Heery, who got his first start in the industry as an assistant to Antoine Fuqua on the big-budget King Arthur and subsequently directed shorts and a couple of music videos, knew that pulling a €2.5 million production budget together was going to be a challenge. “Even though four years seems like a long time, it’s not unusual in film to have that kind of gap between the initial idea and an audience sitting down to watch it, and in a funny way it was time well spent because it gave me the time to work on the script. When I made my first approach, to be honest, it wasn’t like everything was ready to go. It did need work and it did change somewhat over that period of time. When I first wrote it, it was called In Like Flynn and there was more comedy in it, but as I got into the characters and the situation they find themselves in, I found it had edged towards a more human drama.”
In the film, which took it’s new title from a Tom Russell song, Iain Glen plays Doug, a shy, timid man who dreams of becoming a country and western singer. Having lost his job, his home and his wife Agnes (Kathy Keira Clarke) in quick succession, Doug is at a crossroads. Together with his best friend Bill (Steven Macintosh), he puts together a demo tape of a few songs and plays a gig at his local pub. In the process of overcoming his own troubles and confronting his fear of failure, Doug realises there is a place for his ambitions and his creativity outside of the claustrophobic community. “I always saw the movie, on a basic level, as a buddy movie”, Heery says. “And I always saw these characters as being immature. When I looked at the relationships between them, they weren’t those of middle-aged, well-adjusted men, as I know them. I thought of teenagers, or younger men in their twenties. Its like they have been arrested, and become almost stagnant in this small, enclosed world. They haven’t had the opportunity to progress as people”.
For his debut feature, Heery says he was determined to assemble the best cast he could, no easy task first time out and a process he says he found fascinating. “Especially finding Doug. I would talk to actors and they’d be interested in the role but the whole music element was a worry. It had to be somebody who was excited about expressing themselves musically, because otherwise it would become a chore for the actor and I didn’t want to dub the songs either. A friend of mine suggested I watch a film called Silent Scream, a biopic of a guy called Larry Winters, that David Hayman had made back in 1990. Iain plays the lead and in the final scene we see him in a jail cell, singing and playing the guitar and he’s really, really, good. I had been talking to him about playing another role, the town bully Burley, and he had shown an interest. But after watching that movie, I mentioned playing Doug to him and he was ecstatic. He said that when he read the script, it was the part that had jumped off the page, so he had that enthusiasm I was looking for and of course he can really sing and play so it came together for us very naturally in the end."
One of the most striking aspects of Small Engine Repair is that it refuses to represent the movie Ireland of Darby O’Gill, a verdant, craic-filled Tír na nÓg of high-kicking maidens and turf-slinging sleveens. Heery says this was a conscious decision that had its origins in the melancholy songs he chose for the soundtrack. “In terms of the landscape, I could have gone for a more traditional, rose-tinted representation of the Irish countryside but that just wasn’t exciting for me, especially when I thought about the nature of the story and the characters themselves. I saw Small Engine Repair as an opportunity to do something different, so I decided early on to filter that mournful American folk music ethos through the place I had written. So I ended up with a world that wasn’t intrinsically Ireland as we know it, and at the same time certainly wasn’t American, but was its own kind of universe. That felt like a comfortable place to set this story.”
Citing Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson as musical influences, Heery never thought he was making a musical, but telling a story that was both inspired by and told through songs about heartache and loss. I ask him which came first, the songs or the scenes. “I would say that, by and large, the scenes came first and while I was writing it I had ideas for songs that would fit, that would go with the images that I was putting down. It developed over the years. For example there’s a song by the Willard Grant Conspiracy called ‘The Suffering Song’ that features in the scene where the guys are driving to the first gig in the pub, and that was a song I knew, I mean it was very clear in my head, should be there for that moment in the film. When I was writing I was very aware of the music, because a lot of the heartache the Doug goes through – he loses his wife and his job and he feels hopeless and afraid – are almost clichés in country and western. His dog doesn’t die, but only because he doesn’t have a dog. I was confident though, that I could put all of that in an entirely different format, and have it feel fresh again through the nature of the film-making process”.
The unnamed town is a place almost entirely without women, and the one woman we meet, Doug’s wife Agnes, is sneaking around behind his back. Heery explains his choices, saying he hopes that absence can be felt. “I always thought that these characters behaved in the way they did because they had no women around them. Doug spends a lot of the film trying to win his woman back. Bill, at least in my head, is a guy who has never dealt with the fact that his wife had left him. That’s something we don’t deal with in terms of the story, but it speaks to how he behaves. This is a film about men, but its also about how they cannot exist in isolation”. It’s a theme that makes the film occasionally frustrating to watch and adds to the mood of helplessness and vulnerability. Doug in particular is a character that, the more time you spend with him, you feel the desire to slap him out of his stupor. “Yeah, but that’s the split in the guy. He’s a good man, a good soul, but at the same time he has no motivation, no ambition and totally lacks self-belief. And that feeds into the problems he has with Agnes; she’s been living with this guy for a long time and he has become increasingly difficult to be around. So, I would like to think that when we pick up their story in the film, she’s at the end of her tether. She’s been with this guy for ten years, and it’s taken it’s toll on her and you can sympathise with that”.
Before it’s Irish release, Small Engine Repair has been shown at festivals all over the world, winning a guitar-case full of awards including last year’s Galway Fleadh and a breakthrough award at this year’s IFTAs. I ask him about that response, which must be as overwhelming as it is heartening. “Yeah”, Heery agrees, his face showing just the right mix of pride and modesty. “It helps the film along enormously. When you’re making low-budget, independent films, it’s almost impossible to get distribution. Changes in technology mean it’s easier, and I use that word carefully, to make films but because there are so many more films out there, its increasingly difficult to get distribution. Winning awards is great, really it is, but what it boils down to is that more people might potentially see your film."
Heery had been present at the Nashville film festival just a week before to pick up a double award for the film, including an audience award for best film. I ask him about the process of selling ice to the Inuits, or Stetsons to cowboys. “I had been to Nashville once before, kind of as research, and I said to myself that if I ever eventually got the film made, I would bring it back. A lot of the musicians on the soundtrack were from Nashville, and its where they would have originally recorded the songs, so it was something that excited me”. As we wrap up, I ask Heery if he’s been to see Once, and he admits he hasn’t yet but is looking forward to seeing it. We talk for a couple of minutes about how the two films are superficially similar being Irish-set musicals, but are very different both in tone and theme. Heery says he is delighted at the success of John Carney’s film, which is still showing at the US box-office more than two months after a low-key opening and tells me that Small Engine Repair, likewise, has secured American and international distribution. “We open in the UK in September, and then across the US towards the end of the year. That’s very exciting, obviously. Before Once, low-budget Irish films haven’t been all that well received in the States. That’s not to say that this one will be but I like to think that they will understand it and recognize where it’s coming from. Where it’s heart is.”