Interview: Walt Delaney, John O'Toole, and Mike Klasek of Small Americans

Small Americans is a long-form short film produced in 2012 by Walt Delaney, Mike Klasek, Zephian Michaels, and John O'Toole that follows the ridiculous events of a local election in New Burnside, IL. The film was retooled after a screening in October of last year, and a new cut will be shown tonight at the Upstairs Gallery at 8pm

In advance of tonight's screening, I talked to Walt, Mike, and John about the creation of the film.

The Steamroller: How did the production of Small Americans come together? What role did you play in its creation?

John O'Toole: It first started as a small bit we were going to do for the “You Can Do Anything Hour” at the Upstairs Gallery, which was a show put together by John Reynolds and Zephian Michaels where you could literally do anything. The bit was Walt and I were two politicians from rival families that have been feuding for years and are running against each other in an upcoming election. Both of us were going to be performing our smear campaign ads between the longer acts of the night.

Walt Delaney: It was going to be reveled that John played Russian Roulette with a group of children. We thought it would be funny to try and film a clip of the roulette, but we reached an impasse when we could not find any parents with enough poor sense to lend us their children so we could pretend to murder them on film. Though the sketch never materialized, John and I kept talking about the idea and soon came up with the idea to be politicians from warring families like the Hatfields and McCoys.

John: Walt and I started going back and forth on the bit and we started building a bigger story. We then decided that maybe this would be better as a short film. Then the story got bigger until we decided that it would be great if we could actually make a longer short, or a very short feature. We ended up with a film that’s about feature length.

We then wrote a draft and had a table read with a bunch of our friends whose sense of humors we enjoyed. One of them was Mike Klasek, who offered to direct the film.

Mike Klasek: I didn't really come on to the project until Walt and John asked me to direct the movie. I was really flattered they asked me because up until that point I only had a failed web series under my belt—Did I say failed? I meant to say... Not. Failed?

Anyways, by the time I had gotten involved with the project John and Walt had already done all of the heavy lifting. I remember when we sat down to discuss me directing the film they had the script, the cast, and most of the locations already locked down.

That took a lot of the anxiety out of the project and gave us all the freedom to focus on performances and having fun instead of yelling at people over the phone and crying in friend’s apartments. All that other stuff happened to me during filming too but I was kinda going through some other stuff at the time…

TS: The cast list is a mile long, and full of a ton of really funny performers. Did you set out to make an ensemble picture or did the project get bigger and bigger throughout the shooting process?

Walt: Once we decided to actually sit down and write the script, John and I knew we wanted to do something bigger, which would involve a large cast. We guessed, and guessed right, that if we wrote something half way decent our friends would turn it into something far better. We had a pretty good idea of who we wanted to be involved and, for the most part, they all said yes. All of the roles were written so the cast you see was pretty much on the original page.

John: One of the most enjoyable parts of writing the film was picturing certain people doing certain parts. We were lucky that pretty much everyone we asked was on board. And a few times we would have to adjust the shooting schedule just to fit them in, which was fine with us because we wanted them that bad for their part.

We are all so grateful to get a cast that talented and great.

Mike: I didn’t have a ton of insight on this part of the process so I asked Walt Delaney if he would guest write this part for me. Here is what he had to say:

“Once we decided to actually sit down and write the script John and I knew we wanted to do something bigger, which would involve a large cast. We guessed and guessed right that if we wrote something half way decent our friends would turn it into something far better. We had a pretty good idea of who we wanted to be involved and for the most part they all said yes. All of the roles were written so the cast you see was pretty much on the original page.”

TS: This is the second ever public screening of the movie, it's been over 6 months since the last screening. Why has it been so long?

Mike: I remember my freshman year of college I stayed at school to take extra classes over the summer and it was really lonely because my girlfriend was out of town. So a week before she came up to visit she told me she had this awesome idea where if I stopped masturbating for a week before she came up when she arrived we would be able to just go crazy on each other.

So I did and I gotta tell you as a self sexually active 18 year old boy it was a really long week full of temptation. But finally at the end of the week… Man, I can’t remember how the story ended but I remember being disappointed—What was the question again?

Walt: I once heard that a third of making a movie will be spent writing, a third is filming and a third is editing. I cannot begin to tell you how true this has turned out to be, with an emphasis on the editing.

The original cut was great and we were happy with the response from it, but we knew there was work to be done. We went back and filmed a few more scenes and thought of other ways to clarify some story points that were not clear and generally clean up the film. I cannot begin to describe just how hard Mike and Zephian Michaels (the film's editor and cinematographer) have been working on the editing portion and how much better shape the movie is in from when people saw it in October.

John: I feel like we all learned an insane amount as to how much actual time and effort go into a project of this size and what kind of patience it takes to finish it.

TS: Did you find that there were different tools and skills required to successfully produce a longer form piece of storytelling vs. the shorts and live performances that are the norm in a improv/sketch community?

John: Yes, definitely. The whole process was so much different than anything I've ever been a part of. The prep-work was extensive. We spent weeks writing the script and going back and forth on what should be kept in and what should be edited out. We had to schedule a total of something like 15 shooting days, and often time had to switch them around. We had to take the time to scout shooting locations and did a lot of it renegade style; all of it completely free.

We used my grade school gym a couple times, my parents' house, my grandparents' old house (where I was currently living), a bar where Walt used to work, Marie's Riptide, a 4am bar with a great jukebox, and a lot of other outside locations. We shot the movie mostly on weekends, and every Thursday night we would meet with the actors we were going to be working with that weekend and have a rehearsal of their scene(s). I spent more time on this project than anything I’ve ever worked on.

It required a lot of patience, a lot of communication, and a lot of trust that what we were doing was worthwhile.

Walt: It's also very important to constantly remember that the actors who are lending you their time for free are doing you the favor, and not the other way around. Some people will cancel at the last minute, show up to set without reading the script and reply to emails clearly without reading the one you just sent, but that's part of it. The important part is to be flexible and do whatever you can to keep everyone positive about the project. 

Finally, and this is no joke, buy a shit ton of coffee and donuts for people. We made sure on every day to have coffee, donuts and water for people and you would be shocked at how much they appreciate it. A friend of mine said, months after the shoot, how much he appreciated us providing coffee for him on the day of a shoot. We learned that if you make it feel like a movie set, the people involved will treat it like one. Even if all you have to offer is cheap coffee and shitty donuts.

Mike: I've found that being talented as fuck is a pretty translatable skill.