The co-writer/co-director talks about his film with longtime writing partner Ricky Gervais, The Office, Life's Too Short and much more
Stephen Merchant isn't a household name on this side of the pond, but if you've been enjoying the antics of a Scranton paper company on Thursday nights for the past six years, then he's someone you really should be aware of. Merchant co-created the original British version of The Office back in 2001 with his writing/producing partner and comedian extraordinaire, Ricky Gervais. That, of course, lead into the American incarnation of The Office, which both are executive producers on and, while Merchant and Gervais continued to work together on TV ventures such as Extras and the animated series The Ricky Gervais Show, they had never worked on a film together until now.Merchant and Gervais co-wrote and co-directed the wonderful new film Cemetery Junction, which will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on August 17. I was able to speak with Merchant over the phone about this coming-of-age film and here's what he had to say.
I read that Ricky mentioned that the film was a cross between The Office and Mad Men. Since Mad Men is set in the early 60s and this film is set in the mid-70s, is this your way of saying how behind the times Britain is?
Stephen Merchant: (Laughs) I think it's not about saying that they're behind the times, it's about saying that it hasn't changed a huge amount. There are a lot of the same pre-occupations, concerns, prejudices, some of which is still there. I think we ultimately wanted a nostalgic feel. Life was different in certain ways then, if only for the fact that travel was a lot more limited. You couldn't just hop on a plane and go somewhere exotic. It was also because we wanted to draw on our own images of growing up.
I believe that this area is near where Ricky actually grew up. I'm sure this is a totally fictional tale, but were there any things that you both drew off of, specifically, from your childhood that you threw in the film?
Stephen Merchant: I think the family is very much like Ricky's. The job of work itself, the insurance selling, was something that my father did for many years. I suppose it's all an amalgamation of the way we felt, the way we saw other people behaving, stories we heard about other people, people we went to school with. It's almost like a hazy memory of the past. We're not trying to be specific, nowhere in particular, a little bit vague, but a spirit of the past. We're not being rigorous about defining the place. Memories get smashed together as you look back on them, but the impulses of the characters were things that were very relatable to us, the feeling of being trapped, potentially, or the feeling that the expectations people had for you weren't terribly grand.
You're both obviously known for your comedy stylings. Was something like this, a more dramatic, coming-of-age film, was this something that you had both always wanted to do? Was this just the right time for a project like this?
Stephen Merchant: I don't think it felt as alien to us as perhaps people would've thought it do be. It didn't feel like a huge stretch to us. It's not heavy drama, by any means, I guess it's light drama, but we've always had that there. In The Office, we always used to talk about re-editing The Office into something more dark, just for our own amusement, re-editing it into an hour-and-a-half movie and I think those things would've been more pronounced. They were there, throughout two seasons, there were arguments, people making morbid statements to the camera. I think it's always been there, but in an hour-and-a-half, it's much more condensed.
I was really blown away by the cast, not by the more well-known actors like Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson and Matthew Goode, but these incredible younger actors in Christian Cooke, Tom Hughes, Jack Doolan and Felicity Jones. These are really breakthrough performances for all of them. Was it your initial intention to find lesser-known actors for these roles, or is that just the way it worked out?
Stephen Merchant: Well, we considered bigger names, but there really aren't very many big-name English actors who are in their 20s and also would fit the character types. There's a much bigger pool in the States, and even if we got one bigger star, it would've unbalanced the whole dynamic of the friendship. We were looking for people who were good-looking, that had charisma, people that had a swagger, the rock-star kind of swagger, a bit of Paul Newman in them. It was quite a long search, but we were quite pleased with the guys we found. We were really pleased.
Yeah. I was blown away by Tom Hughes, especially. He just leaps off the screen.
Stephen Merchant: Yeah, he's great.
I also have to say it was so much fun watching Anne Reid as the grandmother here. I was laughing every time she opened her mouth. Was it a lot of fun putting Ricky up against her?
Stephen Merchant: Oh, that was so exciting. She's so hilarious and we were so pleased she could do it. I believe it's on the DVD, there are all sorts of takes of them just improvising with each other. This family is just very brutal to each other, telling it like it is. Actually, we originally had her as his wife's mom and then it just seemed so much funnier if it was his own mom. There's one scene where she says to the wife, 'I don't know why you married him. You could've done so much better.'
(Laughs) That's awesome. This is the first film that you have both directed together and Ricky had directed another film before, The Invention of Lying. Can you talk about your process of directing a film together, as opposed to your work together on television? Were there things that Ricky picked up on The Invention of Lying that he brought to this film?
Stephen Merchant: To a degree, yeah. I think we worked together very much like we had worked together in the past. We obviously weren't being as scrupulous about it being documentary-style with the performances, but we wanted to make the voices feel real and feel genuine, appealing but also relateable in a universe where you can lose yourself. The hardest thing was to condense the thing into an hour and a half. I think, for some reason, it would be a lot easier than it actually is, but the speed in which you have to move, narratively, is much harder. It's much more direct, much more on the nose. That was a challenge.
I was also surprised that Columbia decided not to release the film theatrically here in America. Did they give you an reasoning behind that?
Stephen Merchant: No, not really. They didn't really tell us. I think they probably thought it wasn't going to be a huge money spinner. It's very English, but, in the end, there's nothing I can do about that and I've never done anything with the intention of trying to make a blockbuster. I just wouldn't know how to do that. I don't know what the general audience wants. I just try to make something from the heart, feels personal and hope other people relate to it. Everyone who has come up to me in the street has said they enjoyed it and they have been really positive so, in the end, that's all I can really hope for.
I also have to ask about The Office. There have been a bunch of names thrown about like Danny McBride and Rhys Darby. How close are you to that process of trying to find a replacement for Steve Carell and is there anything you can say about those names that have been mentioned so far?
Stephen Merchant: No one has talked to me about those people. No one has asked my opinion of them, except journalists. They're very much an autonomous unit. We're there if we're needed, but we're pretty much hands-off. We've trusted them this far and they've done well, so it would seem weird of us to intrude now. They are great names, great contenders and they have big shoes to fill. It would be a difficult job to replace Steve, if they even choose to replace him. They could just use the talent they already have there at The Office. I don't know. I don't know any more than you. In fact, I know less than you.
If it did come down to just you or Ricky, would there be a namek, someone you would like to see replace Steve? Is there one person that stands out that could fill those really big shoes?
Stephen Merchant: Well, I don't know. Maybe they need to go in a completely different direction. Maybe they need to make it a woman or a puppet or an animated character or an alien, like ALF. That would be perfect, a puppet and an alien. Or like a huge animal, or like a Roger Rabbit, a zany animated character.
You could have Bob Hoskins show up in an overcoat or something.
Stephen Merchant: Right, exactly. Or, as a kid, like a hilarious mix-up, a 12-year-old is in charge (Laughs).
That's great. You're both also working with Warwick Davis on that new BBC series Life's Too Short. Is there anything you can say about the progress of that series? Is that anything that would be aimed at airing on BBC America or going stateside at all?
Stephen Merchant: I think it will get stateside. We're still discussing that, but we have the pilot, which we're really pleased with. Warwick is very funny, a very physical comedian which we really made use of, and he plays a version of himself, going about his business. I have to imagine it can be quite tricky when you're that small and that's one of the things that we exploit for the laughter. I say exploit, but I think exploiting in a way that we exploit my height or Ricky's looks. I don't think its exploitative since he helped create the idea and came to us with the story. He's very charismatic, very charming in it and I think it will evolve and change, so I don't want to nail down exactly what it's like. I was really pleased. He's a real comic star in waiting.
Is there a time frame in place for the series to premiere? Are you in production on the actual series now?
Stephen Merchant: We're negotiating all that and we're talking about ideas, so if it happens, it would be sometime next year.
Are there any other screenplays you're both working on at the moment?
Stephen Merchant: At the moment, the Warwick show is distracting us along with the fact that we've also been executive producers for our friend Karl Pilkington. He does podcasts with us and he's this rather eccentric guy and we've been having conversations with him over the years and just recently we made a show in which we sent him abroad, further out of his comfort zone. He's very much a typical Englander, very small-minded and never really traveled much. We've thrown him into the deep end. We've sent him to rough it in India, the jungles of Peru. It's very funny, very very funny. It's just following his experiences, but that's been distracting us from other projects.
Just to wrap up, what would you like to say to your fans about why they should pick up the Cemetery Junction DVD next week?
Stephen Merchant: Well, I think if they're fans of what we do, it touches on our themes, it has humor in it, it's got some romance, drama. I think it's a genuine feel-good drama. It's a little bit different than what we've done before, but I think if you're fans of what we've done, I think you'll see our fingerprints all over it, so give it a try. What's the worst that can happen?
Excellent. Well, that's my time Stephen. Thank you so much for your time and best of luck with your new projects.
Stephen Merchant: Great. I appreciate it. Thank you very much.