The Punisher and The Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal says his new film, Small Engine Repair, captures the electricity and authenticity of the 2011 play on which it is based.
Bernthal, John Pollono and Shea Whigham play Swaino, Frank and Packie, lifelong best friends from a working-class town in New Hampshire, who go to extraordinary lengths to defend Crystal (Ciara Bravo,) Frank’s teen daughter whom they all raised together after her mother Karen (Jordana Spiro) took off several years earlier. Pollono also wrote and directed the dark comedy, based on his play, which he starred in with Bernthal. Joining the cast of the movie version is Shea Whigham from Boardwalk Empire and Fargo.
Exclusive Interview with Writer/Director John Pollono, Actor Jon Bernthal and Actor Shea Whigham
Q : What could you accomplish or convey with a film that you couldn’t with a play?
John Pollono: A play is a master scene and, when you make a movie, you are able to push in and tell the story in a more intimate way and, in that sense, to really kind of lead the audience. So, to me, it was about making it more grounded and making it more natural and more emotional. You don’t have the buffer of seeing a play, the safety of that. In a movie, everything is a lot more immediate, more visceral.
Jon Bernthal: We had this experience of creating this unbelievable play that was so electric. The room was so electric and it attracted all kinds of people, many of whom had never been to the theater before. You had this sort of base theater audience and then you had cops and fighters and all kinds of folks who had not really experienced that before and it was so dangerous and the energy was so palpable and you never knew what was going to happen next. How do you then achieve that in a film? How do you achieve that danger? And how do you achieve that sort of lived-in energy where you really feel like you know these guys and you believe in these guys and these guys really love each other? And I think that’s kind of where John sort of started with and [tried to figure out] how to achieve that in the film and I think we got that, which we are really proud of.
Q : How do you think the story and your performances have evolved since you created them 10 years ago?
John Pollono: Honestly, having Shea come in and his energy in playing Packie — the characters all sort of orbit around each other. So, Shea, the chemical of him, really affected everything in a wonderful way. I felt like we all bounced off of what he brought, this new chemical.
Jon Bernthal: I would totally second that! Having Shea there ups everyone’s game. The level of tenacity and expertise he just brings. He’s one of the best. He’s one of the best out there, period. It changes everything. John, also, as the great filmmakers do, provided an atmosphere where real collaboration is possible and the best idea wins and there is no crappy ego stuff attached. I think in any endeavor that you do, you are so prohibited by ego and trying to win and if you can get around a bunch of people who really have a common goal, which is just to make this as authentic and as real and as palpable as possible, that’s sort of the environment that John put forth and putting a talent like Shea in there changed everything.
Q : Shea, what made this a project you wanted to do?
Shea Whigham: It scared me and you want to be scared. I mean that. … It had been a play. It had a life of its own. It was a machine up and running and then I had to come in. I said from the beginning to both of them: “Look, I may fall on my face, but it’s going to be different. It’s going to be my Packie. I know it’s going to be hard.” But they never once sat in judgment of it because he had been played by other really, really fine actors. But I didn’t want to chase those ghosts. I wanted him to be my own Packie. Maybe I’d fall on my face, but we were going to have a good time trying.
Q : How would you describe your characters and what has kept their friendship alive for decades?
John Pollono: My character Frank is kind of the responsible one of the group, sort of the straight shooter guy with kind of his own complication. He kind of maybe thinks he’s the leader, but he’s really not. He’s the guy who usually buys the food and is the one who has the house and the steady job and all that stuff. He is sort of the reliable one, but the irony is that underneath that he is sort of probably severely damaged and unstable in comparison to them.
Jon Bernthal: I think with these relationships it’s a real deep dive into real lifelong friendship, especially in certain communities. These guys have been through all of it together and they’ve stuck together and they’ve stayed together, for better or for worse. It’s really about the family you choose. You know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so intimately, you can prey upon them and highlight them. I think, just like family, it is a fluid and evolving thing. … They know exactly what they can’t count on each other for and, at the end of the day, it’s taking this really honest, really thorough, really layered, nuanced friendship and these relationships and putting them in this impossible situation that they’ve never had to face before. I think that’s when you get the best kind of drama.
Shea Whigham: Packie keeps surprising both Frank and Swaino. He lives in the moment and he says sage shit that maybe it takes you a second [to understand…] I tried to stay in the moment and find his truth and catch these guys off guard in moments like that. Packie says stuff and they dismiss him, but then they think about it. That’s all John’s writing, though. I like improv. I like targeted improv. I don’t like to just throw a bunch of stuff in. But this was all on the page.
John Pollono: I always see these characters as different facets of gender relationships, so you have all of their relationship to feminine intimacy. Frank only feels like he is valuable in a relationship when he is like the knight where he is using violence and confrontation to prove his worth, to fix the broken woman. Swaino only feels, to me, that he is connected with that when he is getting laid, when he is having physical intimacy. And Packie is sort of on the peripheral. He is intellectually into that, but he doesn’t quite fit. To me, I felt like he is such a beautiful, singular creation I was always so proud of because he is such a tragic, beautiful character. I think if Packie had been given a better environment, God knows what he could have done. But he’s here and he’s with these guys and they don’t necessarily realize how special he is. So, they are all sort of struggling in their own ways and, to me, we could always go back to that well again and again, no matter what the scene was.
Small Engine Repair is now playing in theaters.
Here’s the trailer of the film.