Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: ‘Small Engine Repair’ Filmmakers John Pollono & Jon Bernthal Still Hellbent On Theatrical Release After SXSW Setback

Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email [email protected].

What’s it like to have a passion project undermined by a pandemic? The effort by John Pollono to direct, script and produce a movie from his play Small Engine Repair goes back a decade, before he scripted films like Stronger and others, including the Hulk Hogan movie he’s scripting now for Chris Hemsworth to star and Todd Phillips to direct for Paramount Television, and before he acted in TV dramas like This Is Us. And before Pollono’s co-star and co-producer Jon Bernthal finished his run on The Walking Dead, after which turns in Wind River, Sicario, Wolf of Wall Street & Ford V Ferrari, and The Punisher put him on the doorstep of stardom, with The Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark and American Gigolo coming. A stew of toxic masculinity, brotherhood, rage, class struggle and social media, Small Engine Repair revved a path as an underground success on LA and off-Broadway stages. Pollono and Bernthal spurned movie overtures that would have required them to cede control and it took a decade for them to finish their small budget movie, with Boardwalk Empire‘s Shea Whigham rounding out lead trio. A SXSW premiere slot in the Narrative Spotlight section would lead to a theatrical deal, they hoped. Here they explain why the SXSW cancellation setback can’t change their resolve to feel audience reaction in a movie theater. Pollono’s polarizing prose evokes the masculine aggression of playwrights like David Mamet. And how would Mamet play, watched alone on an iPhone?

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DEADLINE: Your film is as intense, engrossing and polarizing as anything I’ve seen in a while. John, you play Frank, an ex-con mechanic with anger issues who raises his daughter (Ciara Bravo) alone, cocooning the kid with support from roughneck childhood pals Swaino (Bernthal) and Packie (Whigham). An undercurrent of violent anger simmers below the surface until it explodes in the third act. Their loyalty is tested when an entitled rich college jock visits one night, not knowing this will be a reckoning for all of them. Like every SXSW-bound filmmaker, your dream to introduce this film to a lively crowd at a hip festival full of distributors was dashed when everything got canceled. Jon and John, what was that like?

BERNTHAL: As far as I’m concerned, we all have to look at this in the grand scheme of things. The entire world is being asked to put lives on pause as we navigate this dangerous uncharted territory. This inconvenience is small, and what we do now is look at our lives, protect the people we love, and ourselves and our health. These struggles going on in the world right now…it’s important to keep perspective.

DEADLINE: But it is okay to be disappointed when you spend a decade making a movie and this happens. Festival organizers just announced they’ve teamed with Amazon Prime to give films on the SXSW slate a 10-day window to be seen online in the U.S.. Could that not be an alternative plan for you?

POLLONO: We appreciate Amazon’s gesture, but we are going to ride this out. It was made to be seen in theaters, with an audience.

BERNTHAL: While we struggled over this movie for a decade, the light at the end of the tunnel was always how sweet that first screening with a real audience was going to be, and we haven’t had that. We heard SXSW was the right place to show this specific movie. That hurts. We’ve never had an audience full of film lovers, surrounding us and watching the final version of the film at its highest possible resolution, and really soaking that in. That for us was always the finish line, and whatever happened after, you don’t know. But having that moment…the play and the movie were both designed to introduce coarse language and slowly get an audience acclimated to that. So halfway through you feel like, hey, I’m just one of the guys, even if you don’t talk like that. And then, when the shit hits the fan, you’re suddenly jarred but on that journey with these characters that you feel like, hey, that’s my dad, or that’s me or my brother. You don’t have to have grown up in their neighborhood to connect with these characters.

DEADLINE: When SXSW cancelled, I’d heard the plan was for your reps to arrange for buyer screenings, maybe with recruited audiences, and find distribution…

POLLONO: That was the logical move, and then that wasn’t possible. I mean, talk to us in six months if we’re still holed up. But I feel it best for the movie to hold out. Six or seven years ago if this was going on, I would have been bankrupted by this. I’ve spent most of my life paycheck to paycheck but we have to see this through. What are you hearing about all these festivals?

DEADLINE: Cannes rescheduled for summer, but will anybody want to get on a plane to the South of France in the next two months, when the sickness and mortality numbers are rising exponentially? It seems possible that the next viable festivals won’t happen until the fall, with Toronto, Telluride, Venice, New York.

POLLONO: Look, there are people in our business who can’t work now; that is a crisis. I was in the middle of shooting productions that are postponed indefinitely, and nobody knows. I don’t mean to sound cheesy, but whatever fate means to you, whatever your faith is, whatever you believe in, now is the time to cling to that. For us, it’s faith in something we already saw: when you get a group of people together to see this piece, they respond, in all kinds of ways. That was always what inspired us. And we are in control; it turns out to be a benefit, not having a studio behind us that is looking to make their money back. We can just hang onto the faith that one day we’ll be able to get this film in front of that audience, and get the same differing reactions we got 10 years ago, when people from all over the city of LA went crazy for it, and then the same in New York, as a piece of theater. We have to try not to cut corners, just to get the thing sold. We will wait this out and do it right. We saw the way the moral ambiguity, gray area and catharsis hit people in different ways in the theater, like the ending hit you looked at from a father-daughter perspective. We really want to push boundaries and make people a little bit uncomfortable, spark conversation, force people to ask themselves questions that are difficult to answer. You need the communal experience for that. It’s not a movie to be seen on a computer or a phone, by yourself.

DEADLINE: How did all of this start?

BERNTHAL: Humble beginnings. I met John at a play reading in 2010 and we took it from this teeny little play in a 40-seat theatre, and it kept growing and we knew that we had something enormously special. We were putting on a play in LA that was selling out every night, it literally swept the theatre awards there. It was a play that cops and firemen and soldiers and theatergoers and filmmakers, people of all political backgrounds, everybody was coming, and they were blown away by this piece of writing. The best pieces of art, what they do is they can take timeless stories about fathers and daughters and friendship, and authentically place them in a modern setting so we can confront the way that we think about things. Like all indie films, we made this for very little money. Called in favors from dear friends of ours to come and act in this thing. Everybody who was in the original production is in the film. My dog, who was literally backstage for every one of our rehearsals in the original production, was in the movie and my new dog played that dog in flashback. We saw SXSW as the payoff for a train that has rolled forward 10 years, but we believe in the material, in each other and that this film is going to find a life because we’ve been with it now for so long.

POLLONO: That first reading was at a friend’s house and a friend of a friend invited Jon, because he read the play and though Jon would be amazing for the role of Swaino. It was the first night Jon and I ever met, it was the first time I ever heard the play aloud. We did it as a late night production in 2011. Cormac McCarthy had this place, Sunset Limited, that let out at 10 so at 10:30 we’d go on after dragging all our lawn mowers and shit in so it looked like a small engine repair shop. Jon had some legal shit going on in his life that he couldn’t leave LA and was forced to find work locally and he’s like fuck it and we did the play and it took off way beyond our wildest dreams.

The play had so much momentum it got me signed with CAA. It was my writing sample, and I had many, many offers throughout the years for people who wanted to turn it into a movie. I hadn’t written a screenplay and I met with big filmmakers, some of whom I’ve since worked with, but they saw the play as a first act and wanted things to escalate into A Simple Plan type of thing. I wanted to harness what was in the play, a driven family story with a big twist that turns into a thriller but at the end of the day is about the love these characters have for each other. One of the reasons Jon became one of my best buddies is our relationship was defined by him making me feel like I can do anything. From day one, he was like, ‘fuck it, let’s do it ourselves, our way.’ During the wait, I landed scripts on the Black List and did movies, and Small Engine Repair was no longer my main writing sample, but the third or fifth thing executives would read of mine.

And Jon and I kept at this thing. We got close a couple times and then it clicked with producers and money. Jon brought in Shea and I fell in love with him immediately. The three of us would stay up in a room for months and go over the script and then I’d go rewrite the scenes based on what we did. There’s not a line in that movie that we didn’t all scrub and work over and workshop and change. And once the camera started rolling, it was effortless. Had we done it five years ago it wouldn’t have been as deep as now, just because we’ve got kids and watched them grow and we’ve grown up in the business. All we had to do was make the main guys in the movie older than they were in the play, which works better anyway.

DEADLINE: Easy to see why you’re intent on strapping yourselves to the mast and riding out the storm.

BERNTHAL: I also think that when this shit’s over, and God willing it’s soon, people are going to want to get out of the house and have these communal experiences as soon as it’s safe to. There’s nothing I want to do more than bring my kids to a movie or a play. Maybe not this one though…

POLLONO: Definitely not this one.

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