The multitalented Stephen Merchant has proven himself to be one of the freshest comic voices in recent years. The co-creator of The Office and Extras (with longtime collaborator Ricky Gervais, with whom he co-directed the 2010 comedy Cemetary Junction),Merchant’s blend of outrageous scenarios and deep pathos makes for potent observational comedy. Known for his supporting roles in Hot Fuzz and Tooth Fairy, Merchant has also worked as a radio personality, a stand-up comic, and, in his early adulthood, a film critic. Currently, he stars in the Farrelly brothers’ comedy Hall Pass and has a voice role in Gnomeo and Juliet. In an interview with RT, Merchant shared his favorite movies, and talked about his love of New York’s cinematic sensibilities, why he relishes supporting roles and why he’d love to make a conspiracy thriller or a musical.
The Apartment (1960, 91% Tomatometer)
Number one that always springs to mind is Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. I’m sure you’re familiar with that film. It’s one of those movies which manages to combine all sorts of flavors. People tend to think of it as a romantic comedy, but actually it has some quite dark elements; the Shirley MacLaine character tries to kill herself at one point. And that’s the sort of movie, I like to think — in terms of the sort of films I would like to try and make — are films which are hard to pigeonhole. It has elements of humor, maybe, but there’s also drama in there. Billy Wilder’s one of my heroes, because I think he’s able to sort of step between different genres and make masterpieces.
Even with something like Sunset Boulevard, there’s a really dark strain of humor running through the whole thing.
Oh, absolutely. And you know, obviously, even something like Some Like It Hot begins with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He’s just incredibly accomplished, and again, a very good example of a master storyteller. Like I said, I think it’s very hard to tell stories in cinema in particular, because an hour and a half seems like a long time, but actually it’s a very short amount of time to tell a story and to create characters, to create a world that you care about. So yeah, someone like him, he’s an absolute master.
After Hours (1985, 92% Tomatometer)
What else would I include on a list of top five? That is so tricky because that list varies on a week-to-week basis. Another movie I’m really a fan of — and again, I think it mixes all kinds of flavors — is Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. That’s a really eccentric little film. He made it, if you recall, he was trying to make The Last Temptation of Christ and that fell apart, so he went back to basics and wanted to make this sort of short film that he could shoot very quickly in just a couple of months on a small budget. It’s a very, sort of, eccentric film about Griffin Dunne trying to get home from a date that’s gone wrong. It’s like a black comedy equivalent of Taxi Driver; it uses New York as one of the characters, to some degree — this kind of weird, almost Hansel and Gretel forest kind of place, where you can’t escape and there’s strange oddities around every corner. It’s shot through with this brilliantly black sense of humor. Lots of really quotable moments. The playing, as well, from particularly Griffin Dunne, who I think is such an underrated performer, a really great performance of a man just trying to contain his ever increasing panic and rage. Yeah, that’s a film I’ve watched endlessly.
Now that we have cell phones, I wonder if After Hours would be over in five minutes.
You know, I actually have to say that I think modern technology is really [stymieing] screenwriters nowadays. I mean, mobile phones, the internet, wifi, all those things, they don’t work for a screenwriter. How many times did you ever see an episode of 24 where Jack Bauer has to lose his phone, or break his phone, or there’s no signal? Because it’s just such a godsend; it’s like a teleporter, you know? It’s too useful, a mobile phone. The classic movie moment of sort of running to the airport to see the girl or to try and get everyone out of the building to stop the bomb, nowadays it’s just a phone call. You don’t have to race through the streets to get the airport; just give her a call. “You’re at the airport? I’m in love with you! I’ll be there in 10 minutes!” It’s so cheap, because everyone knows what’s happening. When you see a closeup on the phone, and the bars signal how much reception there is, they all disappear. “I’ve got no reception!” That’s why increasingly horror films all have to be set in the North Pole.
Play It Again, Sam (1972, 97% Tomatometer)
I have to include a Woody Allen film in the list. I’m not sure which one, though. I love him dearly. I mean, he’s such an inspiration to me. And again, this list could change — and particularly, his movie choice could change tomorrow or this afternoon. The one I always love rewatching for pure comedy, for just gags that really resonate with me — which he didn’t direct, but it’s based on a play that he wrote — is Play It Again, Sam, which just has a couple of comic set pieces that really amuse me. I can watch them endlessly. And it’s sort of one of those movies that I always make other people watch or I loan to people. If they take as much joy in them as much as me, then I know that we’re going to be friends for life. [Woody Allen] plays a film critic, funnily enough, and he is sort of given romantic advice by the ghost of Humphrey Bogart, and Bogie appears throughout in places to offer him love advice. But as he sort of points out, you know, “I’m not you.” It’s him trying to sort of romance girls and meet women after his marriage falls apart. But it’s very, very funny, and it just — a bit like After Hours, in a way — it sort of captures the desperation of single men, single men who don’t feel comfortable chasing girls. It has loads of very funny set pieces. It has a sequence where he’s setting up his apartment for a blind date, which is just, to me, one of the most inspired comic routines I’ve ever seen. It’s physical, but it’s verbal as well; it’s sort of him at his most charming, effortless. It’s really good.
I’m noticing a trend here; you’ve chosen several movies that are a knife’s edge between comedy and tragedy. That must have inspired The Office.
Yeah, particularly movies like The Apartment. I’m a big fan of movies that take very small situations or small incidents and make them feel more epic, in some way. Like, a movie I really love — I’m not going to include it in my top five — but a movie I really love is The Bridges of Madison County, the Clint Eastwood movie. It seems like maybe it’s sort of a sentimental weepy, but when you rewatch it, it’s just very elegantly made, you know? It’s rare that you see a movie romance featuring two older people, and it doesn’t feature any kind of elaborate romantic conceits. It’s just two people who meet and, for whatever reason, they find a connection and they kind of fall in love. And you see it. It’s a very slow-burning film, but it builds to a really huge romantic conclusion about whether Meryl Streep will choose to stay with her husband or to go off with Clint. And they manage to make just that decision — whether she’s going to climb out of the car and go off with Clint, or she’s going to stay with her husband — they make it feel huge, they make it feel epic. I think that’s something that cinema’s very good at doing, and it’s very tricky to pull off. And that’s the sort of thing I prefer to, say, the grand drama of something like The Lord of the Rings.
The Squid and the Whale (2005, 93% Tomatometer)
I wish I could choose something cool and artsy. I’ll tell you what I saw, which I think kind of shot into my list, and I only watched it recently — I’m ashamed that I didn’t see it earlier — was The Squid and the Whale. It was absolutely fantastic. Again, I guess, similar in tone to the other films I’ve mentioned. A sort of, you know, domestic comedy-drama, but very, very truthful, and brilliant performances again. Is it Jesse Eisenberg who’s in that movie? Yeah, I just thought that was tremendous. Luckily, my parents never got divorced, I never went through that, but it really takes you into the experience of watching your parents split up. And I think cinema’s at its best when it makes you feel an experience that you’ve never had yourself, and sort of understand the emotions of it. I was really impressed by that movie. Just a great, kind of… shot through with this black spine of humor.
You’ve named three New York movies…
Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a fan of New York humor, particularly Woody Allen, that sort of wiseass humor. And I think a lot of New York movies use the city so well. New York is so unique, it has such an identity. Somewhere like California is much more anonymous. You know, people drawing from these endless roads that blur into each other — much of the rest of America sadly is becoming as uniform as that, whereas New York has such a visual identity. And I guess maybe because I live in London and I lived before that in Bristol, which is a pretty big city. It’s a place I can respond to. Cary Grant was from Bristol, he was born in Bristol, and actually my grandmother, who’s still alive, used to work with Cary Grant’s father in a boot factory. She said he was a good looking man.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952, 100% Tomatometer)
I will choose Singin’ in the Rain. To me, that symbolizes everything that can be great about movies. It’s just joyous, it’s just perfectly constructed. It’s just like everything came together; you know, there’s an alchemy that happens with certain films, which, however proficient you are as a filmmaker, however talented you are, and however many hits you’ve had, there has to be a sort of magic dust that happens somewhere. Often when it does, the whole world relates to it or engages with it in some way, and I think that film is such a good example of that. It happened with Casablanca. Just all these elements that could have gone wrong; any one of them could have been too much — too much sugar, too much salt, you know — but somehow the whole recipe’s perfect. And Singin’ in the Rain, to me… It’s like every scene I look forward to, and I can rewatch it endlessly. It’s just quite beautiful. They don’t make them like that anymore, I think.
Next, Merchant talks about being a film critic, and why he’d like to do a conspiracy thriller.
RT: I was delighted to learn you were a film critic in college.
Stephen Merchant: In college and just after, as well, yes. I did it sort of semi-professionally for a couple of years at university.
Is it odd to have been a critic and then, now, to read reviews of yourself?
Yes it is. It is weird. I don’t want to insult film critics, but I felt uncomfortable, after a while, doing it. I remember I watched the movie Swingers, which I had to review, and I absolutely loved Swingers, and I sort of thought, “I’d rather be up there making the movie than down here talking about it.” So that was one of the reasons I stopped doing it, really, because I just felt like I didn’t have the authority to talk about other people’s work. I guess we all talk about it privately, but maybe I didn’t feel like I was informed enough. And since I’ve been making things myself, I just admire anyone who gets something made; it’s just so hard to make anything. I don’t mean just the mechanics of it, in terms of raising funds and so on. It’s just, getting anything to make sense; it’s really tricky, it’s really tricky. I think there’s a place for good criticism. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of bad critics as well, just like there are a lot of bad filmmakers.
I haven’t. I mean, we are made aware of what’s happening internationally, but we’re not involved, you know, in the Chilean version or the French version, chiefly because we don’t, obviously, speak those languages. And also, one of the rules that we set for ourselves, even with the American version when it got going, was not to sort of interfere, really, because it seems to us that we did our version, and if we meddle with other people’s, I’m worried we’d just be trying to replicate ours, when actually what you need to do is sort of find a different, new perspective on it, like a cover version of a song. With Greg Daniels, who did the American version, we were always urging him to sort of spread his wings and almost forget our version and fly off in different directions. I think that’s obviously what they did, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s been a success. I think that’s the biggest contribution we like to say we’ve made, is to sort of not meddle.
You’re somebody who’s directed, you’ve written, you’ve produced, you’ve done standup comedy. When you’re acting in, say, Hall Pass, and you have this character, how do you approach it when you’re not the guy calling the shots?
My feeling is that I’m there to do a job of work in someone else’s project, so for me to try and interfere too much is rude, it’s disrespectful, and you can fall on your face, because you’re not seeing the bigger picture, because you’re just one small part of it. I’ve been lucky in that the projects I’ve made, the actors have always been kind of willing to do what we ask of them. I think if you’re in a project and you don’t respect the people involved, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. But also, to me, acting in movies and stuff is sort of like a day off. I feel that my day job is writing, directing, and sort of popping up in acting in films — the sort of films that I wouldn’t make myself, but look like fun to be involved with and fun to watch — that’s sort of what I do, really. I don’t consider myself a jobbing actor. So I like to think I kind of offer my suggestions and I think I’m quite collaborative. I like to improvise, or to change lines, and there’s a few lines in Hall Pass which I managed to throw in that weren’t in the script. But generally speaking, I’m happy to sort of do what I’m told, really.
I think it was exactly for that reason, in a way. It’s not the sort of movie I would write, it’s not the sort of movie I would dream up, but it is the sort of movie that I probably would laugh at. You know, if I was in good spirits, if I was out on a Friday night, and I was at the movies, it’s the sort of movie that would kind of get me, because there’s a part of me that likes that sort of childish, naughty, schoolboy rude humor. There’s something kind of joyously adolescent about the Farrellys that I think is really appealing. In a way, that was part of the reason for me to do it, because it allows me to… You know, I’m chewing the scenery, really; let’s be honest. I’m a massive ham. I’m really acting like a maniac, and they totally allowed me to do that. Whereas, say, Ricky Gervais doesn’t. You know, he likes me to underplay everything and try and be as subtle as I can. So it’s a different flavor. I’m a big fan of Owen Wilson; I think he’s great. And also, I think, the danger is that you can get pigeonholed as a certain kind of person. Like I said, I admire someone like Billy Wilder from a filmmaking perspective because he sort of dabbles in all kinds of genres, really. And even though I’ve made my reputation with a certain breed of comedy, it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy other kinds.
I read somewhere you were thinking, maybe in the future, you’d do a musical or a conspiracy thriller. Is anything like that in the works, or is that just sort of what you’d hope if the stars aligned?
The musical I would put on backburner is because it just seems so difficult to do that. But I’ve always been of them when they’re done well. If we did that list of top five films, I’m sure I could do the top five conspiracy thrillers again. It’s a genre that I love, so I can imagine myself approaching something like that. But it’s just waiting for the right idea to sort of gel. It feels like an interesting time for another spate of those kind of movies, you know, given what’s going on in the Middle East and things like Wikileaks. It seems like there’s almost a space again for that kind of paranoid thriller.