Stephen Merchant

Cemetery Junction, the first feature film to team Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, co-creators of The Office and Extras, is not funny. Fortunately, it isn’t meant to be. The story of three young men straining against the bonds of small-town life in 1970s Britain has moments of fond humor, but it’s contextualized within a traditional, even conventional, coming-of-age tale. Christian Cooke plays the aspirant son of a factory worker, looking to earn a middle-class lifestyle by working for bloodless life-insurance executive Ralph Fiennes; Tom Hughes is the brooding malcontent, whose dissatisfaction manifests in bar brawls and frequent trips to the drunk tank; Jack Doolan is their portly sidekick, amiable but hopeless with women. From there, you could write much of the plot yourself, but that’s as Merchant and Gervais intended. As Merchant explained to The A.V. Club, he and Gervais have always shared a fondness for classically structured dramas, tinged with what he calls “easy nostalgia” and populated by characters who are ever so slightly larger than life. 

The A.V. Club: Cemetery Junction is a marked shift in tone from Extras and The Office. Had you and Ricky Gervais been wanting to do something more dramatic and traditionally structured all along? You’d mentioned over the years you’d been working on a project about insurance salesmen called Men From The Pru. Was this an outgrowth of that? 

Stephen Merchant: Yes, I think it was. That was an idea that was about a nostalgic look back, I guess, at our childhoods, or maybe, in my case, my father’s youth. It was something we batted around for a while, but because it was a period piece, I think we decided it could work better as a movie. The sort of films we’ve always enjoyed, mutually, are a little bit more dramatic in tone. There’s humor in them, but they have a dramatic spine, whether it be movies like The Apartment, even something like American Graffiti or Diner or Saturday Night Fever, which were all influences on this, in which there’s humor in many of them, but you wouldn’t necessarily call them an all-out, knock-’em-out comedy.

AVC: There’s an obvious debt to the British cinema of the early 1960s. Movies like The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar grew out of the angry-young-man theater of the 1950s, but were more sorrowful or philosophical than enraged. Are those among your favorites as well?

SM: Definitely, particularly Billy Liar. I think in a way, they’ve become a little bit nostalgic, because they’re older now, and they paint a vision of the English past that seems somewhat cozy. I suppose that was one of the things that was appealing to us, the idea of a slightly rose-tinted vision of the past, not trying to present England as this gritty, gloomy place that it so often is, but reflecting our memory of growing up, which was that it seemed brighter. It seemed sunnier. But there was still this niggling concern, I think, for most of us growing up, that if you didn’t pay attention, you could wake up at 65 and think “Shit. Where did my life go?” I think that’s a theme that’s always been of interest to us in everything we’ve done, really.

AVC: Billy Liar and Look Back In Anger weren’t intended to be fond portrayals of British society. They were intended as a profound critique of its banality and conformity.

SM: I think you’re right. I think they were supposed to be quite brutal and kitchen-sink. But I think as time’s gone on, brilliant as they still are, they’ve become a kind of time capsule of an England that no longer really exists. What does exist and what remains true in those films, and what I hope is a theme that is still worth exploring, is that idea of people with fairly comfortable lives—in the case of Billy Liar, his life isn’t tough, it’s just that he’s got bigger ambitions, he’s got bigger dreams, and he’s stifled by the expectations of his family and the society around him. I think that’s still very true in England. Class is still there. We sort of pretend it’s not, but it is, in a way. Your expectations when you’re working-class are still minor. If you talk about the idea that you’d like to be in comedy, or make movies, it’s still seen as “Yeah, sure. Good luck, kid.” It’s slightly sneered at. It all seems a bit far-fetched.

AVC: Does it follow, then, that even though it isn’t a time you personally remember, the characters in Cemetery Junction are drawing on your own experiences of trying to do something different?

SM: Oh, definitely. There’s the two good-looking rock ’n’ roll characters, and then there’s the nerd who’s hopeless with women. I don’t want to specify which of those I most closely relate to. I’ll let you figure that out. But certainly all the characters are not necessarily specific people we knew, but an amalgamation of the sort of people we knew, the sort of people we wished we were, or we feared we would become. I grew up in the ’80s, but I don’t think things were very different then, growing up in a relatively small town. Certainly the idea of somewhere like Hollywood, or exotic foreign travel, still seemed pretty remote. 

AVC: People have expressed a good deal of surprise at Cemetery Junction’s more dramatic tone, and you’ve pointed out that there were plenty of dramatic moments in The Office. But The Office and Extras were shot handheld to give the actors freedom to improvise, while Cemetery Junction is much more the kind of look where actors need to hit their marks and say their lines. 

SM: Yes, absolutely. But I think it’s funny, because often whatever you did first is somehow defined as being your style, and it’s as though because we did a documentary style to begin with, if we somehow move away from that, we are betraying our integrity, or our truth, or our style, or we’re overambitious or overreaching, or we’re going mainstream, or whatever it might be. And I think the simple truth is, we don’t have an agenda in that way. Some of our favorite movies, some of my favorite movies, are John Hughes movies. They’re not things you would obviously see as an influence on, say, The Office. But they drip through in all kinds of ways. Certainly my heroes are people like Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese, to a degree, who all often stepped out of their genres, as it were, or their comfort zones. I mean, Billy Wilder made masterpieces in comedy and drama, thrillers, genre movies, as well as others. So to me, those are those people I aspire to. It always seems odd to me that people, audiences and critics and all sorts of people, somehow feel—you’re constantly being compared with yourself, which always seems a rather odd impulse. I’ve never really understood that, really.

AVC: It’s especially true when you’re successful with the first thing you do. It’s not as if people can go back and discover your earlier work and see that you do other things.

SM: But in the case of, say, The Office, the romance with Tim and Dawn, one of the movies we discussed a lot when we were doing that was The Bridges Of Madison County, which I’m sure a lot of people would consider a slightly overheated romantic melodrama in a very old-fashioned style. But to us, I don’t know—we sort of sat there not thinking anything other than how much it engaged us as a story, and it was well told. So one of the things we like about doing this is that we wanted to have a good feel to it, and to be sort of romantic, and a little more traditional in the obvious sense.

AVC: And that was just purely to do something different?

SM: No, I think just because it’s something we really like in movies. One of the things many of our favorite movies share is an easy nostalgia about the past, and they’re bright and kind of colorful and feature attractive people. That’s just something we happen to like in a particular strain of movies. If we then chose to do something in a kind of low-fi, gritty, handheld way because it seemed right for the story, then we would do it. I don’t think there’s a policy, you know what I mean? It’s not like Lars von Trier, with some kind of Dogme manifesto.

AVC: Did the faux-film sequence in Extras pave the way for doing something in a more classical style?

SM: I think so. I often cite Billy Wilder, and one of the things I like about Wilder is that he has a very seemingly neutral style. You wouldn’t think of him as having visual trademarks, or a particular visual signature. I think what he is, is a very consummate storyteller, and he engages me very strongly with the worlds he creates when he’s at his best. I feel very drawn into them. I feel like I’m part of that, because I understand it. It’s very relatable to me, whether it’s The Apartment or Ace In The Hole or many of his classics. That is something I think we’ve tried to do in everything. Even though this is more traditional, in a sense, it’s not unduly showy. You know what I mean? It’s not quite a neutral style. Certainly thematically, I think it’s still very consistent with what we’ve done in the past. So it’s not showmanship for the sake of it. There’s not unnecessary tracking and zooming and whatever.

AVC: In some ways, it was easier to have a career spanning many different genres in Billy Wilder’s time. If you worked for a movie studio, you didn’t have to build every project from the ground up, and convince people that you could do X as well as Y.

SM: I think that’s very true, and I also think one of the things that’s slightly depressing about working now, particularly in movies, is that the sense that we all need to be excited by a new movie, and be intrigued by it, and sitting and thinking “Okay, well, what’s this one about?” seems to have ebbed away. It feels now like, unless the trailer basically tells you what the story is in two minutes, people, or at least studios, seem very jumpy. I was a huge cinema buff when I was younger, but now increasingly I just feel very distanced from it. I feel that their movies aren’t made for me, or at least I’m not interested, terribly. I’m not interested in fantasy worlds. I’m not really interested in high-octane special-effects movies, much as I like a good action movie. I just feel that the movies I used to love, whether it be, I don’t know, films which felt very personal and felt like they were being auteured in the traditional sense—I just feel like they don’t really exist anymore, even in indie cinema. I feel like indie cinema has got itself in a kind of routine, and a stylistic rut as well. That’s something that really unnerves me, because I’m not sure I’m interested in making the sort of projects which perhaps Hollywood is.

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