Sometimes making an engaging film requires a bunch of strangers to create chemistry. Not so with “Salesmen,” a locally shot and produced new indie comedy.
Rob Pooley and Luke Jarvis of the Tres Gatos production company have been making films together since they met in middle school in Bedford. And the film’s stars, Orlando Baxter, Will Noonan, Corey Rodrigues, and Tooky Kavanagh, all know each other from Boston’s stand-up scene.
Released this month, “Salesmen” is currently streaming on Amazon and at Salesmenfilm.com.
Under the Tres Gatos banner, Pooley and Jarvis have made several short comedy films, including “Space Force.” When the pandemic hit, they saw an opportunity to do something bigger — the company’s first feature film. “Some of these guys who were traveling the country all year for the comedy were grounded,” says Jarvis. “We decided that we really had to make the most of the opportunity to shoot a movie together.”
Pooley, Jarvis, Baxter, Noonan, and Rodrigues started brainstorming ideas, deciding on the door-to-door salesmen concept because they could shoot outside. Then it was up to Pooley and Jarvis to write to the actors’ strengths. “Once we had that scaffolding and we understood what kind of characters they were each interested in playing,” says Jarvis, “that’s where we went away and Rob and I wrote a script pretty quickly.”
The film is an intimate and funny character study about a group of salespeople trying to avoid settling for dead-end jobs. You can laugh at the sillier elements, most prominently involving a shady cult leader, and appreciate that the movie never lets those moments overtake the humanity of its leads.
“I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people,” says Baxter. “There are definitely some parts that are silly, but to me, it’s very down to earth.”
Fans of the Boston stand-up scene might recognize the leads and have fun spotting supporting characters and cameos from Tony V, Brad Mastrangelo, Rob Crean, and Chris Tabb.
Pooley and Jarvis had to overcome the logistical roadblocks of shooting during the worst months of the pandemic in 2020 on a budget that Jarvis says was “very low five figures.”
They decided to shoot in black and white, partly to emphasize the intimacy of the script, and partly for practical reasons. “Since Rob and I were the entire crew,” says Jarvis, “it helped us create images that we felt were compelling and fun to look at, but ease the burden as far as the amount of lighting and production design and costumes.”
Noonan was surprised at the ambitious nature of the project. “I thought we were doing a 45-minute pilot until I showed up to shoot the first day,” he says, “and I’m like, ‘This script’s pretty thick,’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re shooting the 90-minute movie.’”
Shooting was a collaboration between the actors, who all took their real names for their characters, and Jarvis, tweaking from scene to scene. The fact that Baxter, Noonan, and Rodrigues are real-life friends helped with their onscreen chemistry. Rodrigues points to a scene in which Noonan’s character has to defend himself against a snooty assistant. Some of the improv extended from Rodrigues feeling protective of Noonan. “It just seemed appropriate,” he says. “Like, that’s our friend, and this guy is kind of coming at our friend.”
The performances feel natural, which isn’t always a given when stand-up comedians act for a camera. It helps that Noonan, Rodrigues, and Kavanagh have all studied acting. Baxter was the newcomer among the four, and he gives a laid-back, engaging performance as a slumping salesman who moonlights as a poet. He still has a hard time believing his more seasoned friends when they praise his acting work.
“They constantly had to tell me, ‘No, Orlando, you’re doing fine!’ I’m like, ‘Come on, man! I can do it again!’” It was a comfortable experience being among friends, he says, “but it also was hard because they’re pretty damn good. You want to be on an equal field.”
Kavanagh’s character is an outsider when introduced as a new member of the sales team. She is immediately successful, and challenges the group. But she isn’t a foil, she’s welcomed, and gets to be a proxy for the audience, reacting to the group’s quirkier moments.
“Salesmen” was written, shot, and acted by Bostonians, but it doesn’t play to the Boston stereotypes that are so glaring in some mainstream films. There are no drone shots of the Citgo sign and Fenway Park, or Southie tough guys with exaggerated accents. “You get that sort of salty flavor of who Boston and New England folks are without, you know, Johnny Depp butchering ‘Pahk ya cah in Hahvahd Yahd,’” says Kavanagh.
Shooting during the pandemic was a challenge. There were frequent temperature checks and visits to drive-in COVID testing facilities. But there were some perks, like being able to sit in a bar with friends when nothing was open. “I didn’t even want to leave the set that day,” says Noonan.
Jarvis, Pooley, and the comedians would all like to work together again, possibly forming an ensemble for multiple future films. “Our dream would definitely be to build off of this,” says Jarvis. “We have some ideas of feature projects that would be a little bigger scope, a little bigger budget than, like, the loose quarters we spent on this, but still kind of developing our comedic voice and featuring some of the same local talent.”