Inspired by a true story, the indie drama Small Time tells the story of Al Klein (Christopher Meloni) and his longtime friend, Ash Martini (Dean Norris), who own a used car lot together. While Martini is a happy bachelor, Klein still pines for his ex-wife (Bridget Moynahan) and struggles to find common ground with their son (Devon Bostick), who has decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.
At the film’s press day, writer/director Joel Surnow talked about how the first draft of Small Time was written in 1976, why he kept going back to the story, how different the finished film is now, the casting process, why he wanted the story to have a little edge to it, that he’s hoping to go into production on his next film this year, and why he thinks it’s fantastic that 24 (for which he was the co-creator/executive producer) is returning to television, while actor Christopher Meloni talked about why this story and character appealed to him, not wanting to fall into any cliches, working with co-star Dean Norris, his experience making Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and why he wanted to sign on for the comedy series Surviving Jack. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Collider: Joel, how crazy is it to make this film, so much years after you wrote it?
JOEL SURNOW: Really crazy! Small Time was almost a character in my life for 35 years. The story is complicated, but I wrote it with Randy [Wallace] in 1976, and he died in ‘76. When I wanted to get into television, after being a failure as a feature writer for seven years, I needed a writing sample. So, I took Small Time and I rewrote it, and it actually got me my first job, with Steven Bochco and David Milch, on a show called Bay City Blues in 1983. And then, about 10 years later, I had a little break and I said, “I’m gonna make Small Time.” In that draft is when I turned it into a car lot. So, ten years later, I wrote it and started to move forward, but then something else happened. I think I got onto La Femme Nikita. And then, when I left 24 and I finished The Kennedys, I said, “Okay, now I want to really do it.” It had been part of my life, the characters were a part of my life, and Randy was certainly a memory I wanted to honor. I had to go find his family to get the rights to it, and I couldn’t find them. There was a whole story behind the story. So, when you say it’s crazy, it’s crazier than even I’ve been telling people. It involved a lot of people in my life.
Were you always determined to eventually get it made, or was there a point when you just saw it as a writing sample?
SURNOW: No, I didn’t even think of it as a sample, after 1983. When I left 24, I thought about how, when you work in TV for all those years, you become a craftsmen. I didn’t feel inspired, or like I had all these inspired ideas. I said to myself, “When was the last time you were inspired?” When you’re in your early 20s is when you’re inspired by this movie or that, and you want to do stuff. When I wrote Small Time, it was inspired. It was a mess, but it was inspired. So, I thought, “Okay, now I’ll apply the craft to it and really turn it into a movie. I’ll take what I’ve learned to something that was inspired.” That’s why a lot of guys adapt really cool books. You have the craft, but you don’t necessarily have the spark of a new idea anymore. If you look at most really great things that get done, it’s not guys in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. It’s guys in their 20s, 30s and 40s. That’s certainly true with music, and it’s certainly true with art. Writing is different. You have to live a life to become a writer. There’s no equivalent of Mozart, as a novelist. You have to have 15 years of life, before you can write a great novel. You can write a great piece of music, just ‘cause it’s a savant thing. But, writing is a different animal. I felt like I had the maturity to write a different kind of movie than I did when I was 20.
Is what we see now anything close to what you had originally written?
SURNOW: Not really. The first one was about the two guys wanting to move to Miami. He actually gets back together with the wife, and the kid is a footnote. So, no, it really wasn’t.
How did you guys come to work on this together?
SURNOW: I wanted Chris [Meloni] and I sent it to his agent, and I was thrilled to find out that he responded to it. And he came to the house.
MELONI: That was it. That was the first time I met him. I went there and we discussed the script. He was a very collaborate guy, and a very smart guy. I loved his wife. She sealed the deal. She’s awesome.
MELONI: That’s what it was. It was a script about family, and he ran the whole thing like a family. Dean [Norris] and I got along. We loved his family, his daughters and his wife.
SURNOW: And we loved these guys, so it all added to it. But, I’ve always been that way. I was that way on 24. Jon Cassar used to have parties for the crew, every Friday night. We were all out in the West Valley. The work is so hard, you might as well love the people and enjoy the people you’re with. That’s how I’ve always felt.
Chris, did you know the journey this film had been on, before it got to you?
MELONI: No, I knew nothing about it. But, I recognized it as a very good script. It was a tight script. It was the work of a craftsman who understands the journey of a screenplay and the beats necessary to give it some interesting moments and moments of depth.
SURNOW: A script is just a script, though. A good script can be a bad movie, so easily. It’s the process that makes it good. When it’s cooking, Chris and I would just know when something was right. We didn’t have to argue our points. We both recognized it. It almost takes on a life of its own, and you just know the right way to do it. When you work with the best people, you really get something out of it that has nothing to do with the script anymore. That’s just the starting point. You need a good script, don’t get me wrong, but you need all those other things to make a good movie. You really do. A good movie with bad music can kill a great dramatic scene. It’s so easily derailed. One of the really nice things about having the time to do a movie is that you can fine tune it. With TV, you really need A-level people to make a good TV show because it’s moving so fast. It’s a little bit different with shows like True Detective and Game of Thrones that have these huge budgets and huge schedules.
SURNOW: I didn’t picture anything. It wasn’t going to be my dad. Al Klein was his own guy. My dad wasn’t divorced. You want somebody that you like, right away, but who has a little edge. The salesman’s life is a little bit of an edgy life. Every TV show that Chris has ever done, you just like being in the room with the guy, and Dean has that quality, too. So, you put them together and that’s the win. This is very different, for me. The TV shows I did, like La Femme Nikita and 24, the main characters are not necessarily people that you want to spend a minute of your life with. They’re exciting, but they’re not people that you necessarily want to be with. With this, you have to want to be in the room with these people for 90 minutes. That’s a very specific type of casting. There are wonderful actors who are great, but they don’t invite you in the same way. They don’t have that heart or warmth, without being soft. I didn’t want this to be a soft movie. I wanted it to have a little edge ‘cause everything I do has an edge, and real life has an edge, but I didn’t want it to be an edgy movie. There’s just too much edgy shit out there. There’s not enough of this. Little Miss Sunshine is one of my favorite movies. I wouldn’t call it an edgy movie. It’s a wonderful movie. You just loved all of those people. That’s what I aspire to, in terms of what I was doing in this. And the Barry Levinson movie Diner is another movie that’s comparable in tone.
Chris, what did you see in this character that drew you to him and made you want to embody him for a bit?
MELONI: Number one was that he’s a used car salesman without falling into any cliche. He’s just a salesman who happens to be a used car salesman, and he actually enjoys it and loves it. That’s great. I was literally like, “I have never seen that.” I’ve never seen a used car salesman where he wasn’t a punchline. And then, I thought his life was complicated without hammering that aspect home. He’s divorced, but doesn’t want to be divorced. He has a relationship with his son that’s not estranged, but it’s been distanced by distance and not from emotional disconnect. All of a sudden, I was riding this journey of nothing being on the nose, and that makes it complicated, which is what life is. Life is never straightforward or emotionally black and white. And then, he is confronted with not finding the answers, but in getting resolution to his marriage and to why he can’t move forward, which he wasn’t even aware of, in his personal life.
SURNOW: That’s absolutely true. He’s unaware of all this unresolved shit because he’s fairly happy.
MELONI: He’s so unaware, and I thought that was a very interesting guy.
He doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know, and many of us are like that. These epiphanies come very infrequently. So, I thought that was a nice angle.
The relationship between Al Klein and Ash Martini is great to watch. What was it like to work with Dean Norris?
MELONI: Dean walked into the room and I immediately took a liking to the guy. We spoke a common language and had a common outlook, which I think was just that we’re two guys who enjoy working, we’re relatively intelligent, and we’re very open to playing and finding what works.
SURNOW: Everybody liked each other from the beginning, in a really natural way. It wasn’t forced. It felt simple, right away. There was no breaking in period. Dean came to the set on his first day, after shooting until four in the morning, and we just went. There was a weird little love story between the guys. It’s a buddy movie. These guys love each other. They love doing their shtick with each other. They go out and have drinks, but they live their separate lives. The last thing Klein wants to do when he gets off of work is hang out with Martini, but when he shows up at work, there’s no one else he’d rather be with.
Chris, what was it like to do Sin City: A Dame to Kill For?
MELONI: It was fantastic! I knew what the game was ‘cause I’d seen the first one, so I understood that. You knew how it’s shot. I got to play with Eva Green and Jeremy Piven, and it was a lot of fun. It was great! It’s old school acting. It’s like acting class, where you get up, you’re on a stage, basically in a box, and you bring your own props. They provided a chair and a telephone. Those were the only real things in the scenes I had. It was a lot of fun. Robert Rodriguez was very quiet, but had complete command of what he wanted. It was a very gentle, nice, fun-loving set. It was easy. And I got to meet Frank Miller. I’ve been such a fan of his. I just think he is such a unique guy. He’s the godfather of graphic novels, to me. And he was very kind to me. It was a great experience.
Are you excited to see the finished product?
You’re known for doing a lot of dramatic work. Were you looking to do a comedy series, or did you just specifically respond to something in Surviving Jack?
MELONI: No, I wouldn’t say that, but when I read the script, I just got a good feeling about it. I knew I didn’t want to do an hour-long show with a 22-episode network schedule. Maybe if it had been 13 episodes, then I could have rolled with that. It is your life. My kids are now at an age where I’d rather spend more time with them than away from there. As opposed to when they were younger and I just couldn’t wait to get out of the house. No. So, it was a combination of things. It was comedy that felt right and good, and I was right. I enjoy waking up every morning and trying to make the funny.
Joel, do you know when you’re going to go into production on your next film?
SURNOW: I hope this year. I have a project that I’m working on that will hopefully come together. But, the independent film world is a very dicey world. I went to the top of the mountain in television and could do anything I wanted, but I wanted to do an independent film, which results in you paying your own way, fighting like hell to get distribution, and maybe 30 people will see it. That was a good idea.
With VOD, do you feel like people are seeing movies that they wouldn’t have necessarily gone to the theater to see?
SURNOW: Yeah. Thank god for Netflix and VOD, and stuff like that.
So, have you already written the next one then?
SURNOW: Yeah. I actually wrote something as a six-hour mini-series, which I brought down to a two-hour movie. That was a process. I won’t talk about that until there’s something to really say, but hopefully in the next couple of months, I’ll be looking to cast.
Is it weird to see 24 coming back to television?
SURNOW: It’s fantastic! It was weird that it went off the air. There was no reason for that. There’s no reason that 24 shouldn’t always be on. There should always be a 24 on the air. It’s a perfect format for television. You can do it a ton of different ways. I love the Kiefer [Sutherland] way, obviously, but I just think 24 is a natural fit for the TV audience. I’m so happy that it’s back. I don’t know what the movie situation is, but I don’t think it needs to be a movie. It is a movie. It always was a movie. Frank Darabont, William Friedkin, Jim Brooks, and all these directors, came to the set and asked if they could use our camera guys. It was shot in a very filmic way. It just didn’t have the movie experience of sitting in a theater. These movies like Taken were born out of the 24 feel, but I think 24 did just as well. It’s a certain film style. But, all good TV is like that now. From Breaking Bad to True Detective, it doesn’t feel like TV shows anymore.
Small Time opens in theaters and is available on VOD on April 18th.