It’s likely not coincidental that writer John Pollono’s best-known works so far—his 2011 breakthrough play, Small Engine Repair, its 2013 follow-up companion piece, Lost Girls, and his 2017 adapted screenplay Stronger, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal—are all set in New England. That is where Pollono was raised. The area’s decaying brick textile mills, its low, gray winter skies, and its patchy woods with floors of crunchy, dead leaves are all deeply imprinted on his DNA. Pollono’s New England contains neither the sunshine of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream nor the somber wealth of Harvard Yard. It’s the place where working class people are just trying to get by. In the morning, they’re commuting on cracked, asphalt roads full of potholes to hourly-paying laborer jobs. In the evening, they’re drinking cheap, sudsy beer in wood-paneled bars where the server is likely an aged high school classmate.
Grounded in regional authenticity, his play, Small Engine Repair, hit the Los Angeles theater scene in 2011 in a major way. The Rogue Machine Theatre production was celebrated with numerous awards with Pollono himself snagging three for playwriting: the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, the LA Weekly Award, and the Back Stage Garland Award. The play quickly moved to Off-Broadway where it again created a roar of a mufflerless engine.
In 2019, Pollono adapted his own work into an indie film for release in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic bollixed those plans, but the film finally saw a September 2021 theatrical release with streaming becoming available in October. A much larger audience can finally spend some time in Frank Romanoski’s cramped small engine shop in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Small Engine Repair centers on a trio of 40-ish working class men who’ve known each other most of their lives: Frank (Pollono), suave Swaino (Jon Bernthal), and anxious Packie (Shea Whigham). Their night of scotch and steak is interrupted when a privileged, preppie college student, Chad (Spencer House), shows up—at Frank’s invitation—for the purpose of a drug sale.
And then the party really begins.
The odyssey of Small Engine Repair is a 10-year journey. Both Pollono and Bernthal originated their film characters in the original Los Angeles stage production a decade before. I recently had a Jitsi telecon with Pollono to discuss that journey and his various roles as the film’s writer, lead actor, and director.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kevin Delin: I seem to recall that you wrote the first draft of Small Engine Repair over a weekend in 2011.
John Pollono: I don’t think it was that quick, but it was very quick. You think, “Oh, fuck, I just gotta nail it in that first draft. I’m going to capture that magic.” And this is one of those rare cases where 70% of it came out in that first draft. I think the first draft had the gist of it.
I had thought I was going to kill one of the characters on stage. And then as I got to writing it, I was like this is more a story about the characters and the moral dilemma than it is about creating some sort of thriller-type thing.
Yeah. It’s a very patient play. It’s almost European in its feel. It has a focus on the characters for quite a while.
I tried to take the audience as long as I could, setting the table.
Once you know where the play goes, you realize that setting of the table was actually moving the chess pieces in place for the action that occurs. I was like, “OK, this is about as long as I take an audience without starting to have the story click into place.”
Right. But we trust that the playwright won’t waste our time. So, everything that you’re writing, it’s sort of Chekhovian gun-type stuff.
It’s funny, I wouldn’t disagree with you, but I would say a lot of plays have filler. They have dialogue and conversations. Look, I love dialogue. I love writing it. But a lot of dialogue in plays, I find, is filler. And it’s just creating stuff for characters to do. Even some really great fucking plays do that.
Yeah, I agree. Usually, it happens in the second act.
But for me, characters are why you go back to a play.
If you’re going back to a particular play, it’s probably because you want to spend time with the characters.
Right. I think the interesting thing about Small Engine Repair is Frank is the central character who is sort of pulling the strings. But he has a fraction of the dialogue as the other characters who are bigger characters.
The play is really focused on its characters rather than showy theatrics.
This play was conceived. Rogue Machine had a late-night show. Jen Pollono, my wife, was producing these late-night shows. The way it would work is there was an eight o’clock show either on the main stage or the smaller stage, and then there was the late-night show. And people went to late-night a little buzzed, and they wanted something crazy to happen.
You had to have it so that your set, or whatever you did, could be built on the main show’s stage. That meant you couldn’t be too crazy in terms of the staging. You had to use their lighting scheme. The lights come up, you have the play, and the lights go down. And there can be some sound cues and stuff like that. But you can’t do a whole lot. It’s got to be a static set. And it’s got to be a master scene.
You have some serious staging constraints.
I love the people coming and going and the tech-changing, power-shifting dynamics of it just being a master scene. Because then, it’s less theatrical, and it’s more you being in the story and the character. So, all that stuff was there as I was conceiving Small Engine Repair, those sort of, you know, limitations. That is part of the conception of it.
The play is very much tied to regionalism; it’s set in your home turf of New Hampshire. That’s especially interesting to me because I also come from New England.
It was the first thing I ever wrote that took place literally in New Hampshire. And, literally, where I grew up. It was like, I don’t have to research things. You know what I mean? I know these characters.
I also knew I wanted to act in it. So I created a composite character that leaned into some things I had explored. And some characters I felt I had were in my sweet spot, and some that were not, and I kind of started packing them in. And then the characters are sort of created as a unity of opposites. They were all sort of one massive character. And then the three pieces peeled off of them so they were illuminating each other. It was like a sandbox idea.
And the theme was just something that got my pulse racing, something I felt very strongly about, and I don’t necessarily start with theme. I wanted to have the characters created and then create a dilemma for them. And then make sure everything organically fit around this theme of exploration that I wanted to tell. That was kind of all in a bubbling pot.
Are the characters in Small Engine Repair based on actual people you knew?
My senior year in college, I bought a Harley Sportster, and it was in boxes. The main chassis was there, the engine was all there, but it came over in boxes. My Dad and I had this kind of beautiful month when we put it together. And there were a couple of issues with the carburetor and stuff that were just beyond our ability. And my Dad, who worked in Manchester, would pass this little Harley shop.
So, I went there, and there’s the guy who owned it. He’s a big dude with tattoos, kind of overweight. He had a big fuckin’ pitbull, and he had a bed there, and all these dudes hanging out in his garage. You’d sit down, and he’d give you a beer. I was a college kid. I was a little different than most people who hung out there. But as you know, you’re in New England, and you’re automatically a little more rustic than the average guy, a little more rough. And I’d just hang out with this dude. I’d bring my bike by for various things. He’d cut me a good deal. And I’d just sit on this couch and kind of hang out with them.
And that was sort of in my head as I was creating the play.
Write what you know.
Right. And then knowing the sort of darker, provocative nature of these late-night plays, I was like, “I’m just not going to hold back.” I’m just going to write these guys the way I know they would talk. And sort of challenge myself to thematically say something.
But not sugar coat it.
How many reads did you do before the play went up at Rogue Machine?
I had one reading really, really early for [Rogue Machine Artistic Director] John Flynn and two people. And then I worked on it a little bit and had another reading with more people at a friend’s house. So, there were maybe two readings. And then we were off to the races.
At Rogue Machine there was the big stage and a small one, and you just do what you can, but we’re the late-night show and our budget was like 500 bucks. Jen did the costumes, and she was a producer on it. [Director] Andrew Block drove my truck way out to the middle of fucking nowhere to buy an old junky riding lawnmower for the set.
Did you do it in the small theater? Or the large?
We did the small theater because honestly, it was like “This is a fucked-up play.” The language is so unfiltered. It’s not stupid. It’s smart. But it’s so coarse. We didn’t know how people would react.
Theater, especially 10 years ago, was a place you would go to be pushed, to have your buttons pushed, and to be provoked. The same reason you’ll go to a stand-up comic because you don’t want to be safe and have them pat you on the back. That’s why I love Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr and people like that. They’ll say some shit, and I’m like “Oh, my God, I can’t believe they said that.” It’s fucking great. You’re there to have your buttons pushed. So, we’re in that mold, but we didn’t know how it would work. We had one preview with like two people in the audience. And then we opened.
It was like, “Alright, man, I don’t know, people might walk out.” But they can’t walk out. Because once the play starts, and they walk out, they’ve got to fucking cross the set! They had to walk right next to the actors to go out. So, they’re held hostage.
So, we just started to do it. And the response was amazing. I mean, I knew dudes would like it. But it really kind of transcended that, and women, especially, got [Frank’s] father-daughter relationship. And they were not offended by the sort of vulgar, misogynistic language because they got the theme, they understood what it’s trying to say.
I took a shot with it and the audience got it. Some people are offended. That’s fine. But most people were like, “I get what you’re saying.”
Let’s talk about the language in this work. You have more “fucks” in this than a typical Mamet play. Although for my money, your dialogue is a lot more natural sounding.
Thank you [laughs]. In both the play and the movie, [Jon] Bernthal likes to add the fucks in and, you know, it becomes a character tick with him.
It’s hilarious. It’s really hard not to add them in. There’s more in the movie than on the page even!
Linguistically, there is something called “infix.” There are prefixes, suffixes, and then there’s infixes. And “fuck” is a classic infix. So, you’ll say “Massa-fucking-chusetts” but you won’t say “Massachu-fucking-setts” and this literally is studied by linguists. There’s a rhythm and flow to it.
I worked with a guy installing irrigation systems, and he’d have a trencher guy come in. He always talked to me about getting laid by his wife. He’d be like, “Yeah, she gave it to me. She let me spank it.” That’s what he said! And then also the amount he swore: “So, I’m fucking with this fucking thing, and I fucking drive my fucking thing and, like, fucking-A, it’s like fucking crazy …” Non-stop. It’s like you said, I understood everything he said. You can get into that thing. Working class dudes.
Do you consider Mamet an important influence on your writing? In reviewing the Off-Broadway production of Small Engine Repair, Charles Isherwood, who gave you a really good notice in the New York Times, actually goes so far as to claim that.
I really appreciated that. When I moved to L.A., I had never read a play. Outside of being, you know, an English major, like, A Doll’s House or whatever. And then I started taking acting classes. And they assign plays to you. You read plays. Not movies, not TV shows, but plays. I remember [Mamet’s] Sexual Perversity in Chicago. And it was foul-mouthed galore, and I was like, “Holy shit, this is hilarious.” So, we were devouring all these plays: Martin McDonagh, Sarah Kane, Theresa Rebeck. All of these great plays where I was like, “Holy fuck!”
Are you influenced as much by female playwrights as male ones?
I remember reading an article recently, and it was talking about, statistically, men don’t like to read books written by women. And that’s so not my experience. And I don’t know if that’s a bunch of bullshit. I mean, they’re trying to divide us so much.
The majority of my other plays have had women as the central characters, and I never even thought about it any other way. People say, “Oh, wow, you write women so well.” And I’m thinking, it’s just a silly thing to say. I always thought that odd. If you’re a good writer, you’re a good writer.
My play, Lost Girls, is a companion piece to Small Engine Repair. Same neighborhood, same theme. Just hit from a different way. And I remember when it played in New York, some of the reviews were really hard on my lead character—a woman. The reviews said how harsh she was and how mean she was to the men in her life. And I was like, “Wow, it’s such a double standard.” Because when I write plays with men behaving badly, you don’t get that reaction.
Based on reviews of Small Engine Repair, people seem to talk about this work in terms of gender, in terms of masculinity. There’s certainly that element but, to me, it really comes down much more to class issues.
I think the majority of the problems, especially in our country, have more to do with class than anything. I’m not diminishing racial or gender issues, but a lot of it is class.
The women in the film have just as much of a hair-trigger temper as the guys. They all live in that world, and when you don’t have money, life is a lot harder.
Right. I’m making more money now, but the majority of my life I’ve had the lights turned off many times. There’s this stress of money. I’ve wondered at points in my life if I didn’t have to worry about paying bills, I don’t know what my identity would be without that stress, without that anxiety. It’s such a weight on your back: the student loan payment, the electrical bill. Do you remember that video game Missile Command back in the 80s?
That’s the sort of metaphor I always had for my finances most of my life. You have these missiles coming towards you, and you have these missiles you shoot back, and which ones are you going to stop? You’re gonna bounce a check or two, you’re going to be late on something, you got to decide what it is. Still ingrained in me. Even if I can afford it more, I still have a lot of trouble spending money. Like driving a car. If something goes wrong with this car, I won’t work. If I don’t work, it’ll snowball. That’s your life.
Your fucking life is dependent on that. There’s a level of stress when you don’t have money. Now Frank’s an entrepreneur. He’s a business owner. He’s doing it. But the amount of work that guy has to do to get what he’s working for. And there’s that myth you have—that my kid’s life will be better than my life. That’s all you want. You hang your hopes and your dreams on that. So, that’s innate in the play.
Do you think that in today’s world, we’re looking too much for our heroes to be perfect in every way, as opposed to being real? For example, the word “fag” comes up in the dialogue.
That’s not a word I ever used in my everyday language. I grew up in an environment where it was used very casually, and it didn’t necessarily always mean a gay person. When I grew up it was like: “We got to do homework tonight? That’s so gay.” I understand its roots and how hurtful that is. But it’s a complicated thing. I would not use that in a piece of writing unless it was important thematically.
Yes. And I think every time the word comes up, it’s when one of the characters is being vulnerable. The characters are saying things like “faggy dad shit.” I don’t think that’s in the film, but it’s certainly in the play.
Yeah, that’s in the play. You have to sometimes lean into the language more in a play than film; you have to really go for it. It’s very tactical, the word is used three times in the movie. And it’s very specific.
It seems one can get to the point where it’s “I can’t write a play about Nazis because I’ll have to say antisemitic things in the play.”
I don’t subscribe to that. You can have an incredibly antisemitic play that doesn’t say a single antisemitic thing. But then you can have a play that incorporates antisemitic language for the reason of thematically pointing out a more progressive ideal. I think good storytelling is good storytelling. I think this is the wonderful thing about working with artists in terms of diversifying the background of people. I love people, and I don’t want to necessarily offend them.
But I feel beholden to the truth. And within the context of the story that I’m creating, I want to create something truthful. In that case, using certain homophobic language within Small Engine Repair the play and, in particular, the movie, it was in service of riffing on the central theme. You know what I mean? I was just back in Concord [New Hampshire], and I got the oil changed on my sister’s car. So, I went to this fuckin’ place in Concord, and I heard that language. Those dudes were as homophobic as anybody I’ve heard. So, it’s not glorifying that language. Just because you don’t reflect it in your art doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Yeah. I don’t think David Chase goes around trying to shoot people just because he wrote The Sopranos.
It’s ridiculous. It’s such a reductive bullshit thing to say that a character you create is your mouthpiece. I fuckin’ hate that. Because I’m not gonna just tell stories that have reflections of myself. It’s just boring. That’s not good drama. That’s not good conflict. I think that’s for shit. Now, I will say that Small Engine Repair, writing that play and writing the characters from a neighborhood similar to what I grew up with, and understanding how they spoke and their rhythms and everything, I could write them from dawn until dusk, with confidence. I know the rhythm and the riffs of those characters. If I had to write someone who was South African, it would take a little while for me to feel comfortable getting to that point. And I’ve certainly done that. But, this late-night play, I was going to write about shit I know. I knew I could write about it with a degree of authenticity.
So, the play at Rogue Machine was very successful. It then immediately gets another run at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. How does it get to New York from there? Because it seemed pretty quick.
It was. It was the first play I had that had heat like that. I didn’t realize how lucky it was. We had a reading, a big Off-Broadway thing with Pablo Schreiber and Tom Sadoski. All these really great actors, and they had a reading. I flew out and saw it.
Let me back you up a little bit. So, someone sitting in the audience in L.A. says they want a reading in New York City?
No, the play won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle for playwriting and that definitely got it seen, and I had an agent who was passing it around. After that happens, there was a lot more interest in it. And it ends up with this director. He had this reading. And the actors were good. Tom Sadoski read as Frank, and he was excellent. But I was like, “I just know this material; I just know this world.” They’re doing a play where I felt it was missing authenticity. But I’m nobody. Nobody’s gonna pay a ticket to see me.
So then we shopped it. I was hanging out with Bernthal. And he was like, “What are we fucking doing? Let’s just do it. Let’s pull some strings.” So, we got it to MCC and Jo Bonney.
Who directed it in New York.
Yeah. She became a collaborator of mine. I had dinner with her, and I just loved her.
How did you reach Jo?
She was friends with Jon. He understudied a [Neil LaBute] play called Fat Pig. She kind of carved a path by fearlessly doing all kinds of material. She had no qualms directing something grittier. We did Small Engine Repair, and The Wall Street Journal was asking her questions like, “As a woman, what’s it like directing this?” And she hates those questions. She’s like, “What do you mean ‘as a woman?’ I’m a director. I directed. I understand those characters.”
It’s cutting both ways. First, it’s how can you possibly write female characters? Then it’s how can she possibly direct male characters? To look at this play as a statement about toxic masculinity—it’s just a lot more than that. I suspect that’s the reason you have people like Jo interested in directing it.
Totally. I certainly didn’t sit down and say, “I’m gonna write about toxic masculinity.” I wrote what I thought was a truthful play about gender, the social media of it, and the idea of humiliation.
So, you get Jo Bonney interested. I assume she’s one of the key people that helps sell it to MCC?
She does. She has connections with the agents and then MCC read it, and they really liked. At that time, 2012, 2013, MCC’s brand was a lot more about provocative, edgy plays. And now with Jo Bonney and Jon Bernthal, who was supposed to be in it. And then Jon booked the movie Fury a few weeks before we started rehearsals, so he had to drop out. Then James Badge Dale came in, who was awesome.
Here you are selling yourself not only as writer but also as one of the lead actors for the production. The role of Frank is not a small part.
MCC got behind it. They didn’t have an issue with that. I don’t know why.
Because a lot of times you’ll hear, “You’re the writer.” And that’s that.
Maybe because I had done it enough. And maybe because Jo had seen me in another play that I acted in a smaller part. I don’t know—leap of faith.
My acting and the evolution of Frank’s character, as I played him, took a big evolution with Jo Bonney, which was really interesting. Andrew Block did an excellent job in L.A., created this vision of him, and I sort of took that character in that foundation. Then Jo took it to a deeper place.
Did you find, when you were working with Jo, that you disengaged as the writer? You’re now an actor working with a director and trying to understand a character that, theoretically, you were already inside.
At some point, you just have to let all the writer stuff go. I remember Jo saying that to me, “Listen, the script is the script, just focus on this.” I didn’t have a problem. I mean, the things I’m in that I don’t write, where I’m just an actor, I’m kind of rewriting in my head as I do it.
It’s not uncommon that you’re cast in something, and your actor’s instinct might be to eat every little crumb of that character and inhabit everything. We’ve all seen plays with actors who make the whole fucking play about drinking that cup and putting it down. I thought Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did such an incredible job in that scene where DiCaprio was eating and overdoing every little thing.
By writing it and being in it, you’re permeating it artistically. So I don’t have to act. I don’t have to do anything, and it’s servicing the material, which a lot of actors do innately. But there’s like, no ego in my performance because I’m just trying to tell the story.
It’s interesting that you have this director, an artistic partner, who is exploring this character with you that you have already explored by yourself.
I think the beauty of theater is every production has a different interpretation. And the words on the page can mean different things depending upon how they’re directed and staged. With Andrew Block, we didn’t have a ton of time and money, and he’s very instinctual and fun, and he got it. He did all this stuff, and he put his own imprint on it. And it was fun, and we just threw it in, and it was this beautiful chaos. With Jo, we had the time. Her directing style of one layering at a time guided me in a way that I had never been before, just as an actor.
By that point, that material was battle-tested and we did some changes and switched some things around. New York laughed at different shit than L.A. did. It was a very different thing in New York. New York audiences really lean in and listen, they’re looking for a deeper meaning. The L.A. audience started so late-night, and it was so raucous, and we got our theater friends mixed with cops and firefighters. In L.A., a huge chunk of our audience were people who had never been to a play before. Because it started to hit that crowd, which was cool. New York is a theater town, so you’re getting people who are a lot more conditioned to watch.
Was there a major rewrite? Or was it sort of just tweaking as you go along?
Not major stuff. A dramaturg at MCC had some notes, and I addressed some things. I’ve certainly done a lot more changes in other plays I’ve done, but this one was pretty sturdy. It’s a pretty intimate, simple story. Mostly just some dialogue things.
So the play goes up in New York. And it’s a standard six-week run?
Yeah, and then we got a two-week extension, which is the max they can do at that theater.
After it was done, [Tony Award winning producer] Jeffrey Richards tells us “There’s something here. We’ll raise the money, or a huge part of the funds, to do a commercial run. We want to do Broadway.” And there’s the list of actors, of which, obviously, I was not on that list, who could have been in the Broadway show.
Right. You can’t sell tickets because you’re not an Academy Award winner.
Literally. It’s like you need Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and fucking Casey Affleck in there. Or instead, you find a Bernthal or a Badge or whomever and sure, I’d see that play, but we’re talking about the Broadway model and this play’s not really meant to be done that way. This is a play that’s been done all over the world but it’s always done at those sorts of edgier, artsier theaters.
You obviously decided not to go commercial because it didn’t happen.
Well, it was more like we went out to those few anointed actors, and you either couldn’t get them to read it or they’re like, “I don’t want to move to New York City for three months for a straight play.” It just didn’t happen. And then everyone got busy. It just had its little moment and then moved on.
When did you think about making a film out of it?
Jon and I always talked about it.
Were you talking about it all the way back at Rogue Machine?
All the way back. When we were at Rogue Machine, I remember he and I go to get a bite to eat. He picked me up in his old shitty F-150 he had back then. We’re sitting there and he turned to me, “Look, bro, we got to be doing this shit forever.” And I was like, cool. A lot of times you’ll meet people and talk shit, but he’s not like that. We just clicked so well. And he’s like, we got to make shit together. And we have kept that promise. We were always, “Let’s make this movie.” And it sort of catered to indie film. It started to ramp up a few times. There’s timing, and then it just kind of clicked when we did it.
When did you decide to direct?
Initially, Jon and I had talked about co-directing. Which I still think would be fun for us to do someday. But then it became that Jon was spread so goddamned thin. So, I was like, it’s better if I just directed.
This is your first time directing?
And the money didn’t have a problem with that, that not only are you acting but now you’re also directing?
We built this sort of the old-fashioned way. We found money in a bunch of different places. People were excited to be part of it. We had huge advantages. We had Jon Bernthal. We had material that was battle-tested that people had seen or read and was out there in the world. And at that point, I had a screenplay. And people really responded to the screenplay.
With the screenplay, you did more than just provide a wrapper around the core which is the stage play. Instead, there is an organic re-imagining where some of the play’s original dialogue is there but it’s been moved around.
I tried to look at it as in I’m going to do a cover version. The play was like the acoustic version. And it’s like, I’m going to plug it in.
Did you feel like you were adapting this other work that you just happened to write?
At that point, I’ve adapted enough stuff [including the screenplay for Stronger] and I know the key to adapting is not to be too precious with the source material. I really tried to study what worked about the play. What was the special sauce of the play? People had a reaction from the play. What is it? And I tried to identify those facets.
A major difference between the film and the play is you’re adding two significant female characters: Frank’s wife [played by Jordana Spiro] and Frank’s daughter [played by Ciara Bravo]. They’re both referred to tangentially in the play, but they become major characters in the film. Because you have these additional characters, the movie hits on the theme of family much more than the play does.
Right. Yeah, I think the movie is much more grounded. So, it’s darker.
What do you mean by ‘more grounded?’
Well, there’s a safety in seeing a play. It’s like watching a magic trick. There’s only so much you can do on stage. A lot of the writing of the play was, believe it or not, inspired a lot by stand-up comedy with characters riffing, like good edgy comedy. Some of the darkest lines in the play were like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe they said that!” There’s like a roller-coaster joy and seeing something on stage push your buttons but you have the safety of “I’m in a theater.” As Bernthal always said, “One of the tricks of Small Engine Repair was how much you got away with on stage.” A lot of the jokes went away in the movie. Theater can have a sort of banter and a sort of theatrical comedy to it that, in the movie, didn’t ring true.
The movie was a deeper dive. Packie in the movie is a lot more of a tragic, complicated character, and especially in his sexuality and his nebulous sort of tragedy of that. It’s more apparent in the movie than in the play. Theater, it’s like, banter, bing, bing, bing. It’s got to pace, you’ve got to keep it going. And then when shit gets dangerous on stage, you’re like, “Oh, my! What are they gonna pull off on stage?” Whereas in a movie, you’re like, “Holy shit, I’ve been with this character, what imagery are you going to show?” Because I could cut to the camera up in space, looking down on the Earth. Or you can shoot a cell of an eyeball. You can do whatever you want.
So how did you approach directing your own material?
I would never have any desire to direct a play I wrote. I love having that other voice of the director. Because I get to say so much as a playwright, that is directing in a film sense, by how I put on the plays and that director comes in there collaborates with you and gets it up and has their vision, and it’s an incredible collaboration. I’d worked on films and TV with some great directors that I was like, “OK, my first step of directing is writing the script.” I’m the kind of guy that when I’m going to do something, I just talk to a bunch of people. And I’ve worked long enough that I had some great contacts and some really generous, great directors who gave me some time.
Any particular advice comes to mind?
One thing [director] Jonathan Levine said to me, “You don’t know yet what kind of director you are … you’re going to figure that out. There’s so many different ways to do it.” Alright, I’m gonna be this kind of director: I’m going to create a sandbox for actors, for the truth of the actors, and everything kind of structured around them.
The set was a contained space. Frank’s shop was lit and designed in a way that moving the camera around did not take five hours to check in the moment. The apparatus of filming wasn’t all handheld, but it was fluid enough to let the discoveries happen, to let the performances and the characters dictate it.
Another great bit of advice, which I heard multiple times, is hire the best fucking people and get out of the way.
Do you think that your approach to directing was influenced by the fact that you’re also an actor, so you appreciate what the actors are going through on the other side of the lens?
Oh, 100%. Yeah, I mean, I love acting. Shea [Whigham] and Jon and I did months of table work. Where we sat at a table and we worked through it, and I rewrote shit, and we found it. And we’d finish these sessions and just kind of look at each other. And Shea would be like, “I can’t believe we’re shooting this thing in a month. Like, this is crazy. We’re just gonna go do it.” So, we lived in it so much that by the time we were there, it just kind of popped.
How do you recreate those moments on screen, creating characters who are unpredictable and doing all that stuff? I had the benefit of being naïve about a lot of stuff and just kind of going with it. But more importantly, I knew that the stress of directing and being the puppet master and having all this pressure and just wanting it to go in a certain way is what fuckin’ Frank is like, every minute of the play!
I knew if I was just open to the experience that I could craft something very, very real and just live within the physicality of the character. You know the way that the Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham characters are lifting up Frank? They did that in real life. Because they’re like, “Bro, this is here. You’re doing a great job. We’re here for each other.” I mean, it was such a lovefest with all the actors just pushing each other. It was like fucking family, and it was all there like that. The love and the emotion of that.
Yeah, the chemistry comes across. There’s some amazing chemistry with Ciara as well.
We have been shooting for weeks, me and Jon and Shea. Weeks. And then Ciara showed up. And she sat at that table, we’re riffing with her. And those guys are ballbusting. It wasn’t an improvised set by any means. But we allow life to go and like, in creative Darwinism, you do that. It’s not wait-for-line, wait-for-line. It’s fill-it-in, fill-it-in with a lot of overlapping dialogue. To keep it real, to keep it like sort of Cassavetes. And she fucking rolled with it from day one. She busted balls. Some of the best lines she came up with on the spot. She’s just such balls because she knew the character, and it was just incredible. How an actor can just show up and do that without any nerves. She’s such a pro. She’s awesome.
You were able to get solid performances from your entire cast.
We didn’t have a gigantic budget. We don’t have special effects. We don’t have crazy gunfights. But what we have is this master class of the best actors.
If I had $100 million, I wouldn’t cast that movie differently. I’d include every actor in there, every actor who had a line. In that scene where we have Swaino’s sisters? Those are all kick-ass actors who came in and worked for an afternoon. And they elevated it. Everyone was just effortlessly generous and giving.
There are some great actors out there, and I’ve worked with them, and they’re great soloists. And their performances are great. But the type of acting I love and the type that I knew this set needed were people who are listeners. They’re not waiting for their moment to define what the movie is. They’re just playing off whatever the fuck it is at that moment.
Every editor I know will tell you that the edit is truly the final rewrite for a film. How did you find your editor?
The couple of editors who I knew, that we were circling, couldn’t do it. And I found out three days before production. I was like, we’ll find one later. Then the producers tell me I need an editor. We need to have somebody creating a rough assembly. “We got this guy, Christopher Bell, I think you’ll really dig him. Just call him.” I call him. He’s really cool. I was like, great. So, he puts together a two-and-a-half-hour rough cut. We sat down and watched it. We’re like, “Wow, there’s really something there.” So, I work with Christopher, and he kind of really shaped a lot of the film.
When you were working with Christopher, were you sitting with him, looking over his shoulder?
There are some sequences and some moments that I was there. But I don’t like when people sit over my shoulder. So, for the most part, I would come in and do sessions and talk and give notes. Up until the very end when you’re figuring out the shape and the identity. It’s an independent small movie, so we didn’t have a budget to go reshoot. There were some scenes and sequences where I had a wealth of coverage. And then there were some scenes and sequences where we had to piecemeal shit together.
Christopher really cracked one of my favorite sequences in the movie when they’re all getting fucked up around the fire pit and joking around. I filmed all these different sequences, and I was like, they’ll be fucked up. We’ll do it out of order. I saw it as a rowdy Viking moment. And the way he edited it—with this beautiful piece of music, which ended up in the final version—is kind of more melancholy, it’s almost sad. A bunch of dudes in their fucking late 30s or 40s trying to recapture something and that sort of minor chord was so beautiful. Christopher made a lot of those discoveries.
And then he had to go off and do another movie.
So, we had this sort of rough, pulpy thing that was too long and the beginning wasn’t working and a couple other transitional moments weren’t working or too long or whatever. The movie was funny and then it wasn’t and then it was like too cutting here and there.
We showed it to a bunch of editors who said, “I liked the movie, but it’s too dark for me. I can’t sit with it.” Because they kind of didn’t get the humor. Then we got David Moritz, this fucking awesome dude. He was an editor on Jerry Maguire to early Wes Anderson movies. He lived the life, and he’s like, “I fucking love it. It’s funny as hell. It’s edgy. No one makes movies like this; I’d love to do it.” So he came on.
And David began working off of what Christopher started. He took some scenes that weren’t working, and he cut in a way that you’re like, fuck! The guy’s very musical. And he found a way to cut it. It popped in a way you can see in the early stuff he did like Bottle Rocket. The edit then suddenly had its own identity: it was funnier and more emotional when it needed to be. It was really such a lovely collaboration, even though I don’t think those two guys ever met. I got a ton out of that process.
You finished it before the pandemic?
We finished the final color timing at Technicolor just before  South By Southwest (SXSW) was supposed to begin, because we gave them a rough cut.
SXSW had given you, if I recall from the press releases, a pretty sweet slot at the festival.
Yeah. They get these movies that are in their Narrative category—whatever the fuck it is. And they give one deluxe premiere primetime opening and then you have one at two and then one at nine or whatever. I think there’s three or four screens. So yeah, we were psyched. It was a beautiful theater that we’re supposed to be in. We’re looking online and we’re all very excited about it, obviously, and then …
Right. It’s March 2020 and the world breaks out in a pandemic. So you’re finishing the color timing, and …
We’re finishing the color timing, and the writing was on the wall. And then, yeah, it happened. Festival cancelled. It was really a gut punch. But we were more concerned with the state of the world. And I didn’t think it would last that long.
I assume you were going to SXSW to get a distributor.
Yes. The film was created to ride the festival wave. I’m really heartbroken that I didn’t get to do that because of COVID. This is a film that you wanted to have that screening and you invite buyers. Especially a movie like this, which is meant to be seen with a crowd. It’s got the DNA of a play, and you don’t make a play for one person sitting in an audience. You want to see a crowd and be like, “Holy fuck! Look at everybody reacting that way!”
SXSW was our dream festival because it’s Texas, it’s rock and roll, it’s rowdy. If they get the art of the film, great. If they get the theme of it and the progressive statement it makes, great. And if they don’t get any of that but they’re like, “Fucking dig these guys! This is a good time!”, great. Hopefully you get all three. I knew that Austin, Texas is a place where you get a great cross section of an audience.
And then you hope that those buyers are there and say “Holy fuck, I saw this thing!” That sort of ribbon at the end of the marathon really drove me the whole time on making it, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically and mentally. But despite my incredible partners and all that stuff, just the stamina it took to be in it, to direct it, to do all this stuff in the freezing cold temperatures and all that—it was always like, “It’s gonna be great someday to just sit with an audience.” When I was on stage in the play, I can feel it with an audience. And when I’ve been in the audience in plays that I’ve written, or at the premiere of Stronger, for example, at Toronto with 800 people, it was like, wow! That’s the fuckin’ gold ribbon that you just want. And to not have that was very, very hard.
Understandably. So, then what?
We sat on the movie for a little bit and were like, “Well, what are we going to do?” This is a movie that needs to be seen in the theaters, and we worked so hard on it. And then, no one really knew what was going on. Do you go back to SXSW? What happens? It became apparent that festivals were not returning until who knows when? But there was also this idea that streamers need content, people are devouring content. But what I didn’t realize then was that, yes, streamers need tons of content, but what are they streaming? They’re streaming $100-million studio movies that have no home. So, that’s what they’re doing. There’s not a huge hunger for smaller, gritty indie films. That was the word on the street.
We had a ton of offers, believe it or not. But people were like, “I don’t know when I’m going to be able to put this out if I want to do theatrical.” Vertical Entertainment [the distributor], who were super passionate about it, had a really good plan to give us at least a strong semblance of the journey we had wanted, which was to treat it like a real movie.
Do you think that streaming, if it becomes as popular as it seems to be getting, is going to change the types of films that are made? Because, like you said, Small Engine Repair is not a film made to be watched by yourself.
I think, to some extent, social media has taken the place of some of that. Meaning people will see a movie and then communicate via social media.
It’s like most movies now—it’s cliché to say now—but most movies are big fucking superhero movies. Or genre, you know, horror stuff. I feel like Small Engine Repair is like a genre film. When I was 20 years old and I would read in Entertainment Weekly about The Usual Suspects or about One False Move or Do the Right Thing, or whatever it was, I would get in my car. Growing up in New Hampshire, I just didn’t have those big theaters. I would drive to Boston.
I hear you. We had to go to Hartford.
Yeah, yeah! I used to follow film festivals, because I was like, “Wow, fucking Reservoir Dogs looks dope as hell,” you know what I mean?
I don’t think festivals generate those movies per se anymore. But movies don’t necessarily need a festival to get out. Which is the great thing with the streamers. But I don’t fucking know. I’m just gonna keep doing my shit. And hope to get eyes on them.
Small Engine Repair does have that guerrilla feel of a Cassavetes film.
The type of film you can do with a small team. But even if you had a Hollywood budget, Hollywood wouldn’t want to make something like this.
No, they would never. Obviously. I don’t even know if you had $40 million for this movie what it would look like. I know a lot of the reaction I’ve gotten from people I’ve shared it with are like, “Wow! It’s just so refreshing to see. They don’t make movies like this anymore, character-based and surprising.”
They could make them. Anytime they want.
They still may. I feel like we’re rolling the dice and getting out there. I think given the massive challenges that have gone on due to the pandemic and other things, I think the movie will find its audience. It’s exciting to have the little baby turtle hatch on the beach and see how far it can go.
You’ve talked about challenging the audience. Can art cross a line?
I think what happens if you write a studio film is you’ll get pushback from the studio that says, “You can’t say that. He can’t do that.” And that’s hard when your artistic intent is not malicious.
I think art needs to be fearless. I think art, not all art, but sometimes art needs to be provocative and make you feel uncomfortable and think about things and make you laugh at things you never thought you could or should laugh at. And make you examine things. But most importantly, I think, in film and in drama, is to live in someone else’s skin in a non-judgmental way. I lament the fear that we can only create art that reflects our own pre-existing beliefs. I think that the country right now is so fucking political and divided that the only safety you have is if you feel that the art is regurgitating your own opinions and political beliefs back at you. I find that incredibly boring.
I created Small Engine Repair to be raw and truthful and to explore something and hold a mirror up to something that I felt strongly about. And I think the truthful way to do that is sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s disgusting, sometimes it’s scary, sometimes it’s heartbreaking, sometimes it’s beautiful. And to me, that’s what art is.
I’m only worried about people being conditioned to get offended. I want them to watch this movie, and art in general, with an open mind. And not overreact. I feel like people are losing nuance and losing the intent of things. Now, I don’t say that as in give yourself license to do whatever you want. But in the case of this movie, nothing that people may be offended by is accidental. It’s all there to serve the visceral intent of the film.
There’s that saying: “Art is to make the disturbed comfortable and the comfortable disturbed.” Or something like that. You occasionally see that meme pop up on social media. And I found that people who have posted that meme in the past are now the ones worried about offending anyone.
I don’t I think the loudest voices on Twitter are necessarily reflective of how most people think. I think most people are smart enough to see a movie and not feel like they have to go out and feel safety and all that. And look, I understand if you’re making a massive $200-million superhero movie, you want that character to be a lot of things to a lot of different people. But I didn’t watch The Sopranos saying, “Oh, my God, I need Tony to say everything that I say.” You know, you liked the danger of that, of those people.
What is drama? It is people making some really bad decisions. There are no heroes in Small Engine Repair. That’s not the type of movie it’s intended to be. It’s a human story. It’s creating some morally difficult places that I find entertaining and I find thought-provoking. I find that moving.
What attracted me to theater, when I had not really known much about theater, was that theater was so bold, and it challenged the audience as much as the culture. The expectation was you are going to learn something or be exposed to something in this play that was different. You would emerge from that play different than when you walked in and in many ways. That’s what fucking theater is—or should be. It’s a place that mixes it up. And it says: “Hey, if you’re going to sit in this audience when the lights go down, you’re already pretty smart and pretty open-minded. Wait till you see the places I bring you now.”
It’s like I just saw that movie Midsommar, which I thought was fucking amazing.
Weird. I just saw it, too.
Oh, really? That’s funny. I knew it would be disturbing, but I wasn’t prepared for how much it got under my skin in a brilliant way.
Yeah. I know what you mean.
Obviously, that’s like a horror movie. You go in knowing that. And I feel like the audience that would go to see that movie is prepared for it. But as prepped for it as they may be, they’re not prepared for how disturbed they may feel.
But they are embracing that, and that is how I feel—and not just for the horror reasons. To go in there to expect the unexpected. I think audiences could learn to be a little bit more open-minded, to embrace the unexpected, or to be challenged a little bit.
And not go in there just wanting to feel safe.
*Feature Photo: John Pollono / Photo by Dillon G. Artzer
Originally published September 30, 2021 in Pipeline Artists.