Five Favorite Films with Stephen Merchant
The Hall Pass star also chats about conspiracy thrillers and being a film critic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.