An Interview With Jimmy Smallhorne, Co-writer, Star and Director of
"2 by 4"
by Anthony Kaufman
Although its “Best Cinematography” award will undoubtedly be fixed to “2 by
4” throughout its post-Sundance existence, this story of an Irish
construction worker facing an abusive past in the Bronx, reveals just as
much skill through its emotional performances as it does through its
photography. As the protagonist ventures into sexually ambiguous territory,
trying to sort out his repressed past, a compelling set of questions are
asked about Irish masculinity, emotion and identity.
Jimmy Smallhorne, the driving force behind the film, was perhaps one of the
most energetic and vibrant directors at Sundance, running on high gear 24
hours a day. With no film experience, the young Irishman embarked on making
“2 by 4”, surrounding himself with a collection of talented filmmakers,
including cinematographer, Declan Quinn (“Leaving Las Vegas“, “Vanya on
42nd Street“, “Kama Sutra“). Never expecting to reach Sundance, Smallhorne
now stands in the back of screenings, likening the experience to Aliens
erupting from his stomach. With no distribution deal solidified as of yet,
publicists and marketers are pushing Smallhorne into the spotlight, hoping
the charismatic, swearing actor-director will bring audiences to his film.
indieWIRE: Tell me about some of the cinematic techniques you used,
especially those sort of unique video nightmares.
Jimmy Smallhorne: First of all, I didn’t want to use flashbacks in the
film. But I thought that I should help the audience a little bit. But my
concern with the flashbacks was I didn’t want them to be too narrative
driven. I just wanted to hit on things. Real flashbacks are things that you
can’t make out. You have a real fuckin’ flashback in life, you only get
flashes of it.
[Ally Sheedy, who stars in “High Art” another Sundance winner, suddenly
walks past and yells in jest, “Yeah, fuck you, too.”]
Smallhorne: (laughing) Fuck off. And you only get a flash, an abstract
image, I know, because I’ve had them. So when I have flashbacks in the
movie, I kept thinking of abuse and kept thinking that when they see this
movie, that what they’re seeing is authentic, that I understand, and treat
this whole issue as natural as possible. That’s why I done these very
abstract images. We shot that part on video, put it on a monitor and shot
it again, to give it a grainy look, an abstract look.
iW: Did you work in film before?
Smallhorne: Didn’t go near film before. First fuckin’ movie. The movie was
in my head. All I needed to do was bring in people who did that. Declan
Quinn, who shot the movie, 15 movies under his belt, all these films, so
what I didn’t know, he’d fuckin’ knew. He did. He co-directed the movie, I
iW: When you were on set, what was that relationship like?
Smallhorne: The whole thing was very spontaneous, you know. We spent a lot
of time looking at movies. Declan really lights with his heart. Getting
ideas about scenes we wanted to, you know, that Christian scene was based
on “Last Tango in Paris” and I wanted like a Santaria feel to that, the
Spanish Santaria religion, red and all that kind of stuff. A lot of it was
very spontaneous. And Declan doesn’t like to work that way. He likes
everything planned. So between the two, you can see the discipline of
filmmaking. The Christian scene was completely improvised. I threw away the
script three minutes before the scene. We loaded three 11 minute mags into
that camera and just shot for maybe an hour.
iW: How was it both starring in and directing the film?
Smallhorne: I really don’t want to fuckin’ sound like, but. . . I shit in
the same toilet bowl as anyone else, you know, but I find acting very easy
cause I believe in the character that I’m playing. With switching to
directing, I had a lot of support around me, Declan, the writers, my fiancé
Ruth who was there all the time on the set, and even the actors helped me.
So it was a really family thing that directed that film. . . And I never
even considered the factor that I’m acting. People say, “What’d you do in
the movie?” I say, “I directed it, you know.” I never think I’m an actor in
the film, cause I’m so detached from being an actor in the film. The first
cast lists I sent out, I forgot to include my own name. Really. Who plays
Johnny? Oh, that’s me.
iW: So tell me about your other actors?
Smallhorne: Some of them were actors, some of them were not, some of them
were seasoned actors who have been doing it for 20-30 years, some are
construction workers who have a talent for acting, for performance who
never got the opportunity to do it. Some of them I knew. Some of them I saw
and went to get them. The great thing about it is people who haven’t acted
before — what they bring to the set is the spontaneity and the humility
and openness that seasoned actors don’t always have. When you mesh the two
together, you always get great, spontaneous performance. Some of them I
cast off the street. Christian, I cast him straight off the street and Joe,
who reads the poem. . .
iW: He was brilliant. . .
Smallhorne: He never did a thing in his life.
iW: How did you find him?
Smallhorne: I knew Joe, but hadn’t seen him in years, but I remember years
ago, I said, one day, I’m going to get this guy. Cause I knew the role was
for Joe. So when I came to shoot the film, then I called them all together
and they were really great.
iW: The poetry scene, for me, is one of the strongest scenes in the film.
Can you tell me how it functions for you?
Smallhorne: The film is about men having emotions, especially these Irish
Catholic men. What I wanted to do in that scene was what the poem created
among 7 or 8 men, what they’re going to do about it. In rehearsals, I left
the door open on moments of spontaneity, I wanted them all to feel
something. They weren’t acting feeling. They were fuckin’ feeling
something. I was in that scene and we all were feeling something. I wanted
to see what they would do with it, and that great line, of course, “We need
a beer” at the end of it, it’s so perfect. I also wanted to show that these
guys are capable of dropping their machoism.
iW: Tell me about the kind of masculinity in Irish culture that you were
Smallhorne: It’s not only masculinity, it’s about right and wrong. We all
went to Catholic school, we were all taught by nuns. We were taught that
life was about good and bad. And men were meant to be fuckin’ men. When my
mother said to me, “Are you a man or a mouse?” and I used to say, “Squeak.”
So school was about right and wrong, church was about right and wrong, and
a good man was a strong man who could cope with pain and anything and the
only place where one of those was allowed to be shown was sports or singing
or in bars, that karaoke stuff as well. I wanted to get behind that fuckin’
veneer of machoism. I want to show guys having desire, having feelings,
having anger, having sadness and put them in a situation together and see
I brought a bunch of construction workers from the Bronx to see the movie
and they were just blown away by it. Ultimately, that’s who I made the
movie for. I wanted to make a movie that showed real fuckin’ people, I
didn’t want to make a movie that was Hollywood Irish, or Irish Tourist
Board Irish, but the real fuckin’ Irish. And I know that I fuckin’ did
that. I know that I done that. I know I can put my head up high and I know
I put these guys in the film, I didn’t moralize what they do, I just showed
them as they are. People are having a lot of fuckin’ difficulty with that
because they’re coming to an Irish movie and they’re expecting something
else, cause they’ve been spoon-fed this kind of shite for years, going back
to John Wayne in “The Quiet Man” and “My Left Foot” and “The Name of the
Father” and “The Crying Game” and all that stuff and we don’t get to that.