Five Favorite Films with Stephen Merchant
The Hall Pass star also chats about conspiracy thrillers and being a film critic.
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 know you still periodically direct episodes of the American Office; have you had much involvement with the international versions, and are you excited that the basic concept has been so widely translated?
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.
Your comic sensibilities and the Farrellys' would seem, at first glance, to be polar opposites. What attracted you to Hall Pass?
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.