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SONG AND CHANCE MAN
“MOST MEN LEAD LIVES OF QUIET desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, in what would have been a perfect tagline for Small Engine Repair, a new film written and directed by Niall Heery and starring Edinburgh’s own Iain Glen. In it, Glen plays Doug, who’s lost his job and his woman and just about all of his self-belief. For years Doug has been carrying around a demo tape of self-penned songs. Though he longs to have it played on the local country and western station, he makes excuses every time his friends try to pop on the cassette and press play. But life is full of surprises. Not only does opportunity come knocking, but Doug turns out to have genuine talent.
Glen had agreed to play another character, Burley, who’s fresh out of jail after a fatal hit and run and spoiling for the man who shopped him. “It’s a funny thing when you’re asked, would you like to do a role, and you read a script and all the time you’re thinking,” Glen whispers this: ” ‘Oh God, I wish I was doing that role.’ But I liked the script as a whole very much.” The part that leapt out at him was Doug, not because it’s the lead, but because it offered a chance to show off his musical abilities. “Three weeks later I got a phone call from one of the producers asking if I’d think about changing roles. I thought he’d maybe say the postman who delivers the mail in the first scene, but he said it’s to play Doug, because we know you can sing and play the guitar. I said, ‘Do-you-know-I-will-think-about-it-I-thought-about-it-and-the-answer-is-yes.’ ”
The voice is unexpected. Whereas his speaking voice is reedy, when Glen sings – in this film, at any rate – what emerges is a deep, gravel-strewn nod to Johnny Cash. He’s always played guitar and sung, mainly folk music, just never publicly or professionally, except once in a long ago musical. To reassure Heery he made preliminary recordings at home using his Apple and a GarageBand programme. Later, he laid down the tracks properly.
His cracking singing voice is not the only surprise in store. Glen, one of Scotland’s handsomest men, plays it downright dowdy, his good looks obscured by a beard that reduces him to a pair of the bluest eyes and a much-furrowed brow. Actresses pay lip service to the joys of playing ugly because it’s a stretch, how was it for him? “Really good fun! [Doug] is careworn, weather-beaten, hapless, very benign and sort of hopeless, then something changes inside him. It felt interesting territory to go into. I bearded up to create a messiness. My features are naturally quite cheek-bony and angular and as a result you can look a bit tidy. I wanted to round out my face a bit and mess up the edges. I saw him as a big bear of a man, and again, I’m tall and thin. You try to adjust physically to suggest that.”
Doug and his friends aren’t so much leading lives of quiet desperation as the howling version, and as a viewer I found this frustrating, I admit to Glen, who laughs. “Yes, as a woman I think you do want to shake these men – that’s the way his partner feels at the start of the film.” So what happened? How did Doug become so badly damaged? “I think there are a lot of blokes who have a vocational aspiration – for him it’s music – that is not seen through,” says Glen. “They are fundamentally frustrated by what life is giving them. I’m eternally grateful I was able to act, but if I hadn’t been able to realise that for myself, or if I hadn’t succeeded at it, I really don’t know what I would have done. There was no Plan B. A lot of people are silently frustrated by their occupations.”
Although he says it’s wrong, he feels that men, more than women, care enormously about how they’re perceived professionally. “We want to be judged by that. We think it’s terribly important, too important, and some of the more important emotional stuff we can lose sight of. I think it’s not uncommon for people to be slight failures to themselves. But while I see the film as very elegiac in tone, it made me laugh reading it and it made us laugh doing it, and I’ve seen audiences laugh watching it.” ‘Men are fundamentally frustrated by what life is giving them’
Beautifully shot in the woods of Northern Ireland – resembling the American northwest much more than what we think we know about the Emerald Isle – Small Engine Repair is a model of taste and restraint. But while the adjectives “quiet” and “sleeper” certainly apply, Heery injects notes of danger and tension. Then, each time the action threatens to spin off into another genre – notably the violent revenge movie – it dances away gracefully, and it’s the better for it. “I know exactly what you mean,” agrees Glen. “Even though I know what happens, when I watched it I had the sense of, ‘Oh please don’t do that.’ It’s a familiar sensation, maybe 50 per cent of the time, finding that finished films are not quite what you thought you were making. This one really matched what I remember I saw on the page and remember as the experience of filming it. Like it or not, that’s what was intended. That’s what the director wrote and wanted to shoot. I love the tone and the fact that the film trusts itself.”
Is that because the same person wrote and directed? “I think so, but it’s also one of the things they get right in Ireland; somehow they can make these [small budget] films, where the director has independence and no producer is saying they’ll only give you the money on the proviso that you let them suggest what should happen.” Lately Glen’s been shooting roughly a film a year in Ireland, and I wonder what they’re getting right that Scotland’s film industry still hasn’t cracked. “Ireland does seem to financially support film-makers in the way they don’t seem to in Scotland. I think there’s a Northern Ireland film fund where if you film a percentage of the film there you can get part of your budget covered. And Small Engine Repair will do OK in Ireland, however it does in the rest of the UK or the world, because there’s an audience that want to go see films there.”
Audiences in every country are sure to relate to these men because they’re achingly real. Like most of us, who, according to Glen, “spend our lives having little victories and little failures”, their desires are small, making it all the more poignant when they fail to come to fruition. Steven Mackintosh, for instance, appears as Bill, an even sadder sack than Doug, who is desperate to keep his grown son alongside him in the family business. But the claustrophobic, dead-end lives Bill and his friends lead hold little appeal for the young man. Knowing that Glen has a 12-year-old son, Finlay, I wonder how he’s coping with the inevitable changes that come as a child grows up and grows away. How hard is it to stand back and watch children make their own mistakes?
He grimaces, making all sorts of faces before answering. “[My son is] still young enough not to be pulling away, or maybe I just goosestep over him all the time! I used to love this book of a bear teaching a younger bear what to do, and every time the father bear would say, this is how you ride a bicycle, then he’d get on and have a terrible accident, and he’d say, ‘So son, that is what you should not do.’ I’m probably a bit like that, saying, ‘Oh, you should be doing it this way,’ and it all goes horribly wrong. But I think I’m going to find it very, very difficult to be able to stand back and let him make his own mistakes and find his own way.” With two actors as parents (Finlay’s mum is Susannah Harker), is he destined to tread the boards? “I don’t know. It’s like at Christmas parties people always f***ing say to me, ‘Oh you’re an actor, you’ll be charades captain.’ ” He groans. “He’s been given lots of opportunities to act at school. The most common trait of young actors is to. Pronounce. Every. Word. Very. Carefully. So they will be heard. That’s what they’re taught. Finlay sort of mumbles in a Brando-esque way – so he’s either really good or really awful.”
Twelve is probably too soon to choose a career path, but if Finlay does fancy acting, he’d do worse than follow his father’s example: “I look for good writing, because I know that’s what will flatter me.” And that, he says, now means more independent films and less television. “Call me old-fashioned but the idea that a writer might use his talent to script something that has a beginning, middle and end, a bit of plot and a story, that might be enlightened by good performances and a bit of visual direction to construct something that actually might be worth pausing to look at for a couple of hours, it’s so rare to see on television. I’ve done much less television over the last decade.
“There used to be things like Screen 2 and Play for Today, and one-off films. Those exist still, but they’re very few and far between and tucked away in the schedules. Struggle though they may, independent film-makers do manage to get their films made and still have creative freedom in the making of those films, but it’s relatively small in the grand scheme of things.” Small yes, but often perfectly formed.
– Lee Randall
Small Engine Repair is released on 7 September.