By Ali Moosavi.
Great theater can be very cerebral, it can be very thematic, it can be very dialogue driven and stirring but it doesn’t necessarily have the same visceral stakes that a movie does. This play has cinematic stakes, so the transfer of it to film was just really leaning more into that, like the tension.”
Small Engine Repair takes its time to carefully and meticulously build up the main characters. You sit back and think, OK it’s a nice character study and then, suddenly, it pulls the rug from under your feet and puts those characters in such a perilous and unpredictable situation that the tension goes through the roof. A structurally similar movie, though not thematically, would be The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978). Like The Deer Hunter, the main characters in Small Engine Repair are working class men. Frank (John Pollono), Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham) are lifelong friends, closely bonded in a masculine way. Frank has a violence streak running through him which had landed him behind bars and he’s just been released. His estranged wife Karen (Jordana Spiro) is a drunken mess. The only thing that Frank lives for is his daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo). Crystal is also just as dear and precious to Swaino and Packie. One night Frank gathers his two buddies and asks them for a favour concerning his daughter, one that shocks both the friends and the audience.
Small Engine Repair started life as a play written by John Pollono, which he has adapted for the screen. It is a terrific feature film directing debut for Pollono, who he has been acting for 15 years, and has just another feature film script to his name, Stronger (David Gordon Green, 2017). Within the story about these friends, Pollono also examines the class structure and impact of the social media.
I talked to Pollono about the film.
I used to like love watching this type of character driven films in cinemas in the 70s but nowadays the cinemas have been taken over by comic book films, horror movies and broad comedies. What’s been the journey of this film from a play to the screen?
It started out as a late-night play. I had written quite a few plays at that point and my wife produced this late-night series at our theater. The material by nature tended to be more provocative and more button pushing, meaning that it couldn’t be so cerebral for an audience coming in at 10:30 pm, maybe they’ve been out to dinner, had a couple of drinks, so you’ve got to keep them engaged. I didn’t want to hold back. I’m wanted to create an unfiltered rollercoaster that definitely has something on its mind but really lean into the visceral nature of theater. It consisted of one master scene: lights come up, it’s a 75-minute one act play and everyone is like, holy shit, I forgot I was watching a play. So we did that and it really caught on. Jon Bernthal was in the original cast with me, and he and I really clicked. The play has moved around the world – I did another production of it in New York off Broadway – and I continued to refine the material and battle test it. Jon and I always thought that this would make a really cool indie film. It is primarily contained in one location which makes it easier to do and it is actor driven. There’s one thing we all know and love, and that is acting and actors. So schedule permitting we kept trying and there were a couple of take offs that never quite happened and my career as a writer really took off and Jon’s star as an actor kept rising. Then what was happening in the country, especially with the Me-Too movement, really brought up a lot of the themes of the play and the social media just became even more and more ubiquitous and of a hot button topic. So all of the incendiary issues in the play became more relevant and we felt that this is a good time to contribute to that dialogue and create something provocative and artistic. With what’s going on with the class issues and with gender issues, it just felt like putting out a lot of really vibrant ideas at a time when people are getting a little lull to sleep with movies, like you said. We wanted to use it to run counter to so many things to create something that’s a little more in your face and provocative, but heartfelt with characters that were reminiscent of the 70s movies. There’s so many of those 70’s films that have influenced me. They take you on a journey that leaves you rattled and more importantly they create a different emotion each time you watch them. If you watch Taxi Driver again, you’ll think wow this is funnier than I thought or by the third time you think this is really creating something in an unflinching and honest way, filled with humor and heart and shocks and provoking the audience. We were very excited about this project and put a lot of time and energy into it. When our schedules were aligned, we just jumped on it.
A lot of times when a play is transferred to a movie, they try to open it up and by doing so lose the tension that you have in a theater. Thankfully, when you venture out of Frank’s workshop you keep it indoors, like in a bar and maintain the tension by creating conflict in these environments.
I’m glad you liked it. A lot of that is out of necessity but to your point, this was a story about characters in a story about internal demons and rising tension and I very much wanted locations that felt lived-in and for real. We shot on location as much as we could, so the locations were as much of a character in the film. I think a lot of plays that transfer into film struggle because theater works in a different way. Great theater can be very cerebral, it can be very thematic, it can be very dialogue driven and stirring but it doesn’t necessarily have the same visceral stakes that a movie does. This play has cinematic stakes, so the transfer of it to film was just really leaning more into that, like the tension. These guys are dangerous guys, they have tempers, they are quick to get physical, they are not intellectual people who are processing neurotically everything that’s happening in their lives. I’ve seen those plays where we have very intellectual people having a deep philosophical discourse and they can be incredible, but cinematically that’s just harder to put across. In the play there were only three men, three friends and then this college kid comes in. The inclusion of Crystal and Karen and Dottie and Judy, all these incredible women was the biggest change in adapting the play to film and obviously these women are indispensable and as flawed and deep as any of the men.
These women are tough as nails and they don’t soften the theme of the film. Karen is probably tougher than the guys!
That’s by design and she’s like a buzz saw who comes in. It’s like these guys are living there but they’re still like grown boys, whereas she grew up in a culture where women are not treated as well and so she had to be even stronger and that’s why, without giving anything away, when she appears at the end, she’s the only one who galvanizes the men because she’s a better fighter than any of them.
Your depiction of working-class people and their living environment is very realistic, it’s obviously something that you are either very familiar with or have researched it a lot.
Oh well thank you, I appreciate that.
Also, like all good movies of this genre it has a certain amount of humor. It’s like a black comedy which balances nicely with all the machismo and tension.
That’s by design. First of all, New England, where it takes place, has a dark gallows humor that’s so unique and cool and I enjoy very much. In fact, I think if you were to watch Small Engine Repair again you would probably laugh even louder. I mean the first time so much of the humor, like little bits of behaviour, little lines and stuff like that is thrown away. To me that was another thing I took away from what you’re talking about those 70s movies or even a movie like Goodfellas which the first time I saw it I was at the edge of my seat and was quite terrified a lot of the time. Then I saw it again and I just laughed my ass off and was like oh my God this is a comedy and then you’re like it’s not a comedy, it’s drama, it’s a crime thriller, it’s like all those things. So, it was really trying to create something like that. The humor was as important of an ingredient as anything to me and obviously casting those actors was key. I wanted to have material that is not oppressive, even though it goes to very dark places. I wanted to maintain that levity and humor which I think adds to the entertainment factor of watching the movie.
The whole cast is great, Jon Bernthal, yourself and Shea Whigham who never repeats himself. Every movie of him that I see, he’s a totally different character and he really morphs into that character.
I think he is like the film fans’ actor. Watching that guy’s process was pretty incredible to watch. He really is a chameleon and his dedication and the deep dive that he takes is really inspiring, as is Jon Bernthal who puts his heart and soul into everything fearlessly. So, having actors like that it just raises the bar for everyone, in the crew, in the cast, everyone. You are running to catch up with talent like that and it just elevates the whole piece.
Did the script change much during rehearsals? Were there a lot of improvisation by the actors?
Yes absolutely. Jon, Shea and I sat at a table and rehearsed the movie for months like a play and I would constantly rewrite based upon their input. As I got to know Shea better, I made Packie more to Shea’s characteristics. Obviously I knew Jon but we made new discoveries. All the characters, especially those three guys, sort of orbit around each other so you can’t change one without the other two shifting, so it was a very organic process. I wasn’t precious with the script but there were some lines and story beats that absolutely had to come across and there is some great banter that does work in the play and on the page that we kept. So there was a a lot of freedom and there was some great improvisation and some real gems that happened and there were also some terrible improvisation that I cut out. You have to have great actors to give them that license , like Stronger where you have Miranda Richardson who knows the script inside out. So she’s not throwing it out and just making it up, she’s riffing on the script and hitting certain lines and that’s sort of how I tried to look at it when you are in the edit. A lot of times the line as written ends up being the one you use but when you have great actors, some little discoveries happen.
One scene that I really loved was where these three guys were planning to do a violent act and you watch them do it and it looks repulsive but you sit back and it’s done in a very matter of fact manner. You think it’s over and then you realize that it was just the depiction in their mind of what they were planning to do. When they actually start to do the real thing, the tension just racks way off because you realize that thinking about doing something is one thing and actually doing it is quite something else.
Thank you for that. I think that the strongest statement of the film is tied up in those sequences where there is this masculine ideal of revenge and what the right thing to do is and you fantasize about that. But the film says that as an audience you see that and the movie is playing by the rules. But then the movie starts to derail and not play by the rules of film and storytelling which an audience is typically accustomed to. So you are unmoored and that I think ratchets up the tension and then as the movie continues to twist, in bringing the audience to an even more provocative and uncomfortable place. It really intends to look an audience and say hey in a way you are more comfortable with this grotesque thing happening than this other situation that happens. To me that question is what hopefully makes it resonate for an audience. The movie at that point starts asking more questions than it answers, which I think is by design.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).