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Sunday, 27 October 2013

STEPHEN MERCHANT - Writer/Director/Actor Interview

His new show is the HBO comedy 'HELLO LADIES'. His old shows include titles you may recognise, like 'THE OFFICE' and 'EXTRAS'. Along with Ricky Gervais he also created one of my favourite films, the subtle and brilliant 'CEMETERY JUNCTION'. 

Not only is STEPHEN MERCHANT one of my favourite comedy writer/directors, we also like a lot of the same stuff , which is precisely why I began this interview with Bruce Springsteen and Billy Wilder. 


We are both huge Bruce Springsteen fans. The great thing about his music is that he has a song for every mood, for every thing you could be going through. Which song of his are you relating to most at the moment?

I don’t know that I’m relating to it directly but I’ve been enjoying a fairly minor Bruce song called ‘I Wish I Were Blind’. Bruce is a very filmic songwriter, he creates vivid scenes that feel cinematic, particularly on albums like Born To Run. On ‘I Wish I Were Blind’ the lyrics - “I wish I were blind when I see you with your man” - immediately create an image of a lonely man forlornly watching the woman he still loves with her new guy. It’s such economical and evocative writing. It’s very inspiring when you’re writing scripts, which also have to be tight and to-the-point.


I think 'The Apartment' is the greatest film ever - I watch it regularly and have blogged about it here extensively and I know it's one of your favourites -- how do you manage to be influenced by someone like Billy Wilder without outright stealing? 

I’m influenced by everything in one way or another. Picasso supposedly said “steal from the best.” I think that’s good advice.  Woody Allen freely admits that he has stolen from Bergman, Chaplin, Keaton. There are only a limited number of story telling techniques, everything is a variation on what has gone before. All you can bring are the specifics of your experience and worldview and bolt them on to the formulas. Is 'The Apartment' the first romantic comedy to have one of the protagonists running through the streets on New Year’s Eve to be with the person they’ve just realized they’re in love with? I don’t know… but they did the exact same ending twenty-five years later in When Harry Met Sally and it’s just as effective, because the rest of the film is so good and you’re invested in the characters and their lives.

A recent theme on the blog has been longevity, about how long it takes to become successful. Could you share a little bit about your own journey, the failures, the near misses? 

I was lucky. I knew what I wanted to do from a young age. A lot of people drift through the education system, thinking that real life will start when they’ve finished their studies but I figured out early on that I would never have more free time and opportunity than when my parents were still paying the bills. So while at school I was in plays, I worked at a local radio station, I was writing stories and scripts, trying to teach myself how to do it. Then at university I was involved in student radio, I made short films, I took a comedy sketch show to the Edinburgh festival. 

After uni, I did more radio, started doing stand-up, wrote for a local magazine. I was very hard working and tenacious and always looking to get experience, learn from people, try a bit of everything. Basically to put myself in a position where an opportunity might arise. And when the opportunities did arise, I was ready. There are no ads in the job centre for writers or comedians or actors, so you have to muscle your way in and prove yourself to people.

How does it feel now looking back at 'The Office'? The UK has a proud tradition of incredible comedies, like 'Only Fools and Horses' and 'Fawlty Towers' - you are now a part of that. How does it feel to know you created something which means so much to people? 

Like I say, that was my ambition from a young age, so it’s very satisfying. I’m not doing something for the benefit of mankind like a doctor or a scientist but I still think there’s some small value in comedy. It forces us to laugh at ourselves and that’s a good thing. 


I feel like your show, 'Hello Ladies', and Ricky Gervais' 'Derek' -- they're not always judged on their own merits, but rather, how they compare to the greatest hits. Do you find that difficult? 

I’m reminded of a quote by the novelist Joseph Heller : “When I read something saying I've not done anything as good as Catch-22 I'm tempted to reply, "Who has?"”
The Office took on a life of it’s own that was beyond our control. It was influential and it reached a lot of people but I can’t set out to repeat that success because I don’t really know how it happened the first time. I try and make things that appeal to me, just like I did with The Office. I hope lots of people enjoy them but I don’t chase that.


'Hello Ladies' is hilarious, but depressing to me. I have always expected my failure with women to end suddenly when I'm a successful, LA-based writer/director. Is that not going to be the case? 

It shouldn’t depress you because 1. the season isn’t over yet, so you don’t how Stuart’s fortunes might change. And 2. I’m not playing myself in the show. Believe me, life as a successful writer/director is just fine.

Even though I absolutely loved 'The Office' and 'Extras' - the moment I realised you are truly among my favourite writer/directors was when I saw 'Cemetery Junction'. It's one of those rare movies that I can watch again and again and again. Did your prior success mean that it was easier to make a movie that you wanted to make, or was it difficult to get it funded and distributed? 

It was relatively easy to get it made, yes, but I realized afterwards that the problem with Cemetery Junction was that it wasn’t an easy sell to audiences. With movies, you need a clean, simple idea to market to people : for instance The Hangover. “Some men get drunk in Vegas and lose their friend.” Simple, funny idea. Whereas Cemetery Junction was kind of vague. You have to watch the film to understand what it’s about. 


I would even enjoy 'Cemetery Junction' as just an audio file through my headphones, the soundtrack is that good. My favourite song in the film is 'The Rain Song' by Led Zeppelin -- did you always know you were going to use it in that way? It's really beautifully done --- I often get out the DVD just to watch that scene -- it's wonderfully edited --- reminds me of 'Tiny Dancer' in Cameron Crowe's 'Almost Famous', it took a track I already loved and made me appreciate it on a whole new level. 

The hope when you’re using music in a film or TV is that you can invest it with new meaning and let it work in tandem with the images. We had Led Zep in Cemetery Junction from an early cut and were very lucky to get permission from them to use it. If we’d had to replace it with score it wouldn’t have worked as well. I’m very pleased with the music in Hello Ladies too, which is a lot of soft rock from the 70s and 80s. We imagined this was the sort of music that Stuart associated with adulthood and glamour when he heard his parent’s playing it while growing up.

You've mentioned in many interviews your love for Woody Allen's work. Have you met him? 

I have met him only briefly to shake his hand. There was no real conversation. It was way more significant for me than it was for him.

How do you like to write? Where are you? What are you listening to? How do you get 'into the zone'? 

I normally write with other people, either Ricky or in the case of Hello Ladies, two US writers, Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. So we sit in an office and just slowly hammer it out. There’s no time to sit around and get in the zone or wait for inspiration. You just have to meet and work everyday until it’s finished. Half way through every project Ricky inevitably says : “Is it always this hard?” And I say “Yes, it always is.”


HBO is seen as the perfect place to have your own show - their record in recent years for great TV is astounding. What is it that is so great about them, and how do they help you achieve your creative vision? 

They hire you because they trust that you know what you’re doing. Unlike a lot of people in the entertainment industry, they don’t assume that they know better. So they discuss things with you and they have ideas but they don’t dictate. They let you take the project where you want it to go.

You have made bold decisions in the past in terms of the life-span of your TV shows -- keeping them to only a couple of seasons -- do you expect the same with 'Hello Ladies', or could you see it lasting for much longer?

It’s up to HBO but there are lots of places to explore because it’s about relationships. So in theory you could have Stuart get into a relationship, move in with someone, get married, have a kid. It could run and run.

By doing more stand-up and acting in recent years, you have become a lot more recognisable. What is the most difficult thing about fame? 

When we first started writing The Office we could sit in cafes and pubs and listen in on conversations or watch people for inspiration. It’s harder to do that now and that’s a shame.

When you're not being creative - what are you up to? how do you relax? 

I’m lucky that I turned my hobby into a career. So when I’m not working I like being out in the real world, with friends, living a real life instead of making up fictional ones.

What's next? 

At the moment I’m just waiting to find out if HBO want to do another season of Hello Ladies. If so, I’d start work on that very soon. 

Care to share?

5 comments:

  1. Great questions.

    I haven't yet seen HELLO LADIES, but I've had it bookmarked on my DVR for a while. The commercials make it look hilarious. I was sad when EXTRAS ended, so I'm looking forward to giving this a go.

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    1. Ok, I binged on HELLO LADIES on demand, so I'm back to comment again. Man, that show is hard to watch! I missed big chunks of episodes because I literally couldn't watch him humiliate himself anymore. I liked it in spite if that fact, though, and I thought it wrapped up nicely. Hoping to see another season!

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  2. Hi! I've nominated you for a blogger award. The link won't be live until 5pm Tuesday though.

    http://emslf.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/one-lovely-blog-award

    I miss my old film blogging days (I had Final Cut) and would love it if you would check out the film section of my blog or the guest posts I write for aliljoy.

    http://aliljoy.com/category/feel-good-film-of-the-week/

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  3. Hey Kid :) I'm doing a drive-by and thought I'd come and see what you've been writing about.

    I love Stephen Merchant and always think it's a bit of a shame that he gets overlooked so much in favour of Ricky Gervais. Although I think he is starting to get the recognition he deserves now.

    I liked the questions you asked too, you have a real knack of not only offering the reader an insight into the interviewee's mind, but also your own.

    As always, it's been a pleasure x

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  4. I've heard nothing but good things about Hello Ladies, I can't wait to catch it! Great interview, Kid :) (Bruce Springsteen rocks)

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