Niall Heery

In January 2007, Felim MacDermot interviewed IFTA nominee, Niall Heery, writer and director of the feature film Small Engine Repair (2006).

Felim MacDermott: How did you come to write Small Engine Repair?

Niall Heery: I hadn’t written a feature film before but it just seemed like a sensible thing to do. I mean I wanted to make films and it’s not like anyone was banging my door down with offers you know so I wrote it out of necessity more than anything else. I can’t remember entirely what my initial motivation was but I know I wanted to write a film about a bunch of guys whose lives hadn’t really worked out the way they dreamed. What happens when you realise that your dreams aren’t going to come to fruition? Where do you go? I mean, you can’t just disappear. That just struck me as interesting. And then there’s the whole country music thing that appealed to me, the notion that this guy suffers intense hardship and channels it back into his music. His songs are authentic cause he’s lived through everything he’s singing about, you know.

How did you approach writing this – did you employ step outlines? Treatments?

I wrote a treatment and from there wrote a first draft.

How many drafts? How many before you showed it to anyone?

I wrote countless drafts, writing’s all about rewriting and rewriting. A script builds up a density that way while becoming more refined at the same time, you say more in less. I think I’d written two or three drafts before I showed it to Subotica Entertainment who ended up producing the film. They were the first production company I approached as I’d worked on a film they’d made so I knew them pretty well. Anyway they were really enthusiastic and were confident that they could pull the money together reasonably quickly.

How did the story evolve in subsequent drafts?

The story remained relatively intact while the tone of the film changed quite a bit. What started out as pretty much a comedy became more of an offbeat drama. I mean the story did evolve and part of that process was downscaling everything and stripping away any melodrama. Bill was originally a regular mechanic and only in later drafts became a small engine repair man. Instead of working on cars, he was working on leaf blowers. I was trying to scale back everything, reduce everything to its lowest common denominator. I wanted the world they lived in to feel really small and closed off from the rest of society.

What software did you use?

I wrote it on a prehistoric version of Final Draft, version 3.1 or 4.1 I think.

What way do you write? Hours per day etc?

I tend to keep it pretty structured like between 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. That said if I got a deadline to meet or if I’m working on something difficult or things are just going particularly well I’m likely to work until 4 in the morning.

How did you pitch this project?

I pitched the script as an offbeat drama about a down on his luck guitar teacher who was trying to cut it as a country singer in rural Ireland.

In meetings regarding the script, was the lexicon that of Robert McKee? Did you discuss plot points? Rising action etc?

I don’t know much about Robert McKee to tell you the truth, I never read Story or anything. I’m sure some of what he says I apply to my work without knowing it. And I liked Adaptation a lot, I mean that alone merits Robert McKee’s existence as far as I’m concerned. As far as plot points and rising action are concerned, I don’t recall ever discussing them but assuming they mean what I think they mean, they’re the kinda thing you’d be aware of and plan to some extent in your treatment.

Which is more important – plot or character?

I’m not sure you can say one is more important than other, they very much work in tandem although if pushed to choose I’d probably edge towards character. Very often I’m drawn to films where the plot is kinda low key but the character is very compelling. I think if you are really drawn to a character, if you believe in them you will follow that character on their journey, regardless of how insignificant that journey might appear to be. I think it’s because when you write a character you’re creating something that will become a person with a soul and that generally feels more significant than a plot.

Influences in terms of writers? Screenwriters?

To be honest I’m rarely clear who I’m influenced by and whose work I just admire. What do I actually take from someone else and what was already there is kinda complicated. Ultimately I guess I’m influenced by most things I see insofar as it’s a chance for me to identify something I want to pursue or equally something I want to disregard. In terms of writers I admire there’s quite a few including Conor McPherson and Pat McCabe. I read Call Me The Breeze awhile back and was really drawn to the main character in that. Other writers I like are Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan and Jon Krakauer. In terms of screenwriters there’s guys like Paul Schrader who I’ve always liked and Guillermo Arriaga has been doing interesting work.

What sort of film were you trying to emulate?

I really wasn’t trying to emulate anything as such, and it’s not that I’m trying to make out I’m some kinda lone swordsman. It’s just I never really had anything to compare it with.

I mean I had lots of notepads about how things should look and how I might shoot something but in terms of the overall film I just had this blue-print in my head of what the film should be. I was trying to create a world that was firmly etched in my head as opposed to one that pre-existed in other films or anywhere else for that matter.

How did you avoid cliché?

I delved a lot of myself into this film, a lot of stuff I think about, a lot stuff that I’m interested in makes up the fabric of this film so I just never really worried if it was original or not. Clich�s aren’t always the worst thing in the world either. A lot of the hardship Doug suffers in the film could be accused of being clich�s associated with country music. I kind of embraced that notion, I wanted to make a film that felt like a country song.

What Country & Western songwriters do you admire?

Contemporary mainstream country can be pretty awful and tends to be very conservative. I listen to Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. Then there’s people like Kurt Wagner, Bill Callahan and Robert Fisher who aren’t really country but write fairly low key incidental stuff that I like. I suppose most of the music that features on the soundtrack is pretty much the kind of thing I listen to.

In terms of this world that they live in, it was a far departure from the typical representation of Ireland – for instance, the music’s roots are American rather than Irish. Can you explain your reasoning behind the setting of the drama in this context?

In terms of the music, Irish Country has never interested me that much and so I knew pretty early on that Doug’s music would be American influenced. I considered setting the film in a more traditional Irish landscape that we’re more accustomed to but just because of the nature of the story and the music there was the opportunity to do something different. I felt justified in importing that Americana ethos and filtering it through an Irish landscape. I mean it is Ireland, it was all shot over here, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think otherwise.

Although you were not trying to emulate anything, the film seems to have the feel of an American film from the 1970’s – The Deer Hunter in particular. Was that cinema an influence for you?

I think that’s a period when cinema was particularly strong. I’m not entirely sure how much it’s progressed as a medium since then and it bothers me that a lot of those films would struggle to get made today. But anyway yeah, it’s certainly fair to say that lots of my favourite films are from this period. In terms of The Deer Hunter, it’s a political anti-war film and so it’s very different from what I was doing but I always saw Small Engine Repair as a buddy movie of sorts, a film about friendship, a film about what friends are meant to do for one another and from that perspective ‘The Deer Hunter’ was important. Obviously there’s the deer hunting scene and that probably stemmed from The Deer Hunter but to be honest what’s going on beneath the surface in the two scenes is very different so that’s not really a connection that warranted much thought on my part.

Small Engine Repair demonstrates an intimate appreciation of the flaws and virtues of an inert community.

I mean it’s a community where really little things are maybe a bit more important than they are in other communities. These characters tend to be consumed by fairly innocuous things. And that’s absolutely fine, just look at a film like The Bicycle Thief where a guy loses his bicycle and to you it’s just a bike but to him it’s his whole life. There’s something very truthful about that, about finding comfort and solace in simple things but the problem is that like you mentioned that it’s a flawed community insofar as it’s built on relationships that aren’t very healthy. Doug and Bill are best friends but that relationship only works under a certain guise and that’s Bill using Doug to feel better about himself. No matter how bad things go for Bill he can always look at Doug and think things could be worse. So when Doug gets his little bit of recognition, things start to come apart and it’s kind of like this across the board with them all.

How do you feel about Small Engine Repair now?

I feel pretty good about it although I don’t think anyone’s ever completely satisfied with the film they make, you’ll always find imperfections in your work but those imperfections are partly what drive you to try harder next time. I mean if you were to make a flawless film you’d be left with nowhere to go and the rational thing would be to change profession. That said it’s pretty close to what I set out to make and I feel pretty good about it so long as I don’t have to watch it. I’d made a decision not to watch it again but found myself sitting through a screening at the London film festival recently cause I was with Iain Glen and I hadn’t seen it with him. Anyway it really wasn’t a pleasant experience. I mean the film went down well and all, it’s just watching it with an audience is pretty grueling. You try and condition yourself not to care what anyone thinks and I didn’t write it with anyone in mind apart from myself but still, you know, I find myself overly conscious how an audience reacts at any given moment.

If you could write it again – what would you change?

I guess the thing I’d change given the unlikely opportunity would be to omit the scenes that don’t feature in the final cut. Time is the most valuable commodity on a film set so when you look back at the time wasted on scenes that don’t feature it’s kinda painful.

Niall went on to win the The 2007 IFTA BSE/IFB & NIFTC Breakthrough Talent Award for Small Engine Repair.