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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE
EBBING MISSOURI

Production Information (Cont'd)
JAMES

"I know I'm a midget who sells used cars and has a drinking problem, I know that. But who the hell are you, man? You're that Billboard Lady who never, ever smiles ..." - James

Taking the role of James, a local with a flame for Mildred, is Peter Dinklage, a two-time Emmy winner and Golden Globe winner for his commanding role as Tyrion Lannister in HBO's GAME OF THRONES. Here he plays an almost polar opposite character as a blue-collar, used car salesman whose primary ambition is a date with Mildred. Dinklage recalls that his immediate reaction to the script was: "Martin has done it again. One thing about Martin's screenplays is no matter how small a part is, it is so well drawn. As you turn the pages, all the characters go deeper and deeper and that's as true of James as of every character."

Dinklage describes James as "a guy who doesn't have the strongest opinion of himself, but he's determined to win Mildred's attention." The role also presented Dinklage with a first opportunity to work with France McDormand. "She's the best of the best because she is completely without vanity," he observes. "She really is in at 100 percent depth the entire way."

Dinklage also enjoyed watching Sam Rockwell turn assumptions about Dixon inside out. "What Martin and especially Sam have done is call into question all your judgments of Dixon, and that's so satisfying. It makes your wheels turn as you find empathy for him."

As with all of the film's actors, Dinklage was especially drawn to McDonagh's agility with shifting the mood on a dime. "The careful balance Martin brings between the funny and the serious is something magnificent. I guess it gets to the reason people sometimes laugh at funerals," muses Dinklage.

"In real life, opposing emotions often butt up against each other like that. When you suddenly experience humor after great tragedy, it's a great kind of relief and I think it's human nature to seek that. Martin can't really help but be moving then hilarious then moving again because that's the storyteller he is."

CHARLIE

"You don't have to explain yourself to me 'cause you're having dinner with a midget, Mildred." - Charlie

Mildred's ex-husband Charlie might share in her grief over their daughter - but that is where any sharing between them abruptly ends.

Equally full of agony and comedy, Charlie is yet another not-so-straight-forward supporting role. This led McDonagh to cast Academy Award nominee John Hawkes, known for his intense but human performances in WINTER'S BONE, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, THE SESSIONS and HBO's television classic DEADWOOD. "John is only in a few scenes, but he has to blow you away every time, and he did that," states McDonagh.

Hawkes says of the lure of the character: "Charlie could be a completely unsympathetic character, which doesn't scare me as an actor, but Martin wrote him with such nuance that there are other colors and flavors in him. You see that some love still exists between him and Mildred, which you wouldn't expect. And Frances is so extraordinary as Mildred that she helped bring a lot of that out as well."

The anticipation of working with McDormand was considerable. "She's one of my favorite actors in the world, so it was exciting yet daunting," he confesses. "But she's such a kind, warm and giving human being and actor, I immediately felt welcomed. Sometimes in scenes I would get lost just watching her and then realize I was supposed to talk."

Throughout Charlie and Mildred's interactions there is the palpable specter of mutual abuse in their past. "I think Charlie might have drank and yelled a lot when they were together and, yet I think he also loved a lot, so it was never a black and white relationship, I like the gray area of things, and this film offers a lot of that," Hawkes notes.

Working with McDonagh helped Hawkes navigate those gray areas with focus and precision. He explains: "Martin doesn't guess as a director. He's very specific and Charlie is such a cipher, Martin helped me a lot along the way. I think because Martin comes from theater he brings a different kind of vibe, where there's more of a kinship and a communion with the actors."

ROBBIE

"As much as a person might've tried to avoid the details of what happened, cause he didn't think it would do any good, and he didn't think he could bear it, it's also good to be informed in 20 foot high lettering, and a real nice font, the precise details of her last moments." - Robbie Hayes

Dealing with death in his own way is Mildred's sole living child, her teenage son Robbie, who has come to find his mother's obsession with his sister's murder darkly funny. Lucas Hedges, fresh off his Oscar-nominated role in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, takes the part.

"I think Robbie has been going through a transition in his life since his sister died," says Hedges. "He was probably softer, more emotional, more immature beforehand, but I think you see him here coming into himself and getting a lot tougher. He also has an amazing sense of humor given how dark things are for him, and Martin loves to contrast humor with darkness."

Hedges suggests that Robbie feels slighted by how private Mildred is about their shared grief, and how little she has included him in her decisions. "After Angela died, Mildred went into a seven-month catatonic state, so Robbie was taking care of her in a way a child doesn't usually ever have to do with his mother," Hedges explains. "He has great love for his mom, but I think he feels lost because she doesn't ever talk to him about what she is going through or what her intentions are - and she doesn't even think to warn him about the billboards."

Perhaps Mildred's harshest effects are visited upon her son, Robbie, who she turns away from in favor of reckoning with her daughter's demise. "Mildred knows Robbie is capable of surviving, so he becomes collateral damage. She sacrifices him in a way," McDormand says.

That meant McDormand had to work in a very specific way with Hedges. "Before my scenes with Lucas I told him I'm going to be able to give you what you need when we're off camera, but the reality is that while we're in the scene you're not getting much from me because Robbie hasn't gotten much for the last 7 months. Mildred's been on the couch barely breathing and it's been like he's taking care of an invalid. And I know that was difficult for Lucas because he's a young actor who really wants to listen and respond but that's not Mildred. I could not give him that because she does not deal with Robbie anymore."

Hedges enjoyed the opportunity to learn from McDormand. "It was as if I was in acting school and she was the professor," says Hedges, who recently attended the conservatory at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. "I kept a journal that is just dedicated to things Frances said, which is going to be exciting to look back on."

As for what makes her choices so powerful, Hedges says: "There's no B.S. I never heard Frances say anything that she didn't mean. She will not even compliment you if she doesn't think you deserve it. She's kind but she's relentless. She's seasoned in the way Mildred is seasoned."

RED

"Ain't contravening no laws on propriety. Ain't contravening no laws on any f***ing thing. I checked all this up." - Red

When Mildred Hayes decides to purchase three billboards to rile the police and entire community of Ebbing, she enters into a business deal with young Red Welby at the Ebbing Advertising Desk - a deal which does not bode well for Red. The role was won by Caleb Landry Jones, who made his film debut as a boy on a bicycle in the Coen Brothers' NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and was recently seen in the hit horror story GET OUT. Jones says the script hit him to the extent that "I would have played any part in the movie that Martin asked me to play."

But Red was a very distinctive kind of challenge, especially as he is lured deeper into Mildred's quest for justice, paying a price. "At first, I think Red just wants to look good in front of his attractive assistant and he wants the money, so he thinks, 'okay, crazy lady, I'll take your cash.' But as he finds out more about Mildred and her situation, it turns into something else," Jones explains.

Red is also one of the town's misfits. "Martin's idea is that Red just wants to get out of Ebbing one day soon and he expects he will get out--but I think maybe he might not," Jones muses. In one scene, Red is thrown out of a window. McDonagh made the decision to film the moment in a single, ambitious shot.

"The window scene with Red was originally written into the script as a single take," McDonagh explains, "and it was always going to be a cinematic centerpiece of the film. We set ourselves aside a whole day to shoot it, then we prepared and prepared. We only needed I think to try it four or five times, and we were finished by noon. I don't know what we did for the rest of the day, probably drank and celebrated. There's something kind of joyous about a two-minute take like that where so much happens."

The wide-ranging cast of THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI also includes Samara Weaving as Charlie's barely post-adolescent girlfriend Penelope; Amanda Warren as Mildred's sole confidante Denise; Kerry Condon as Red's girlfriend Pamela; and Zeljko Ivanek as Cedric, the police desk sergeant.

Says Kerry Condon, recently seen in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WARS, of Pamela: "Pamela is symbolic of the young woman that Mildred's daughter is never going to be. It's a very Martin thing to make an important character out of a person who only speaks a few times in the movie."

Ivanek, who worked with McDonagh in IN BRUGES, also relished his character: "I just love playing someone who takes his job so seriously even in a very small world," he says. McDonagh rehearsed intently with the entire cast - except for McDormand, who came in only at the last moment on set, an idea that McDormand offered to him.

"It's kind of cool because Mildred is at war with everyone, so Frances had the feeling that it was better to explore those reactions spontaneously on camera, and I grew to agree, even though I didn't at the start," says McDonagh. "Working with the rest of the cast was almost like doing theater - we did a lot of talking about their characters and character choices. It's really a proper ensemble piece."

THE LOOK

"At least I've had a day of hoping. Which is more than I've had for a while." - Mildred Hayes

Though Ebbing is fictional, Martin McDonagh imbues the film with a deep sense of place - a place that offers the charms, but also claustrophobia, of a rural town where everyone knows everyone else's business and then some. He worked with a team that includes cinematographer Ben Davis, editor Jon Gregory, production designer Inbal Weinberg and costume designer Melissa Toth to create Ebbing as another of the film's vivid characters.

Davis has shot an eclectic array of films from BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL to GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and previously forged a relationship with McDonagh on SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. "There's something between Ben and Martin which allows Martin's words and brain to come to visual life," observes Graham Broadbent. "Ben captures the rural American landscape in a way that feels dramatic, while filming the characters in a quite minimal, yet emotionally striking, way."

McDonagh describes the photographic look as "something beautiful but not overly modern, overly stylized or overly saturated." He adds: "Ben and I are both fans of American '70s films so we wanted that feel."

Davis might have used the '70s as a general anchor for the film's look, but he notes that with McDonagh's work "there are no real reference points. I couldn't ever look at the script and say, 'Well, that reminds me of this film or of that image.' It's all so specific and so Martin."

Nevertheless, Davis drew subtle inspiration from the work of Stephen Shore, an American art photographer of the 1970s known for his depopulated landscapes and everyday still-life moments - a diner meal, a roadside billboard, a lonely motel.

He also spent lots of time in the film's locations absorbing the terrain and geography. "For me, it's all about camera angles, so I do a lot of prep. Instead of being stuck in the office, we'd go out and sit on the locations and I'd do lots of photographs to find the best ways to capture them," Davis explains. "I became especially interested in the idea of one-drag towns and how they're photographed - and a lot of it was about choosing the right time of day."

That meant wrestling with shooting schedules, never an easy prospect. "I wanted to shoot a lot of the film in early light or at dusk, in the magic hour, but dusk of course is a brief period and we had so much dialogue in the film it was a real challenge for Martin. He and the cast would rehearse and rehearse, and then bang, we'd shoot it fast, hoping to get the performances- and thankfully we did."

The film also features not just one technically challenging fire sequence, but two, both of which employed authentic blazes. "We wanted to do everything practically for the emotion you get from it," Davis explains. "When you have actual flames it impacts the actors in a way you can feel - they work off the power and heat of it. But of course fire takes an enormous amount of care and logistics." Some of Davis's most exacting work came during the epic, uninterrupted, single-take window sequence in Red's office, but he says the shot was not done to be flashy.

"It's technically exciting to do a big, one-shot sequence, but you should only do it if there's a good storytelling reason to do it and it delivers something dramatically," he says of his ground rules. "I think this is a case where it does both things. Because you have no cutting, it becomes incredibly immersive and it feels like a journey with Dixon's character the whole way. The brutality of it is also all the more believable because there are no cuts to remind you that you're watching a piece of fiction."

Says Graham Broadbent of the continuous shot: "It's an important way of bringing the two worlds in the film together: the police station and the ad agency. It was enormously complicated because that single shot involves stairs, fighting, someone going out a window, more stairs, violence in the street and back to the police station. Ben and the whole team did an incredible job to make it so visceral."

Remembers Melissa Toth of the scene: "All of the department heads had a lot going on. In addition to everything else, Caleb had to do a quick change into shredded, bloodied clothes as he ran down the stairs, so my team was part of it, too. For me it was like watching live theatre. I actually got nervous and we were all just so excited to see it come off."

CREATING EBBING AND ITS BILLBOARDS

"How much these here 'Welcome to Missouri' rabbits go for?" - Crop-Haired Guy

Ebbing, a fictional town in the Ozark Mountains, has its own conflicted persona as a place that appears unchanging yet butts up against a modern world. While searching for a town to fit - trekking through Ohio, New Mexico, Missouri, Mississippi and Georgia - the production happened across tiny Sylva, North Carolina, situated amidst the Great Smoky Mountains.

"There's nothing about Sylva that hints that a dark story like this should be happening there," notes McDonagh, "and that was important: to have the town itself be a decent foil for Mildred."

The task of transforming Sylva into Ebbing fell to production designer Inbal Weinberg (BEASTS OF NO NATION, ST. VINCENT), who began by researching the visual history of America's heartland towns. Weinberg explains: "I looked at two different kinds of photography: documentarian photographers of the 60s and 70s who were shooting everyday life at that time; and recent photographers who are documenting vanishing towns. I was influenced both by the rhythms of daily small-town life and by the mementos of a way of life that's disappearing."

She then came up with her own mind's-eye vision of Ebbing in concert with McDonagh. "The idea is that Ebbing's not super wealthy but it's not busted, either," she says. "It's not gentrified but a town that is still hanging on, one of those towns that looks on the surface as it might have a half century ago, though there are signs of change; a town with a few rough edges but also a proud history."

With that in mind, Weinberg began combing Sylva for locations. "It was really important to Martin that everything be physically real," Weinberg notes. "In fact, Martin picked Sylva because it not only has a very classical Main Street but we also were able to mirror the proximity of the ad agency and the police department, just as it is in the script. One thing that is so strong in small towns is this feeling that people are so connected to each other's lives and it was really key to Martin to have that feeling."

Next, Weinberg began searching for the road on which Mildred rents her three billboards. The challenge was that McDonagh wanted Mildred's house to be nearby so shots there would frame the billboards hovering in the background. "We scouted so many roads," laughs Weinberg, "driving for days and days in gorgeous Western North Carolina."

As it turned out, the first road they visited was the one that most captivated McDonagh. "There was something so scenic and beautiful, but also kind of lonely, about it," he recalls. "And then Inbal and I started working on the look of Mildred's billboards."

Weinberg gave McDonagh numerous options. "I looked at every photo out there of personal billboards," she muses. "We tried different fonts, different colors, and different sentence placement. One of the biggest breakthroughs was an idea that Martin had - to use a red background from which the lettering really pops. When we tried it, we loved it, and not only was it a great decision but it led to red becoming a major accent color for the entire film."

The billboards go through six different phases of existence. "It was incredibly complex," Weinberg notes, "because these billboards are huge structures and not easily moved. We had entire meetings just devoted to scheduling the billboards." The production also finagled a means of covering the boards every night- so as not to leave something shocking for the local community driving down the road.

Weinberg's designs spanned from the large-scale to the tiniest details of Ebbing life - she even found herself coming up with bumper stickers and high school mascots for a town that doesn't exist. For the Ebbing police station, Ebbing and her team transformed a cavernous antique consignment shop. "I did lots of research on vintage small-town police stations," says Weinberg. "We knew we wanted a bullpen, even though modern police don't use them much, but in my mind Ebbing just never renovated. Then everything was fire-proofed, down to the floor, and our effects supervisor Burt Dalton worked with us to do burn tests on everything from the desks to the light bulbs."

For Red's office, Weinberg used a retro look. "I was inspired most by photos of ad shops from the 20s and 30s when it was all about traditional signage and that gave us the idea of using the walls to show off Ebbing's history, like the Bicentennial Train Ride," she explains. "We found old ad boards in prop shops and also sourced items from a local sign shop."

Weinberg kept Mildred's house in disarray. "It had to feel like the house of a grieving mother," she describes. "Frances had a lot of ideas we implemented. Important to all of us was that her daughter's room be the cleanest in the house. The challenge was to create a vibrant teen room that is full of absence."

One of Weinberg's favorite sets is the house where Dixon lives with his mother. "Martin had the idea that you could see the main drag from Dixon's porch - and amazingly, we found the perfect house just as Martin imagined it. It was a tiny, tiny house and hard to shoot in but Martin loved it so we made it work. For the folksy art pieces his mother does, we bought some wonderful paintings in the naïve tradition from a South Carolina artist and filled the house with family photos and yellowed, smoker's wallpaper."

Another favorite for Weinberg is the whimsical Ebbing gift shop where Mildred works. "The store was made from nothing and we had to essentially brand all our own knickknacks and souvenirs for a non-existent town. One idea we liked is that even though it's a gift shop, it's in a place that's not very welcoming. It's an isolated shop because Mildred is so isolated as a character," says the designer. (Also seen in the shop: rabbits, a running theme for McDonagh throughout his film career.)

No matter where or what she was building, Weinberg was gratified by how much the people of Sylva embraced masquerading as Ebbing. "The more we shot, the more super excited they got and started making their own shirts and memorabilia. The people of Sylva added a beautiful spirit to the production."

Meanwhile, Melissa Toth was outfitting Ebbing - from Red and Pamela's retro looks to the Ebbing Police uniforms. Toth has worked with a range of visionary directors including Michel Gondry on ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND to Kenneth Lonergan in MARGARET and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, but she says even among that group, McDonagh stands out.

"His writing is really its own kind of animal," she reflects, "and for a costume designer the challenge of his work is that the way that people talk isn't always aligned with the way that you see them. My way of working with him was to just blast him with ideas and look for feedback. He would sometimes give me one or two clues about the characters - such as a song they love - and I'd work from that. His storytelling is so intense, complex and dark but he's very breezy to work with. It's a rare combo."

While Mildred's jumpsuit is the central costuming piece, Toth notes that "the story is filled with zany characters, and it's a real ensemble piece. Martin's writing gives you room to play around. The world he creates is full of such depth and mystery, and there's nothing more fun than plumbing the depths of mystery in the character's clothing."

For the Ebbing police uniforms, Toth drew from research on rural police, focusing in on the emblazoned patches that make each unique. When Dixon is off-duty, she gave him a mustard yellow jacket which subtly mirrors that there's something off-color about the man. "We dipped and dyed that jacket to get it just the right color," Toth explains. "I loved working with Sam. He works so hard but when you see him in the role, it just looks effortless."

A favorite outfit of Toth's is a simple one: the light floral dress Chief Willoughby's wife Anne wears on their picnic and is still wearing when that day takes a turn. "The way Abbie wears it you get the feeling that she's making the most of every moment. The way it was flowing in the breeze during the picnic was just one of those moments when a costume was able to do so much visually."

When it came to the film's score, McDonagh turned to his regular musical collaborator: Carter Burwell, an Oscar-nominee for CAROL, also recognized for his work with the Coen brothers and Spike Jonze. Reading the script, Burwell entered into the mentality of small towns where, as he says, "everyone knows each other from grade school and some of the same violence, prejudice and romance just continues on into adulthood." As he turned the pages, an array of musical thoughts swirled, from classical Americana to Spaghetti Westerns.

"I did initially have the thought of a Sergio Leone kind of score, because you have these very flawed characters seeking their own form of justice in a pitiless world," he recalls. "Ultimately, I didn't fully go in that direction but there remains a bit of that essence in there."

That the storyline was so utterly uncategorizable felt right up Burwell's musical alley. "I like working on films that are multi-dimensional and that is the best description of this film," he says. "In almost every scene where something is happening, the opposite is also happening ... in a scene of great violence there is pathos and in a scene of great pathos there is humor and I think that's my personal strength as a composer. I enjoy working with the contradictory."

Burwell continues: "The most important thing I felt for the music to do was to keep you in Mildred's heart and on her side. So there are three basic themes in the score: Mildred's heart; Mildred at war; and death, which is a theme that surrounds not only Mildred's loss of her daughter but also Woody Harrelson's character."

He goes on: "I rooted all the music in American folk traditions, blending in a lot acoustic guitars, but Mildred's warpath theme is almost like a military march, with drumming and clapping and stomping." But when Mildred's billboards are set on fire, that became the biggest compositional challenge for Burwell, who sought to mirror the drama without sentimentality. "It took a while for me to find that scene because I felt there had to be once a sense of urgency, but also an undertone of violence and a feeling of despair," he describes. "I used a mixture of mandolin, drums and strings and it was very satisfying the way it worked with the performances."

Burwell has developed his own way of partnering with McDonagh where they isolate themselves from all outside voices. "We work entirely one-on-one, which isn't always how it is in films," he notes. "We talk everything through just the two of us and no one else enters the conversation so it's an intimate kind of thing. For both of us, the focus was honing in on Mildred's mix of fury, warmth and loss." That volatile mix - and the incendiary path it takes through Ebbing - is what makes the film what it is, says Graham Broadbent. "It was always a given that this story would be funny, because it was already so funny on the page and we had such terrific actors. But as we made the film, Martin was so careful to protect the beautiful sadness and the love of humanity in the film, and that's what brings it to another level," he comments.

For McDonagh, the trajectory towards a scrap of light, however slim and hazy, was inevitable because that is what keeps him going. "I think there's something quite hopeful about the film in Mildred's single-mindedness and also in Willoughby's decency," the writer-director concludes. "The way Frances plays Mildred you are stirred, despite the dark, dark place she is coming from and all the uncertainty that surrounds her war. I hope audiences will be moved and amused and maybe angry at times. Mostly, I hope they'll feel they were just told a rich and somewhat unexpected type of story."

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