Big time: ‘24’ co-creator Joel Surnow drives off the TV lot with refurbished car-dealer comedy

Small Time, which marks the big-screen directing debut of a small-screen writer-producer, is a charmer of a character comedy that comes out exactly life-size.

The credits read: “Directed by Joel Surnow. Screenplay by Joel Surnow. Conception of the Characters of Klein and Martini by Randy Wallace and Joel Surnow.” Klein and Martini in this context are car-salesmen partners; in another life, they peddled carpet.

In their subtle evolution from carpets to cars hangs a tale. It’s a rather sad tale and goes back to an earlier time and an earlier inspiration, but Surnow is happy to tell it.

“The original script for this movie was written 38 years ago in 1976,” he recalls. The summer after he graduated from UCLA Film School, Surnow and his friend Randy holed up in his apartment in L.A. and wrote a sprawling script about two men named Martini and Klein, who, in first draft, were far different from the film’s.

“We’d started writing together in our senior year, and the idea was to write a script about my dad, who’s a salesman, and his larger-than-life partner. They were boiler-room salesmen. They sold carpet and drapes. The boiler-room thing is kinda like Glengarry Glen Ross where a guy in a boiler room—it’s called a boiler room, but it’s just an office—calls up people and says, ‘We’re coming out to your neighborhood today, and we’ll give you an estimate on carpets and drapes for your home.’ You make 100 calls, and you get two note-cards with the names of two potential customers. Then, the salesman would go out to the homes with the carpet samples.”

Three months after they finished the script, Wallace developed a congenital heart problem, went in to fix it and died on the operating table on Dec. 7, 1976, at age 21. Their lone creation was laid to rest in a bottom desk drawer for the next 35 years.

“I was actually living in New York at the time Randy died, trying to write novels, which lasted about six months.” Eventually, Surnow drifted into episodic television—“St. Elsewhere,” “The Equalizer,” “Miami Vice,” “Falcon Crest,” “The Commish,” eventually evolving from writer to co-creator of “La Femme Nikita” and “24” and winning a primetime Emmy nomination for 2011’s Outstanding Drama Series for the miniseries “The Kennedys.” Along the way, he bagged a couple of Emmys in 2006 and 2003 for writing “24.”

“By the time I’d finished doing my episodic television, I didn’t have a lot of inspiration left,” Surnow admits. “I remember thinking the last time I was inspired about something was Small Time, one of the things from my youth that was kinda left over, so I dusted off the script, took those characters and created a new story.”

Possibly because he had spent five years in the ’70s assisting his dad in the boiler room selling carpet, the plot veered into a father-son story with a neat little twist.

Christopher Meloni, also branching out from a small-screen persona (“Law & Order: SVU”), plays a seasoned used-car salesman whose son from a previous marriage (Devon Bostick from Diary of a Wimpy Kid) opts to forego college to take up the family trade. Flattered at first, Meloni grows uneasy with how well his young duck takes to water.

It’s not a very honorable profession, full of sleazy tricks of the trade that are fun to watch play out but not at all fun to experience. One salesman feigns hard of hearing, pretending to mishear the manager’s quoted price by $2,000. Sometimes customers are pressured to seal the deal if they think probable buyers are coming back.

Surnow’s reason for setting his new script in a used-car lot is simple, sane and rather logical: “It was 50 locations versus one location. For every customer I would have on the car lot, there would have to be a different location. It would be house calls, like the old Hoover salesman. Ultimately, this is just salesmen. I’m from nine generations of salesmen. My whole family were salesmen. All these stories were stories from my family—the hearing-aid gag and all that—and those weren’t even car tricks.

“They could have been selling anything. They could have had a junk store. They could have had a pawnshop. But there is a real value in the car-selling—the cars are pretty, it’s outdoors, it’s a better flavor of L.A., and all of the shady sales tricks that I knew about or that I heard about my whole life worked really well with cars.”

The 1976 script chased another plot: “The original story was that Klein is going broke, so he just leaves Martini and the business for his ex-wife. It’s almost a love story between Martini and Klein, leaving his partner high and dry to return to his ex. It doesn’t work. At the end, he and Martini head off to Miami or somewhere. We were very young writers then, but there was some real spirit in that script.”

Some of that initial inspiration illuminates his quietly affecting rewrite. “It’s not a big movie,” Surnow readily concedes, “but it’s the kind of movie that I grew up with—small character movies, the Altman movies, stories that are about real people.”

Given that, what expectations does he harbor for the April 18 Anchor Bay release? “My hopeful ones are that people realize this is not a foolish film—that it’s got real people in it and that’s really refreshing. What can I say? I just really want people to like it and it becomes a little bit of a talking point for people. I do think, in the landscape of movies, there’s not a lot out there like it. If I compared it to something, I would have to go back to Diner.”

For a small-screen comparison, Surnow didn’t have to go back so far. “If you want to watch a show where you watch acting and love all the characters, that has to be ‘Parks and Recreation.’ It’s so refreshing—in this world where everything in the movies and on TV is very much about flawed characters and anti-heroes—just to watch characters that you love. That’s actually more novel now than it used to be. It used to be that was de rigueur. You had to make all your characters likeable all the time.”

Surnow was very democratic about distributing sympathetic moments to virtually all of his characters. He started at the top, chipping away at Meloni, who is rock-solid in the center of the film. “One of the challenges with Chris is that it took time for us to dial into little moments where he wasn’t going to be a tough guy. On television, he’s famous for playing badasses and cops and cons. He did the show ‘Oz,’ you know.”

An example of mellowing Meloni occurred in the opening scene that cleverly sets up the car-salesman situation. A kid caught trying to steal a car off the lot is confronted by Klein and Martini and made to buy the car with his dad’s credit card.

“Originally, Chris says, ‘Give me your wallet,’ and the kid resists, and Chris steps toward him, like, ‘You gonna fuck with me?’ We realized that wasn’t right, and Chris came up with this idea. He said, ‘I’ll just turn to Martini and say, ‘Call the police.’ That is a very subtle difference, but it’s a big character difference. One is a guy who is physical and can take care of himself. The other is a guy like my dad, some Jewish salesman who was not particularly physical, who would just call the police.”

If Meloni’s Klein swaggers around his car lot like a Dodge City sheriff, then his deputy dog is Martini, played with a pit-bull snarl and bite by Dean Norris, another hardnosed case from TV (“Breaking Bad,” among numerous others). Finally, Norris gets a chance to linger over a character, and he fills out all sides with one part virility, two parts humanity. It’s a career-making turn, worthy of nomination consideration.

None of the cast has been sold short in terms of characterizations—everybody has a moment: Bridget Moynahan as the ex-wife whose embers are not quite extinguished; Xander Berkeley as her enormously tolerant (current) hubby; Amaury Nolasco as a car-lot underling with domestic problems; Ashley Jensen as the dumb-Dora Scottish secretary to the car salesmen. All are humanely rounded out.

Not the least of the film’s virtues is that it shows the difficult-to-define-and-photograph affection and joshing that goes on between Alpha males at their leisure.

“Vince Gilligan, who wrote ‘Breaking Bad,’ watched the movie,” reports Surnow, “and he said, ‘I wanted to hang out with those guys. The last time I felt that was with the three guys on the boat in Jaws.’ Sometimes you go to a movie and you see guys hanging out together, and it’s like, ‘God! I want to hang with those guys.’"