3 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Writer/Director Niall Heery Talks ‘Small Engine Repair’
26 Jul 2007 :
Niall Heery
New Irish feature film ‘Small Engine Repair’ is currently enjoying a limited release in cinemas nationwide. Writer/director Niall Heery took time to speak to IFTN about his directorial debut, his early influences and his career to date.

Writer/director Niall Heery describes his film as “a story about the meaning and value of friendship and what happens when the limits of friendship are tested.” The film follows Doug (Iain Glen), a 40-something failed music teacher and budding country music singer, and his best friend Bill (Steven Mackintosh), owner of a ragtag small engine repair shop. Set in a rural Irish logging community that could pass for small town USA, the film is peppered with country music songs from the Bottle Rockets, Smog, Willard Grant Conspiracy and John Prine in addition to numbers performed by Iain Glen.

Released in Dublin, Galway, Cork, Limerick, Louth and Belfast, ‘Small Engine Repair’ opened to warm reviews from Irish critics, The Irish Times offering a four star rating and calling it an “engaging tale of thwarted dreams and broken hearts.”

The €1.8million film is produced by Subotica Entertainment and took four years to take from script to screen, shooting in Northern Ireland in late 2005. Working in the film and television industry since 1999, Niall Heery began his career as a script editor on Fox Networks ‘Mystic Knights of Tir na N-Og’ and honed his craft helming short films and music promos. He also worked alongside Antoine Fuqua as Technical Assistant to the Director on ‘King Arthur’ whilst developing his script for ‘Small Engine Repair’.

Did your early days working as a script editor help you when writing Small Engine Repair?

Yes certainly working in the area of script editing in general did. It gave you a sense of how to structure something and develop characters and storylines.

Were you happy with generally working in the industry or was it always in your mind to move onto writing and directing features?

Yeah, writing and directing was always something I’d hoped would come hand in hand. From when I was in school I was very interested in filmmaking. I’d shot stuff on VHS cameras and edited it onto a video player, just with my friends performing, all hugely embarrassing now  (laughs), but since I was in secondary school I was interested in filmmaking and the whole process which I found very appealing.

When would you say you got your break?

I’d written two or three drafts of Small Engine Repair and I approached the production company Subotica Entertainment. They said they were interested in developing it and I was delighted that the film would actually have a chance of getting made. I spent some time working on the script, developing the script with a script editor, trying to get the whole thing into shape and at the same time the producers were trying to pull the finance together which is always tricky for a first time filmmaker. You don’t have a track record so, certainly in terms of selling the film or selling the script, it can be very difficult. Distributors are by and large very reluctant to go near a first time director because they’ve been burnt too many times before and this means you can’t sell the script. In the end we got funding from the Irish Film Board, Northern Ireland Screen and Section 481 and the producers managed to pull the film together.

That process took about four years. Was the delay frustrating for you?

It was frustrating in the way that I was itching to do it, but it also gave me time to work on the script and writing is very much about writing and re-writing. Scripts improve that way and I suppose they become more in less. In hindsight it was time well spent because had I gone off and shot an earlier draft the film wouldn’t have been as successful.

During that time you worked on King Arthur with Antoine Fuqua, how was that as a learning experience?

Antoine Fuqua was directing that film and it was interesting for me just to see how action sequences were broken down, how you could work with multi cameras. Obviously, I prefer working on my own projects, but that was a very good learning experience for me.

So you went from working on the $80m epic to your own €1.8m feature.  Having experienced life on the blockbuster set, are you happy to continue working on low budget films?

It’s a little bit of both really. I think when you’re making a feature film it can become a bit of a circus, lots of people, lots of vehicles and a lot of that can be quite distracting.  If you’re doing a small film it’s very nice to have an intimate environment.  At the same time, the idea of doing a bigger film is very appealing. It’s a process I love so I think there are pros and cons of both.

Small Engine Repair

From the director’s point of view, what should an Irish audience take from this film?

I guess it works on a number of levels. I think different people will take different things from it but by in large it’s an emotional drama and you hope that they’ll focus on that. It’s a very character driven piece so first and foremost, I’m hoping that people can invest in the world and the lives of these characters. Then it has quite a strong country music soundtrack so that will certainly be appealing to some people, but I tried to structure it in a way that people who don’t necessarily like that sort of music aren’t alienated from it.

It’s an Irish film but set in an Irish town that could pass for a middle American backwater, was that the intention?

Yes, when I wrote it, it was in such a way that it wasn’t location specific. It’s set in some unspecified part of the midlands in rural Ireland. Then again it’s not a traditional Irish landscape either for that matter, there’s an Americana ethos there that filters through it. It’s not specifically rural Ireland that we’re accustomed to, nor is it anywhere else for that matter.

Would you like to live there?

Well, I was happy to shoot there but whether or not I’d want to live there on a permanent basis I’m not so sure. I think one of the problems these characters face is that they are very trapped by their environment. Not a huge amount happens on a dramatic level and also people, as a result, become very consumed by small and innocuous things.

Stevhen Mackintosh & Iain Glen

Casting was very important to the success of a character driven story such as this. Was casting a lead who can sing and act important for the role of Doug?

Yes, I’d spoke to a number of actors who were interested in it, but the whole music thing became an issue whereby it was suddenly going to be a huge amount of work. Unless the actor is interested in expressing themselves that way, it’s going to be a real chore. With Iain [Glen] I’d seen a film called Silent Scream that he had made, where he sings and plays guitar and he was really good. Hence I approached him and he was really excited about it. That was part of the appeal, to have the opportunity to merge his talents of acting, singing and playing guitar.  If the music didn’t work, the film wasn’t going to work.

From the outset it was my intention to make a film like a country song and build everything around that. The core idea of the film was this guy who suffered immense hardship and lived a very difficult life but he managed to channel all that misery into his music and as a result was able to sing very authentically because he’d experienced everything he was singing about.

Out of the actors, who did you most enjoy working with, and why?

It’s difficult to say you preferred working with one actor over another. The reality is you have different relationships with them all, different actors require different things from you.  Some need support and encouragement and others are more self sufficient.  Working with Iain Glen was great because we’d been talking about the part and the music for quite a while prior to shooting which meant we knew each other well and were very comfortable with one another and basically he understood the project on pretty much the same level as I did.  Steve Mackintosh on the other hand arrived at the last minute from another film so I’d only met him once in person before.  That didn’t make it a less pleasant experience whatsoever, nor was he less prepared.  He’s one of my favourite actors and I was really excited to be working with him.

What techniques do you use when working with the actors?

The most important thing for me is to make sure that everyone is on the same page insofar as they understand what the film is about and they understand their character.  With Iain for example I showed him lots of references that I thought might be useful.  The most important thing is that the actor has a solid platform from which to start doing their own preparation.  Then I have a rehearsal period during prep which is useful in terms of talking about scenes, talking about what we might achieve from a scene, and basically using it as an opportunity for everyone to bring their ideas to the table.  I try and have ideas about what a character’s objective is in any given scene and I’ll have thoughts about the different beats and the transition between beats and that kinda thing.  I never really try to nail anything performance wise, I’m happy to leave that for the day.  Ultimately when working with actors, you just try to create an environment where they’re relaxed and not caught up in the circus that can be a film set, so that they can engage with one another in a truthful way.  

What format did you shoot on?

We shot on Super 16mm, we shot 235:1 aspect ratio and blew up to 35mm. It would have been great to use 35mm and it was important that I didn’t shoot on video, really because of the landscape more than anything else. I would have liked to shoot on 35mm but financially that wasn’t an option because we’re a low budget independent film.

What locations did you use for filming?

The film was shot in Tollymore forest park near Newcastle which is about 40 minutes south of Belfast.  I came across this specific landscape that I was drawn to and decided that I wanted to build the garage there and effectively try and base the entire film around this one location.  There are a number of other locations used but I was always matching them to this landscape to ensure that it felt part of the same world.

What’s your fondest memory of the Small Engine Repair shoot?

I guess it was just watching the characters I’d written come to life, watching them engage with one another and really buying into their relationships.  A lot of my favourite actors are in this film and they regularly came up with ideas and that’s always a great feeling, watching an actor take a character and really consuming it and taking it to another level.

What was most difficult aspect of making the film?

It was probably the tight schedule.  Time is the most valuable commodity on a film set and there were occasions when I only had time to cover a scene in a very functional way. The restricted art department budget was also difficult.  When you’re making a film, that’s where you wanna be able to allocate your money.  Very often there was something I wanted to build and it just wasn’t an option.  You’re always balancing one thing against another.  You can shoot on film or you can travel to such and such a location but that means you can’t build a certain set or whatever.

Was it tough working conditions?

It was tough insofar as I had five weeks to shoot and I had to picture lock in seven or eight weeks.  Although that’s really tight, I wasn’t moping around feeling hard done by.  As most people know, getting your first feature off the ground is really difficult and to be honest I was just happy to be making it.

Do you prefer screenwriting or directing?

It’s difficult to say for sure, part of me prefers directing, as you have fifty people or whatever working really hard to bring some self indulgent notion you have to fruition and that’s an amazing feeling.  Also I just love the whole filmmaking process, I love being on set and I love the technical side of film-making.  Writing on the other hand is a solitary experience and often it’s about rewriting and rewriting and this can be frustrating.  At the time you’re telling yourself this is the kinda film that will only take one or two drafts but invariably it ends up being the same countless rewrites as all your other projects.

Finally, what’s next for you?

I’m not sure. I’ve just finished writing a film, ‘Six Days on the Road’, that I’m going to try get up and running. Hopefully I’ll be in a position to do that quite quickly. It’s at a very early stage and I’ve just started talking to production companies so hopefully someone will be interested. I’m going to wait and see how ‘Small Engine Repair’ works out.

By Tanya Warren

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