Playwright, filmmaker and actor John Pollono doesn’t bristle when it’s suggested that his play-turned-movie Small Engine Repair about three bickering blue collar friends coming together to protect the young girl they’ve raised from infancy draws parallels to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
“I think it’s kind of cool that that was your interpretation,” the New Hampshire native says. “It may be my favorite one I’ve ever heard. I think it’s amazing that when you get specific and you’re dealing with archetypes and deep emotions, there is that larger-than-life quality.”
The dark comedy in which Pollono stars, writes and directs, is based on the acclaimed play he wrote a little more than a decade ago, and premiered in Los Angeles before moving off-Broadway. The film reunites him with the play’s co-star Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, The Punisher), who reprises his role as Terrance Swaino, alongside new-to-the-role Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire, True Detective), who plays Patrick “Packie” Henrahan. The three characters have known each other since they were boys growing up in working class Manchester, N.H. They know each other’s secrets and foibles, and love to bust each other’s chops, especially when trying to flirt with the opposite sex.
Frank Romanowski (Pollono) runs an engine repair shop on the edge of town, where he invites his buddies, after a three-month estrangement following a bar fight, to bury the hatchet with a barbecue and whisky. Naturally, the guys show up but soon learn that Frank’s teenage daughter Crystal (Ciera Bravo) is in the hospital after OD’ing on pills. The party amps up and takes a dangerous twist when a frat-boy drug dealer Frank’s invited over rolls up. Secrets are revealed and favors are called in that test the bounds of their friendship. The film also stars Jordana Spiro (Blindspot) as Karen, Frank’s estranged ex, and Spencer House (Space Force) as Chad, the unsuspecting drug dealer.
While the film explores modern masculinity, Pollono (This Is Us, Mob City) says women are as likely to glean as much—if not more—from the subject matter as male audiences are.
Small Engine Repair, from Vertical Entertainment, opens in theaters Friday Sept. 10.
Angela Dawson: John, you and Jon performed your play about 10 years ago. How was it returning to these roles?
John Pollono: There were definitely changes from the play, particularly the inclusion of women. To me, that’s the biggest, most profound change. The women are as crucial and as flawed and as amazing as anybody else. The themes that were present in 2011 have only become more relevant with technology and the #metoo movement.
The play was always this feminist story to me from the point-of-view of these men, tracking into these difficult conversations. Sometimes it’s not a utopic story; sometimes the story is just creating a discussion where there wasn’t one about humiliation, about masculinity, and all this stuff. We felt that now is even more of a time to do that—to create something provocative and challenging. Right now, with all the challenges we have, it seemed more relevant than ever. So, that was all crafted in there.
Dawson: Jon, what was it like playing this role again that you originated 10 years ago?
Jon Bernthal: What a dream. There’s a palpability and electricity to this piece of theater when we did it 10 years ago in this teeny little theater in L.A. with a 10:30 p.m. show. It was sold out every night; you couldn’t get in. You had all kinds of people coming—the theater community, cops, firefighters, people who’d never been to the theater before. There was this sense in the theater that (the story) was so dangerous, so electric. Anything could happen. It was going to unfold right in front of you, and how scary and alarming that was. It was always buoyed by this sense of authenticity and reality that the humor in the writing brought. So, the question for us was how do we bring this electricity to the screen. If this is going to go down right in front of you, how do we capture that and bring it to the screen. That was really the challenge and that’s what John achieved.
As far as coming back to the role, it felt like putting on an old pair of comfortable-fitting jeans but they were so different now. You wore them different. When you bring in a genius like Shea, everything just changes—his approach, his energy, his vitality. There’s so much heart to this thing. It was a difficult process but such a fun process. You always look back and think how this is exactly the kind of movie you want to make. It’s not only something that is so personal but it’s also unbelievably provoking.
Dawson: I kind of saw this as an alternate retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale with Crystal as the Beauty in the hospital and these three men who’ve unconventionally raised her in the absence of her estranged mother since she was a baby as her fairy protectors. They constantly bicker with each other yet are united in their love and commitment to the girl. John, what do you think of that comparison?
Pollono: I love that description. We stayed hyper-specific in this. It’s not a movie trying to be a movie. This is a movie we made, I feel, for the smartest person in the room. I have three sisters, and I know they’ll understand the intent of this in a way that a lot of dudes won’t. I grew up surrounded by incredibly strong women so a lot of the archetypes, like Sleeping Beauty, for example, that’s in my DNA.
Dawson: Shea, you’re coming into this the new guy. Tell me about becoming part of this cast. What did you like about playing Packie?
Whigham: There was a lot of pressure that I put on myself. The boys didn’t put it on me; I did it. They’d been doing this for years and I was stepping into this role as Packie.
Nowadays, we talk about pressure being this bad thing and that no one wants to put that on you. But I think you can use it as a motivator if you know how to use it. I wanted to make these guys proud. I wanted to bring something to (the role) that they hadn’t seen before, maybe. I wanted to make Frank and Swaino feel different and act different. I didn’t want to hear anything about the play. We didn’t discuss the play. It was never like, “Oh we did it like this…” You can’t go into something like this with that kind of pressure. Every once in a while, you do (these films) and they work out better than you anticipated, and this is one of those.
Jon Bernthal said to me, “You will go into this and will not be disappointed with it, I promise you,” and he was right. It’s that good.