Niall Heery and Small Engine Repair

Niall Heery, director of the new Irish film Small Engine Repair, looks like he could do with an oil change himself. After a full day spent talking to the press, the 33 year old Dubliners long face has a weary cast and his drooping eyes are ringed with tired smudges. As we sit in the bright, airy library of the Irish Film Institute, it might not help matters that my first question asks him to recall his film’s long journey to the screen. “Yeah”, he says, with a blink and there’s a momentary hesitation while he gets his timeline arranged in his head. “I wrote the script maybe four or five years ago, and like you say, it took a long time to get it off the ground. I had completed two or three drafts when I thought it was in good enough shape to approach Subotica (the producers, whose track record includes Song For A Raggy Boy and the TV series Proof). Thankfully, they expressed an interest in it and they were confident they would be able to make it happen quite quickly. That’s not really the way it worked out, mainly because I had no track record in feature films and I had never directed before.”

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.”

Harry Potter And The Attention To Detail

From the outside, there isn’t much to get excited about when you pull up at Leavesden Studios, a squat, post-industrial spread of concrete and glass on the London road outside Watford. Inside, it’s a different story. The old Rolls-Royce factory has been home to the Harry Potter films since 2000 and, even allowing for the excitable hyperbole that sometimes infects movie journalism, this is a wonderland filled with indescribable glories.

I’ve just watched Brendan Gleeson shoot a scene with newcomer Natalia Tena (who plays teenage witch Tonks) – a simple set-up where she opens the door to Harry Potter’s suburban bedroom and they share a couple of lines of dialogue. Tena waves her wand around, to Gleeson’s comical annoyance, the blue bulb at the end washing the boxy set in a ghostly glow. As a courtesy, Daniel Radcliffe is hunched down beside the camera, running his lines and offering his fellow actors something to play against. Order of the Phoenix director David Yates pops around the door to give the players a few whispered notes, adjusting their pacing and positions while the cinematographer checks the lighting and waves his script through a few wisps of movie smoke. Gleeson leans against the door jamb on the perfectly realised set, elevated on stilts over the studio floor. His laugh booms across the sound stage, over the bustling crew and squawking walkie-talkies. As I sit on a stool beside a bank of plasma screen monitors, trying to take it all in, a tall man strides past in a luminous turquoise cape, scattered with embroidered golden stars. In a far corner, a handler smoothes the feathers on a brilliant white owl as it hops on his outstretched arm. It’s yellow eyes are as wide as mine.

The scene completed to everyone’s satisfaction, Gleeson weaves through the throng in his Mad Eye Moody costume, a carefully assembled dishevelment of heavy trousers and vest under a couple of matted coats, his long ginger hair on end. There’s the unsettling bonus of his character’s bright blue wandering eyeball still strapped across his face. It jumps around with a life of its own as he arranges his attire and sits down. I ask him how the effect works and he looks at me with the good eye. “Magic”.

Gleeson’s Moody is an Auror, a kind-of policeman charged with protecting the schoolboy wizard and capturing those who break the law. He is a tough character, gruff and direct, and Gleeson plays him with an obvious relish. “Moody is such a daft creation, a bizarre character really, so he’s always going to surprise you. That’s the real fun of it.” At the start of the new adventure, Moody and his lieutenants rescue Potter from the threat of the soul-sucking Dementors who have tracked him to Little Whinging and, after mounting their broomsticks, return him to the safety of Hogwarts. “There was a lot of people who thought Moody would be killed off at the end of the last book”, Gleeson says, “and I’m certainly glad he wasn’t. There were aspects of him that were being taken over by the events around him, so hopefully this time it will pay off in the sense that I know who he is. Moody is in the next movie too (The Half Blood Prince) and I from what JK Rowling has been saying, he’ll make an appearance in the finale. It’s getting to finish the story out and see where everyone ends up, that’s what’s driving everybody. I’m very glad to be a part of that”.

As we’re talking, the publication date for the seventh and final book, The Deathly Hallows, is still months away. I ask Gleeson if he has any thoughts on how this phenomenal series will wrap itself up? “JK has been flawless up to now, so I trust her to do the right things. In a way, Moody was all done in the last film, so it’s more about where is he going to bring me. I wouldn’t feel right dumping him half way and I want to see for myself where he ends up”. I point at his impressively detailed coat and enormous boots and ask how the costume helps with creating his character. “Well, the original designs were far more complicated, with a mask and computer effects, but there didn’t seem to me to be much point in doing all that. They could have done it all on a computer and had the same result. So we’ve tried to keep it some way recognisable and something I can work in for the day. We get to keep the actor in there, under all this stuff, and that’s important.”

And out of the costume, does he get recognised as Moody? “I’m a very boring man in real life. Honestly. I prefer to keep the kids in particular from being disappointed if they meet me. I remember when I played the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz years ago in panto. People would bring kids backstage and they’d see me sitting there with the head on the table, face red after sweating for three hours. I could see their faces fall at the realisation. Kids will have bought into the character, not the actor playing the part. That’s one of the great things about this whole series, that kids have been inspired to believe in it. So when people ask me, well, how did you do this or that, I try not to explain, like you asking about the eyeball. I could tell you, but I feel I owe it to people to let them wonder.”

Wonder is the word that sticks in my head as the studio publicist gathers the assembled journalists together and takes us on a tour of the sets. First stop is Dumbledore’s office, a recurring set that is kept dressed throughout production. Familiar from the movies as a book-filled, two-tiered room, still only a fraction of the set’s microscopic detail makes it onto the screen. Every surface is covered in props, vellum-bound volumes, hand-written letters, copies of the Daily Prophet, all unique. Two shelved walls are full of ornately crafted brass astrolabes, from ceiling to floor. Walking up the stone steps to the upper level, I sit behind the headmaster’s heavy wooden desk, scattered with magical ephemera; papers, quills, talismans. I open a drawer at the front. It is filled with more props. Although there will never be a scene where Dumbledore fumbles in a drawer in the seven films, the publicity people tell me the art department like to fill the drawers and cupboards with stuff to help the actors feel like they are in a real space. For an outsider, it is a disconcerting sight that hints both at the extraordinary skills of the art department and their obsessive immersion in the fantasy world of Harry Potter.

Our guides walk us through the labyrinthine warehouse of old sets and props, connected by broad pathways with taped off cycle lanes and painted directional arrows. Here, every single item ever made for the films – from Ford Anglias to carved stone gargoyles - is catalogued and stored, ready for shipment to Florida for the Potter theme park once production is completed on the series. As we walk, our guides fire statistics about the production over their shoulders: the whole backlot is spread over 85 acres. Before Rolls Royce, it was a military airport. There is half a million square feet of studio space, where around four hundred crew members work at any given time. There can be another four hundred extras on set for crowd scenes. There are almost ten thousand costumes in a series of wardrobe rooms, somewhere out back.

We stop outside the set for the atrium of the Ministry of Magic, which they tell me has taken three months to build. The green painted floor is still wet, so we can’t walk through. “We use forced perspective to make it look bigger than it really is”, they say. It’s still huge, an indoor cathedral that stretches to the back wall of the studio and is immaculately detailed. Down another corridor, past the Great Hall, being prepared for a feasting scene, I turn a corner and am confronted with an astonishing set – thousands of glittering black tiles completely covering a vast, circular room. There is a pile of black rock built up in the centre, where art department technicians are putting the finishing touches to a towering archway. This will be the setting for one of the film’s climactic battles, between Dumbledore’s army led by their emerging hero Potter and the forces of darkness led by the pernicious Lucius Malfoy. Just to one side, two sculptors are sizing up a twenty foot block of polystyrene, using a thin, red-hot iron rod to score the outline of a centaur on it’s knobbly surface. One of them shows me the design for the finished statue, which will be painted gold and placed in the centre of the atrium set. When I pass by again later, the piece is nearly complete, a perfectly rendered half-man, half-horse rearing out of the lumpy material. Covered in flecks of dust, faces set in concentration, their pride in their work is obvious.

Throughout the tour, which took us from the mock-suburbia of Privet Lane in one corner of the studio, to the chilly mortuary of the Black family home, the predominance of shadows, soot and black lace hinted at the dark days that Potter faces in his fifth adventure. Not that you’d realise that from the bright, smiling Radcliffe, as he bounds across the studio floor barefoot in a loose-fitting tracksuit. The boy who became Harry Potter is all grown up now. Not up in the vertical sense, like most actors the young star is just about average height, but when compared to the ten year old that first waved his wand in The Philosophers Stone, Radcliffe, with a faint trace of teenage stubble tufting his upper lip, looks like Harry Potter’s uncle, one who might spend his weekends in the garage with his amateur rock band.

In this film, Harry and his friends are starting their transition into adulthood and are dealing with increasingly serious and significant issues. Not only does Harry have to stand trial for using magic outside of Hogwarts, he must raise and train an army from his classmates to battle the returning Lord Voldemort. There’s also the threat from his new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Dolores Umbridge, who has usurped his beloved Dumbledore and brought regime change to Hogwarts. I ask him about the changes in his character, and how he dealt with the onset of maturity. “I haven’t analysed it really. I hope I have gotten better, because that’s the one thing I try to do between each film. At this point we have all grown up, and so the films have to be grown up films with grown up performances in them. That’s what I’ve been striving for. The fourth film was really fun to play, full of spectacle and amazing set-pieces, even for me. That’s great, but what is exciting for me now is that I get to grow with Harry. Personally, I would much rather do an emotional scene with Gary Oldman (who plays father-figure Sirius Black) than fight a dragon or something, you know?"

Radcliffe, all polite enthusiasm, bobs his head a lot and emphasises his positive message with smiles and nods and strident hands. After Rowling, he is the most important person in this billion-dollar enterprise. He’s seen directors come and go over the past seven years, so I ask him how he is getting on with the new one, David Yates. “It wasn’t a massive readjustment. He’s an easy guy to get to know, sure of what he wants and able to communicate that. He’s a fantastic director and we are having the most fun on this movie because, at least I hope, I’m at a point in my acting where I can be pushed further. David seems to be relishing that opportunity to really challenge me, so this has been the best time so far out of all the films. How does that challenge come about? “Well, If I think I’ve done a good take, David might whisper in my ear that he thinks I can do better. It’s not a demand, you know, but he isn’t willing to settle for less. He doesn’t want good, he wants really good and honest and subtle and real.”

Although the teenage celebrity Radcliffe is bound to have kissed a few girls at this stage of his life, his character up to now has been chaste and pure. In the new movie, he falls for Cho Chang (Katie Leung), a fellow student who joins his rag-tag army. “I have a bet on with my publicity liaison for how long it takes that question to appear in interviews. It’s usually first, so you’re being reserved by comparison. It was fine, good, er, you know. Ahem.” Radcliffe reddens and looks at his toes. This is before he stripped off on the West End stage for Equus. “Any actor will tell you that it’s like any other scene really, because there are hundreds of people around. At first I did feel really nervous because it is a bit odd, a bit strange, but it is such a clinical, professional process that after five takes there is nothing exciting about it.”

The blush proves that the seventeen year old Radcliffe is still very young. Does he have any ideas for the future, once the final film is made and a new phase of his life and career begins? “I won’t be going on to university, I don’t think. Most people go to college to find out what it is that they want to do, and I know already, or I have a pretty good idea at least. If I wanted to be a physicist, I wouldn’t have an option, because you can’t teach yourself physics. But the subjects I love are English, religion and history, and those are the kinds of subjects you can take away and read about by yourself. I’m not a religious person, at all, but I am very much influenced by the philosophical side of it.”

I tell him I find that interesting, when you consider how steeped in old ideologies of good and evil the books and films are, but Radcliffe doesn’t agree. “To me, Harry suffers a loss of innocence. Obviously the battle between the forces of good and evil is there, and that’s something people can relate to, but I see Harry as being a boy who doesn’t know the truth about who he is or anything about his heritage. He goes from the real world, where he is being mistreated and bullied, into the wizard world, where life at first is fantastic and magical but where bad things can happen just as easily. And life can be a lot worse than what happens in the world outside”.

Having wandered this enormous, close-horizoned space for a day, it’s easy to forget there is a world outside. Radcliffe nods and laughs. “I take all this for granted, walking around the sets and watching the shots come together, but I know it can be a shock for outsiders to come in and see what it is we’re doing here and how it all comes together. I see it every day, so I hardly notice it. You forget just how incredible and beautiful this place is. But after you’ve sat in the Great Hall for two weeks under hot lights, with lines to remember and marks to hit and disintegrating food props in front of you, you get a different perspective.”