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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?

Sunday, 20 October 2013

David Jason's Autobiography - A Lesson in Longevity

For those of you in the USA, you might not know who he is. But here in the U.K., he's television royalty.

We love him for many reasons, but mostly for 'Del Boy' in "Only Fools and Horses". I feel happy just thinking about that show. Makes me feel all warm and English and proud.

And I've not even got to the part in the book where he talks about the show. I'm still reading about his humble upbringing, the embarrassing auditions, his struggles with women and his insecurities about never having gone to drama school.



Did you know he was offered a role in "Dad's Army" which was then retracted only hours later? Did you know he was in a TV show with three Pythons in the 1960's? The show was called "Do Not Adjust Your Set".

Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones were all on the show, but they got frustrated by the limits of children's TV; creatively stifled by the producers and the censors, so they left after two seasons.

And David Jason was left bitter, jealous and unemployed. Everyone was off making "Monty Python" and "Dad's Army", and he was NOWHERE.

But isn't it funny when you have hindsight. When you realise that David Jason on "Monty Python" would have meant no "Open All Hours" for him, and no Derek Trotter.

The year the Python's ditched him was 1969. Seven years before "Open All Hours", twelve years before "Only Fools and Horses". Makes you realise how long a career takes.

I wonder if it's a modern problem for people to want success so immediately. Everyone seems so depressed that they don't have their own "Only Fools and Horses", yet they don't seem willing to pay their dues to get there. How many years of failures have you had? How many times have you nearly got an opportunity only to see it swept away from underneath you?

And paying your dues isn't about doing enough for other people, it's not about doing what you've got to do to deserve something, it's about what needs to happen for you to be GOOD ENOUGH.

I was reading some comments on Twitter earlier, where a heap of people were ripping a famous actor to pieces -- full of criticism, judgement and hate. Some of them were actually actors themselves. They just don't GET IT, they don't realise that what they're saying comes from a place of jealousy. The person they're bullying is in that position because of years of industrious hard work. 

Paying your dues means staying up late; it means reading, it means extra rehearsals, it means missing the party, it means twenty years. You can be that actress who bitches about how crap Keira Knightley is, or you can realise she had ten years of credits even before "Bend It Like Beckham", and you can be aware enough to know she's a better actor than you are. 

"Only Fools and Horses", "A Touch Of Frost", the OBE, they weren't accidents. They're the result of dedication, of longevity, of a man who worked tirelessly at his craft. Who failed more times than most of us have dared to try. David Jason, you're my hero and I'm not even halfway through your book yet. 

Lovely Jubbly. 

Care to share?