Stephen Merchant, co –writer of popular television series The Office and Extras, best known for his close work with comedian Ricky Gervais, returns to his beginnings at the University of Warwick film department to discuss all matters Merchant. It was at Warwick, back in the 90’s, that Merchant began his long, industrious career in the media world on our campus radio station, RaW. Returning to the University to perform his eagerly anticipated stand up, ‘Hello Ladies’, Stephen took the time out to talk to one of his lecturers, Dr Victor Perkins.
Victor Perkins: I took the trouble to go back to the 17 year old Stephen Merchant’s application form for Warwick University.
Stephen Merchant : You have that framed I presume.
V: Of course. A fascinating personal statement that ends with the words ‘my career aspirations are at present hazy, but I know I must have something to do with the media and entertainment world involving writing and performing. What I’m interested in really is getting from there to here, because as hazy as your career aspirations may have been, you have indeed followed that path and you were already following it, I can gather, when you were at school.
S: Yes. Well, yes to a degree. I was seduced by school plays, they were very appealing to me and so I did school plays and I used to be endlessly writing something, but I’d be writing a play and then I’d see a Harold Pinter think ‘I better write something like Pinter’, and then I would start writing a Pinter-esque play that I would never finish because then I’d see Monty Python, and I’d be like ‘Monty Python is what I should be doing’. I was always doing what I had seen that week and I would then try and emulate it. But actually it become more focused at Warwick because, one of the reasons I came here, aside from the course, was also the radio station, which was something I dabbled with whilst I was at school, and so I got the bug for radio while I was here. Aside from the course again, we made a little short film and in the third year we went to the Edinburgh Festival, where we did a comedy sketch show, so I was still a magpie really but at least I was focusing more and finding my own style and all of those things that I enjoyed in a way, and they’re all plates that I have been spinning ever since. The radio, performing and comedy film and TV and all the rest of it, so it became more focused here then at school.
V: That takes me to the next question. As a tutor, I was always impressed by the way you were so busy on all sorts of creative fronts, and particularly with Warwick radio, and yet were managing to keep on top with your academic work.
S: Well if I hadn’t done a lot of that other stuff I probably would have gotten a First I like to think. I notice on Wikipedia, whoever has written my Wikipedia entry has given me a First, which I’m rather impressed by. But I think it was essential to me that I realised quite quickly whilst I was here that for all of the work you have to do you’re never going to have this much free time and certainly since having left I’ve realised that’s very true. I always think that if you don’t take advantage of this free time you have here you’ll never get it again. And it may seem like ‘Oh I had to get up at 10 and go to a lecture oh no it was a real nightmare, I didn’t get in till 3’, but honestly when you’ve got to pay the bills its very different and I’m pleased I made use of the free time.
V: When you were applying to Universities you were evidently, probably, the brightest in your class. Where you under pressure from the school to go to a posh University and study a posh subject?
S: No, in fact they told me. I wanted to go to Cambridge because I wanted to join the Cambridge footlights, because that’s where my heroes had been, John Cleese and people, and my teacher said, ‘You won’t get the grades for that. The best chance you’ve got is if you apply to Oxford because you can get in with an exam’. So, I took their advice and I failed that exam and I subsequently got the grades that meant I probably could have maybe got into Cambridge. I’m pleased I didn’t in a way because I think I’d have been overreaching a bit. I think the academia of that would have been, well I would have been unsettled by the classicism of it if you like, and probably all the ‘poshos’ that were there. They would have scared me.
V: Well as one who survived it myself, I think you’re deluded. One learns most from ones failures and from ones mistakes, so did you have any memorable mistakes while you were at Warwick that have been important to your later successes?
S: Well you could argue on the one hand that the show we took to Edinburgh was a mistake. I think we must have had 22 audience members in the course of 4 weeks, which is not a triumph. If it was the west end we would have struggled.
V: But if you had 22 who left delighted?
S: Oh they didn’t, believe me they didn’t. So in a way we learned a lot from what we did wrong but equally we learned a lot from what we did right as well. I don’t know if there is a sort of catalogue of errors. I did some stuff on the radio that was a bit misjudged that I wouldn’t have done now. We did a series of fake audio diaries that was called ‘At home with Fred and Rose West’ that I think, looking back, was quite tasteless. So soon after the incidences as well!
V: Quite tasteless!
S: Fairly tasteless, and I almost did stand up but I failed to do stand up here. They cancelled the gig just before I was supposed to go on. Not because they knew I was about to go on but because it got pulled for some reason, but I don’t remember a catalogue of errors. Why, are you going to list some now?
V: No, no, it’s just that I think that as much as they make me blush and squirm, some of my mistakes have been important to getting things right later. I think meeting you in our first seminar with ‘my god you’re tall’ might not have been a very good move.
S: I’m glad you’ve apologised for that now. We made this little short film when I was here which is essentially atrocious but what was interesting about that was that having studied for so long with you and other people, is that when you try and apply it, however much you’ve studied it, it’s incredibly hard to then render it yourself. It may seem, particularly when you’re younger that it’s a case of, ‘Pff, this is easy’ and it’s really hard. I remember making this short film, we shot in a nightclub in Leamington, I don’t know if it’s still there, but they let us go in the day and we tried to cut it together and the angles were all wrong and there was people looking in the wrong direction and all of that stuff which you think you’ve been taught about, crossing the line and all of that stuff, but you try and apply it and its incredibly hard.
V: I’m going to make a big leap now to The Office and Extras. One of the things that immediately wowed me about the office was the precision of the casting. It made me think, ‘Wow god that Stephen Merchant really is someone because it seemed to me that you got the casting absolutely so precise that the parts looked written for exactly that actor. Did you get a lot of support on the casting?
S: Well they let us cast for a long time and we were very scrupulous about the casting. We knew that was going to be fundamental to it. We spent a long time and we had endless auditions. We saw hoards of people, and there came a point where Ricky and I were saying things like ‘There’s not a single actor in Britain who can do this, we’re going to need to get amateurs’, because we thought that people were too ‘actory’ and too trained and that they had all come out of RADA and they all had this very mannered way of acting, and we knew we wanted it to be super real and that if you just cast long enough actually there are great actors out there and once you’ve made them realise what the style is you’re going for, if they’re good enough, they can do it. There was lots of happy accidents. Martin Freeman [Tim] who came in, he read for the role of Gareth and on the way out I said to him, ‘Would you do the role of Tim?’ and he did that and he was brilliant at that. We did a pilot that allowed us to hear their rhythms of their speech and they style, and so we were then able to tailor the scripts to them. When we then came to do the full series, they’d contributed a lot, we’d let them be very loose with it, it felt like it was their voices hopefully.
V: That takes me onto the next question then about the relationship between everything that you can prepare and what you have to allow to happen intuitively or spontaneously.
S: Well its interesting again, going back to some of the courses that we did, I’m sure you still teach stuff about mise-en-scène and all those things, and I wouldn’t claim that we spent a lot of time trying to craft mise-en-scène because the pressures of the day for something like The Office wouldn’t allow it, we were just trying to get those performances. Although we had stylistic decisions which we made all the time, we had very conscious decision about the framing and about the sort of drabness of the office and we bleached a lot of the colour out in the grade afterwards to make it look like it had been sat on a shelf at the BBC for years. We’d spend a lot of time setting up these shots of a photocopier just monotonously doing its thing, but so much of it is stuff that occurs on the day, you know you have to slightly reschedule the order for some reason and then one of the actors have hurt their leg so you incorporate that, or things occur to you on the day that you could never have planned for. When you’ve got actors that good you can let them improvise. For instance, we had a few lines in the script and we gave them to this guy, big Keith. He was just an actor that was there, we hadn’t worked with him, we hadn’t cast him, and he started doing these lines and he was really funny and we just thought ‘this guy’s dynamite’, so we started writing extra lines for him. Those sorts of elements happen all of the time. If you’ve built yourself the freedom to be able to roll with those punches then you can. I’ve worked on projects where that’s not so much the case.
V: So again filling in my ignorance about the processes of television production, what’s the rehearsal process? Do you rehearse in a studio without a camera off the set? How long before you go onto the set?
S: Partly through Ricky’s laziness, we tend to only do a couple of weeks before hand and we have an old church hall or something, and the actors, who have been cast by that point come in and we just run through all of their scenes with them, often with their scripts, and we get them up and moving around and we might talk about angles and shots and we might put out a few props and stuff but mainly while that processes is happening, we might still be looking for locations, we might still be refining the script, because as soon as they green light the project it seems like everything’s got to happen instantly, it might be that there’s two months before you start filming but every day is filled with pre-production stuff, costumes and looking at tapes of auditions and looking through fifty tapes for one person whose got one line, trying to find the right person, its endlessly time consuming. Then when we get to the set we rehearse again with the actors. We try and get them back up to speed with whatever we talked about in the rehearsal rooms, but by that point the cameras are there so we’re looking at the shots at the same time.
V: Well the ‘we’ is interesting because how on earth do you co- direct the performance of actors?
S: Well, we’re very simpatico anyway, we’re very much on the same page I think and because we’ve written it we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the characters, talking about if they’re based on anyone in particular, the style, we might talk about other performances we’ve seen, ‘someone like that would be good’, that type of thing. Often we’ll pull up footage of old documentaries we’ve seen for that eccentric character that you’ve kind of taken inspiration from, so we have a very strong sense of what the feel should be, and then through the rehearsal we’re both chipping in thoughts, so by the time we get to the set it works. I’ll sometimes let Ricky talk because what I’ve realised over the years is that if two people are talking to the actors It can be a bit confusing, so ill sort of take a back seat sometimes and let him talk to them directly, but then he and I will discuss behind the cameras out of earshot of the actors, because of course sometimes the performances are terrible, and you can have people who come in the audition and are great and they get on the set and they’re bloody shit! Like I don’t know what happened in between it was like they got nervous or we were wrong to begin with, and then you’ve got someone doing a low key performance and they’re going ‘HELLO! COME IN! ’and you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this’. And then we’re contriving methods on how we’re going to speak to them, and then we’re behind our little monitors like ‘It’s going great!, thanks give us a second’, ‘What the fuck are we going to do ?….’ and then one of us will go out and go ‘Do you want to just, try it a little bit….and that won’t work and then the other one will go, and there are moments when we think, ‘We’ll just have to cut this out, we can’t get round it’. Normally you can get it out of them if you’re patient enough, but like I was saying before, all of the grand ambitions you may have artistically, when you’re there practically and you’ve only got on hour in the location because it’s a supermarket and they’ve got to open at ten, or you’ve got an actor like that who can’t do it and you’re spending twice as long on a scene that should’ve have taken five minutes, you know. All of that stuff feeds in and eats into the process.
V: Taking you back again, the design process, presumably you have to have a pretty complete script for an episode before the designer can start work, what do you get to see to approve To suggest changes to ? Do you see sketches, do you see models?
S: When we do a film, that’s a lot more of a complete and rounded picture, you get to see a lot more in advance. With TV, because of the restrictions of budget, you tend to be using locations if you can, so what we tend to do is try and find locations that are already roughly as we imagined them, and the designer may dress them to amplify something, but they will occasional repaint walls and they might bring in their own furniture. But because of costs it’s just cheaper to find a suburban home that looks like the one you need for the shoot. With The Office, of course, we were essentially in once place the whole time and again we found an office that had the right vibe. I think it was repainted, the furniture was already dull and we wanted it even duller. We had fun though because I remember all we kept talking about was that we needed this to feel like if you walked in there it would suck the energy out of you. So we would ask the designer to find art that was the blandest sort of hotel art you could find, and we always wanted the plants to look like they hadn’t been watered regularly so that they were slightly dead, and we took great pleasure in framing the talking heads. McKenzie’s [Gareth] character for instance, what we always had in the side of the frame was a very small corner of a notice board which we took great delight in, we were sort of giggling to ourselves about how kind of bland and dull that was and in Martin Freeman’s shot there was always just a few leaves of a dying cheese pant and we thought ‘this is mise-en-scène right here’
V: Well it was!
S: In a way, well it did the job yes. In a way we were lucky with The Office, because we were in that one location and having done stuff subsequently with many more locations, that becomes much less easy to do because every time you move from one location to the next it can take an hour and a half and particularly in sitcoms you might use one location for 3 of 4 different scenes, so that stuff you don’t have much fun with, or freedom or time to focus as much on that stuff, which is a shame
V: Going back to the question of performance, can you postpone some performance decisions to editing or do you always have to make them at the start?
S: Well again, the editing is another area where things change again very dramatically. I now actually edit myself, I’ve taught myself the editing process. The editors do an assembly, then I go in and recut it and then Ricky comes in and recuts mine, then I recut his and so on, but the editing transforms it, the restructuring of episodes, the amplification of elements that you never intended to be as strong in the original script or removing bits that weren’t working, which when you get back to the editing suite you realise, that’s not really popping. For instance, there was a cleaning lady character in The Office, we shot quite a few scenes with her, but it just didn’t really work when we saw the finished show, it seemed a bit laboured and a bit over the top so she’s almost nothing in the finished show, and restructuring whole scenes, the ordering of scenes makes a huge impact, so a lot of changes are made in the editing suite. That’s the most exciting element for me
V: I was going to say do you enjoy the editing process?
S: It’s brilliant, because you feel like every move you make you’re moving forward in some way, you’re moving forward to something else so it’s not as repetitive as the filming or the writing and yet it’s very satisfying. You don’t have the pressures of time in the same way, you can stay in the little room for hours on end working on one little bit, it’s a joy.
V: And what about sound editing?
S: Again that’s very important and we spent a lot of time on it in The Office, because we were sorting of teaching ourselves so we didn’t really know what we were talking about, we had to keep trying to explain it in layman’s terms, what we wanted it to be like. I guess because we were doing it in the style of a documentary we knew what we should be emulating but the documentary style seems very easy and actually it threw up any number of problems. Every time we were on the floor we were like, ‘Hang on, why would the camera be there? How would the camera team have got to this point? Why would the characters be acting in this way?’ There was endless problem solving about where the camera should be and what’s the justification for someone acting that way. It’s funny now you get to things like The Only Way is Essex and those shows which seem to be telling real people to re-enact scenes, ‘Can you tell her you’re breaking up with her? But we just need to set up this camera first’. It seems weird now that they’re manipulating real people in a way. We were completely the other way, we were trying to make the fake actors seems real, and the fake documentary not breaking the rules, it was very complicated.
V: Can I take you back to the writing process, because again, just as sharing the direction of actors is a bit mind boggling I imagine co-writing must be too. There must come a point where you go off to the solitude to your computer or your pen or whatever.
S: Not really, with The Office, in the second series we stumbled across the idea of a Dictaphone which had not occurred to us before, then what we would do is we would sit endlessly in a room, sat opposite each other and we would talk and talk and talk. We would share anecdotes and talk about other things we’d seen, talk about stories we’d hear, go and have lunch, it was just endless discussion before anything got written down. We would perhaps be making notes along the way on little things that occurred to us, we may even have a little comic exchange that we’d think, that’s funny, so we’d put it in the Dictaphone. It was very cumulative, we built up this sort of stockpile of scenes and then we started writing post-it notes with ‘Brent does a dance’ or ‘Brent has a guitar’ and that built up a collage. Then we’d start to move them around, ‘Why is he dancing? Well he’s dancing because he wants to show off, but why is he showing off?, because he’s got to compete with someone else, who is he competing with?, it’s his superior, well why is he competing?, his superiors done a dance, okay but then why would you do a dance in an office? , well you’d do a dance in an office if there was some kind of party, well we’ve got a comic relief idea here, so why don’t we put that in the same episode?’ So it builds up that way, it’s much less linear than you might think.
V: You’ll be amused to here that Samuel Fuller used to work that way
S: It’s a great idea!
V: So somewhere in that work you arrive at structure?
S: The structure is kind of happening and what we’ll do is we’ll zero in. So we have this rough idea of this episode of, its comic relief day and someone’s going to dance, and then we’ll say okay, well let’s work out the first scene in that episode, then we might riff for a while, talk and talk and then we might ad lib and I might play Gareth and he’ll play Brent. We might improvise for 20 minutes and whatever we like from that we’ll put in the Dictaphone, and then later I’ll transcribe it normally because I’m quicker at typing. And then we’ll have that so we can go back in the room and cross through what we don’t like and add, it’s quite laborious.
V: Do you think that in some way, half hour formats are more convenient for comedy than longer ones?
S: I think comedy movies are particularly tricky, and I haven’t seen a great many lately that work. And one of the problems with comedy movies is that by about an hour in, you have to start wrapping up the plot, you need to start bringing the elements of the plot together, and plot and comedy are very difficult to reconcile with. With sitcom, you need a very limited story like
there are some new people arriving in the office, that’s fine that can carry you for half an hour. Then you can have a little bit of faux resolution at the end about something. And you give the illusion of a plot, but really there’s nothing going on. But with a movie, the digressions you would do in a sitcom, the silly five minutes of nothing that would be the most popular bit of the show, if you put that in a movie, as soon as you get it in front of the audience, the audience with instinctively tell you, ‘You’ve got to cut that out’. However funny it is, you can just sense that they know innately ‘You’re wasting my time with this. I don’t need this for the story’. And particularly in Hollywood storytelling, the story drives it. This narrative propulsion is there constantly and that sometimes works against comedy, because with comedy you just want it to be funny. Whatever the comic ideas are in the scene you need to see it played out, but when you’ve got narrative and you’ve got story and plot and you’ve got to move forward it makes it much, much harder. You’ll notice a lot of people about comedy films say, ‘It was great for the first hour but then it got a bit boring’. Well that because they’re wrapping up the story at that point and of course the character has to change. Normally in a Hollywood movie you’ve got miser who’s hilarious for the first 2/3 of the film because he’s being miserly, but it’s Hollywood, so he has to become non- miserly by the end. Now he’s not going to be funny anymore. So it’s very tricky.
V: I find that very illuminating because it’s always been a puzzle to me that we have wonderful series like Dad’s Army and so on, and Porridge, they try translating them to a feature movie and it goes flat as a pancake, I just wondered what it is about those formats but I think you’ve explained it.
S: Well with the classic sitcoms the characters never change, the situation at the beginning of each episode is exactly as it was before. Every week, ‘We’re going to be millionaires’, says Dell Boy, and by the end they’re not millionaires, and I noticed when they brought the show [Only Fools and Horses] back they then had to have lost all of their money again because they weren’t funny anymore . Dell boy can’t be a millionaire and be funny, so they have to lose the money. Whereas with a film you want the evolution of the character, you want there to be some journey for that character which is in anathema in a way to a sitcom where you don’t want them to journey anywhere.
V: We’re all going to be watching Life’s Too Short tomorrow, how long ago did you finish that?
S: About two and a half months ago.
V: And since then, well presumably you’d already been working on your stand up?
S: While we were doing that [Life’s Too Short] I put it on hold but I had been spending evenings in little comedy clubs trying out material.
V: Well I’ve been able to look at Hello Ladies and it tells me you’re going to end up in New York at the end of November, so you’re working pretty hard at the moment.
S: Too hard!
V: Do you have, like ‘my career aspirations are at the moment hazy’ do you have a sense of where you’d like the next 10 years to take you in terms of writing or performance?
S: Well I’d like to do films. The problems with films are that my tastes don’t really chime with a lot of the films that are being made now.
V: Join the club
S: Right. I actually am not particularly interested in doing comedy films and having experienced the film industry from various angles, it’s very difficult to get anything made, and even when you have it made, to get it seen. I admire those people who say, ‘I don’t care if this gets an audience’, but it’s a lot of work to put in to just think, ‘Well I’ll be happy if half a dozen people see it’, and there’s apart of me that’s desperate, not to make Avatar by any means, but you feel if you’re going to put that much work into something, it could take two years, and for it to be in a cinema for a fortnight it just seems rather distressing, upsetting.
V: The afterlife on DVD doesn’t comfort you?
S: Well the afterlife on DVD is fine, but the problem with that is that the film financiers done bare that in mind, so if your financiers don’t make a profit of some kind then you’re not going to get the chance to do it again. It would be lovely to think you could make films and for them to have the long tail that goes on for years but the economics of it are that it’s very hard to sustain a career if you have that intention, whereas with TV there’s a slightly ready –made, built in audience. So the economics of it are different in such a way that you don’t need to draw people to pay 7 or 8 quid at a cinema on Saturday night. Even e thought viewing figures have an importance there’s other things, particularly with the BBC that are important to them, prestige, awards, attention, justifying the licence fee. Things like that are legitimate to them as opposed to making money.