) and the pacing of the last scenes, which I thought were done exactly right.
The cinematography by Ben Davis is to-the-point: not as flashy as I would have done, but the story doesn't need flashy photography. The music is much better than I expected (I have mixed feelings about Carter Burwell, but he knocked it out of the park and McDonagh proves once again his amazing taste in soundtracks). And it almost goes without saying that the acting is all-around excellent, nobody sticking out as giving a sub-par performance. I have a long-standing loathing for the Academy Awards and their politics, but it would admittedly delight me to see Sam Rockwell win an Oscar as I've been a fan of his for a decade now before anyone knew who he was. And I was there to see it all.