Something always haunted director John Michael McDonagh about a short film he did in 2000.
One minor character in his ghost story, "The Second Death," seemed to have a lot more life in him.
"It revolves around a pub, and at one point there is a local policeman who is obnoxious," said McDonagh, coming to Sundance for his first feature film, "The Guard," which tonight opens the Ogden leg of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
"He was such a great character, but I never had a plot for him. Then, two or three years ago, there was a massive drug seizure off the coast Ireland, where the boat ran aground."
Millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs were seized because the drug runners bought the wrong kind of boat fuel.
"They bought diesel fuel instead of petrol, or something," McDonagh said. "It had a comical element to it. So I had my character, and I realized then that I had my plot."
"The Guard," which McDonagh wrote and directed, is a drama/dark comedy about two law officers with nothing in common except a case.
Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Irish actor Brendan Gleeson) is a small-town Irish cop with a quirky, subversive sense of humor, a talent for saying whatever will be most offensive and inappropriate, a lusty appreciation of prostitutes, an enjoyment of rule bending, and a dying mother.
FBI agent Wendell Everett (American actor Don Cheadle), who arrives in town to investigate an international cocaine smuggling ring, is a tightly wound, by-the-book man with little patience for the likes of Boyle.
"Boyle says the first thing that comes into his mind," McDonagh explained. "It's always good to have a character who is prepared to say or do anything at any point in time. It gives you options if a person who should be a figure of authority has something slightly askew about him. Doyle is messing with evidence and undermining the investigation."
McDonagh said Gleeson, famous in Europe, was the natural for the role. McDonagh said he had seen Cheadle in films including "Devil in a Blue Dress," and could see the dramatic actor also had a flair for comedy.
"He is the straight man, but he gets his moments as well," McDonagh said, of Cheadle's character.
"Directors often say they got their first choice of actors for lead roles, but this is one of those rare cases where it's the truth."
McDonagh said "The Guard" is similar in tone and sensibility to a "In Bruges," a 2008 film by his brother, Martin McDonagh.
John Michael McDonagh said he has been to Sundance twice before.
"I went in 1995, which was just before it all blew up into a massive festival," he said. "There were a lot of good films. Then I was there after it burst, two or three years ago, with my brother's film. There were parties everywhere, and the streets were packed. So I've seen Sundance from both sides."
McDonagh said he has most of his international distribution deals for "The Guard" set, but he still needs a United States distribution deal, which he hopes to find during the festival.
"It's important to secure a U.S. sale," he said. "It's the last major market, and a really important one."
But business deals aside, McDonagh said having "The Guard" accepted to Sundance was a major morale lifter for him, and the film's cast and crew.
"It's massively important to me as a boost in confidence," he said. "It's been a boost for everyone involved in the film."
• “The Guard” (96 minutes, Ireland), 9:30 p.m. today. Sold out; wait list only.