Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, and John Pollono discuss the making of ‘Small Engine Repair’


Vertical Entertainment

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

“Get the right people to do the job and get out of the way.”

John Pollono — writer, director, and co-star of the new film “Small Engine Repair,” —was describing the process of making a good movie, even if he could have been describing any good operation. The bare essentials of a good flick are rather simple: find good actors and let them lead the way.

But when you have actors like Jon Bernthal and Shea Whigham sharing scenes with you, talented creators who know how to climb inside a character, the job gets even easier.

After all, “Small Engine Repair ” started out as a one-scene, one-setting play between three best friends from one of those lived-in towns in Massachusetts over one crazy night at an auto body shop. Pollono’s goal was always to make something unconventional, a movie that he liked to watch. According to him, a story with theater origins is a fine place to start digging.

“Look, this is a genre within theater. Lights go down in a play, and the (“Small Engine Repair”) play was an 80-minute master scene,” Pollono said. “You want to bring the audience on that specific journey, but you must lay the groundwork. The second half of the film only works if you fall in love with these guys and you feel lived-in with them as an audience. It’s really by design, but this is my favorite kind of movie.”

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For Bernthal, who is Hew who plays Swaino, the fast-talking ladies man of the trio, it was the humor in the film that drew him in, even if working with your best friend (Pollono) was a nice bonus.

“When I read this play 10 years ago, I knew John was something enormously special. I had never read anything like it,” Bernthal noted. “The twists and the turns, how palpable the humor was. I love the humor in this movie. The humor (in this film) is never just to be funny, something just to make people laugh. There’s always some slight involved or it’s a play on someone’s insecurities, it’s so real and buys us this authenticity.”

Bernthal is a very frequent user of Instagram-which plays an integral part in the pivotal third act of “Small Engine Repair” — and likened the symbolism behind that picture-friendly social media platform to Pollono’s story.

“There’s a good analogy for Instagram and social media here. What appears on the surface is not exactly what’s going on behind the curtain, and John really tackles that in a very smart way,” Bernthal said. “The way they deliver stories and what actually happened. The guy who talks about it the most is usually the one who is the least successful at it. There’s an element of that to Swaino, and these guys love him for it.”

Whigham, who steals the film as the unkempt but wise fella named Packie, was moved by the combination of physicality and vulnerability Bernthal showed in the film, especially in a pivotal scene between the two at a bar that grows increasingly uncomfortable.

“Jon is strong in every way, in the same way James Dean and Brando were. When you show vulnerability, a tough guy with vulnerability that’s not acting, people really get to see something special,” Whigham said. “To be in it with him, that’s how those things pop. You can’t fake your way through these scenes. You can’t fake your way through a smoking or drinking scene. Those are the scenes I am most proud of.”

But it was the ability of the three actors, who got to play off Ciara Bravo and Jordana Spiro, to look and feel like best friends forever, that made “Small Engine Repair” a memorable experience. How do you do that? Pollono credits a sense of familiarity with the cast and having the expanded time to get in sync with the characters.

“One thing we did in this movie that most movies don’t get to do is work together for months. It was an incredibly collaborative experience,” Pollono said. “Jon is one of my best friends and I got to know Shea very well during the process. So it’s not faked. You get the right people and get out of the way.”

In every filmmaking process, a group of strangers are brought together to create a world that people can believe in or at least become glued to. Thankfully for Bernthal, Whigham, and Pollono, an unconventional approach to the story mirrored the unconventionality of how this particular movie was made. It felt real because many parts of it were real.

“Small Engine Repair” opened in select St. Louis area theaters today. Go see it because it’s something different.